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Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research.
Joe Biden was selected as Barack Obama’s vice presidential candidate largely because of his expertise in foreign policy. Traditionally, in U.S. politics, Dick Cheney-like strong vice presidents are exception, not the rule.
It is wiser to focus on Obama’s foreign policy outlook rather than Biden’s, which would benefit Turkey in the long run with its realistic tendencies. Biden’s voting pattern, as it is displayed in three different issues (Cyprus-Armenian Issue-Iraq) does not seem friendly to the Turkish position. However, Biden as a statesman would not create extra problems for Turkey at the expense of U.S national interests. In all of these issues, the person that should be watched carefully is Obama, not Biden. Spending more energy to analyze Obama’s geopolitical priorities can benefit Turkey in the long run.
Presidential elections in the U.S. always draw attention from the world because of their potential to create new tensions, change balances and shift policies. Turkey is one of the countries that has been carefully observing the positions of presidential and vice-presidential candidates regarding contentious issues such as Armenian Genocide claims, the possible partition of Iraq, Cyprus, and broader issues related to the Balkans, the Black Sea, the Caucasus and the Middle East. With the emergence of Senator Barack Obama, a politician who identifies the events of 1915 as genocide and who advocates a phased withdrawal from Iraq, as the democratic presidential candidate, Turkey turns its focus to the potential vice-presidential candidates, hoping that the second powerful political figure would balance Obama’s policy preferences which have been perceived as against the Turkish position.
Nevertheless, Obama’s choice of the veteran Delaware senator Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. has disappointed Turkish politicians, policy makers and diplomats. Joseph Biden, whose Senate career spans thirty-five years, has become known for his pro-Armenian, pro-Greek ideas and voting record, and is also famous for his proposal of the “Biden Plan” – a plan that defends a soft-partition in Iraq. Turkey had crucial reserves about this plan and finds it unacceptable. Considering the political careers and positions of the democratic candidates, if the Obama-Biden ticket makes its way to the White House, how will this team affect Turkish-American relations? How should Turkey react to the positions the team holds?
Biden’s Career and Political Position
To begin with, it is almost a conventional wisdom that 2008 presidential elections will be a foreign policy election. Joe Biden, one of the 2008 presidential hopefuls just a couple of months ago, contributes to Obama’s career on this issue as a foreign policy expert. Biden completes some of Obama’s weaknesses with his private life and political career. As a Catholic, white politician, Biden’s seniority and his extensive knowledge on foreign policy issues makes him a vital catch for Obama. In his long career, Biden has generally followed the voting pattern of the George McGovern- Ted Kennedy wing of the Democratic Party, i.e. the liberal left. However, as a “cold-war liberal” who supported harsh policies against Soviets, Biden did not refrain from voting yes to military interventions whether it seemed humanitarian or not. This makes him a trusted politician in the eyes of the Washington insiders, or establishment; in fact, he is one of the standard-bearers of the establishment.
Another important issue that worries Turkish policy-makers is Biden’s consistent support for Armenian Genocide claims. Beginning in 1990, Biden actively supported almost all the pro-Armenian resolutions in the Senate. Those resolutions included aid to Armenia, political support for the invasion of Karabagh by the Armenians, opening the Turkish side of the Turkish-Armenian border, genocide claims, the appointment of ambassadors to Armenia, Hrant Dink’s assassination, article 301 etc. Even though Biden seemed pro-Armenian, however, he did not refrain from changing his positions and votes when he felt that the vote was against the national interests of the United States.
Biden supported the resolution that seeks the recognition of Armenian Genocide claims by the president in 1990. In 1992, he supported the Freedom Support Act that aimed to restrict U.S. Assistance to Azerbaijan. His voting pattern has followed this course throughout. In May 2006, when U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, John Evans, used the word ‘genocide’ to describe the events of 1915, in opposition to official U.S. policy, he was forced to resign. Biden was among the leading senators who wrote a very strong letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in favor of Evans, urging Rice to reconsider her policy. Senator Biden, at that time, argued that the final goal of the claims of genocide is not U.S recognition of genocide claims, but rather to make Turkey recognize the events of 1915 as genocide. In 2007, he opposed Richard Hoagland’s appointment to Yerevan to replace Evans as Ambassador. During the Senate hearings, Hoagland refused to use the word genocide to describe the events. Biden delayed the committee vote on Hoagland, but eventually voted in his favor. Again in 2007, Biden cosponsored the Armenian Genocide Resolution (S.Res.106) and authored a resolution to honor Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. Eventually, after the negotiations, Biden accepted the proper changes in the resolutions’ language to a degree that does not disturb the official Turkish position. Finally, in 2008, Biden urged the new appointment of Marie Yovanovitch as an Ambassador to replace Evans. Even though he questioned Yovanovitch’s position, and criticized her non-preference of the word genocide, he did not use his veto power to block the appointment. These voting patterns support the idea that Biden makes a clear distinction between his personal political position and the national interests of the U.S.
