August 12, 2008 - There is still not one representative of Turkish origin among the 435 members of the US House of Representatives. For decisions concerning Turkey, efforts of Representative and Senators sympathetic to Turkey are needed. Democratic Representative Robert Wexler of Florida is among the Congressmen friendly to Turkey.
Wexler was born in New York and he has been in Congress since 1996. He is also co-founder of the Caucus on U.S.-Turkish Relations, which has 71 members. Wexler's real occupation is law and he was selected as one of the 50 most influential names in the US Congress by Congressional Quarterly.
Robert Wexler visited the headquarters of TURKOFAMERICA in New York spoke about US-Turkey relations. During his visit Wexler answered the questions of the executives of TURKOFAMERICA:
Some people say that Turkey is not important for the U.S. because the Cold War has ended – the Soviet Union does not trade with Turkey anymore, so – what do you think about Turkey’s position now?
I would fundamentally disagree with any suggestion that American-Turkish relations are less important today than they were in the Cold War. In actuality, I would argue, they are even more important, and interestingly, I think the relationship is more honest today than it may have been during the Cold War. If you look solely at America’s interests, Turkish interests for a moment – Obviously now we are engaged in a quagmire in Iraq – and if there is going to be any, even remotely successful resolution of America’s engagement in Iraq – Turkey will undoubtedly be a central part of the resolution, in terms of providing stability, economically, politically and in a security sense in Iraq. Whether there will ever be any semblance of stability or peace in Israel with its neighbors - Turkey will undoubtedly play a very constructive role in that process. To that point, Turkey is participating in a multinational force that is going into Lebanon.
Turkey has a central role to play in terms of the diversification of energy sources in the region, which is critical to the American economy and American security. And ultimately, the role that Turkey plays in terms of bridging east and west – and hopefully Turkey is able to do that within the process of becoming a part of the European Union. That is of central interest to America, that Turkey continue, its westward focus – continue to be a very positive relationship, in terms of the bridge between east and west. Turkey is uniquely situated to play that role and there’s an emergence of other nations - that while in very different circumstances, very different parts of the world – Turkey – could play if it chose – a very important role in terms of bringing countries such as Indonesia – closer to the West.
Did anything change after March 2003 because Turkey didn’t allow America to use some bases?
Well, it certainly was a significant decision that Turkey made, in terms of not permitting American troops to use Turkey to invade Iraq. I think the ramifications of that decision are more short-term than long term. The last time I was in Turkey, it was clear to me that the single largest impediment to American Turkish relations is the failure of America to adequately address the significance of the PKK terror threat to Turkey. And Turkish elected officials and the public have a valid point – that is that America, to a degree, is or has been responsible for the security within Iraq. Now, on the other hand, Turkey has responsibilities as well in terms of the Turkish relationship. The good news is from our point of view, much of Turkey’s responsibilities really focus in on what Turkey needs to do for herself in terms of economic development, in broadening its focus toward Europe and the West.
The other thing that we would hope and expect then, in Turkey, is respecting that Turkey has a regional role to play. And I think, I for one, respect that, and I understand that Turkey’s relationship with her neighbors with Syria, with Iran, necessitate at times a different perspective than the United States Congress or administrative – that there be adherence to certain fundamental principles – that would coexist between America and Turkey. For instance, just like America needs to do more to stop the resurgence of PKK terror – and just like America would never meet with leaders of the PKK and of course we want to acknowledge and recognize the PKK as a terrorist organization. So does Turkey have an obligation to understand that when there are terrorist organizations in its region, they need to be treated just like the PKK needs to be treated. There cannot be a double standard for terrorist organizations.
You are co-founder of the Turkey Caucus. What do you think about Turkish people?
I would refrain from making generalizations in terms of any country or a group of people – however, one thing is for certain in terms of my own personal beliefs – I have great respect for the Turkish people and great passion for the American-Turkish relationship both on a governmental level and on a people to people level. I find the Turkish people to be very engaging and they are emotional in certain respects, which I happen to think is a positive characteristic rather than a negative one. I think Turkish people are nationalistic – they have great pride in their roots – which I think also is a very admirable characteristic.
They respect restraint and they respect principle. I think if I were to offer a word of caution or advice I – one of the things I also experience is that many Turkish people believe that there is some concerted effort by the outside world at times to present Turkey in a less than favorable light or somehow advance policies that are not in Turkey’s interest. Well, there’s some historical truth to that. And that’s not fair and certainly in America, the obvious can be said that the difficulties between Turkey and Greece in the past are reflected in the difficulties at a time that the Greek-American community has with Turkey, and Turkey’s relationship with Armenia. I think the good news is, in the United States, that for the first time since we started this caucus that there has been a voice within the Congress – a fairly large voice, it’s not just one or two people. How many members does the caucus have now? Up to now the members’ number is 71. The point is at this point that we have a broad section of interests in the American Turkish relationship and a wide variety of people who have chosen to align themselves with the Turkish Caucus – which, given the political dynamic in America, says quite a lot.
There are many caucuses that Congress can join – in fact they do join – when there are absolutely no possible negative political ramifications. So, it’s easy to join – there are 140 members of the Diabetes Caucus and there should be 435 members of the Diabetes Caucus – the point being that nobody is ever going to say to you at a meeting why did you join the Diabetes Caucus? But as you can imagine, given the strength and largesse of the Greek American community – numbers, financial interests and the like and political impact – that when you’re doing the Turkish Caucus, that when you’re doing it this way, I wish more people in the Greek-American community would encourage people to join the Turkish Caucus.
