The Real Reason Turkey Is Mad at Joe Biden
Former Vice President Joe Biden, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, speaks during a campaign event in Delaware, U.S. (Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg)

The Real Reason Turkey Is Mad at Joe Biden

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It’s easy to dismiss the recent Turkish uproar over a Joe Biden video as political theater. The video, from a conversation between the Democratic presidential candidate and the New York Times editorial board, is eight months old. In it, Biden describes Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan as an “autocrat” and suggests the U.S. should “embolden” his opponents to defeat him in elections.

Yet it was only over the weekend that the old video somehow floated to the top of Turkish headlines, prompting Ibrahim Kalin, the president’s communications director, to denounce Biden’s comments on Twitter as “based on pure ignorance, arrogance and hypocrisy.”

It beggars belief that the clip escaped the attention of Turkish politicians and media for so long. A cynic might instead connect the timing of the contretemps to American opinion polls showing Biden with a significant lead over President Donald Trump ahead of this week’s virtual Democratic Party convention in Milwaukee. A Turkish display of defiance — “You will pay the price,” fumed Kalin — was bound to to get attention.  

Although Ankara’s outrage feels stage-managed, its underlying concern is not misplaced. Turkey has reason to be anxious about prospects of a Biden victory on Nov. 3. Not only would that end the close relationship Erdogan has cultivated with Trump — his phone calls to the White House are reportedly put straight through to the American president — it would require him to deal with someone whose views are at odds with his own.

Caught in the same circumstances, many world leaders would downplay any differences of opinion and instead concentrate on causes they share with the leading presidential candidate. That is not Erdogan’s style. A month ahead of the 2016 Republican convention, he called for Istanbul’s Trump Towers to be renamed on account of the candidate’s Islamophobia.

The two leaders got over their mutual distrust, mainly because Trump’s positions on the issues Erdogan cares about — from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to Syria and Libya — are either complementary or easily malleable. That Trump regards himself as the Erdogan-whisperer, when all evidence points to the contrary, suits Ankara just fine. Biden, on the other hand, has firmly held views about Turkey and its neighborhood and will be harder to persuade.

Biden’s tendency to speak his mind on Turkey was an occasional irritant in Erdogan’s relations with President Barack Obama: In 2014, the vice president was obliged to issue an apology for suggesting that Erdogan had acknowledged his government’s mistake in letting terrorists pass through Turkey on their way to Syria and Iraq.

But it is the Democratic candidate’s longstanding sympathy for the Kurds, in Iraq and Syria, that will cause Ankara the greatest anxiety, should he become president.

As I have argued, Biden has many woolly and reckless ideas about the Middle East, but none is woollier than his 2006 proposal for the division of Iraq along sectarian and ethnic lines. In effect, this would have created a Kurdish nation on Turkey’s southeastern border — anathema for Ankara, which has hostile relations with its own Kurdish population. (An American president sympathetic to Kurdish nationalism would represent a serious headache not only for Turkey, but for all countries with Kurdish minorities, such as Iraq, Syria and Iran.)

On Syria, Biden has denounced Trump for betraying the Kurdish militias that helped the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State. Erdogan regards the militias in Syria as allies of Kurdish terrorists and separatists within Turkey and is determined to stamp them out. Trump has not been inclined to stand in his way.

But in his conversation with the NYT editors, Biden asserted he would have held firmer against the Turkish leader on this issue: “The last thing I would’ve done is yielded to him with regard to the Kurds. The absolute last thing.”

Biden said plenty more in that conversation that would have furrowed brows in Ankara. He criticized Turkey’s aggressive moves in the Eastern Mediterranean and its purchase of Russian missile-defense systems, and he expressed concern about American nuclear weapons in NATO’s Turkish airbases.

It was abundantly clear, long before last weekend, that a Biden White House would not give Erdogan’s phone calls the special treatment he has come to expect.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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