Meanwhile, Over In Turkey . . .

Well isn’t this interesting? From Diplopundit last Friday comes a post with this title: Tillerson Meets Erdoğan in Ankara With Turkish Foreign Minister as InterpreterThe post is a series of tweets from all kinds of media folks, which include some of these gems:

Nicholas Wadhams of Bloomberg News:

Secretary of State Tillerson is currently meeting with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He is the lone US representative and Turkey’s foreign minister is translating.

Rajib Soylu, Washington correspondent for Daily Sabah:

This is the second Erdoğan – Tillerson meeting where all Turkish, American officials, and even the translators excluded.

Turkish FM functions as a translator.

Ihlan Tanir of Washington Hatti US:

Im trying to understand — I never expected Pres Erdogan and Sec Tillerson to have a press conference but they did not even read statements following 200 minutes of a meeting?

Let’s pause here for a moment to let that last one sink in.

It’s one thing if the Turkish Foreign Minister brings Erdogan over to Tillerson at a meet-and-greet and translates some friendly “let me show you pictures of my grandkids” chit-chat between the two. But that’s not what this was. This was a lengthy, official, and private meeting that lasted over three hours between some very high level folks at a time of rather significant tension between the two countries.

You don’t have meetings like this without your own translator. You just don’t. The typical process is that both sides have interpreters. Official A speaks, the interpreter for Official B tells Official B what was said, and the interpreter for Official A says some version of “Yes, that’s correct” to verify the interpretation. Then it all works in reverse when Official B replies. With difficult issues under discussion, the last thing either side wants is confusion about what each side is saying.

Excluding your own interpreter is so far outside of normal protocols it is unreal, and begs the ever-green question about most everything since 1/20/2017: idiot or crook?

As Diplopundit noted in his/her own tweet, someone else was missing from this meeting — an official note taker:

Saving money on translators*, too? And the foreign FM will just share his notes of the T-E discussion with the State Dept. Or EUR can use their Magic 8 ball. 😭 It knows everything and always willing to share.

(* Diplopundit later corrected this to “interpreters”, as a slip of the fingers since “translators” are more precisely those who deal with written documents while “interpreters” handle verbal communications.)

“EUR” in that last tweet is the State Department’s Office of European Affairs, where long ago I was an intern. I can only imagine the reaction in Foggy Bottom was when word of Tillerson’s meeting with Erdogan reached them. It likely involved multiple variations on “He did WHAT?!?!?” with various . . . ahem . . . flavoring words for emphasis added. As former State Department spokesperson and retired Rear Admiral John Kirby told CNN:

“If the meeting is not conducted in English, it is foolhardy in the extreme not to have at his side a State Department translator, who can ensure that Mr. Tillerson’s points are delivered accurately and with the proper emphasis,” said former State Department spokesman and CNN diplomatic and military analyst John Kirby.

“That Mr. Tillerson eschewed this sort of support in what he knew would be a tense and critical meeting with President Erdogan smacks of either poor staff work or dangerous naïveté on his part,” Kirby added.

And that’s what Kirby said about this in public. I’ll leave it to your imagination what he and other current and former State and Defense Department folks said to each other about it in private. Hold onto this for a moment, because we’ll come back to it in a bit.

Eventually, Tillerson and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu did in fact have a press availability, which the State Department has up on their website. In the statements issued by both, as well as their answers to questions from the reporters, they talked about all manner of increasingly tense topics, from the Kurds to what’s happening in Syria to the failed coup and the Turkish demands for Fethullah Gulen to be extradited back to Turkey, and more.

Two items stood out here. First, there’s this from Tillerson about midway through:

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, with respect to how we’re going forward – and that’s what all of the discussion here was about, recognizing where we find ourselves. And I think as the foreign minister indicated, we find ourselves at a bit of a crisis point in the relationship. And we could go back and revisit how we got here, but we don’t think that’s useful. We’ve decided and President Erdogan decided last night we needed to talk about how do we go forward. The relationship is too important, it’s too valuable to NATO and our NATO allies, it’s too valuable to the American people, it’s too valuable to the Turkish people for us to not do anything other than concentrate on how are we going forward.