Joe Biden was selected as Barack Obama’s vice presidential candidate largely because of his expertise in foreign policy. His function is to balance Obama’s so-called inexperience in foreign policy. The logic behind the selection process does not aim to reshape U.S. foreign policy but rather to play out the internal political dynamics of the U.S. Therefore it is not realistic to exaggerate Biden’s potential influence on a possible Obama presidency.
Traditionally, in U.S. politics, Dick Cheney-like strong vice presidents are exception, not the rule. If elected, Biden will take responsibilities when it is seen as appropriate by Obama. The president makes the hardest decision on his own, even if this president is George W. Bush as it is seen in Annapolis process, engagement with Iran and Iraq strategy. Therefore, it is wiser to focus on Obama’s foreign policy outlook rather than Biden’s, which would benefit Turkey in the long run with its realistic tendencies.
In the U.S. public administration, the Vice President is not the person who makes the decisions on foreign policy issues. Following the President, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State and National Security Adviser have more power and authority in shaping the foreign policy. Even though Biden is a strong character with expertise in foreign policy, it will be virtually impossible for him to make those critical decisions by himself. It will be a better strategy to wait for the names of those who will fill out those mentioned positions and, in the meantime, to focus on Obama’s general positions. Those possible names should be carefully followed and their positions should be studied.
Biden’s voting pattern, as it is displayed in three different issues does not seem friendly to the Turkish position. However, the shifts and changes in Biden’s same voting pattern prove that rather than being a huge moralist or a humanist, Biden gives priority to national interests over his personal preferences. Biden as a statesman would not create extra problems for Turkey at the expense of U.S national interests.
When Biden started voting against the Turkish positions, Turkey’s human rights record was not in good shape. When Turkey’s human rights record began to improve, it is possible to detect a slight change in his voting behavior in favor of Turkey. For instance in the 2007 Hrant Dink/article 301 resolution, Biden mentioned Turkey’s reaction to the assassination as a positive step and showed appreciation for Prime Minister R. Tayyip Erdoğan’s words of condemning the assassination. Therefore, Turkey should keep its human rights record clean to avoid any further surprises.
Turkey has changed its official position on the issues of the events of 1915. Turkey’s proactive steps should carry these issues to a point where ethnic lobbies in Washington should be rendered almost ineffective. There are things to be done in Washington and in the U.S. on a social level, such as cultivating a politically united diasporic Turkish community that could encounter the negative effect of ethnic lobbies, but these efforts take very long time. Alongside with the lobbying efforts in Washington, which would be totally ineffective in a possible Obama presidency, in the short run, the solution should be sought in the new Caucasus Platform that Turkey has initiated. The crises in Caucasus may create a unique opportunity for Turkey. As Georgia is under occupation, U.S will urge to gain Armenia for the West; the only way to achieve this goal is to engage Armenia through Turkey. This opportunity would give leverage to Turkey on Armenia. If used effectively, the genocide resolutions issue could be solved forever by making an agreement with Armenia, with the help of U.S., in the interest of stable relations between Turkey and Armenia. Such a move would save Turkey from any further worry on this subject, and would allow Turkey to focus on other vital issues in Washington.
Biden’s oldest and most favorite subject, the Cyprus issue, is already frozen and far from creating urgent problems for Turkey after the Turkish Cypriot’s ‘yes’ vote to the Annan plan. The negotiations on September 3rd in the UN between the Greek and Turkish sides of Cyprus, may help the situation go in a better direction.
Rather than narrowly hiding behind pretexts and slogans such as “anti-Turkish Biden,” the new dynamics of the change in Washington should be carefully examined. Even though it seems that a potential Obama presidency would be against Turkey’s interests, Obama’s overall position in favor multi-lateralism, the primacy of international organizations, energy policies and diplomacy over unilateralism and the use of force would create wider opportunities and render ethnic lobbies useless, or at least less effective.