We have a small community in the U.S. We are not as big as the Greek, Korean or Chinese community. We are struggling to introduce Turkey to the American public because we are not a well known country, as you know. What should the Turkish community, Turkish businessmen, do to introduce ourselves to the American public?
You have to be realistic. As you say, the Turkish-American community is rather small in terms of actual numbers – however, it is large enough, that if there is a concerted effort – and it is resourceful enough and the people as individuals are industrious enough – there can be a significant impact. I don’t want to make analogies that don’t necessarily follow. However, the American Jewish community is certainly larger than the Turkish American community – still in the context of America is a tiny community. The American Jewish community is a bit less than 2 percent of America, so it is my understanding that the Turkish community is a bit less than that.
The example is that if a small community is unified in its purpose of achieving success in economic growth, education - and you don’t need 300,000 in politics – if you had even a thousand people truly engaged and the good news with the Turkish American community is that there are individuals who are good with leadership. And, had the Turkish American community become more assimilated to the ways of America, it would be the natural force of things for more and more Turkish Americans to play prominent roles – not just in business.
And, there obviously, are several examples of Turkish Americans who have become self-made in business in America but there needs to be, as there has been, candidates running for office – knowing that they may not succeed the first time, the fifth time or sixth time. It will be a success - if there is a concerted effort it will be a success. You cannot, as a community, participate in the full breath of what American society offers, unless you engage as a political entity. That doesn’t mean the Democratic party, the Republican party. It means that Turkish Americans need to become prominent
What do the Turkish people have to do then? If someone grew up in Turkey – I think it’s harder to succeed in the U.S. and the first rule is the Turkish person has to be born in the U.S. Or should you know the American system very well to succeed?
There are plenty of people who succeeded in the American political system who were not born in America. Obviously, being born in America and being totally Americanized is a significant advantage. To answer your question, I think first of all, I understand fully the sentiment within the Turkish-American community. You can’t look at it like running for office as a Turkish American. This would be true of any ethnic community in America today. Even those that are the most ethnically oriented, the view is that when you come to America you assimilate – it doesn’t mean that you compromise the pride that you have in whatever religion or belief or ethnicity or your parents or one side of your family has. But, the goal of America and the practice and the history of America is that you can take all these disparate parts from all over the world and you mold them together. And so, that would be my first suggestion - that is, if you are a Turkish American, be proud of your roots and respect them, but don’t run for Congress or any other office as a Turkish American.
What will be on your agenda for the next two years?
One of the things I would love to do and cherish the opportunity of having, is to be chairman of our Europe Subcommittee, which in fact has jurisdiction over Turkey. And I think I’ve had a very friendly focus and I have on Turkey – a bit of knowledge and respect amongst my colleagues that would continue the path of having a much stronger, better relationship within the Congress between America and Turkey. From the American and Turkish communities’ perspective I would think that one of the very exciting parts of this election could be that if the Democrats gain control - to have somebody like me to chair the Europe Subcommittee - it would be a first in modern Congressional history.
What do you think about conflict between Turkish and Greek Cypriots?
I was in Cyprus once, in the Turkish section, as well as the Greek section. I was there when President Denktas was still President; it was right before the election. And it was just when the border was opened up and we got to drive through the border and you didn’t need any special permission at that point. What I have seen, which has been very pleasant for me, which is the evolution of American policy towards Cyprus, is up until two years ago, I vehemently disagreed with American policy toward on Cyprus and the view by Europe was that Turkish Cypriots were obstacles to peace and that Greek Cypriots were in the right. That has changed dramatically, in great part, because of the U.N. role, but equally important, the reaction of both communities since the vote – and in my view the sense of fairness within the American State Department, within the American Greek community, is that the Greek Cypriots have used their position of being a part of the European Union in a very unfair and very unhelpful way.
In meeting with some Turkish and EU officials and so forth, I am modestly hopeful, understanding that hope as related to Cyprus is a bit naïve. But I am modestly hopeful that working with a very committed FM Gul and a very very progressive PM Erdogan. – I remember PM Erdogan’s second visit to Washington, he made a pledge in the context of Cyprus and he said when it came to Cyprus, Turkey would remain one step ahead of the Greek side.
I think in America, we should call it the way it is, which is, Turkey has been a very positive player in the context of attempting to resolve the controversies and conflicts in Cyprus. And the Greek Cypriots have been nothing other than abusive of the process. We need to, in a very dramatic way, increase America’s Turkish Cypriot relations. We should have direct flights, have more economic development, push more recognition of Turkish Cypriot interests in world affairs. And the good news is, the EU which obviously has a much more direct role than America on the issue of Cyprus – the European interests are also beginning to appreciate how both unfair and unhelpful the Greek Cypriots have been.
Who is Rober Wexler?
Elected in 1996, he ran unopposed in the 2006 election. Wexler served in the Florida Senate from 1990 to 1996 before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1996 election, filling the open seat vacated by Harry Johnston, a Democrat. Wexler is a Democratic member of Congress serving his sixth term in the House of Representatives. By only his second term, Wexler was named one of the "50 Most Effective Legislators in Congress" by the influential magazine Congressional Quarterly.
In 2004, Wexler was named to the Forward 50 list as one of the most influential leaders in the American Jewish community. Wexler is the co-founder of the Caucus on U.S.-Turkish Relations, the Taiwan Caucus and the Indonesia Caucus. He is also an active member of the India Caucus and the Serbia Caucus. Born in Queens, New York, Congressman Wexler moved to South Florida with his family at age 10. He earned his B.A. in Political Science from the University of Florida and law degree from George Washington University. Congressman Wexler and his wife, Laurie, have three children