And out of the meetings last night – and much of our staff was up through the night to memorialize how we’re going to go about this, and we’ll share a little bit of that in the joint statement. We’re going to reserve a lot of the details because there’s a lot of work yet to be done, and we – and our working teams need to be allowed to do that work in a very open, frank, honest way with one another so that we can chart the way forward together.

I’ll bet the staff was up through the night. If no staff were allowed in the three hour meeting, then the only one who can tell them what was said, what kind of emphasis it was given, what threats were made, what promises were made, and what kind of nuance there was to each of the exchanges was Tillerson. No offense to the Secretary, but that makes the work of the staff very very difficult. To begin with, they had to interview Tillerson just to get all the information about the meeting (and pray he didn’t leave anything out), before they could even think about “how we’re going forward.”

But the larger item that stood out to me came in the very last pair of question asked, reprinted in full below but with emphasis added:

QUESTION:[ed: to Tillerson] Did you warn Turkey that they could be subject to sanctions under CAATSA legislation if they go ahead with the purchase of the S-400 system? [ed: CAATSA is the Russian sanctions legislation that Congress passed but Trump refuses to implement with any teeth.]

And for you, Mr. Foreign Minister, would the threat of U.S. sanctions stop you from going ahead with the purchase of the S-400 system? And if you do buy the system, do you still want to remain in NATO if you’re obtaining the weapons from Russia?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: We did discuss the impact of the CAATSA law that was passed by the Congress last summer that deals with purchases of Russian military equipment. I discussed it last night with President Erdogan; we had further discussions this morning about it. And indeed, it’s in the first group of issues that the foreign minister is referring to. We need to put a group of experts together, and we’ll look at the circumstances around that, as we’ve done with governments all over the world, not just Turkey, because the intent of that legislation was not to harm our friends and allies. But it is directed at Russia for its interference in our elections. So we’ve been advising countries around the world as to what the impact on their relationship and purchases that they might be considering with Russia, and many have reconsidered those and have decided to not proceed with those discussions.

Every case is individual on its own. We want to consult with Turkey and at least ensure they understand what might be at risk in this particular transaction. We don’t have all the details yet, so I can’t give you any kind of a conclusion, but it’ll be given very careful scrutiny, obviously, and we’ll fully comply with the law. And we are – we are now implementing CAATSA and fully applying it around the world.

FOREIGN MINISTER CAVUSOGLU: Thank you very much. First and foremost, I need to underline that I am against the terminology that you use. You used the threat terminology. That is not a correct terminology to be used because it is true for all countries and states. We never use the language of threat and we deny if it is used against us, because this is not correct.

But as Rex has also indicated, this was not something that we talked just yesterday and today. When we met in Vancouver, we talked about this, and from time to time when we have phone conversations, we talk about such issues. This was again brought to the agenda in one of those talks. Of course, there is a law that was enacted by the United States Congress, and they explained this legislation to us. But on the other hand, this is our national security, and it’s important for our national security. I have emergency need of an air defense system. We want to purchase this from our allies, but this does not exist. So even when we are purchasing small-scale arms, the Congress or some other European parliaments, we have – we have and we had difficulty in purchasing these because of these excuses, and I have an emergency need. And the Russian Federation came up with attractive proposals for us. We also talked to other countries, not just with Russia, but we talked about this issue of emergency need with many countries and we had bilateral talks.

Also, in the mid-term, we talked about joint production and technology transfer. We focused on this because this is important for Turkey. And lastly, during the Paris visit of our president – with Eurosam – this is a French-Italian partnership – there was a pre-agreement signed, a memorandum of understanding signed with these groups. So we do not have any problems with our allies. Why should we not meet this requirement with NATO? But, of course, when it is not met within this platform, we need to look for alternative resources. Otherwise, some batteries – some Patriot were withdrawn from our frontier. Some European allies withdrew them. We have (inaudible) of the Italians and Patriots of Spain, and we do not have any other air defense. And we need to meet this requirement as soon as possible. And when we talked to Russia, this was actually an agreement that we reached before the legislation in Congress was enacted. And the remaining part was about the details of loans, et cetera.

