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Opinion: Jeff Flake as ambassador to Turkey is a chance for my home country to heal

A woman in a mask walks past a large Turkish flag.
A woman walks past a Turkish flag in Istanbul, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday nominated former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake as ambassador to Turkey.
Emrah Gurel, Associated Press

President Joe Biden on Tuesday nominated former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake as ambassador to Turkey, a longtime NATO ally that has increasingly strained relations with the United States and other members of the transatlantic alliance.

Biden’s choice of a political appointee rather than a career diplomat ruffled the feathers of some Turkey watchers, who felt a professional envoy would be better prepared to handle the challenges the Turkey portfolio poses. These critics may underestimate Flake, whose unique traits could prove to be a valuable asset in navigating Ankara’s diplomatic scene and starting to heal bilateral relations.

To begin with, Biden’s move to appoint a religious individual — Flake is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — sends an important message about religious freedom, the rule of law and pluralism.

Religious minorities in Turkey, including members of Flake’s own faith, were targets of unwarranted accusations in March 2018, when Turkish prosecutors repeatedly mentioned them in conjunction with charges brought against an unrelated North Carolina Pastor Andrew Brunson — a member of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Latter-day Saint volunteers eventually left Turkey, and, after a two year ordeal in Turkish prisons, Turkish authorities — prompted by U.S. sanctions — allowed Pastor Brunson to return to the United States.

Flake’s appointment to Ankara is an opportunity to make amends and once again foster cordial relations with minority faiths of all stripes.

Flake’s ambassadorship also sends a strong message about the virtues of nonpartisan engagement and values-based dialogue to Turkey, a nation torn apart by polarization at home and drifting away from its NATO allies by belligerent posturing abroad.

Flake, of course, is a Republican who broke with his party to support Biden last year, thus earning this appointment. Whatever one thinks of Flake’s decision, it does show that partisanship need not consume us. In announcing his nomination on Medium, Flake said, “U.S. foreign policy can and should be bipartisan.”

Flaked added, “I understand and appreciate the role Congress plays in U.S. foreign policy, and I look forward to that partnership.”

This comment demonstrates an awareness of the unique juncture at this moment in U.S.-Turkish relations, as an overwhelming bipartisan majority in both chambers of Congress pushes for a firm response to various transgressions of Turkey’s Islamist-ultranationalist ruling bloc headed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The next U.S. ambassador to Ankara will have to walk a tightrope balancing cues from the pragmatic White House and State Department with the values-oriented focus of a proactive Congress.

Flake’s profile as a conservative who took a principled stand even though it likely cost him the prospect of reelection also sends a powerful signal to Turkey, where many local conservatives have been deserting, often at great personal risk, Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian Justice and Development Party (AKP) and lending their support to the opposition.

Through Flake, Biden will be able to send a subtle message to the Turkish public that reversing Turkey’s democratic backsliding requires healing partisan divides deepened by harsh rhetoric and polarizing policies. The fact that both Biden and Flake can offer this message based on personal experience will add to their credibility in the eyes of the Turkish public.

Earlier this year, in an opinion piece he penned for the Deseret News, Flake praised the “healing art of persuasion” and recommended turning down the volume of partisan politics. If he gets confirmed, Flake will head to Ankara, increasingly dominated by deafening vitriol and hostility.

But Turkey is also a nation in need and desire of healing, both at home and in its relations with the United States and other NATO allies. As ambassador, Flake would have a powerful opportunity to demonstrate the importance of values-based leadership and speaking truth to power in his restrained and respectful manner — a form of personal conservatism that contributes to civility for all.

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. @aykan_erdemir