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The Tale of Two Bidens

By Nicholas Danforth

Friday, August 26, 2016

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Where previously Vice President Joe Biden has, intentionally or not, been the administration’s teller of harsh truths about Turkey, he showed up in Ankara yesterday eager to please his hosts. He expressed his admiration for the Turkish people, apologized for not coming sooner and announced that the United States would not support the geographic expansion of Kurdish-held territory in Turkey. While stressing that the legal aspects of Fetullah Gülen’s extradition were out of the administration’s control, he also emphasized that the administration would work within the confines of the law to support Turkey’s extradition request. At the same time, Biden declined to raise concerns about democracy or human rights that he had previously. He did not meet with representatives of any opposition parties, nor did he mention the prosecution of Kurdish lawmakers or the government’s ongoing post-coup purges.

While the United States has certainly shown its willingness to turn a blind eye to undemocratic behavior before—whether from Erdoğan, the Turkish military, or countless other governments around the world—both in the months before the coup and immediately after it administration officials voiced relatively high-profile concerns about the state of Turkey’s democracy.

Given the eagerness among many in Turkey to blame the coup on the United States, criticizing Turkey’s response would simply play into the government’s anti-American rhetoric.

So why didn’t they this time around? One possibility is simply that they read the Turkish mood and concluded criticism would be counterproductive. Given the trauma Turkey endured, as well as the widespread eagerness among many in Turkey to blame it on the United States, criticizing Turkey’s post-coup response would simply risk playing into the government’s anti-American rhetoric. Praising the heroism with which the Turkish people defended their democracy in the face of an armed effort to destroy it was, as BPC argued, both entirely appropriate and not inconsistent with raising serious concerns later on.

At the same time, it is worth asking whether political developments played a role as well. Shortly before Biden’s arrival, coalition forces provided air support as the Turkish army and Turkish backed rebels launched an operation to seize the border city of Jarablus from ISIS. Having struggled to maintain a difficult balancing act between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces, it is also possible that Washington wished to avoid any comments that might disrupt the delicate modus vivendi they seem to have achieved.

Indeed, both factors could have worked hand in hand to shape Biden’s message. While clearly focused on the fight against ISIS, the administration has likely concluded that democracy in Turkey, at least in the near future, is probably a lost cause. From this perspective, arranging for Biden to spend a few hours being conciliatory would seem a small price to pay for prolonging a stressful but strategically useful relationship.