It’s 7 a.m. at the swanky Lugal hotel in Turkey’s capital city of Ankara, and U.S. Ambassador Jeff Flake is on the cusp of beating me in squash — for the third time.
Flake’s regular hitting partner, a local Turk named Ali, is on the sidelines icing what we suspect is some kind of muscle tear. While expressing our sympathies, it becomes clear that I’m Flake’s last remaining hope for completing his morning workout.
My patriotic duty calls.
I go up 6-0 on Flake. But then the “Mormon Kowboy” (Flake’s favorite nickname from local social media) mounts a comeback. I’m learning that squash is as much a game of strategy as it is about speed and agility. And the 59-year-old former U.S. senator from Arizona is putting me through a master class on well-placed drives and drop shots.
Off the court, the ambassador isn’t finished talking strategy, including America’s foreign policy interests in Turkey.
Glance at a map of the region, as I did upon entering the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, and what immediately stands out is Turkey’s bruiser of a neighborhood. To the country’s east is nuclear aspirant Iran, and across the Black Sea are Ukraine and Russia. To Turkey’s south are war-torn Iraq and Syria.
Turkey is now home to some 3.6 million Syrian refugees.
As the rare NATO-allied democracy in the region, Turkey is of high importance to the United States. That’s why foreign policy pencil-chewers are flagging warning signs that Turkey’s little “d” democratic institutions are slipping.
When I ask Flake about this directly, he assures me Turkey’s elections and institutions “remain strong.” And yet, he’s not shy to point out that there are nearly as many journalists jailed in Turkey as there are in China. A failed coup attempt in 2016 led to a government crackdown against members of the press and judiciary in particular.
But it would be a mistake, Flake contends, to view Turkey as anything other than a vital ally to the United States. If you need evidence, he says, look no further than the two Turkish bases housing U.S. military personnel within their borders.
He also underscores how Turkey is handling the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, facilitating peace talks and enforcing the little-known 1936 Montreux Convention, which empowers Turkey during war time to limit naval access to the Black Sea through the country’s Dardanelles and Bosporus straits.
This latter move may yet prove central in restricting certain Russian naval vessels from bringing reinforcements to the fight in Ukraine. Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, with whom Flake huddled during our visit, announced the implementation of the Montreux Convention in late February, at a time when many were still cautiously calling the war an “invasion” or “conflict.” He stated: “It is not a couple of air strikes now, the situation in Ukraine is officially a war.”
As we talk, I glance down at my notes. There’s a question I’ve starred: How will the U.S. persuade Turkey — a country with so many commercial and cultural ties in the East — to remain committed to democracy in the long run?
Flake believes there are answers. And as I shadowed him through the back boulevards of Ankara for the better part of two days, it became apparent that America’s man in Turkey also appreciates the high stakes: nothing less than regional and global stability hang in the balance.
The United States, Flake says, must start at home by exemplifying the best that representative government has to offer. The U.S. model has to work to remain persuasive.
Freedom and democracy, he says, are always hills worth dying on — from Bunker Hill in Boston to Mariupol in Ukraine — but the true test is sustaining the very causes which call forth our “last full measure of devotion.”
Before we formally sit down in Flake’s office at the U.S. Embassy, my passport needs to be cleared. My cellphone is placed far away from the SCIF, or “sensitive compartmented information facility,” which is pentagon-speak for an area secure enough to send and receive classified information. Think red phones, but for the 21st century.
I enter a dated yet elegant oval office punctuated by the Turkish and American flags. They flank a marble fireplace opposite a seating area. I begin to thumb coffee table books highlighting Turkey’s impressive landscapes as Flake ducks into a partially camouflaged door in the wall.
He quickly reemerges with two Coke Zeros.
We begin discussing the Ukraine-Russia peace talks, which are taking place in Istanbul on the eve of my visit. Even though the talks eventually, in the words of Russian President Vladimir Putin, hit a “dead end,” it’s a weighty moment for Turkey.
Turkey is a predominantly Muslim nation with a population of some 85 million, which makes it slightly larger than Germany and the 18th most populous country in the world. It has long served as a bridge between Asia and Europe, with Istanbul acting as its cosmopolitan, transcontinental gateway.
Turkey joined NATO in 1952, only three years after NATO’s founding. But recently Turkey has been raising the collective blood pressure of allies by purchasing a missile defense system from Russia. Soviet aggression, of course, was a chief reason behind NATO’s founding in the first place, and today Russia remains its central preoccupation.
But Turkey is determined to keep its eye on interests in both the East and the West.
This rightly makes the United States nervous, and the U.S. responded with sanctions in late 2020 in the wake of Turkey’s purchase of the S-400s from Russia. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan defended its Russia deal in an interview with CBS News last September.
“In the future, nobody will be able to interfere in terms of what kind of defense systems we acquire from which country at what level,” Erdogan said. “We are the only ones to make such decisions.” Turkey also maintains that it wasn’t able to get a satisfactory deal on an air defense system from any NATO nations.
