Interview with G. Lincoln McCurdy, president of the Turkish Coalition of America (TCA), a not-for-profit organization, based in Washington, DC. TCA fosters understanding of Turkish American issues through public education.
Turkishny.com: How do you evaluate harsh statements of members of Turkish caucus in the U.S. Congress against Turkey and Turkey's policies lately following Turkey's firm stance against Israeli aggression in Gaza?
Let’s not get into arguments about intentions and what was said. Our focus instead should be how to facilitate dialogue between Turkey and the U.S. Congress. We are witnessing part two of World War I in the Middle East, and it is absolutely essential that Turkey and the United States worked together as equal partners to establish peace and stability in the region. The failure of cooperation will be a “lose-lose” for both countries and will result in greater bloodshed and misery for the people in the Middle East. Currently, we see a communication gap between members of Congress and Turkish policy makers. For most Americans, including members of congress, a lack of understanding of the intricacies in Turkey’s neighborhood, the Middle East, Balkans and the Caucasus, exists. On the Turkish side, there is still a lack of appreciation on the role of the U.S. Congress, and how sensitive members of Congress are toward their voters’ concerns. We have a divided government in the United States with three equal branches—the Legislative, Executive and Judicial. If we want to minimize disruptions in the Turkey-U.S. relationship, there has to be a consistent constructive dialogue about the strategic relationship with members of Congress in a collective effort not only by the Turkish Embassy but by members of the Grand National Assembly, the Turkish private sector, Turkish NGOs and, most importantly, by Turkish Americans.
Turkishny.com: There was even a case that one of the members of the Turkish Caucus defined Turkey as "frenemy" of the United States. Did Turkish organizations react to recent statements of these so-called friends of Turkey in the Congress?
TCA’s message on Capitol Hill, sometimes public and sometimes private, is that Turkey and United States have been friends and allies for more than half a century and they need always to be in the future. This friendship is essential for the benefit and interests of both countries. Of course, there will be differences along the way. A perspective from Washington is not always the same as it is from Ankara and vice versa. Sometimes friends and allies need to agree to disagree but still be respectful of each other’s ideas and contributions. To achieve this level of respect, we, as Turkish Americans, all need to work harder than anybody else to promote a positive message about Turkey because of the negative bias which has already been created in the halls of Congress and in the Administration by single issue hate groups in Washington, D.C. and in the media. This is why supporting organizations like TCA and the Turkish American Political Action Committees (PACs) and being politically active is very important. It is vital to have a voice that can be heard by the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government, as well as in the halls of the U.S. Congress. It is also important to remember that other groups have been doing an excellent job in having their voices heard louder for a much longer time, and it is in Turkey’s interest to nourish and value friendships with such groups. Harsh public rhetoric on either side of this important bilateral relationship does not help to foster confidence.
Let’s also underscore the positive momentum Turkish Americans have created in Congress. TCA is proud of the work it has done to help increase the membership of the Congressional Caucus on U.S.-Turkey Relations and Turkish Americans from 62 to 148 today, as result of seven years of hard work. The Caucus is now the second largest ethnic/bilateral Caucuses in the U.S. Congress. We have to recognize however that members of Congress join multiple caucuses that may have conflicting agendas. Therefore, it is important to value all friendships and goodwill, sometimes for reasons going back centuries, with other influential groups. As TCA, we pay special attention to our relationships with multiple caucuses and interest groups.
Turkishny.com: What can Turkish organizations in U.S. do to limit the impact of disagreements between Turkey and Israel on U.S. Congress?
Other bilateral and ethnic-based organizations have been working harder and much longer in getting their message across to members of Congress. Individual members of these organizations also participate in the political process by supporting or opposing candidates running for public office. If the Turkish American community, major Turkish companies with U.S. representative offices, and Turkish-owned enterprises in the U.S., and U.S. companies with business interests in Turkey were regularly involved in congressional relations, there would be a greater appreciation and understanding of Turkish perspectives not only in Congress, but also within the general public.
Turkishny.com: How would you evaluate the relations between Turkey and U.S. before and after Turkey's participation to anti-ISIL coalition?
