The writer teaches Turkish history at Sabanci University in Istanbul. He holds an MA and PhD in history from the same university.


With only weeks left before the Nov. 3 US Presidential Election, former US Vice President Joe Biden, according to most polls, is leading current US President Donald Trump by nearly double-digit margins, and will win the popular vote easily. However, Hillary Clinton also led by sizeable margins late in the 2016 campaign, and then won the popular vote by nearly three million ballots. Despite that margin, Clinton did not win the Electoral College and Trump ended up President.

The 2016 outcome forces all observers to approach the potential results of the 2020 election more cautiously. At present, Joe Biden looks as though he will win the Electoral College also, and statistical prediction site 538 now gives Biden a nearly nine out of ten likelihood for victory. But a handful of swing states still look as though they will determine who becomes President. “Swing states” are the states where polls do not yet indicate definitively which candidate will win that state’s vote, and in this election states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Nevada are generally seen as states which either candidate could potentially win. Most recent polls show Biden leading in most of those states, but the margins are generally not large, anywhere from a tie to four-or-five percentage points.

What spurs caution is that, at the same point in the 2016 campaign, Clinton had similar leads in most of the swing states, but she did not emerge victorious. For that reason, even though Biden looks to be the victor, few will speak with confidence until all the ballots are counted.

Transfer of power?

That ballot counting, continuing a fundamental and recurring problem of US elections over the last twenty years, has already become a topic of intense debate. Because of the ongoing pandemic — which has claimed more than 200,000 lives in the US — a massive surge in mail-in ballots is expected for the election. Mail-in balloting is criticized by President Trump and some sectors of the Republican Party as open to fraud, even though mail-in ballots, historically, have not been a serious source of voting irregularities. And because of postal delays caused by a surge in mail-in ballots, results in some swing states may not be confirmed for days after Nov. 3. Some commentators are suggesting even longer delays.

Furthermore, Trump continues to hint that he may resort to unusual methods if he loses the election. In recent weeks, he refused to concede that the transfer of power would proceed according to established norms if the election does not turn out in his favor.

This adds further tension to a domestic US political atmosphere which has been on a razor’s edge for the past year as Trump’s impeachment gave way to the pandemic crisis, which was then joined by widespread protests against racism and police violence. By summer, the protests began to feature confrontations between opposing groups. Sometimes violence resulted, and deaths have occurred. As the protests continued, the US was shaken by environmental disasters. Catastrophic forest fires on the West Coast killed dozens of people and entire communities were incinerated. The South faced hurricanes that caused massive and widespread flooding. The public mood in the US is weary and battered.

Turkish-American relations under a Biden Presidency

A Biden Presidency now looks increasingly likely, and that means the former Vice President’s foreign policy preferences will be the next four years’ reality. Previously, I analyzed Biden’s December 2019 interview with the NYT editorial staff [1], which later became the object of an intense Turkish public debate. The misinformed and disturbing opinions that Biden expressed in that interview are enough to cause great concern about his ability to create a working relationship with the Turkish leadership starting in January 2021. Biden has also maintained a hostile attitude towards Turkey during the intervening months, releasing several messages directly aimed at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Biden clearly sees the issue as a vote-getter.

If Biden wins the election, he will then have to face the same Turkish leadership that he has spent the past year attacking. That is on top of the eight years he spent as President Obama’s main intermediary with Turkish officials. During that span, Biden oversaw the collapse of US relations with NATO ally Ankara when the Obama Administration decided to arm, train, and then prevaricate about the Syrian branch of a terrorist group — the PKK — that even the US government designates as terrorist. Does Biden plan a new approach or will we witness more of the same? Currently, Biden provides zero indications that he envisions a different relationship with his Turkish partners.

Biden’s foreign policy team

Can we say the same for Biden’s foreign policy advisors? According to reports, Biden has assembled a large foreign policy team, possibly as many as 2,000 total staff, divided into working groups, to formulate the foreign policy planks in his campaign platform and to prepare the foreign policy transition in the event he is elected. Figures such as Antony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, Avril Haines, Brian McKeon, and Julianne Smith are frequently mentioned as Biden’s “inner circle” of foreign policy advisors (Ben Rhodes’s name, so far, is thankfully absent from the lists I have seen).

Haines and Smith were both Obama Administration officials — Avril Haines is a former deputy director of the CIA, and also a former deputy National Security advisor, both positions held during the second Obama Administration. Smith moved from the Pentagon to the White House as a national security advisor to Biden in 2012-2013. Smith was co-signatory to a 2014 letter sent by a large number of former US foreign policy officials to President Obama, urging him to approach the Turkish leadership more aggressively. Smith has also made negative public statements in relation to Turkey in the intervening years.