Before popping open my Coke Zero, I’m politely asked by embassy staff to step outside for a moment as Flake engages in what diplomats refer to as the “high side” of the work (that is, the “classified side” of the work). When I ask what constitutes the low side, Flake pauses and replies: “email.”
As I leave, the ambassador confesses there’s been a whole lot of “high side” work as of late.
But if the recent headline from The Daily Beast is accurate — that “Flake got more than he bargained for” when President Joe Biden nominated him as ambassador to Turkey — Flake is hiding it well.
In fact, he tells me later he’s actually getting precisely what he bargained for.
No one would have balked had the Flakes taken the kind of cushy ambassadorship that the government had to almost pry former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown away from in New Zealand. And rumors in the press were that the Flakes would indeed land among the Kiwis, or, alternatively, in South Africa, where Flake served as a young missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But behind the scenes the Flakes were sending a far different signal to the Biden administration. Flake and his wife, Cheryl, would only accept a position if they could truly help in a place that, in his words, was “consequential” to the nation’s foreign policy.
So far, “consequential” seems like an understatement.
Although Flake has no past ties to Turkey, for Cheryl the role has been something of a homecoming. Over 30 years ago, as a college student, Cheryl toured the country for several weeks performing as part of Brigham Young University’s Young Ambassadors group. They did song and dance diplomacy, she says.
Cheryl fell in love with the country. She remembers writing in her journal that Istanbul was her favorite city in the world.
Now, together with her husband, she’s trying her hand at some culinary diplomacy. Cheryl admitted to eating more shish kebabs than any foreigner might reasonably be expected to stomach. But their efforts may be winning local goodwill. Cheryl says one Turkish man approached her, in line at Burger King of all places, and told her that he’s convinced the Flakes care about Turkey because their Instagram account always shows them eating shish kebabs.
And the local press, eager to capture the Flakes in their element, have filmed the two baking cookies together. Things went fine until Ambassador Flake made his first major diplomatic faux pas: mistakenly pouring a cup of salt into the mix thinking it was sugar.
The crew also filmed Cheryl at the piano and on the tennis court. The ambassador’s residence, a sprawling 10-acre U.S. government estate, is a bit like Noah’s ark — there are two of everything: two tennis courts, two greenhouses, two kitchens and two outdoor pools (one for kids and one for adults).
There is, however, an exception to this pattern: only one pet cemetery. Embassy employees use it to properly memorialize their four-legged companions — a high priority in the foreign services.
At all times, security forces are stationed along the perimeter of the gated compound. But the residence feels welcoming and is frequently opened for diplomatic events. The annual Fourth of July celebration draws upward of 1,500 guests to the residence’s back lawn.
Fittingly, the edge of the property abuts the residence of the Canadian ambassador, Jamal Khokhar, one of Flake’s closest diplomatic colleagues. Flake tells me that the two recently had to confer about a pressing matter through their shared fence. When I respond with a reference to Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor and his neighbor Wilson, Flake momentarily breaks his elder statesman mien with a smile.
To appreciate Turkey’s dilemma over democracy, it helps to first understand its rare status in the region.
Before touching down in Ankara, I traveled to the World Government Summit hosted by the United Arab Emirates in Dubai. After spending a handful of days in the UAE, the success of its unique governmental form — a federation of seven emirates — is hard to overlook.
Though not without controversy, the infrastructure is world class. Crime is almost nonexistent. Upward mobility is improving and the economy seems to be working hard to prepare for the end of oil.
Locals brag about having more tower construction cranes in Dubai than in any other place in the world.
An overnight layover in Doha — another low-crime locale — reveals Qatar’s own infrastructure feats and extensive World Cup 2022 preparations. Though UAE and Qatar are competitors in the region, they share similarities.
Nondemocratic governments are making ambitious moves, and others in the region can’t help but take notice.
In a widely read Atlantic article diagnosing what’s ailing Western democracies — and America in particular — the celebrated social psychologist Jonathan Haidt discusses findings from the Edelman Trust Barometer, which seeks to gauge the level of trust citizens place in core institutions within their respective countries.
As Haidt writes, the most recent trust barometer “showed stable and competent autocracies (China and the United Arab Emirates) at the top of the list,” in terms of levels of trust. Meanwhile, the more “contentious democracies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, and South Korea, scored near the bottom (albeit above Russia).”
Back at the ambassador’s residence, I present some of these CliffsNotes to Flake.
The ambassador and Mrs. Flake are now sitting side by side in a sunny drawing room surrounded by tall panoramic windows. They listen carefully as I ask a different version of that same starred question from my notes: How does the U.S. make the case for democracy and freedom in Turkey, given democracy’s increasingly stiff competition?
Flake begins with a story from when he and Cheryl were a young married couple living in Namibia, a nation located in southwest Africa. Flake had a job as the executive director of the Foundation for Democracy, and it was the same year Namibia gained its independence from South Africa.
Namibia, he remembers, held its first election the same week the Berlin Wall came down on Nov. 9, 1989.
