Politics, Analysis

ANALYSIS - 2020 U.S. Presidential Election: Suddenly, clarity

Joe Biden emerges as Democratic Party’s 2020 Presidential nominee after Bernie Sanders bows out

Adam McConnel   | 09.04.2020
ANALYSIS - 2020 U.S. Presidential Election: Suddenly, clarity


In the end, events precipitated quickly. Joe Biden’s overwhelming victory in the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29, plus concern about unity in the Democratic Party’s center, convinced both Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar to end their campaigns. One day later, on Super Tuesday, Biden dominated the results. By the end of March’s first week, only Bernie Sanders remained as the last serious, but quickly fading contender. But he also finally withdrew from the contest on Apr. 8.

Thus, after a campaign that had already lasted more than a year, Joe Biden emerged as the Democratic Party’s 2020 Presidential nominee, even if that will not become official until the party convention this summer. That also means that the Democrats, as they did in 2016, have opted for the centrist, moderate candidate rather than a candidate with more radical policy proposals. In regard to Biden’s chances in November, polls taken in the past month have shown Biden in either a statistical tie with or with popularity greater than incumbent Donald Trump. But because of the Electoral College wrinkle in U.S. Presidential Elections, the state-by-state polling data will have to be scrutinized closely in the coming months. During the summer, a clearer picture should emerge as to which candidate will be considered the favorite.

The hypothetical Biden presidency

Because a Biden presidency is certainly possible, the time to consider what that would mean for U.S. relations with Turkey has arrived. The most obvious implication is that the Obama administration’s foreign policy community would once again gain influence over U.S. decision-making. And it is safe to say that most people in Turkey would be horrified by that prospect.

Turkish memories of the second Obama administration have not faded: Obama’s failure in Syria, support for the PYD/PKK, disturbing relations with Fetullah Gulen’s cult (FETO – designated a terrorist organization by the Turkish government), and refusal to work with or listen to Ankara on issues ranging from Iran to the Patriot missile systems all remain sources of anger for Turkish society. Even the ambassadors that Obama chose to send to Kugulu Park (the neighborhood where the U.S. Embassy is located) still elicit scorn from Turkish citizens. For those reasons, foreign observers should expect the majority of Turkish people to be Trump supporters on the road to November.

A Turkish preference for Trump over Biden should not be mistaken for some sort of ideological position; rather, it is the proverbial “lesser of two evils.” In the past three years, Donald Trump has made many decisions that harmed Turkey. One only needs to remember the U.S. government’s continued support for the PYD/PKK in Syria, or Trump’s purposefully triggered run on the Turkish lira during the summer of 2018 in order to understand why he is not generally loved in Turkey. Trump’s administration also has taken no step towards extraditing Fetullah Gulen or any of his cult’s brainwashed acolytes to face justice in Turkey.

But Trump’s decisions, no matter how malevolent, still pale in comparison to the Obama administration’s foreign policy choices towards Turkey and Turkey’s region. Trump, as far as we can understand, actually listens to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the two seem to have a working relationship (which is much more than we could say for President Obama during 2012-2016). Especially the Obama administration’s tacit support for FETO and massive economic and military aid to the PKK/PYD are enough to make most Turkish citizens staunch enemies of anyone connected to the former president’s administration.

Biden’s record in regard to Turkey

Biden spent six terms as a Delaware Senator, and served a total of six years as the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Through this long experience in the Senate, Biden compiled a voting record on Turkey that was described as “consistently anti-Turkish.” [1] However, an old American proverb explains that “all politics is local”. Once Biden became the U.S. vice president, he had to deal directly with Turkish officials as the representative of the U.S., not just a single, small state and its narrow interests. Subsequently, Biden’s interactions with Turkish officials, in public at least, exhibited little of his previous attitudes towards Turkey, a necessary adjustment when President Obama gave much of the responsibility for managing U.S. interactions with Ankara to his vice president.

Biden, for example, traveled to Turkey in Dec. 2011 in the midst of the Arab Spring and the worsening situation in Syria. U.S. sanctions against Iran were already an issue at that point, but Biden’s interactions with Turkish officials as well as the accompanying press coverage reflected a positive atmosphere. Several months later, in April 2012, Biden spoke at a Democratic Party fundraiser attended by Turkish-American and Azeri-American business people. Biden used the opportunity to exhibit his tendency to make off-color remarks, calling the attendees “dull as hell”.

In May 2013, Biden accompanied then-Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan to gatherings at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the State Department, reportedly stating that he “had been an admirer of Erdogan for a long time”. But following the Gezi Park riots, which started less than two weeks after Erdogan’s trip to Washington, the relationship became more difficult.

