Turkey and the United States shuttered visa processing for one another over the weekend, part of an escalating tit-for-tat that has thrown diplomatic relations between the two nations into a tailspin and further escalated perceptions of U.S. foreign policy as erratic and scattered.
The United States specified on Sunday that non-immigrant visas for Turkish citizens hoping to enter the country would be suspended, following the abrupt arrest of a Turkish U.S. consulate employee last week. The employee, Metin Topuz, is accused of having ties to Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish preacher living in self-imposed exile in the United States. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made Gülen’s extradition back to Turkey something of a personal mission and has arrested numerous figures on suspicion of connection to the political figure. But Topuz’s arrest crossed a line for U.S. officials.
“Last week, for the second time this year, a Turkish staff member of our diplomatic mission was arrested by Turkish authorities,” John Bass, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, wrote in a statement. “Despite our best efforts to learn the reasons for this arrest, we have been unable to determine why it occurred or what, if any, evidence exists against the employee.”
Bass then laid out the parameters of the visa suspension.
“Now this suspension of services is not a visa ban on Turkish citizens. It’s a suspension of our consideration of new visa applications. If you have a valid visa, you can still travel to the United States. If you want to apply for a visa at another U.S. embassy or consulate outside of Turkey, you are free to do so,” the statement continued.
Those comments set off a war of words, with Erdogan slamming the move and accusing “agents” of breaching the U.S. consulate.
“For the (US) ambassador in Ankara to take a decision like this, to put it into practice, is saddening,” Erdogan said.
Turkey promptly reacted in kind to the U.S. move, suspending the processing of all non-immigrant visa applications. That suspension will remain in place indefinitely.
Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul said that while Turkey was open to discussing security concerns with the United States, “if it’s an issue regarding the arrest of the consulate employee, then this is a decision the Turkish judiciary has made. Trying a Turkish citizen for a crime committed in Turkey is our right.”
In the meantime, many Americans and Turks alike have been left in limbo: students, tourists, and business travelers are among those who typically seek out the now-suspended visas.
U.S.-Turkey relations have been strained for the past decade and a half. Erdogan has slowly consolidated power since taking office as prime minister in 2003, cracking down on the press and free speech while slowly targeting his opponents. A failed coup in July last year only hastened those efforts — thousands upon thousands of people have been detained in connection with the effort to overthrow Erdogan’s government. A referendum in April handed the Turkish leader even more power, turning Turkey’s government into a presidential system, with Erdogan presiding as president.
During President Obama’s tenure, tensions with Erdogan dominated U.S.-Turkey relations. U.S. officials pointed to the Turkish leader’s authoritarian tendencies; Turkey, by contrast, signaled irritation with U.S. attitudes on both Syria’s civil war and Kurdish fighters, with whom Turkey has a deeply antagonistic relationship. But the election of President Trump seemed to signal the potential for stronger ties between the two NATO allies.
Trump has praised Erdogan in the past, calling him a “friend” and hosting him at the White House. During that same visit, when an outburst of violence between Erdogan’s bodyguards and protesters made headlines, the Turkish leader said Trump apologized to him for the incident, something the White House later denied.
Trump was also one of only a few world leaders to call Erdogan to congratulate him on the Turkish referendum in April.
“We have positive opinions of the new administration,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said in March, referencing Trump.
But posturing aside, Trump’s relative disinterest in the minutiae of Turkish politics has mirrored his apathy towards world issues in general. Since taking office, Trump has mostly ignored any real foreign policy issues, pushing an “America First” narrative that has jeopardized U.S. ties with key allies. In June, the United States withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, angering a number of European allies along with other global players like China and India. Spats with a number of prominent politicians, including London Mayor Sadiq Khan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have also colored State Department efforts, as has failure to develop a coherent approach to wars in Syria and Afghanistan.
Infighting within the Trump administration hasn’t helped either. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts have been repeatedly undermined by other administration officials, as well as by Trump. Over the summer, Tillerson’s efforts to mediate a brewing crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as well as a number of other prominent Gulf nations, were undercut when Trump claimed in a Rose Garden press conference that “the nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level.”
Recent events have further strained Trump and Tillerson’s relationship. Amid rumors that Tillerson might be eyeing an exit after reportedly calling Trump a “moron”, the secretary of state gave an unscheduled press conference last week renewing his commitment to the administration and downplaying resignation rumors. That display of loyalty didn’t appear to convince Trump.
“I think it’s fake news,” Trump told Forbes magazine, referencing Tillerson’s alleged “moron” comment. “But if he did that, I guess we’ll have to compare IQ tests. And I can tell you who is going to win.”
That infighting has dominated headlines, distracting from larger foreign policy issues like the ongoing dust-up with Turkey. Other escalating crises have also flown under the radar, including a strange and ongoing saga involving hearing loss suffered by U.S. diplomats in Havana, Cuba, which spurred Washington to cut more than half of its embassy staff two weeks ago, in addition to issuing a travel advisory for Americans in Cuba. Both immigrant and non-immigrant visa applications have also been put on hold, leaving thousands upon thousands of Cubans in a precarious position.
Turkey is arguably in a more favorable position than Cuba, given the rapport between Erdogan and Trump, the same of which cannot be said for the president and Cuban leader Raúl Castro. But Ankara has expressed worries about leadership in Washington that go far beyond the arrest of consulate workers: Turkish officials have quietly complained about mixed messages from the Trump administration, as well as a lack of communication between figures like Tillerson and Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.
Those points of contention seem unlikely to resolve themselves. Reports circulated on Monday that Turkey had issued an arrest warrant for another U.S. consulate worker, whose wife and daughter were also reportedly detained.
“U.S. consulate worker N.M.C., husband and father of the suspects in question, has no diplomatic immunity and has been called to the prosecutor’s office to testify,” the state-run Anadolu news agency said.
The White House has yet to comment on the latest reports.