“That was a heady time to be an American abroad,” Flake recalls. “It was the ‘end of history.’ The liberal world order had won.”
Today, he continues, “even in our own country democracy is more fragile than we thought. Around the world, it’s tough to say that democracy is in ascendance everywhere you look.”
But, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be.
Flake notes that “what you’re seeing in Ukraine, might change the tide. If there’s anything possibly good to come out of this horrible tragedy and suffering, it may be that the world is coming together to support Ukraine in defending a governmental system that has a greater likelihood of maximizing freedom and happiness in the long run.”
And what of the “enlightened” autocratic models like China?
Flake admits that it can work for a season, especially when steeped in more free market economic philosophies and an openness to pluralism. But, in the end, “centrally planned economies don’t run very well,” he says. Concentrated power is only one bad leader away from failure.
“So my bet is still with the West, and with democracy. And I hope the United States remains a valued example of the good that can happen over time.”
The best way to persuade the world — and Turkey — is for the United States to live up to the full measure of its ideals, Flake explains. Showing a democratic model that builds unity, cooperation and prosperity out of diversity will always inspire. The fight for freedom, he continues, is what’s moving so many to rally around Ukraine.
This includes behind the scenes efforts by Turkey that Flake is unable to fully discuss.
In another era, extolling the virtues of democracy might have seemed like nothing more than banal platitudes. But increasingly, upholding republican ideals is the kind of work that, as Thomas Paine put it all those years ago, tries men’s souls.
Flake knows about this more than most.
After the election of President Donald Trump, then-Sen. Flake gained a reputation for challenging his own party’s leader. And, before declining to run for reelection, Flake penned a book called the “Conscience of a Conservative,” which makes the case for returning to an ideas-driven Republican Party, something he believes has been lost in recent years. Even as Flake became a piñata within the GOP, angry left-leaning constituents still felt he was too soft on the president. Large groups would sometimes show up in force to protest the senator.
Then, in 2018, politics became a matter of life or death when Flake found himself dodging live ammunition rounds after a deranged Bernie Sanders supporter took aim at congressional Republicans practicing for the annual Congressional Baseball Game. Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise and others were left in critical condition. Scalise and the other victims would pull through, but the gunman was killed. A year after those events, the Flakes began receiving specific threats aimed at their family.
Others might have simply lost faith in the American project after experiencing such violence and personal threats. But the Flakes are pounding the pavement in Turkey — true believers in the United States of America and the cause of democracy.
When I ask Flake if he still considers himself a Republican, there’s little hesitation: “yes.” In fact, he tells me, he recently reaffirmed his political affiliation while registering to vote in Utah, where the Flakes spent a significant amount of time before leaving for Turkey. I wonder aloud whether Flake would ever consider running for office in Utah.
The Flakes look at each other for a moment, but hesitate to give an answer.
I then ask how Flake navigates being a Republican serving under a Democratic president.
President Biden and Flake don’t always see eye to eye on everything, he explains. Flake offers his best thinking on matters, but he knows his current role is to represent the United States of America and the policies of the administration that appointed him.
“I didn’t change my entire political philosophy when I took a job to work for the Biden administration,” he remarks. But he argues there’s more overlap when it comes to representing U.S. interests abroad than when it comes to policymaking in Congress. Flake says there’s a lot of truth to the axiom that politics stop at the water’s edge.
“Democracy can survive bad policy,” Flake continues. “It’s not positive, but it can survive. But what our country can’t survive is a failure to respect elections and their outcomes.”
Back at the squash court, Ali is gingerly testing whether he can place weight on his injured leg. He casually asks me how long I’ll be in town. I tell him the trip is brief and that’s probably for the best given that my presence here appears to have brought him bad luck, as I gesture to his leg.
Ali doesn’t miss a beat: “Please go to Russia next.”
Always the diplomat, Ambassador Flake is listening and chuckles. But he refrains from comment. We are on the record after all.
Later, I press Flake about Turkey’s current tensions — human rights, its posture toward the Russia-Ukraine war and its relationship with the United States. Flake emphasizes the mutual goodwill he’s encountered in the country and expresses a hopeful outlook.
He then tells me about his first meeting with Erdogan, Turkey’s president.
As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Flakes refrains from drinking alcohol, tea or coffee. This can be difficult in a region in which tea plays an important role in formal meetings and especially in diplomatic settings.
Though Flake’s religious affiliation is well known there — Turkey is by most estimates 96-99% Muslim — the ambassador hadn’t mentioned any religious-based dietary restriction to Turkish officials. The Flakes assumed they would simply politely decline the president’s customary offering of tea.
They were pleasantly surprised when during the ambassador’s first meeting with Erdogan, the president dispensed with tea and instead offered them pomegranate juice — undoubtedly a nod to making sure he and Cheryl felt comfortable.
Erdogan then explained (more than once) that pomegranates, a staple of Turkish cuisine, are packed with healthy antioxidants.
Ambassador Flake drank to the health of the two nations’ democracies — antioxidants could only help.