Of course, we talked about all of these, and we will take into consideration this – within this working group the commission, but all of us need to understand each other and respect each other. Thank you very much.

In Cavusoglu’s answer, he is pushing back hard on attempts to isolate Turkey. He’s being polite about it, but the very public message is clear: “You know, the Russians seem very interested in making a deal with us, and if you persist in trying to pressure us and don’t back us with the Kurds and cause problems in Syria and don’t return that coup-instigating terrorist you are harboring, the Russians seem pretty clearly ready to help us out where you will not.”

Which makes Tillerson’s earlier comment above sound like he got that message loud and clear. To repeat: “The relationship is too important, it’s too valuable to NATO and our NATO allies, it’s too valuable to the American people, it’s too valuable to the Turkish people for us to not do anything other than concentrate on how are we going forward.”

But there were also some private messages being sent here, too.

Let’s go back to that no-staff-allowed element of the meeting once more. In general, it is in the interests of both parties to a conversation like that to have interpreters and notetakers present, so that in the public discussions that follow (like the one above), everyone agrees on the basic facts of what was said and you don’t getting into a “but you said . . .” and “no I didn’t” back-and-forth. For the meeting to exclude such staffers means that there is something else that overrides this interest.

In this case, the Turks had to have demanded that Tillerson not bring anyone with him to this meeting. There’s no way he would have told his staff “I got this – you take a break while I talk with Erdogan” on his own. The question is why, and all the possible answers I can come up after reading the Turkish Foreign Minister’s reply to that last question involve Vladimir Putin wanting Erdogan to pass on some kind of message to Trump — a message that he did not wish to be delivered within earshot of interpreters and notetakers.

It reminds me very much of that May 2017 Oval Office meeting that Trump had with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and outgoing Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. That was the meeting where we later learned that Trump revealed Israeli intelligence to the Russians about their source inside ISIS and told them that he just fired “that nut job” James Comey which took the pressure off of him because of Russia.

Oh, and the US press were kept out of that meeting as well, with the only reports of it coming after the Russians told us about it. As Politico’s Susan Glasser noted about that Oval Office meeting, it came at the specific request of Putin:

The chummy White House visit—photos of the president yukking it up with Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak were released by the Russian Foreign Ministry since no U.S. press was allowed to cover the visit—had been one of Putin’s asks in his recent phone call with Trump, and indeed the White House acknowledged this to me later Wednesday. “He chose to receive him because Putin asked him to,” a White House spokesman said of Trump’s Lavrov meeting. “Putin did specifically ask on the call when they last talked.”

Kind of makes me wonder if the reason Tillerson left the interpreter back at the embassy is because Putin asked him to in a phone call last Monday. From CNN:

Washington (CNN) President Donald Trump spoke Monday with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to express condolences for a weekend plane crash outside Moscow, according to a US official.

The phone call came amid ongoing Washington-Moscow tensions over policy in the Middle East and Russia’s attempts to meddling in US elections.

Russian news agencies reported the phone call also included discussion of the situation in Israel. . . .

Again we’re hearing about this via Russian news agencies? I’m sensing a pattern here . . .

31 replies
  1. Peterr says:

    And one more thing. Last July, Trump announced he was nominating John Bass, then the ambassador to Turkey, as the new ambassador to Afghanistan. Bass, a career Foreign Service officer, sailed through his confirmation process and took his post in September.

    Since then, the ambassadorship in Turkey has been vacant. Not only does the US currently have no ambassador there, but Trump hasn’t even nominated anyone to fill that post yet. Soon after Trump announced that Bass was leaving, Daily Sabah said that reports in Turkey were that Daniel B. Smith of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research would be tapped for this post — but since then, crickets. No nomination, or even trial balloons floated.

