Biden’s Public Backing for Erdogan to Mask Stern Private Message

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US Vice President Joe Biden gestures next to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after a meeting in Istanbul in January 2016.

Photographer: Sedat Suna/AFP via Getty Images
  • U.S. ties to NATO ally strained by Gulen extradition demand
  • ‘All foreign policy is personal’ to Biden, top adviser says

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will find himself in a familiar role when he flies to Turkey this week, offering President Recep Tayyip Erdogan effusive support in public while delivering a tougher message behind closed doors.

It’s a part Biden has played before with Erdogan and world leaders from Beijing to Baghdad, coupling his ebullient personality with the clout of his standing as President Barack Obama’s closest surrogate.

This time, though, “Biden has a very difficult trip ahead of him,” said Bulent Aliriza, the director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

As the highest-level Western leader to visit Turkey since an attempted coup in July was quickly crushed, Biden will confer support that Erdogan craves. But the vice president also is expected to leverage his relationship with Erdogan -- whom he calls “an old friend” -- to urge restraint in a crackdown on dissent that has resulted in the arrest of more than 17,000 people and the holding of about 6,000 others.

The Obama administration is trying to shore up ties with Turkey, a key NATO ally, that haven’t been this strained since the start of the Iraq war in 2003. Erdogan has demanded that the U.S. extradite Fethullah Gulen, an ally-turned-enemy who the Turkish leader says orchestrated July’s coup from his home in rural Pennsylvania.

‘Overshadowing’ Partnership

Erdogan said in televised comments on Sunday that the extradition issue is “overshadowing our strategic partnership.” A day earlier, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the issue is “destroying” Turkish-American relationships.

Some Turkish officials have even asserted that the U.S. conspired in the revolt. Biden will attempt to tamp down those rumors, which administration officials have described as malarkey, to borrow one of the vice president’s favorite expressions.

Biden will also reaffirm U.S. support for Turkey’s fight against terrorists, especially after the latest suicide attack on Saturday that killed at least 51 people and wounded almost 70 others at a Kurdish wedding party. It was the deadliest attack in Turkey this year.

For a QuickTake explaining Turkey’s power struggles, click here.

Looming in the background are questions about Turkey’s commitment to the fight against Islamic State jihadists in neighboring Syria, and Erdogan’s recent efforts to patch up differences with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“It’s like a couple having a marital tiff -- these two countries have been allies for 60 years, and this is one of the most serious ones they’ve had -- and they’re talking past each other,” Aliriza said of U.S.-Turkish relations.

‘Policy Is Personal’

Biden will arrive in Ankara on Wednesday after a stop in Latvia on Tuesday. In Riga, he plans to meet with leaders of the Baltic states, which live in Russia’s shadow, to assure them that the U.S. stands by NATO’s doctrine of collective defense. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has questioned the longstanding pledge to treat an attack on one ally as an attack on all.

Biden’s aides say he’s long cultivated the relationships needed for such sensitive moments in international diplomacy.

“The vice president’s view of foreign policy in general is all foreign policy is personal,” Colin Kahl, Biden’s national security adviser, said in an interview. “And that your ability to convey both reassuring messages and tough messages are improved by the degree to which the other guy or woman knows you and trusts you.”

In April, Biden made an eight-hour visit to Iraq to project U.S. support for embattled Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi while also delivering a stern message that Iraqis must set aside their sectarian differences to focus on fighting Islamic State and rebuilding their government. In 2013, Biden went to Beijing to deliver in person the administration’s message that Obama was displeased with China for settling up an air defense identification zone over part of the East China Sea disputed with Japan.

Through the almost eight years of the Obama administration, Biden has been the president’s go-between with Erdogan, who was Turkey’s prime minister for more than a decade before becoming president in 2014. The vice president’s blunt comments have sometimes provoked Erdogan more than they’ve reassured him.

In 2014, Biden told an audience at Harvard University that Erdogan admitted his government had let too many foreign fighters pass through Turkey into Syria. Erdogan demanded -- and got -- an apology. When Biden visited Turkey in January of this year, he again rankled the Turkish leader when he met with civil society groups and called on the country to protect freedom of expression.

Kerry’s Comments

Biden has some fence-mending to do this time as well, not for his own comments but for those of Secretary of State John Kerry, whose initial response to the aborted coup angered Turkish officials. Asked about the revolt as it unfolded while he was visiting Moscow, Kerry urged “stability and peace and continuity” but made no mention of Erdogan.

The State Department has said the facts were unclear at first and that Kerry’s unequivocal statement of support for Erdogan, which came soon after, was a clear sign of U.S. backing. But Turkey was also irked by comments three days after the coup attempt in which Kerry suggested its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization could be threatened. Kerry said NATO “has a requirement with respect to democracy, and NATO will indeed measure very carefully what is happening.”

Biden’s task may be most complicated by Turkey’s demand for the extradition of Gulen, a Turkish cleric who’s in self-imposed exile in the U.S. State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau has said extradition is a process that can last months or years, requiring that a judge sign off on evidence presented by the Justice Department.

An Obama administration official told reporters last week that Turkey hasn’t yet provided formal evidence to the Justice Department that Gulen personally was involved in the coup attempt. A U.S. team will be sent to Turkey in coming days to pursue allegations of criminal activity.

For a QuickTake Q&A on the Gulen extradition request, click here.

Erdogan’s focus on gaining custody of Gulen may make Biden’s efforts to patch up relations fruitless in the end, said Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

“I don’t know whether that’s going to get through at this point, because Biden isn’t delivering Fethullah Gulen on his plane,” Cook said. “No good is going to come out of the visit unless there’s some big thing we can hand the Turks, and right now I can’t think of it.”

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