The recent highpoint of Turkey-U.S. relations was in May 2013 when then Prime Minister Erdogan made a state visit to Washington, DC. Since then, due to the major crises in the region, relations have become quite intense and complicated. Unfortunately, Turkey’s image in American policy circles has turned toward the negative. This is troublesome especially as we approach the year 2015 when the Armenian lobby will be undertaking a major effort to achieve its long-standing agenda. The current differences between Turkey and the United States regarding Syria are gaining a great deal of attention. Turkey has legitimate concerns about the international and American long-term policy towards Syria as well as in Iraq. However, these security concerns are overlooked by much of the American media and foreign policy groups. Turkey finds it hard to understand how the international community watched on as Syria disintegrated into a civil war with hundreds of thousands of people suffering. There’s no doubt that there is a general lack of insensitivity in the about the severe repercussions Turkey faced from these wars. Only in the last two years, Turkey took in nearly two million refugees. The financial, social and security burdens placed on Turkey for taking in these displaced persons, including some 150,000 Syrian Kurds, are not recognized adequately. On the other hand, neither the Turkish government, nor the civil and business community has done an adequate job in getting its message across to Americans. In addition, the increasingly poisonous political environment, the perceived problems with the legal system and the rule of law, civil rights and freedom of speech violations are also creating a negative public and media image of Turkey in the United States.
Turkishny.com: How strong is Turkish lobbying efforts when it comes to state level especially in critical states like California where Armenian lobby is strong?
As an immigrant group, Americans of Turkish heritage in all walks of life have been very successful in realizing the American dream of creating a better life for themselves. Turkish Americans have made significant contributions in their adopted country in all fields except politics. The Turkish people are ideal immigrants. They assimilate very well in American society, and they have used their talents in achieving economic success. Therefore, it is sad to see that the Turkish American community is one of the most fragmented ethnic communities in the United States. Further, grassroots activism, a keystone in American politics, has only recently emerged in Turkey. We have a cultural gap to overcome. That is one of the mission objectives of TCA is to educate Turkish Americans on the importance of taking advantage of their rights as citizens to be politically active. There have been only four Turkish Americans ever elected to public office, all on the local level. For too long, Turkish Americans have allowed other groups to define the image of the Turk. Although Turkish Americans have enjoyed economic success in California, they are no match for the Armenian American communities, especially in states like California and Massachusetts. However, the United States has a federal system. Turkish Americans may be overpowered in California and Massachusetts, but they are strong in Texas and other states. In Texas, for instance, 18 of the 36 Texas representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives are members of the Congressional Turkey Caucus. That’s 50% and that is significant! We may lose in some states, but Turkish Americans can definitely win in most other states. But even in California, thanks in part to the work of the TCA Turkish American Legal Defense Fund, we have prevented the adoption of major negative legislation which would have severely impacted business between the United States and Turkey
Turkishny.com: What are your expectations from Turkish community and Turkish PACs in the 2016 presidential election process?
I would like to take this opportunity to explain that TCA as a non-profit organization is prohibited to engage in political activities such as supporting or opposing candidates running for public office. TCA like the other Turkish American organizations can discuss issues of importance with elected officials and political candidates but, again, it is prohibited for Turkish American non-profit organizations to support or oppose them. Political action committees know as PACs are the only entities permitted by law that are allowed to participate in the political process on the federal level. So now I will continue to respond to you in my capacity as Treasurer of the TC-USA PAC.
The good news is that there are now five Turkish American political action committees across the country. They are the Turkish Coalition USA PAC based in Washington, DC, Turkish Coalition Northeast PAC, Turkish Coalition California PAC, Turkish Coalition Midwest PAC and the Turkish PAC in Texas. Since 2007 with the establishments of the first Turkish American PACs, we have seen an increase in political contributions every election cycle. For the 2015-2016 election, the focus should be on supporting congressional candidates, both for the House and Senate, state and local candidates rather than raising funds for presidential candidates. A $1,000 contribution, for example, is noted and appreciated by congressional, state and local candidates, whereas it is an insignificant amount for candidates running for the presidency. In other words, Turkish Americans will get more out of the “buck” by supporting the Turkish American PACs which in turn support congressional, state and local candidates.
