Biden Neutral on Turkish Elections

Normal diplomacy with an abnormal ally.

POLITICO (“Biden backs ‘whoever wins’ in Turkish election“):

When he ran for president, Joe Biden called Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan an “autocrat” and said the U.S should support Erdogan’s opponents.

Now, with Erdoğan leading in a tight runoff race for the Turkish presidency, Biden and his aides are a chastened bunch. When they’re willing to comment at all, they insist they’re not picking sides.

This framing is silly. Presidential candidates are forced to take bold stands that sitting Presidents can not. He made the comments in December 2019 while trying to secure the Democratic nomination, so tough talk was necessary. As America’s Chief Diplomat, he obviously can’t openly root for a particular outcome—let alone when the country in question is a key, if frustrating, American ally.

“I just hope … whoever wins wins,” Biden said Sunday of the first-round vote in Turkey, a situation he subtly compared to his own 2020 election. “There’s enough problems in that part of the world right now.”

The Biden team’s awkward ambivalence reflects an uncomfortable reality. Yes, Erdoğan may be an illiberal ruler who has damaged his country’s democracy. But Turkey is also a strategically located NATO ally, and Russia’s war in Ukraine and ongoing strife in the Middle East means Washington can’t simply turn its back on the strongman.

Pressed on the topic during a briefing with journalists Monday, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby sounded stuck in neutral.

“We congratulate the Turkish people for expressing their desires at the ballot box in a peaceful way,” Kirby said. “The Turkish people get to decide what their government looks like.”

Again, I don’t know what else they’d say. I’m quite sure Biden privately prefers that Erdoğan go away. But that no longer seems particularly likely.

Neither Erdoğan nor top rival Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu won more than 50 percent of the vote Sunday, forcing them into a runoff on May 28.

Former U.S. officials and analysts who deal with Biden aides said they have stayed mum about their preferences in recent months. Some speculate that many administration officials would prefer to bid Erdoğan farewell because of his dismal track record on democracy and human rights.

That said, they’re realistic enough to know that Erdoğan, who has run Turkey for two decades and has tremendous control of the media there, is likely to win.

Kiliçdaroğlu underperformed expectations during the first round, giving Erdoğan momentum going into the runoff.

And this is just standard fare:

Some of the Biden administration’s caution about speaking out stems from the standard U.S. claim that Washington doesn’t interfere in foreign elections other than calling on them to be free, fair and non-violent.

But the administration also may want to avoid providing fuel for Erdoğan’s campaign. The Turkish leader is deft at using anti-Americanism to get votes; he accused the opposition of working with Washington. He also blasted U.S. Ambassador Jeff Flake for meeting with Kiliçdaroğlu.

Still, Charles Kupchan, a former senior National Security Council official, said the relationship between Washington and Ankara has somewhat improved.

After dragging his feet, the Turkish leader acquiesced on allowing Finland to join NATO and Swedish political figures are hopeful he will do the same for their country once he’s past the pressures of the election.

The United States, meanwhile, recently gave a green light to selling software to Turkey to help it upgrade its F-16 fighter jets.

Again, I don’t love this. Erdoğan is an autocrat who has moved Turkey decidedly in the wrong direction. But our leverage is rather modest. They’re a longstanding NATO member and there’s no practical way to kick them out of the Alliance. And we don’t want them turning to Russia for their weapons.

“I think the Biden administration will be pragmatic and work with Erdoğan to the degree possible, knowing that this is the Turkish government that they have,” Kupchan said.

But Turkey remains at odds with the United States on a number of fronts, including how to approach the lingering challenges in Syria, not to mention Russia.

Again, this is less than ideal. But it’s hardly unusual for allies to have conflicting interests.

Turkey and Russia have in some ways deepened their economic ties despite heavy Western sanctions on Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine. Still, Erdoğan also is an important interlocutor between the West and Russia, including on an initiative designed to allow for shipments of grain.

Soner Cagaptay, a historian who has authored multiple books on Turkey, said that with all of these factors in play, U.S. officials had to tread carefully through the first round, and that they’ll likely keep that up throughout the runoff.

“Washington’s policy was ‘do no harm,’ with the hope that perhaps Kiliçdaroğlu would win, but probably not,” Cagaptay said.


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Kemalist Turkey was our ally. The present Islamist Turkey? Not so much.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Dave Schuler: I think you’re right in a practical sense but, legally speaking, they’re an ally by virtue of the North Atlantic Treaty.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Can you name the top five countries reselling Russian oil to the EU? (China, India, Turkey, UAE, Singapore)

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    Turkey has location. Other NATO countries are more important economically, or in terms of their arms industry or their diplomatic sway, but no NATO country is more geographically important, not even our new friend, Finland.

    I’d be more concerned if Russia was still the big bad bear. The world may be more multipolar somewhere down the road, but right now there’s a superpower (us), and a wanna-be superpower (China), and a could-be superpower (the EU), and a washed-up relic with nukes. One can make an argument for aligning with China, but Russia?

    Until someone relocates Turkey to a less vital bit of property they can go right on playing us against the Russians, but it’s a case of diminishing returns for them.

  5. Lounsbury says:

    @Dave Schuler: the terms you use, Kemalist and Islamist really are not meaningful, they are superificial stereotypes in respect to what is happening in the past decade with Erdogan.

    Islamist – particularly as Americans understand the term – not applicably meaningtful to Erdogan in this context, who has emptied out the AKP since 2016 and really converted this into Clan Erdogan with literally familial clan dominance inside.

    To understand the Turkish situation it is not “Kemalist vs Islamist” but rather slide of Turkey into a personalised populist authoritarianism, corrupt and clan based, only wearing the AKP name as a kind of shroud.