    Two weeks ago, Diplopundit noted that Smith was named as the formal head of Tillerson’s long awaited (or feared) redesign of the State Department named “The Impact Initiative,” replacing Christine Ciccone who left in November. This could be a placeholder appointment, or it could mean that moving Smith to Ankara is not in the cards. My bet is on the latter, in that as Bass’ confirmation showed, a career FSO can move through the confirmation process very quickly, as they’ve already been through the security clearance process and can leap hurdles faced by outside candidates.

    Either way, one thing is clear: Tillerson was not only alone in those two meetings with Erdogan and Cavusoglu, but the embassy in Ankara has been operating without an ambassador for about half a year.

  2. Trip says:

    60 minutes:
    “Riding for the brand”
    Margaret Brennan: There are 41 embassies without confirmed ambassadors and that’s even in places where there are crises. No ambassador in South Korea, Saudi Arabia, in Turkey. How do you explain that?
    Rex Tillerson: Well, there’s been no dismantling at all of the State Department. We’ve got terrific– people, both foreign service officers, civil servants, that have stepped into those roles around the world–
    Margaret Brennan: What– it– it made light though of– of this concern that you have– a friendship with Vladimir Putin and that because of that you and the president aren’t going to hold him to account.
    Rex Tillerson: The relationship that I had with President Putin spans 18 years now It was always about What could I do to be successful on behalf of my shareholders, how Russia could succeed.
    Margaret Brennan: How different was it walking into the Kremlin as secretary of state?
    Rex Tillerson: It was different– because– and I had to think very, very h– carefully about that, And the only thing I said to him was “Mr. President, same man, different hat.”
    Margaret Brennan: Why not implement the sanctions that Congress overwhelmingly says they wanna see put on Russia?
    Rex Tillerson: We have and we are we’ve taken steps that have already prevented a number of Russian military sales as a result of the legislation. And we are evaluating additional individuals for– for– possible sanctioning.

    Boy Scout cowboy, who was called by Trump during the interview.
    What sanctions, and why are they a secret? He discusses Russia and N Korea, but as you linked on twitter, this is interesting:
    North Korean IT group believed hiding out in Russian Far East: sources

    So much is afoot, but hidden.

  3. Palli Davis Holubar says:

    Just a note on a coincidence (I assume, since journalists aren’t honored in trumpean government): Later last week, German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucil was released unexpectedly from a year of imprisonment (with no charges) while 6 other native Turkish journalists, including Mehmet Altan, Ahmet Altan & Nazlı Ilıcak, were given life sentences.
    In my naive morality, I can’t comprehend an American SoS meeting-let alone privately-with “president” Erdogan. But then, this trump administration is not doing the national business.

    • seedeevee says:

      Journalist Sami Mohy El Din Muhammed Al Hajj was held in Guantanamo Bay by the US Government for seven years without charge.  Didn’t seem to have much effect on the machinery.

  4. Desider says:

    Just to note I think Tillerson ditched his staff on several trips abroad before, so not sure if he went into this one alone because of Turkey’s demands, or just that he’s a cowboy from his oil days more focused on having no one in his way than having support.

  5. Rapier says:

    Far be it from me to defend a State Department which took an active part in the complete destruction of Libya and Syria and did nothing notable to reduce the disasters which are Yeman, Somalia and Sudan. Well on the latter we helped invent South Sudan, where there is oil. Go figure, right? Let’s not forget Ukraine where the East declared independence and we didn’t say let’s talk. Here is what we said.….0…1c.1.64.psy-ab..0.7.603…0i8i30k1j0i67k1j0i30k1.0.h5kAsn-5hx0
    That’s die you Russian scum by the way.

    So I am not going to defend the State Department but I figure this ‘cure’ is going to be worse than the disease.

    • Desider says:

      So the Ukrainian majority should live under backwards Soviet conditions to keep the minority Russians plus Putin happy? Sorry, the trainwreck was a decade coming, and Yanukovich wore out his welcome.

