America, the land of second chances, loves a good fail. Watching skateboarders wipe out is a past-time as old as skateboarding, and few things are more entertaining than watching an overzealous frat boy do something incredibly stupid.
Yet, in foreign policy, we don’t give fails the credit they’re due. The closest we’ve come is mocking George W. Bush for posing under a “Mission Accomplished” banner in Iraq, long before anyone could even articulate what the mission was, let alone gauge if this mythical feat had been accomplished. Most of the time we don’t even admit a fail is a fail, just ask anyone still bemoaning the end of the Afghanistan war because, “if only we’d had another twenty years to get it right.” While perhaps not as entertaining as watching terrible John Wick impersonation fails, US foreign policy is overflowing with fails (hello Iraq war…or Vietnam war…or just about any of the wars).
To engage in meaningful discussions about foreign policy, we have to at the very least, recognize these failures. And, even if we can’t laugh at them like we can a parrot trapping a kitten in a box, we can, and should, learn from them. In the foreign influence space, much like the rest of foreign policy, scant attention is given to what does not work. After the Russians meddled in the 2016 election, half of the DC punditocracy became overnight foreign influence experts. Then China’s pervasive influence at US colleges and universities became the topic du jour. Some people still can’t stop writing about how the Saudi lobby is helping the Kingdom literally get away with murder.
While we say much about successful foreign influence efforts, we almost never ever talk about foreign influence fails. That changes today. I present to you, perhaps the greatest foreign influence fail in recent memory: The Turkey lobby.
As chronicled in a recent report from the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative, which I direct, at the Center for International Policy, the Turkey lobby seemingly had it all. Millions of dollars spent on lobbying and public relations firms? Check. Former Members of Congress and some of the most powerful lobbying firms on your payroll? Check. Those firms dumping thousands of dollars to the very same members of Congress they were lobbying on Turkey’s behalf? Check.
Think tanks were also talking Turkey. The government of Turkey and organizations there had donated millions to some of DC’s most prominent think tanks. The Brookings Institution, for example, received sizable contributions from a Turkish organization and had been pumping out pro-Turkey publications faster than people were falling off milk crates this summer. The German Marshall Fund, which too receives funding from a Turkish organization, provided a platform for a Turkish spokesperson to white-wash Turkey’s human rights record, while the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that Turkey was second only to China in imprisoning journalists. And, that’s just Turkey’s legal influence in the US. Turkey was also running an illicit influence operation through former advisor to President Donald Trump, Michael Flynn, who was convicted of covertly working for Turkey.
This multi-pronged approach to influence has been the playbook for other authoritarian regimes. The UAE, for example, has used similar tactics to get the US to turn a blind-eye to its alleged war crimes in the disastrous war in Yemen, an abhorrent human rights record at home, and even multiple campaigns to illegally interfere in US politics and elections. Yet, unlike the UAE, the Turkey lobby has been an abject failure. They have unequivocally lost on every major issue they’ve been fighting for in recent years. So, let’s walk through the Turkey “fails” compilation.
Turkey’s attempts to influence, well, anything in the US have been an abject failure.
When Turkey, a member of NATO, agreed to purchase the Russian S-400 missile defense system in 2017, there was bipartisan outrage in the US that led to halting US arms sales to Turkey and removal of Turkey from the F-35 program. Despite an extraordinary effort from Turkey’s lobbyists to roll back these punishments, Trump doubled down and imposed sanctions on Turkey in December 2020. President Joe Biden, in turn, has committed to keeping all these punitive measures in place.
Similarly, Turkey’s lobbyists and public relations pros have been working tirelessly to convince the US to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Shortly after the coup, Turkey hired the law firm Amsterdam & Partners to conduct a “global investigation into the activities of the organization led by the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.” Since then, the firm has gone to remarkable links to sully the exiled cleric. They’ve published a book about Gulen charter schools in the US that alleges “financial scams, mistreatment of students and staff, and purchasing influence among public officials.” They’ve contacted scores of state legislators, Attorneys General, and even former Education Secretary Betsy Devos about the Gulen schools. They got Vice News to run a segment on the “Turkish Mafia” running Gulen’s schools. They even put up a billboard in the town Gulen lives in with the title, “School Children at Risk,” alongside a picture of Gulen.
What did this extraordinary nationwide effort to vilify gain Turkey? Nothing. Nothing at all. Gulen — who has steadfastly denied any involvement in the Turkey coup attempt — hasn’t been extradited and still lives comfortably in the small Pennsylvania town where that provocative billboard once stood. Turkey has also been completely outmatched by Armenian activists in the US, who were instrumental in pushing two staples of the Turkey lobby — Greenberg Traurig and Mercury Public Affairs — to stop representing Turkey. Armenian activists were also an important factor in Biden’s April 2021 decision to became the first US president to recognize the Armenian genocide, which Turkey has been lobbying against for decades.
In short, Turkey’s attempts to influence, well, anything in the US have been an abject failure. Why? The problems start at home with a budding autocratic leader, seemingly tone-deaf to US foreign policy concerns, who appears to have little objection to leaning into authoritarianism at home, and no qualms about stumbling into misadventures abroad. With a client like this, firms beginning work with Turkey might feel the confidence of a man staring down a row of freshly stacked milk crates, while we watch-on knowing the whole facade will quickly, and painfully, come tumbling down.
Ben Freeman is the Director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy and author of The Foreign Policy Auction.