Gearing up for 2020 in US: Warren’s knowledge of Turkey

Though she has worked on shaping a foreign policy, Warren's views are vague and closely tied to her domestic policy views

Adam McConnel   | 18.04.2019
Gearing up for 2020 in US: Warren’s knowledge of Turkey Senator Elizabeth Warren (L)

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


The Democratic Party’s field of contenders for the 2020 presidential nomination in the United States has ballooned to nearly 20, but the two frontrunners have not changed. In addition to Bernie Sanders, the other favorite is Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Warren is a law professor who grew up in a working-class Oklahoma family. Warren’s expertise, according to her campaign website, is on “commercial law, contracts, and bankruptcy,” but her reputation was made as an economy and finance policy wonk devising innovative proposals to institute checks on powerful corporations and financial institutions. Her image parallels that identity.

Warren’s presidential candidacy is actually an outgrowth of her advocacy work, which brought her to public attention in the 2008 financial crisis’ aftermath and established her credentials with broad sections of Democratic Party voters. In 2012, she entered the Massachusetts Senate race and defeated a Republican incumbent handily. Last November, Warren won reelection by an even greater margin.

Senate experience in military matters

Similar to Hillary Clinton, Warren’s foray into Congressional politics was designed to increase her political profile and build her experience inside the Washington Beltway, both of which are deemed necessary for someone plunging into politics in late middle age. But unlike Sanders, Warren’s Senate committee work involved foreign policy issues. Warren is a member of the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, the Special Committee on Aging, and the Armed Services Committee. The Armed Services Committee brought Warren into intensive interaction with many topics directly connected to foreign relations.

For example, Warren serves on three subcommittees as an Armed Services Committee member: Airland, Personnel, and Strategic Forces. Both Airland and Strategic Forces have authority over subjects related to weapons systems, to research, development, test, and evaluation in the Army and Air Force, to defense strategy, to military planning, and to those categories’ related budgets. One can assume that she has witnessed plenty of discussion about the F-35 fighter jet, Turkey’s role in the program, and Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system.

Warren, however, was not involved in the recent letter sent by four senators to The New York Times. That letter’s authors, who threatened Turkey with sanctions for buying the Russian S-400 missile defense system, included the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Forces Committee. The letter was also bipartisan, as two of the authors are Republicans and two are Democrats. Up to this point, Warren has apparently not made a public statement about Turkey’s role in the F-35 program, or its S-400 acquisition.

Basic elements of Warren’s foreign policy vision

Like Sanders, Warren has devoted effort to establishing a foreign policy stance. Warren’s campaign website contains a short and extremely broad statement on foreign policy. [1] The statement’s only notable features are its focus on disengaging U.S. military forces from conflict zones, and its populist, anti-elite content. Neither Turkey nor its region are mentioned.

In late November 2018, a month after Sanders’s foreign policy speech at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Warren spoke on foreign policy themes at American University. [2] Both Johns Hopkins and American University are in Washington D.C., so Warren’s choice of venue was no coincidence: the place and the topic made clear that Warren had Sanders in mind as her foremost rival for the Democratic Party nomination. That also means that Warren intended her statements as an alternative foreign policy vision to that of Sanders.

Warren’s speech was immediately noted for the manner in which she linked global issues to main planks in her domestic platform. She sketches a global situation that resembles what Sanders described -- a contest between democratic and anti-democratic forces -- but her diagnosis is different. Warren concentrates on wealth disparities, and she asserts that threats to democracy abroad have appeared because “inequality is rapidly growing, transforming rule by-the-people into rule by-wealthy-elites.” According to Warren, democracy is confronted by a trio of malignant “ideologies,” nationalism, authoritarianism, and corruption.

Warren’s perception of Turkey

During that discussion, Warren provides a corresponding description of Russia, followed by China, and then states, “From Hungary to Turkey, from the Philippines to Brazil, wealthy elites work together to grow the state’s power while the state works to grow the wealth of those who remain loyal to the leader. That’s corruption, pure and simple.”

