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Biden Warns Erdogan in a ‘Positive’ Way

Biden Warns Erdogan in a ‘Positive’ Way

Wednesday, 3 November, 2021 - 07:15
Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan finally got his meeting with Joe Biden last Sunday after the Americans had postponed it for several days. Erdogan said in September that he did not have good relations with Biden and the bilateral relationship between their countries was not healthy. Biden has not made talking to Erdogan a priority in the past, but a White House official said the October 31 talks were “constructive.” The Turkish Presidency stated that the meeting had a “very positive atmosphere.”

Perhaps Erdogan believes that just as with Donald Trump, his speaking with Biden personally will improve the bilateral relationship. That would be a mistake, however. Trump didn’t like the national security bureaucracy in Washington and in the last two years of his presidency he didn’t consult often with his foreign policy advisors. He refused to nominate a Defense Secretary after James Mattis resigned in 2019 to protest Trump’s policy in Syria.

Biden, by contrast, works very closely with his foreign policy team. If the Biden team has a weakness, it is that they have long experience working together and so they don’t find big new ideas outside their circle. But compared to Trump, President Biden consults with his advisors a lot.

Therefore, when Erdogan raised the issue of Turkey buying more F-16 warplanes, Biden’s answer was careful. There is a process step-by-step to follow, and American officials were careful not to promise a deal. The Departments of State and Defense must approve the sale of the warplanes and then the Congress also must approve it. And the two presidents’ meeting last Sunday didn’t dispel the clouds over the bilateral relationship.

From Washington’s viewpoint, the biggest cloud is the Turkish purchase of the S-400 air defense missiles from Russia. Washington has imposed serious sanctions against the Turkish Defense Industries Directorate and the company’s top officials. There is real anger in Washington that Turkey would risk the security of the huge, expensive F-35 fighter plane project. There is also shock that Turkey ignored many warnings from Washington.

There is little discussion or understanding in Washington about the reasons behind Erdogan’s decision. In the absence of understanding, many leaders in Washington presume that Erdogan is trying to use Russia as a tool to extract concessions from Washington and there is resentment towards Ankara which is supposed to be a military ally. In addition to this, repeated rhetorical threats from Turkey against Greece, as well as naval and aerial confrontations between Turkey and Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean have added to the perception that Erdogan is no longer a genuine NATO ally. Remember that there is a lobby in Washington that supports Greece.

Erdogan’s actions against domestic opponents hurt his government’s credibility in Washington where the predominant perception is that all NATO members should be democracies. Of course, historically NATO was not a club of democracies. The Turkish military several times overthrew civilian governments, most recently in 1980, and there was never a crisis with the Americans. The Greek military overthrew the elected government there in 1967 and ruled until 1974 without big American criticism. Hungary and Poland are becoming less democratic in recent years. But unlike Greece 50 years ago or Poland and Hungary now, Turkey has threatened other members of the North Atlantic alliance with military force, and thus, Erdogan’s style of governing is more open to criticism from other NATO members.

It was no surprise, therefore, that my old colleague Ambassador David Satterfield, now the American ambassador in Ankara, signed a draft letter written by Scandinavian officials urging Ankara to resolve the case of a jailed Turkish political opponent. Biden and Secretary of State Blinken emphasize human rights are an important element in their foreign policy. And if Satterfield hadn’t signed the letter, Biden’s critics in Washington, and the many critics of Turkey in the American capital would have politically exploited Satterfield’s refusal.

Satterfield’s signature on the letter almost caused a major crisis between Washington and Ankara. I cannot imagine Biden would have met Erdogan last Sunday if Erdogan had actually implemented his threat and expelled the American ambassador. Satterfield, a very experienced diplomat, found a compromise solution and so the crisis passed, allowing the meeting last week to proceed. But you could see Biden’s warning to Erdogan in the October 31 meeting: bilateral relations will suffer if Erdogan surprises the Americans again with Russian weapons or acts against American interests (for example, intervening in northeast Syria against the Syrian Democratic Forces) or on human rights.

The implicit Biden message was that if Erdogan undertakes hasty actions that provoke resentment in Washington again, Biden will not risk his political standing in Washington to defend Turkey’s F-16 request against opponents. And, of course, if that fighter sale collapses, we will see an even bigger crisis in the relations between Washington and Ankara.

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