The former vice-president and Democratic nominee for the White House has sparked controversy over comments made earlier this year calling for the overthrow of the Turkish government.
The extent of liberal hope in Joe Biden’s candidacy for the White House can barely be contained after four years of the Trump administration.
Democrats see Biden as a return to a sense of ‘normality’ and the ‘known’ disrupted by incumbent US President Donald Trump’s maverick domestic and foreign policy.
Much light has been made of Trump’s self-description as a ‘stable genius’ and the designation has been adopted ironically by his detractors.
In the manichaean narrative constructed by the Democrats, Biden serves to contrast these qualities assigned to Trump; stable versus unstable, known versus unknown, moral versus immoral.
But just how much stability and return to order Biden can bring to the White House, should he be elected to the highest office in November, is a matter of debate. And one in which the more that is known about his history, the less certain one can be that he will.
For all his pretences of stability, the pretender to the White House throne could prove to be a wild card.
An eight month-old New York Times interview with Biden recently came to light in which the top Democrat called for US interference to oust the democratically elected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The former vice-president called for US support for opposition parties within Turkey to overthrow the leader of the Turkish Republic. "He has to pay a price," Biden said.
The comments mark an unprecedented intervention by a former vice president in the workings of a sovereign state and one that would irrevocably tarnish US-Turkish relations, as well as undermine shared institutions, such as NATO.
The comments also beg the question of how the US would respond if hypothetically the possible future president of a key ally state said that he would seek to oust whoever the US president happened to be.
Eight months later, Turkish officials and leading politicians, including members of the opposition, have emphatically condemned this clear incitement against the will of the Turkish people.
Fahrettin Altun, the communication director for the presidency of the Republic of Turkey, responded: “US Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s remarks (made in December but reported by the media today) reflect the games being played over Turkey and their interventionist attitudes. These remarks are not in line with democracy and the nature of Turkish-American relations.”
The Harvard incident
Much has been made in the US media about Biden’s gaffes on the campaign trail and narrating of sometimes long-winded anecdotes that have had audiences confused, but the history stretches back way further, including during his time in office as part of the Obama administration.
A notable episode in this regard, was one that involved Turkey and after which Biden was forced to make a humbling apology.
In 2014 at a speech at Harvard University- without a shred of evidence - the then vice-president of the United States, accused the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of allowing fighters into Syria who would later go on to establish the Daesh terrorist organisation.
President Erdogan immediately threw cold water over the baseless accusation and the acquiescence from Biden was immediate.
The New York Times reports the vice president’s spokeswoman, Kendra Barkoff, as saying: “The vice president apologized for any implication that Turkey or other allies and partners in the region had intentionally supplied or facilitated the growth of ISIL or other violent extremists in Syria.”
She went on to add that the US “greatly values” the efforts made by its allies to combat the scourge of Daesh, singling out the efforts made by Turkey to fight the terrorist group, which once ruled territory in Syria and Iraq that was larger than the UK.
Aftermath of FETO putsch
Any lessons from the episode were, however, short lived as evidenced within just two years with the attempt by members of the Fetullah Terrorist Organisation, known as FETO, to take over the Turkish state in a failed coup attempt.
The mastermind of the failed attempt to overthrow the government was the US-based fugitive preacher Fetullah Gulen, who the US has refused to handover despite clear evidence implicating his role.
Faced with criticism over the refusal to cooperate with Turkish authorities over Gulen’s extradition, the White House tasked Biden with the task of repairing relations with Ankara.
Despite Gulen’s presence on US soil, Biden’s first act was to deny that the US had any foreknowledge of the FETO plot.
Speaking on his visit to Turkey in August 2016, Biden agreed that those responsible for the coup attempt were terrorists and that the US had no interest in harbouring those responsible for it.
“We have no reason to shelter someone who would attack an ally and try to overthrow a democracy.” Biden said.
Time has proven the hollowness of such utterances, however, as four years later and despite the mountain of evidence Turkey has made available proving Gulen’s role, the terrorist leader remains free to continue preaching from his Pennsylvania compound.
Supporting the PKK-YPG
The hollow words regarding FETO were not the only ones spoken by Biden during that visit.
Under the Obama administration, the Syrian wing of the PKK terrorist group (YPG) became the darling of Washington defence circles. This despite Washington’s own designation of the PKK as a terrorist organisation
The consequent arming of the terrorist group by the US, ostensibly to fight Daesh, allowed the terrorists to establish a terror corridor along Turkey’s southern flank bordering Syria.
Biden urged YPG/PKK fighters to pull back from Manbij or risk losing US support.
The terrorists ignored the request and US support continued anyway.
PKK terrorists carried out a string of mass casualty atrocities against Turkish citizens during this period including the suicide bombing of the Besiktas football stadium in Istanbul that killed 47 people including police officers and civilians in December 2016.
Even after leaving power, there is no sign of Biden’s indifference or bad intent towards Turkey changing, as evidenced firstly by his opposition to Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring in 2019 against PKK/YPG terrorists.
The former vice-president went as far as calling Turkey the “real problem” at a debate featuring Democratic hopefuls for America’s top job.
Any hope that his comments were in the heat of the moment were also short lived as he buckled down on his anti-Turkish stance in the interview with the New York Times in December calling for the removal of President Erdogan.
Further, Biden conflates the idea of Kurds with that of the PKK, making them synonymous, whereas most Kurds in Turkey reject any association with the terrorist group, and are most often victims of the group, rather than its supporters.
Grave economic consequences
Biden’s haranguing of Turkey comes at a time of economic volatility for the American people, with the prospect of a sustained economic depression more likely than at any point in the last century.
With around $24 billion in trade a year between the states, antagonising relations with a key ally with a relationship dating back nearly a century could risk commercial relationships and add further burden on the US taxpayer who must deal with the task of trying to compensate for job losses and economic hardship.
If Biden is to win the 2020 US presidential election, as polls show he is currently on track to do, he must engage with Turkey on the basis of mutual recognition of sovereignty and respect for the choices of their electorates.
That means accepting that Turkey will do whatever it takes to protect its citizens from terrorist threats and it also means accepting that the Turkish people alone have the right to choose their leaders, not officials in Washington.