“If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging”. So quipped the early twentieth-century comedian Will Rogers. Various politicians over the years have used the logic of the so-called “Law of Holes” to urge a departure from business as usual. Perhaps it is time for the State Department to stop digging holes as well.
In the post–Cold War world, the State Department has repeated occasions incorrectly assessed foreign leaders and countries by allowing spin and wishful thinking to blind them to the reality of adversaries’ intents.
Even today, sizeable constituencies within the State Department continue to rationalize and make excuses for Turkey, Pakistan, and Somalia never mind each flirt with Al Qaeda and other radical groups, treat religious freedom with disdain, and increasingly side with America’s great-power rivals against the United States.
There is a rule-of-thumb, however, that top American diplomats could embrace: When assessing the intent of other countries, whether rivals or partners, judge them by their intelligence chiefs rather than by the public face constructed by their presidencies and foreign ministries.
Turkey: Hakan Fidan
Consider, Turkey. When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) swept to power eighteen years ago, Erdoğan bent over backward to present a moderate face. “Secularism is the protector of all beliefs and religions. We are the guarantors of this secularism, and our management will clearly prove that,” he declared. Many diplomats bent over backward to affirm his rhetoric. Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, for example, dismissed concerns the new Turkish leader was Islamist and instead said assured that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was just “a kind of Muslim version of a Christian Democratic Party.” Many within the State Department continue to run interference for Turkey and shield it from the consequences of its actions on the belief that Turkey remains more ally than adversary.
Perhaps had diplomats and members of Congress paid more attention to Turkey’s intelligence chief than on the country’s public imagining, they might not have consistently been a decade behind the country’s reality. Hakan Fidan has, with the exception of one month in 2015, served as the chief of Turkey’s intelligence service for more than a decade. Alarm bells sounded when Erdoğan first announced his intention to appoint the University of Maryland graduate in 2010. Fidan was both an admirer of the Islamic Republic of Iran and personally oversaw efforts to unravel Turkey’s historically close ties with Israel. It was not long before Fidan’s actions affirmed Western worries: Fidan reportedly betrayed an Israeli spy ring to Iran which had been working to gather information on Iran’s illicit nuclear program. Fidan subsequently oversaw outreach to both China and Hamas, and not only worked to supply Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria but also supported the Islamic State. Fidan might prefer to lurk in the shadow but a decade into his tenure, it is clear he represents the true Turkey more than the image projected during congressional delegations to Istanbul or cocktail parties at the Turkish chancellery.
Read more: National Interest