The remarks generated an uproar in Ankara. Erdogan’s communications director, Fahrettin Altun, said Biden’s comments “reflect the games being played over Turkey and their interventionist attitudes,” while Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for the Turkish leader, “The days of ordering around Turkey are over.”
Biden’s remarks were a godsend for the government at a time of declining votes and the rapid fall of the Turkish lira — reinforcing the narrative that Turkey is under constant attack by enemies who want to prevent its rise and topple Erdogan, and that the country’s economic woes are not self-made, but rather an assault from abroad.
Under pressure from the government for being backed by foreign powers, members of the opposition lined up to distance themselves from Biden’s comments. One told me on the phone: “If only Biden came to power, and if only he prioritized human rights.” Minutes later, he was on Twitter condemning the Democratic candidate.
Turkey has traditionally been a difficult but critical ally for Washington, yet successive U.S. administrations have struggled to find an elusive balance between preserving the relationship and promoting Western democratic norms in the country, all the while protecting U.S. interests. President Bill Clinton, for example, was wildly popular here, but during his term a human rights tsar was constantly shuttling across the country and an undeclared arms embargo was in place as a response to Ankara’s scorched-earth tactics in fighting the Kurdish insurgency.
This balancing act was made easier in the 1990s when Turkey lurched toward Europe — embracing reforms, improving its democracy and settling into a peace process with the Kurds. But the failed coup attempt of 2016 created an earthquake in the alliance, with many in Erdogan’s government suspecting that Washington had a hand in the failed putsch. Since then, Erdogan’s government has considered itself a lone wolf in a jungle, going for authoritarianism at home and a resurgent course abroad — all fueled by ambitions to become a global power in a new age.
To deal with a challenging ally and a mess of a relationship, President Trump took an accommodating approach, investing in a personal relationship with Erdogan. He greenlighted Turkish incursion into Syria against U.S.-backed Kurdish factions, gave Turkey a pass on its purchase of Russian air-defense missile system and helped ward off a New York lawsuit involving a Turkish state bank accused of busting Iran sanctions. More important, Trump has publicly and privately signaled that Washington would remain mum on the deteriorating human rights scene in Turkey.
Boasting of his relationship with Erdogan during a Fox News interview, Trump said this week, “The heads of countries last week they called me up, 'Could you call Erdogan? You’re the only one he’ll listen to. . . . I don’t like saying this publicly, but it happens to be true. I get along with him and he listens.”
It is true that the two leaders get along. But what is not clear is whether this helps U.S. or Turkish interests — or the plight of ordinary Turks for their democracy. Inside the Trump White House, “getting along” seems to be an end in itself, with little attention to what it means for Turkey’s evolution or for wider U.S. goals in the region.
What Washington really needs is balance between interests and values. A democratic Turkey anchored to the West is a better ally for Europe and the United States. Under President Barack Obama, there was an attempt to promote human rights and Turkey’s integration with Europe while keeping a close relationship with Erdogan — and Biden’s somewhat clumsy remarks suggest a return to that juggling act.
Erdogan doesn’t need to worry. If elected, Biden would also cultivate a relationship with the Turkish leader and even curry favors in an attempt to keep the country in the NATO fold. He may not be as accommodating as Trump, but there wouldn’t be a radical breakdown in the U.S. policy — Turkey is too big and too critical to U.S. strategic interests.
But a Biden administration would likely encourage the country’s return to democracy and rule of law — and that’s exactly what Turkey needs. During the final phase of the Obama administration, Biden was the designated Erdogan-whisperer. He often met with Turkey’s strongman but also made a point of meeting dissidents during visits to Turkey.
If elected, the Democratic nominee should strike a similar balance, keep Turkey as an ally and respect its electoral process, but remind its leader that there is a better, safer and more prosperous path ahead if he reversed his illiberal course.
After years of covering Turkish-U.S. relations, I know that no president will act like a representative of a human rights organization — and that’s fine. But that small mention on human rights matters hugely to us on the ground.
At the end of the day, striking that elusive balance would benefit everyone.