      • Tom in AZ says:

        Well, they are sure living the dream now that the neo-nazis we helped to the tune of 5 bil to install are leading them to capitalist Nirvanna…

        • Desider says:

          @TomInAZ Neo-nazi blah blah blah – someone’s getting their Ukraine info from Sputnik News – and that FUD/slander’s already out there 3 or 4 years now without any validation whatsoever – recycled propaganda, yum.

  6. matt says:

    Can I make a request of EW- to do a post on the pipeline/oil geopolitics behind all this?

    The more I read, the more confused I get.  It sounds like Russia/Iran/Turkey/Syria are collaborating against USA (establishment)/KSA/Israel…. though, I’ve read reports if Israel working with Russia now, and our secretive Secretary of State along with the Trump administration are clearly sympathetic with the Russians.  The duplicity is very confusing as we are still engaging in proxy war with Russia, and I’m assuming that other oil/energy interests in the US/Europe would be against Tillerson’s double dealing, which likely explains the secrecy.  I can’t figure it out.  Please help!

  7. Charles says:

    Thanks for this post, Peterr.

    The Trump Administration is clearly pushing Iran into an alliance with Russia, which could supply them with an air defense system capable of inflicting serious damage on an attack from Israel or the US. The warning signs from Turkey about exiting NATO for an Eastern alliance are alarming. Unlike Syria, Turkey is deeply (though not formally) integrated into the EU; it has advanced weapons; and it controls an area critical to projection of Russian naval power. Like Cyprus, it would be extremely useful to Russia as a place to evade sanctions. But Russia, for all its imperial ambitions, has no constructive impulses in the use of power. It has a worse record than the US in how it handles its vassals, both internal and external.

    Trump may achieve the feat of greatly reducing American domination while worsening conditions for the countries which have suffered under its weight.

    I wonder whether Tillerson’s decision not to use an interpreter was a non-verbal statement on his part that we don’t care what you think or say about this meeting, because the message of this meeting is that no one cares what you think or say.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Your last paragraph is possibly correct.  If that were the intended message, it would be more efficient to decline a meeting, rather than have one under abnormal circumstances.  Delivering that message by having a meeting, in diplomatic parlance, could incite an unpredictable response from a foreign head of state.

      Any message like that is directly at odds with the importance the US attaches to such a geographically well-placed ally, whom Trump likes because he’s an autocrat and because through him he can achieve all sorts of things he could not do if he needed to go round Turkey physically and diplomatically.  Other explanations seem more likely.

    • seedeevee says:

      “But Russia, for all its imperial ambitions”

      It has consciousness?  I think you are anthropomorphizing something here.

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    You don’t have meetings like this without your own translator. You just don’t.

    That understatement is probably engraved in every elevator in Foggy Bottom.  Not having your own interpreter at such a high-level meeting produces a laundry list of horribles.  It is the height of arrogance and stupidity.  It tells the other side that you don’t know what you are doing, that you perceive yourself as having little leverage, and that your are an easy mark.  It is as stupid as walking into a honey trap with your cell phone on and paying by credit card.  It is Trump showing up at a dinner for Nobel laureates thinking he’s the smartest guy in the room.

    With skilled interpreters, cultural and other differences make lack of understanding the norm.  Even between two languages as similar as American and British, differences abound: to “table” something in American is to delay its discussion; elsewhere in the English-speaking world, it is to bring something up for discussion.  Apart from language and cultural differences, there’s the basic negotiation problem of not having your own witness as to what took place or what was discussed.  That is how crises start.  It is how bag men deliver money and make deals they don’t want their own governments or people to know about.

    Tillerson would not have been CEO of ExxonMobil if he were that stupid.  Nor would he have put ExxonMobil money on the line using that flawed a process.  Even a usually somnolent American board of directors would object to spending real money on a “deal” if only one side knew what the deal really was.