Biden’s next journey to Turkey occurred in Nov. 2014, in the aftermath of another gaffe. In Oct. 2014, Biden ended up publicly apologizing to Turkish President Erdogan for implying in a speech that Turkey had somehow aided the rise of Daesh (ISIS). Biden then traveled to Turkey for discussions with Turkish officials, including President Erdogan.

Those talks were dominated by the situation in Kobane, where the U.S. wanted Turkey to support the effort to defeat Daesh’s attempt to take control of that region. Turkey, on the other hand, was still urging the U.S. to institute a no-fly zone in Northern Syria. Turkey decided to allow Peshmergas from the Northern Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government to cross through Turkish territory in order to battle Daesh. Eventually the Peshmergas were successful, but that meant that the PKK’s Syrian branch, the PYD/YPG, gained control over Kobane. In the months afterward, the U.S. would increasingly turn to aiding the PYD/YPG, instead of finding a compromise with Ankara.

Biden’s activities in Jan. 2016

A little more than a year later, in January of 2016, Biden was back in Turkey, and the dominant topics were once again Syria, Daesh, and the PKK/PYD. At that time, the Turkish state was still engaged in rooting the PKK out of the regions that it had tried to assert political control over during the previous six months. After unilaterally ending a two-year cease-fire with the Turkish state in July 2015, the PKK set up barricades and dug trenches in a number of different neighborhoods and towns in southern and southeastern Anatolia.

By preventing Turkish state from asserting its authority in those towns and neighborhoods, the PKK intended to create the foundations for autonomous PKK-led local governments. The effort to extirpate the PKK from those locations cost the lives of dozens of Turkish security personnel while the PKK used entire neighborhoods as human shields. At the same time, the campaign to curb FETO influence in Turkish state institutions and Turkish society, initiated in Dec. 2013, was ongoing. U.S. Ambassador to Turkey John Bass had also sparked reaction from the Turkish government and Turkish citizens for making statements on domestic Turkish political matters.

In that atmosphere, Biden chose to publicly criticize the Turkish government for the actions taken against the PKK and those supporting it, and for violating press freedoms. He also chose to meet the wife and son of Can Dundar, but not to meet the families of Turkish security personnel martyred in operations against the PKK, despite publicly labeling the PKK as a terrorist group.

What Biden did and did not do was noted at the time, as was the contradiction between Biden’s referring to the PKK as terrorists while the U.S. government was busy arming the PKK’s Syrian branch. Biden’s activities in Jan. 2016 would then take on additional meaning after the failed July 2016 coup attempt and beyond.

In the wake of the 15 July coup attempt

Biden’s last journey to Turkey, of course, was more than a month after the failed coup attempt carried out on July 15, 2016 by civilian and military FETO members. The Obama administration was reticent from the moment the coup attempt became known to the world, and its statements in support of the Turkish government lacked conviction. Obama then decided not to come to Turkey in order to express democratic solidarity with a 65-year NATO ally, opting instead to wait three weeks before sending Biden, known as “Goofy Uncle Joe” for his gaffes and unaware behavior. [2]

On Aug. 24, Biden met Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and toured the bombed sections of the Turkish Parliament building. After their talks, Biden gave comments, characterized in a Politico article as a “charm offensive,” [3] which were marked by two attributes. First was the earnest tone with which Biden repeatedly stated U.S. support for the Turkish government and Turkish democracy, condemned the coup attempt, and disavowed any foreknowledge of the event. The second aspect was the overt contradiction between what Biden stated and what was actually happening.

For example, Biden claimed that U.S. officials were “cooperating” with Turkish officials concerning Fetullah Gulen’s extradition, but not a single step would ever be taken by the Obama administration towards that end. Biden again condemned PKK activities as terrorist, but the Obama administration had been supplying weapons and other aid to the PKK’s Syrian branch for nearly two years at that point, and would continue to do so until the moment that Obama left office in January 2017. [4] Because some of Biden’s statements so clearly contradicted the Obama administration’s actual policies, one begins to wonder how much of the rest of his statements should be taken at face value.

The next day, Biden met President Erdogan, and in his remarks afterwards Biden repeated much of what he had stated the previous day, including the contradictions. [5] The press coverage of Biden’s visit featured clichés and bias on the part of the U.S. media, while Turkish press and commentators scorned Biden’s remarks as platitudes.

Such are the memories that Turkish citizens have of Joe Biden as U.S. vice president. The 2020 Presidential election will again become the dominant issue in U.S. media once the COVID-19 pandemic runs its course, but we will have to wait until that point before the candidates will begin to focus on the upcoming campaign. Then we can expect more information concerning Biden’s foreign policy views and, specifically, the policies that both candidates plan to pursue in regard to Turkey in the coming four years.

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

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

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