McKeon enjoyed a long stint as a foreign policy advisor during Biden’s years in the Senate, and also worked as a Department of Defense policy official during the Obama Administration. McKeon has publicly defended US support for the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), the label pasted on the PKK’s Syrian arm in order to deceive the US public, and referred to Turkish security forces as “hostile.” [2]

The ones to watch: Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan

Blinken and Sullivan, on the other hand, are generally considered the leading figures of Biden’s foreign policy team. Blinken is known to Turkey already as one of the Obama Administration officials belatedly sent to Turkey in the aftermath of the failed July 2016 FETO coup attempt. In early 2017, Blinken wrote a lengthy editorial for the NYT urging that the US continue to arm and train the SDF. Blinken’s commentary was notable for its faulty logic: he argued that the SDF could be convinced to refrain from using American-provided weapons to attack Turkey, but only a few paragraphs later, he urged the Trump Administration to help Turkey fight the PKK. Whether Blinken is naïve or disingenuous is up to the reader’s discretion.

Blinken’s public statements on Turkey, in contrast to Biden’s, are generally more careful. In July, Blinken gave an extensive interview to the Hudson Institute, [3] during which his interlocutor inquired directly about Turkey. Unlike Biden’s muddled and belligerent statements to the NYT editors, Blinken’s comments were measured and calm:

“We obviously want to find a way to have a more productive and positive relationship with Turkey, but that requires the Turkish government itself to want the same thing. We obviously have some real issues and differences but we also have areas where it would make good sense for us to find ways to work more effectively together, Syria, for example, being one of them.

“I would hope that we can find ways to do that but I don’t want to underestimate some of the challenges that we’re facing in the relationship and that’s going to require, I think, first and foremost, some very direct and clear talk. I will say, Vice President has a long relationship with President Erdogan. They’ve known each other. They’ve engaged directly on a lot of things and I think we found in working with Turkey that that relationship is obviously the most important one.”

Blinken at least seems to be more aware than Biden that off-the-cuff electioneering may not make for good personal relationships once the campaign is over. Time will show whether Blinken’s circumspection in regard to Turkey rubs off on Biden.

Sullivan, similar to the other figures mentioned above, served in a high-level policy position during the Obama Administration. In early 2019, Sullivan wrote a verbose essay for The Atlantic [4] in which he laid out his vision for a reinvigorated US foreign policy. As the bio that accompanies that article makes clear, Sullivan was closely connected to figures and institutions that were devising and implementing policy towards Turkey: “He was the national security adviser for Vice President Joe Biden, the director of policy planning at the US Department of State, and the deputy chief of staff for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.”

In that commentary, Sullivan argues that the US must rejuvenate and reformulate its sense of “American exceptionalism” in order to meet both international and domestic challenges, and to once again take on its global leadership role. Such an argument, of course, is not what many in the world want to hear, but the author seems sanguine. In any case, Sullivan’s essay is composed mostly of grandiose but vague prescriptions accompanied by questionable judgements on recent US and global history. In the twenty months since the essay was published, Sullivan has repeated similar statements in other forums.

US Foreign Policy under a Biden Presidency: More of the Same

Overall, the public statements of the Biden foreign policy team inspire little hope, and certainly not in regard to Turkey. Even a publication as conservative as the National Interest summarizes the Biden team’s foreign policy prescriptions as “… emblematic of a Washington establishment still in the grip of nostalgia—nostalgia for a fabled ‘American Century’ when US hegemony seemed absolute and its benevolence without bound.” [5]

Taken together, the attitudes of the Washington foreign policy elite (now known colloquially as “the Blob”) towards the world generally, but also towards Turkey specifically, serve mainly to increase my suspicion that they do not understand the world towards which they are contriving policy. Whether they have the information or the analytical capacity to comprehend the world, or to discern what US interests are, seems completely unclear. I am not alone in this feeling, but when similar concerns are raised to those responsible for creating foreign policy, the usual response is that foreign policy formulation is “imperfect” and “difficult,” and that mistakes should be expected. In other words, a different version of Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous “known knowns” statement to the press is voiced. The problem with Rumsfeld’s response was never how he framed it, but rather that he used the “unknown unknowns” to justify a policy that was based on false or nonexistent grounds, that was criticized as such by observers at the time, and that was subsequently used to rationalize the disastrous invasion of Iraq.

Now, when both sides of the American political aisle spend their time arguing about which non-democratic regimes they should support in Turkey’s region — Iran versus the “Axis of Authoritarianism” (i.e. Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Egypt, Bahrain) — it is clear that the values Jake Sullivan urges us to embrace were long ago discarded. The entire debate over whether Iran, or Saudi Arabia, et al. should be supported, armed, protected, negotiated with, etc. simply illustrates the moral and ideological vacuum at the center of US policy towards Turkey’s region. Turkey, a democratic society since 1950 and a NATO ally since 1952, is obviously the state with which the US should be expending great effort to understand, to solve regional problems with, and to find a better mutual relationship with. That should be so obvious as to not even warrant discussion.

Yet Joe Biden sees virulent anti-Turkey rhetoric as a winning election year strategy.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.


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