    So whatever Tillerson was playing at, it was not the nominal subject of the meeting.  That makes the meeting more problematic, given how many tensions there are that have Turkey and its autocratic ruler at their center.

    Tillerson is gutting an essential government function and cutting its remnant out of the loop.  Running American diplomacy with only Tillerson, Trump and Kushner at the helm is navigating a loaded supertanker up the Thames at flank speed.  Something bad is likely to happen.

    Tillerson is so clearly so at odds with his department and its function that he should step down without delay.  If Trump wants things done this way, there’s no reason for anyone to help him do it.

    • seedeevee says:

      “Tillerson would not have been CEO of ExxonMobil if he were that stupid. ”


      You seem to have found a dead end.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Not in the slightest.  He was very good at that job, according to ExxonMobil’s priorities.  He is a terrible Secretary of State.

      • Trip says:

        Maybe it’s because his old brand loyalties remain intact, rather than the supposedly new stakeholders (of the US citizenry).

  9. Clairence says:

    “because the intent of that legislation was not to harm our friends and allies. But it is directed at Russia for its interference in our elections.” – Tillerson

    Is this true? Can we just ignore laws when they’re not convenient? (clearly yes, as it happens all the time) But this seemed like a statement that the Executive would do whatever it wanted regardless of what the Legislative has instructed.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      No, the executive cannot, but it is up to Congress to object when a president ignores legislation he signed.  This Republican Party would rather tell the NRA and the Chamber of Commerce to piss off rather than to insist that Dear Leader do what his job demands he do.

  10. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Back channels are not unheard of.  The Kennedy brothers used them to good effect during the Cuban missile crisis, for example.  Even then, the communications were usually one-on-one.  And the Kennedy brothers trusted each other implicitly.  Trump doesn’t trust Tillerson or anybody who is not family.

    Since Rex is not silly enough to do this to handle mainstream diplomacy, the issue is what he needed to do that he did not want any American witnesses.  A conversation with Erdogan?  Or Putin, through Erdogan? And what kind of trouble would Donald trust Tillerson to talk about with either of these two that had to be dealt with troublingly outside of diplomatic channels but by America’s chief diplomat? Andy why allow Erdogan and his foreign minister to witness but no Americans?

    As we’ve been saying until we are blue in the face, this is not how to run the ship of state.  It is how to make ships collide.

  11. gmoke says:

    I remember when Trmp had his first meeting with a foreign leader after his (s)election, with the Prime Minister of Japan, Abe Shinzo, at Trmp’s apartment in NYC.  The pictures showed Abe, Trmp, Ivanka, and a Japanese person who could have been an interpreter.  There didn’t seem to be an American interpreter present.

    It just may be that these people are just that incompetent.  All the way up and down the line. Stupid, possibly criminally stupid people.

  12. seedeevee says:

    “Again we’re hearing about this via Russian news agencies? I’m sensing a pattern here . . .”


    Is the pattern that CNN has to use “Russian” news sources instead of their own US State Department/ex-Generals-on-the-payroll sources?

  13. earlofhuntingdon says:

    I’m sensing a pattern, too.  But the pattern Peterr is talking about, as is obvious, is that Trump excludes his own press and public, but includes government-run Russian media.  Trump allows our nominal opponents to frame the narrative and control the facts disclosed in it.  The US and int’l press and, in this case, even our own State Dept., cannot check those facts because they were excluded.  That is as abnormal as Trump’s hair, and more dangerous.

  14. Yogarhythms says:

    Sorry phone unable to reply to Charles and Earl re: possible implied message by attending without interpreting/note takers. Implied messages of importance would not be delivered by negative attendance due to inherent importance of message?

  15. GKJames says:

    Does it matter? Yes, it runs counter to norms, but norms are so yesterday. Besides, with a “very stable genius” (self-professed) in charge, what’s the worry? One possible, if unintended, upside: yet another data point to show that US influence over Turkey and Washington’s ability to determine outcomes in the region are minimal. If only US voters would notice.

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