Making sense of America

To put it diplomatically, the Trump administration, from the day it took office, has been unusual. No less so the transfer of power, if we can call it that. Since the presidential election was called in Joe Biden’s favor, Trump and his cohorts have acted in ways more akin to a dictatorship, refusing to concede and shuffling around senior officials as if they are preparing for an entirely new term. Is Trump planning a coup or is this more smoke and mirrors? What is the endgame and what does it mean for Turkey?

Adnan R. Khan: The U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a visit to Turkey last week. It was, like everything this administration does, unusual. What do his actions tell us about the thinking of the outgoing administration?

Ilter Turan: A visit by an outgoing Secretary of State during a transition is not in itself unusual but under normal circumstances, it would be a visit to say goodbye to colleagues. The difference here is that Pompeo came as if he were still conducting major policy, which know will shift after Biden takes over. So the question is: What is he doing and why is he doing it? Pompeo came to Turkey, visited only the Greek Patriarchate and ignored the rules of diplomatic courtesy vis a vis the Turkish government. He said his tight schedule did not allow him to travel to Ankara to meet government officials but they could come to Istanbul and see him. The flight between Ankara and Istanbul is about 40 minutes, and he could have been helicoptered to any place to meet ministers or even the president, if he had the inclination to do so. It is clear that he avoided official contacts deliberately.

There are a number of possible motives for his actions, though they all remain speculative. The most persuasive explanation seems to be that Pompeo is thinking long term. He or possibly Mr. Trump may entertain aspirations to run for President in the 2024 elections and his current gestures meeting with the Patriarchate, visiting an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank – plays to a variety of lobbies in the U.S., including the Jewish lobby, the Greek lobby and fundamentalist Christians. He may be paying political debts or, more likely, accruing credits, which he would like to cash in four years from now either on behalf of Trump who is said to be considering running again or, alternatively, for his own benefit.

Adnan R. Khan: What does a Biden administration mean for Turkey?

Ilter Turan: Some observers have argued that the Biden administration is split into two camps when it comes to Turkey. Some of his advisors think that the administration should adopt a highly coercive attitude to “bring Turkey back in line” while others argue that a softer line of transactional relations – negotiating with Turkey, offering not only penalties but also rewards should be followed. Which one it will be is, of course, a big question mark. My personal expectation is that it will be the latter. When Biden comes into office, he will have his hands full with a long list of important problems. He wants to restore relations with allies, he wants to improve America’s leading role as a guardian of the international system. Already, these are big challenges. The last thing Biden would want is highly problematical relations with Turkey.

Adnan R. Khan: Many of Turkey’s relationships are fraying – with NATO, with France, with Greece. Just last week, the Greek prime minister threatened to take Turkey to the International Criminal Court at The Hague. How can a new U.S. administration ease those tensions?

Ilter Turan: If the U.S. makes a comeback to NATO, obviously it will reduce the clout other countries have acquired in the alliance. France in particular is not an admirer of NATO. Macron announced that NATO had already experienced a “brain death”. So, I think within NATO, if the American leadership becomes stronger, there will be less attention paid to French viewpoints. Biden will try to persuade Turkey to introduce a number of changes in its policy while also pressuring Greece not to make things worse by engaging in inconsequential anti-Turkish activities, such as going to the international court.

Adnan R. Khan: It looks increasingly like this is not going to be a very clean and orderly transition. What sort of damage do you think the Trump administration could inflict on its way out?

Ilter Turan: Trump has already announced that he is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and possibly Iraq. If he does such things suddenly and without warning, other actors, including Turkey and NATO, could be caught off guard. A more pressing concern, in my opinion, is what bureaucrats might do during this uncontrolled policy chaos, like pouring in more material support to the YPG. We’ve seen this sort of thing before. A number of unpredictable things can happen that could seriously harm the international community and Turkey might get its share of unpleasant surprises.

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