Analyzing the figures to take part in the upcoming Joe Biden administration is highly important for Turkey since the U.S. issue is the most problematic field for its foreign policy today.
The leading problem in that field is the S-400 crisis, the U.S. has imposes sanctions on Turkey because it bought the Russian air defense system. The sanctions on the Turkish Defense Industry Presidency followed the exclusion of Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program although it was among the producers. The U.S. has seized eight jets that Turkey has already paid for. In addition, there are serious issues such as the PKK/YPG in Syria, the residence of Fethullah Gülen in the U.S. and the Halkbank case. U.S. elect-President Joe Biden will take office on Jan. 20, in the shadow of the Congressional raid and civilian coup allegations instigated by the outgoing President Donald Trump last week.
Biden says this will be the beginning of the process of rebuilding the “corporate state” that Trump damaged. This might cause some serious troubles for Turkey in the short run, for example, during the first half of 2021.
Inter-institutional or cross-leader?
Because like Trump, President Tayyip Erdoğan believed in relations between leaders rather than inter-institutional relations. It seems difficult for him to establish a similar relationship with Biden. Like other leaders, Biden will try to direct Erdoğan to relations between relevant offices. But Erdoğan will still want all the processes to go through him, possibly insisting on the micro-governance model. We recently witnessed an example of that in the case of a Turkish cargo ship search by EU ships off Libya. Since no instructions were received from Erdoğan for five hours, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar nor Vice President Fuat Oktay were not able to take initiative and the ship was searched.
So this issue will actually be the first problem that Erdogan will face in Biden’s administration. Erdoğan might inevitably have to transfer some power to his administration team.
Therefore, it’s worth examining name by name the key actors in the Biden administration in terms of their interest in Turkey and the region.
President Joseph Biden
Biden was elected senator in 1972, at the age of 29. He is one of the most senior figures in U.S. politics. He was born into a low-income migrant family with Irish and French roots. He is the second Catholic U.S. President after Kennedy. An unseen number of women have found a place in the administrative positions of his office. Kamala Harris, the daughter of a migrant Indian mother and a migrant Jamaican father, is to become the first female vice president; and she will be the first black U.S. vice president ever.
Biden was one of the four U.S. senators who signed the proposal that led to the U.S. military embargo on Turkey in 1975. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he visited Ankara in April 1980 and met not only with politicians but also with soldiers. He wanted to get the approval for Greece to return to the military wing of NATO from then-Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel but it was the leaders of the Sept 12, 1980 coup who gave that green light.
Biden was the vice president between 2009-2017 under Obama. In 2011, when Erdoğan had surgery and did not make any public appearances, Biden came to Turkey and visited him in his house in Istanbul to see him in person. He played a role in the shift in U.S. policy in Syria in 2013. He opposes Turkey’s moves in the eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus issues.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken
Blinken has played an increasingly key role in all Democratic Party administrations since the Clinton administration. He is the child of a Hungarian migrant family who lost its members during the Nazi Holocaust. He studied politics at Harvard, his thesis was on U.S.-Europe relations. In the Obama administration, he was a strategic planning team member of the president (2009-2010) and Vice President Biden’s National Security Advisor (2010-2013). During this period, he was involved in the political planning of the operation to kill Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
He is known as the architect of the Syria policy of the U.S. (2013). He was promoted to Deputy National Security Consultant in 2013 and Deputy Foreign Secretary in 2015 to serve until 2017. This was the period when Turkey-U.S. ties deteriorated because of the Syria issue. He defended the policy of arming the YPG against ISIL and increasing support to Turkey in its fight against the PKK outside Syria. He first condemned the 15 July 2016 military coup attempt, and then the mass arrests and dismissals that followed. He also opposed the oppression of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. He supported the Israel policy of the Trump administration, saying that “The F-35s should be given only to Israel in that region.” He opposes Erdoğan’s two-state solution proposal in Cyprus.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin
A retired general. He was one of the division commanders during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He was the commander of the American troops in Afghanistan between 2003 and 2005, working with Turkish soldiers. In 2010, he took command of the U.S. troops in Iraq from Ray Odierno (whom we know from the 2003 Hood Event).
