Biden’s Nearly Impossible Task in Turkey

This article was first published in Politico on August 24, 2016.

Mistrust is at a new height following the July 15 coup attempt, and the veep had to do more than just say nice things.

Vice President Joe Biden was never going to have it easy on his visit to Turkey on Wednesday. Since the July 15 coup attempt, U.S.-Turkey relations have grown worse day by day, and Biden needed to deliver something dramatic and concrete. Above all, Ankara does not believe that Washington is seriously considering the Turkish government’s formal request this week for the extradition of suspected coup plotter Fethullah Gulen. To date, the Obama administration has appeared meek on this critical issue, pointing to the legal process while denying any prior knowledge of or culpability in the coup attempt. It also ppeared to be narrowly self-interested only in the fate of America’s Incirlik Air Base, rather than the welfare and stability of its NATO ally. Mutual mistrust is at a new and dangerous high.

Even prior to the failed coup attempt, U.S.-Turkey relations had been strained as a result of U.S. support for the YPG, the Syrian branch of the Kurdish PKK (which has been waging war against Turkey for decades). Then, as the coup took place, Turks were disheartened and dismayed with what they saw as the Obama administration’s “wait and see” approach in the early hours. Secretary of State John Kerry’s noncommittal early statement expressing a hope that there would be “stability and peace and continuity within Turkey” has been a sore point. Kerry said he did not have the details about the unfolding situation in Turkey, but he did not emphasize support for the democratically elected government or Turkish democracy either. President Barack Obama’s statement saying just that came in hours later but it had become pretty clear by that time that the coup was faltering. Additional statements by U.S. officials also were not helpful as they appeared to link Turkey’s NATO membership to its government’s post-coup performance on certain democratic principles, imposing an awkward conditionality on an alliance that has been the cornerstone of U.S.-Turkey relations.

Things got worse from there. Key members of the U.S. national security community appeared to question the legitimacy of the arrests of the coup plotters. All of this left the impression that the U.S. would have been ready to work with the coup leaders had the coup been successful, as was the case in Egypt.

Now the No. 1 issue is the status of Gulen, who under the protection of the U.S. government is managing the activities of his vast network of followers from Pennsylvania, to the detriment of Turkish national security. Biden and Obama should not kid themselves: Erdogan is deadly serious about this, and the evidence is that an overwhelming majority of Turks believe that the so-called Gulenists, under Gulen’s leadership, attempted the coup. It should not be forgotten that the Gulenist coup plotters opened fire against civilians, plotted to kill and capture the political leadership, and attacked the government buildings including Parliament. The unprecedented gall of a network of military officers to strike at Turkish democracy in such a callous manner was a national shock.

Nor should Obama and Biden allow themselves to be swayed by the bias of the American media, which has been largely anti-Erdogan since the crackdown began. Many western media outlets presented the post-July 15 purge of the Gulenist networks as yet another example of Erdogan’s attempt to suppress his political opponents. This line of argument largely ignored the emergence of a broad and unified anti-coup coalition in Turkish polity and society against the Gulenist plotters. The Obama administration also needs to avoid seeing this struggle through the narrow lens of a fight between Erdogan and his political opponents.

A significant U.S. concern has been about the status of the Incirlik military base and whether anti-Islamic State operations might be affected by U.S.-Turkish tensions. There is no question ISIL is a serious national security threat for Turkey—witness the suicide bombing at a Kurdish wedding last weekend—and the country will continue to participate in the anti-ISIL coalition. Still, the American focus on Incirlik in the wake of a coup attempt of historic proportions in Turkey comes across as tone deaf, to say the least.

Biden needed to deliver a strong message to alleviate Turkish suspicions that the U.S. is not taking the failed coup attempt seriously—and he needed to promise that the administration will support the Gulen extradition now under review by a U.S. court. That would go a long way. Still, with only six months left for the Obama administration, Biden also needed to leave his hosts reassured about the U.S. desire for continuity. The next U.S. president, whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, will also have to move away from the Obama administration’s tendency to reduce its relations with Turkey to little more than the fight against ISIL.

The new administration must also accept that Turkey considers the Gulen organization as an existential threat and it should take a decisive stance in support of its NATO ally. Failing to do so, in the current atmosphere of suspicion, would be a disaster in U.S.-Turkey relations.

Kadir Ustun is executive director of the Washington, DC office of the SETA Foundation, a think tank based in Ankara.

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