Another major source funding for the Turkish American PACs that remain untapped are the American officials of Turkish company subsidiaries in the United States. There are at least 21 Turkish investments that have been made by Turkish companies. As in the case with other American companies, these Turkish-owned companies are prohibited under federal law to make political contributions directly to candidates, political parties and the traditional political action committees. However, individual company employees are allowed to establish company PACs as long it is funded by contributions from the employees themselves and not from corporate funds. Every major American corporation has a PAC, including but not limited to companies such as Boeing, Caterpillar, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Google, Lockheed, Microsoft and Raytheon. Employees of Turkish companies in the United States may not want to set up their own company political action committee, but they should be encouraged by Turkish American activists to support the Turkish American PACs.
TCA President G. Lincoln McCurdy (sixth from the right) and nine U.S. State Attorney Generals in front of the Anitkabir in Ankara, June 2013
Turkishny.com: Are you familiar with the political orientations of Turkish American community? Which political party finds more support among Turkish community, which political candidates they are going to give bigger support in upcoming elections?
There are Democrat Turkish Americans and Republican Turkish Americans. The Turkish American community generally does not support one political party. In the U.S. Congress, there are both Democrats and Republicans who support a strong U.S.-Turkey relationship and who understand the issues of Turkish Americans. In the Congressional Turkey Caucus, there are more Republicans than Democrats. This is so because the Republicans have the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. When the Democrats had the majority in the House, they had the majority members in the Turkey Caucus. Regarding congressional leadership, the current Republican leadership has been more sympathetic to Turkish American issues than the Democratic leadership. This is a dilemma for many Turkish Americans who may feel more comfortable with Democratic Party policies on U.S. domestic issues but appreciate the support of the Republican leadership regarding Turkey. The five Turkish American PACs have been bipartisan in their support of candidates for the 2014 elections.
TCA founder and Chairman Yalcin Ayasli (back row, fifth from the left) and TCA president G. Lincoln McCurdy (back row, second from the right) with members of Congress, including Speaker John Boehner (R-OH/8th to Turkey in April 2014
Turkishny.com: In what level Turkish lobbying organizations succeeded to engage Turkic Americans of Tatar, Uyghur, Azerbaijani and Meskhetian Turks origin in political activities to support Turkey's position besides their countries and/or regions?
TCA has provided a number of grants to Turkish American organizations across the country to help out the Ahiska Turks. TCA has also helped in educating Congress about the history and plight of the Ahiska Turks. The Ahiska Turks have worked with Turkish Americans in supporting the Turkish American PACs. TCA also has good dialogue with the Azeri American community. Many of these groups reside in the state of New Jersey. If all these groups in New Jersey would unite, we would certainly see a dramatic positive change on the Turkish/Turkic image in American political circles. I would further say if community leaders in New Jersey do unite New Jersey would most likely become the most pro-Turkish/Turkic state in the country. Currently, the New Jersey congressional delegation, with a few exceptions, supports anti-Turkey legislation even though there is a significant population with Turkish, Turkic, Tatar, Uyghur, Azerbaijani and Ahiska heritage.
In addition to ethnic based outreach to groups like you mention, TCA has also built strong bonds with American heritage groups with which Turks share historical and regional bonds. TCA provided significant, multi-year financial assistance and support on Capitol Hill to the Macedonian and Bosnian American communities. Our goal with our friends from the Balkans is to help create and sustain peace, prosperity and a strong transatlantic relationship between these countries, Turkey and the United States.
Turkishny.com: How do you see the future of Turkish American relations as Turkey gets stronger in the region?
It is in the interests of the United States and Europe that there is a strong Turkey, as a democratic and secular member of the Transatlantic Alliance. A strong Turkey embedded in these values and in all major organizations of this Alliance will enhance stability in the Middle East, the Caucasus and the Balkans. The United States and Turkey need each other, and this has to be an equal partnership. The United States will benefit from consulting with Turkey on a regular basis, and Turkey will benefit from giving the United States due recognition as the pillar of its western alliance.