In 2013, he was appointed as the head of the Central Command (CENTCOM), which is the U.S. mandate covering North Africa, the Middle East and South West Asia, namely the Muslim geography. The birth of ISIL in 2013, the seizure of Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq in 2014, the siege of Kobani the same year, the split of Erdoğan with Obama, and training and equipping of the PKK/YPG as the ground force against ISIL took place during his tenure.
In short, the next U.S. Secretary of Defence Austin was the practitioner of the U.S. policy in Syria planned by the next U.S. Secretary of State Blinken, a policy that caught Ankara on the wrong foot.
Middle East and North Africa representative Brett McGurk
He was a diplomat who worked with all the last three İU.S. administrations, in the Bush, Obama and Trump eras. He will be one of the rare bureaucrats working under Biden and four ministers.
McGurk doesn’t love Ankara and Ankara does not love him back. He is seen as the patron of the PKK/YPG. He was appointed the coordinator of the fight against ISIL during the Obama administration in 2015 anr remained at his seat until being forced to resign in 2019 during the Trump administration. In this period, he accused President Erdoğan of supporting Hamas and even protecting ISIL’s then-leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in 2019. Despite his negative reputation in Turkey, he is seen by the U.S. administration circles as an expert who finished ISIL, but could not escape Trump’s anger.
Kurds in Iraq and Syria welcomed his appointment with enthusiasm. On the other hand, McGurk’s job will no longer be limited to ISIL and Kurds. A large area From the Russian presence in Syria to Israel from the Palestinian issue and to Egypt or Libya where Turkey is showing presence will be under his responsibility. (This is why the name to replace newly retired Jim Jeffrey as the Syrian Special Representative is important.)
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan
Sullivan is another figure who has been in the security system of Democrats for a long time. Between 2008-2012, he was the right-hand of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as her political planning director. He was the National Security Advisor to then-Vice President Biden between 2012 and 2016.
He taught in universities after the Obama administration ended. His February 2018 article in Politico with former US Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman, “Turkey is out of control. Time for the US to Say so,” caused a reaction in Ankara.
It was the year that Trump shook the Turkish economy with consecutive Twitter strikes. The markets eased after the release of Pastor Brunson, whom Erdoğan implied that he wanted to swap with Fethullah Gülen, saying that “Give the pastor, take the pastor.” Sullivan will now be involved in Biden’s narrowest decision-making mechanism.
Harris’s Adviser Nancy McEldowney
Under the Biden administration, Nancy McEldowney will be the National Security Adviser to the Vice President, a seat previously occupied by Sullivan and Blinken. McEldowney is familiar figune to both Turkey and its region.
She was the undersecretary of the US Embassy in Ankara, which is the number two position at the mission, between 2005 and 2008. Before that, she held the same post in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, between 2001 and 2004. After her post in Turkey, she went to Bulgaria to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to Sofia in 2008 and 2009. So she worked for 10 consecutive years in the (Turkey-linked) southwest of Russia before being promoted to serve as the Deputy Undersecretary of the U.S. responsible for European affairs between 2009 and 2011. After working as the Vice President of the National Defense University from 2013 to 2015 and as the director of the U.S. Foreign Service Institute from 2015 to 2017, she retired during Trump’s term. McEldowney is also known for her close interest in human rights and democratization issues.
McEldowney will be the Europe-Middle East affairs arm of Vice President Harris, whom Biden thinks will be the most influential figure in his struggle with China.
CIA Director William Burns
Considered one of the most competent diplomats in the history of U.S. diplomacy, Burns was also named among Biden’s candidates for State Secretary. The main reason why Biden did not bring an intelligence professional or a soldier to the head of the CIA is that he wanted the secret service to be run by a calm president who believes in the institutional state as he wants to increase the function of the agency in the struggle against Russia and China. It turned out that Biden picked Burns over Michael Morell, a figure from inside the CIA, was due to the CIA efforts to cover up tortured interrogations. Burns’ appointment may also point to the restructuring of the CIA.
Burns does not have bad recognition in Turkey. He is rather considered to be balanced. Actually, the course of Turkey-U.S. relations getting bad coincides with Burns’ retirement from the Undersecretary of State post in 2014.
Burns is seen as the U.S. executive to cause the least trouble for Turkey when compared with the other key members of the Biden administration.