Unfortunately, Warren’s knowledge of Turkey, like that of Sanders, clearly comes from what is written in U.S. media. Otherwise, she would not characterize Turkey so erroneously, or include Turkey in the same category as China and Russia so casually. Turkey’s economic elites, for instance, are represented by the Turkish Industrialists and Business Association (TUSIAD) which has a notoriously rocky -- sometimes bordering on hostile -- relationship with the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (who grew up in one of Istanbul’s toughest working-class neighborhoods). Turkey’s socio-political elites are represented by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which has been the main opposition party for the past 16 years. Turkey’s elections have been transparent and democratic since 1950. Warren apparently knows none of these facts.

Warren followed her speech with an essay published in one of the U.S.’ premier foreign policy forums, Foreign Affairs. In that article, the paragraph that categorizes Turkey as an elitist, corrupt, and authoritarian regime is repeated verbatim. Whether she penned the article herself or had advisors put it together for her, the disturbing misconception of Turkey remains the same.

Warren needs better information on Turkey

Although Warren has expended effort to shape a foreign policy identity for herself, her views remain vague and closely tied to her domestic policy prescriptions. Furthermore, her campaign advisors do not yet include anyone with prominent foreign policy experience. Her campaign manager is Roger Lau, reportedly the first Asian-American presidential campaign manager. Lau has worked on Warren’s campaigns for the past eight years, but overall has spent the past 15 years on campaigns for various Democratic Party candidates. Essentially, Lau is a career political functionary, so his political opinions are not prominent.

On the other hand, Warren’s foreign policy statements do seem to provide conceptual entryways through which she might gain a more accurate understanding of Turkey, its political leadership, and its society. On her campaign website, she states the desire to retain a strong military, but also to disengage U.S. forces from conflict zones. Part of her approach stems from her membership on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which brings her into close contact with a military perspective that revolves around defense and national security. But all of Warren’s brothers served in the U.S. military, which makes her interest in military topics personal. She is also strongly involved in veterans affairs.

Because Warren’s relationship to military matters is not simply about policy, Warren may be more willing to embrace ideas that contradict Washington’s conventional wisdom. Granting a greater role to Turkey in regional security, for example, would be a logical result of comments that Warren gave on the Rachel Maddow Show in early January. [3] In that interview, Warren stated: “Now, having said that we can withdraw, you’ve got to withdraw as a part of the plan. You’ve got to know what you’re trying to accomplish throughout the Middle East, and the pieces need to be coordinated. And they need to be coordinated not just in our activities, but this is why we need allies. This is why we build alliances.”

Such statements beg the question of what Warren’s ideas are concerning Syria, Turkey, and the Obama and Trump administrations’ partnership with the PYD/PKK in Syria. If Warren is serious about coordinating with allies, then Turkey is the ally already present on the scene, which has assumed security duties in the region, and which can take on much more, making a full withdrawal of U.S. forces possible. Warren may consider cooperating with Turkey more closely if she obtains more accurate information about Turkey and the situation in the region.

Diplomacy rather than force

Warren’s campaign website also envisions a broader, less aggressive approach to the exercise of U.S. power. Instead of the preference for brute military force that has featured in most U.S. administrations since the end of the Cold War (even the Obama administration expanded the use of drones in anti-terror and intelligence operations), Warren offers greater emphasis on negotiations. Warren explains that her approach to foreign affairs “… means reinvesting in diplomacy and standing with our allies to advance our shared interests.” Respect for shared interests has been notably lacking from the U.S. approach to Turkey for several decades. If Warren’s sentiments are genuine, they may provide an opportunity for renewed cooperation with Turkey on regional problems.

Finally, because Warren’s rhetorical focus always remains on the common people, she may be open to gaining a more accurate understanding of Turkey’s socio-political reality and Turkey’s current political leadership. But this depends to a great extent on Warren’s advisors and the sources from which she gains her foreign policy information. In the current American political climate, and the rampant anti-Turkey misinformation regularly churned out by U.S. newspapers, news channels, and websites, expecting a sudden, positive shift in Warren’s attitude towards Turkey is unrealistic. For that reason, Warren’s foreign policy statements over the coming 18 months should be scrutinized for a learning curve regarding Turkey.

* 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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