President G. Lincoln McCurdy presents the check for TCA’s fourth and final donation of $25,000 to aid the Typhoon Haiyan relief efforts to Tess Tuazon-Chase, Region Chair of the Philippine American Chamber of Commerce in Texas. Congressman Pete Olson (R-TX/22nd), and members of the local Turkish and Filipino American communities attended the ceremony in Houston, TX in July 2014
Turkishny.com: Can you give us details about TCA's recent charity efforts?
In our outreach program in building bridges between the Turkish American community and other ethnic communities in the United States, TCA, since 2007, has made contributions for humanitarian causes in several countries. Our most recent contribution was a $100,000 grant to the Marshall Legacy Institute (MLI) for its land mine removal project in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). The devastating floods that hit BiH in spring of this year washed away land mines that had not yet been removed from the war in the 1990s. Consequently, areas that have been designated as safe were no longer as safe, and there have been a number of casualties, including children, being seriously injured from these mines. MLI is working with the Bosnian government to recreate safe areas. In 2014, TCA also contributed $100,000 for the relief efforts of Typhoon Haiyan that struck the Philippines in the November 2013. We made four contributions of $25,000 each to Filipino American communities in Maryland, Seattle, Hawaii and Houston that were raising money for the relief efforts. In each of these communities, we had invited the leaders of the Turkish American community and the member of the congress of that district to the ceremony where we presented the check. In previous years, TCA has made contributions to the Mexican Red Cross, the relief efforts in Haiti after suffering from a hurricane and earthquake, and the Chaldean Federation of America to help Chaldean refugees in Turkey after fleeing from Iraq due to the deteriorating security conditions there.
The spirit behind these humanitarian grants is that we believe in the sanctity of all human life and that Americans of all ethnic or religious backgrounds should join hands to help each other in times of need.
TCA President G. Lincoln McCurdy (third from the left) with Turkish Ambassador to the U.S. Namik Tan (left) and TIKA President Dr. Serdar Cam (right) at the Native American Museum in Washington, DC, November 2013
Turkishny.com: What do you think about TIKA's efforts in America?
TCA takes great pride in spearheading a Turkish outreach to Native Americans. We identified Native Americans as a special community with which to foster a relationship. We began offering scholarships to Native American college students to study abroad in Turkey as early as 2008. With our outreach to Native Americans, we also gained a better understanding about the needs that exist in Indian Country. One of the greatest needs is for Native Americans to diversify their tribal economies, create jobs, and open up to the world. For this purpose, TCA sponsored the first Native American business, cultural and educational delegations to Turkey and facilitated Turkish governmental representation at Indian trade and investment conferences.
Finally, TCA worked with Native American tribes and members of Congress, especially Congressman Tom Cole, who is of a Native American descent, to introduce legislation that would have allowed Native American tribes to fast-track foreign investment from Turkey and other World Trade Organization- WTO countries. The legislation passed Committee and even received majority support in the U.S. House of Representatives. It only failed because anti-Turkey groups and their voices in Congress, in a new low for special interest lobbying, opposed the legislation which would have benefitted Native Americans, the most under advantaged of all Americans.
Nevertheless, TCA pushed on and our efforts led to two meaningful initiatives by Turkey. The Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency-TIKA now has two projects in the Americas. One project was a grant to aid poor Native American farmers in Guatemala, Peru and Bolivia. The second project is a grant to the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs (Oregon) to help fund the construction of two water tanks on the reservation. If it weren’t for the TIKA grant, the Warm Springs Reservation would not have been able to undertake construction of the water tanks that were needed to provide water for its new school. The Confederated Tribes had already received maximum funding from U.S. governmental sources for the school project, so the TIKA grant filled the gap. I visited the Warm Springs Confederated Tribes Reservation when I attended the “Pi-Ume-Sha Treaty Days Powwow in June of this year. I saw the two water tanks under construction and heard from tribal members of the reservation how appreciative they are for Turkey helping them out. These goodwill gestures help to facilitate a stronger dialogue between the Turkish and American people. Members of Congress also recognize the significance of the TIKA grants, especially those members in the Hispanic, Native American and Turkey Caucuses. The United States helped Turkey in the 1950s to build its infrastructure, and now Turkey is helping Native Americans to develop their tribal lands. Since the Turkish people have a sentimental bond with the Native American people, they can play a meaningful role.