Edward G. Stafford: “Biden will have a tough time dealing with Erdogan’s Turkey”

Trump protected Erdogan from CAATSA sanctions in all the ways that a president can. Yet, it’s not because he likes Erdogan. Will Joe Biden do the same?
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Edward G. Stafford is a retired US career Foreign Service Officer who also served as a member of the Faculty at the Inter-American Defense College, where he taught civil-military and church-state relations. He holds a post-Graduate Diploma in International Security Studies from the Romanian National Defense College and an MS in Strategic Intelligence from the US National Defense Intelligence College. Stafford’s last post at the US State Department was as Counselor for Political-Military Affairs in Ankara, Turkey. 

Mehmet Yegin (MY): During the Trump administration many voiced criticisms of a weakened US State Department. How do you evaluate this and what do you expect from the Biden administration?

Edward G. Stafford (ES): The well was poisoned very early on even before Rex Tillerson was named Secretary of State under Trump. The White House relied on Steve Bannon and Steve Miller when it enacted the infamous, so-called “Muslim travel ban”. Mr. Bannon and Mr. Miller, who had no idea of how to craft anything to do with immigration, didn’t bother to consult with anybody at the State Department during this process and the State Department went out of its way to show that it would resist.

You can listen to this analysis on FeniksPod:

Then Rex Tillerson came on board. Tillerson was an incredibly effective chief executive officer of one of the largest corporations in the world, ExxonMobil. Nonetheless, that’s not the sort of training you need to work in a government bureaucracy in a country with a long tradition of representative democracy. Tillerson understood the need to persuade people working under him and therefore started to surround himself with career diplomats from the State Department. While they were brought there to advise him they were not on board with the president’s agenda. This really upset Trump over time and he eventually fired Tillerson via tweet.
Then came Mike Pompeo. His military experience gave him an understanding of the need to lead by pulling people along with him rather than trying to quash them. Since his arrival, he has tried to boost morale at the State Department and has been somewhat successful at it. The problem is that his personal agenda with regard to religious freedoms did not sit well with or was quite frankly unimportant to many people at the State Department.

Domestically, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Trump focused their energy on judicial appointments. Since these are lifetime appointments, the federal judiciary now bears the stamp of Donald Trump and it will for the next 30 years. That’s one of the reasons that there were so many acting officials throughout the State Department rather than actual appointments.

In general, it is going to be easier to get people approved by a republican majority senate. Democrats adopted an obstructionist point of view towards any Trump appointments, but the Republicans are not going to do that with Joe Biden. If Kamala Harris were to become president on the other hand, then Republicans would obstruct appointments since they simply don’t like her.

MY: Trump ordered a further withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan as a lame duck president. You worked in Iraq, what do you think about this?

ES: One of my tasks at the State Department on the Iraq desk was to plan how we were going to draw down US forces. Then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki considered any Sunni to be almost as bad as Saddam Hussein. This was at the core of the rise of ISIS, but the drawdown of US forces at that time also contributed. It didn’t cause it, but it helped it.

In contrast, the current Iraqi government is much more stable than it was in the past. Today’s political leadership in Iraq recognizes that they have to pull the country together. Therefore, Trump’s decision to pull troops from Iraq is not going to have a huge impact militarily. It will, however, have a psychological impact because it sends the message that the United States is pulling out. The current Iraqi government can deal with this. Besides, Iran will probably hesitate to cause problems in Iraq because they want Joe Biden to reengage in the JCPOA. The US withdrawal will also be poorly received by the Kurds, who have allied themselves with the US military. Again, I think they will be all right because the political leadership in Iraq is not so dominated by Iranian influence that it would become a branch of the Iranian government.

In terms of resistance to the Trump administration within the bureaucracy, people in the White House are alert to the fact that there are many military planners and advisors who don’t want to implement a withdrawal. Thus, the administration will be making sure that it gets done. But it will not be a total withdrawal, which means some personnel will be left behind. Under the Biden administration, there will not be a commitment of US personnel to Iraq in a unilateral way, rather they will cooperate with NATO partners to train, sustain, and equip the Iraqi military.

MY: During Pompeo’s last visit to Turkey, he skipped Turkey’s capital of Ankara and instead went to Istanbul to meet with Patriarch Bartholomew, leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Then in France he described Turkey’s recent foreign policy activities as “very aggressive” and said that “Europe and the US must work together” against them. What does this mean, and do you think they may expand to last-minute sanctions against Ankara?

ES: Trump protected Erdogan from CAATSA sanctions in all the ways that a president can. Yet, it’s not because he likes Erdogan. He cares about what can he get from Erdogan. It’s transactional for him, and he figured that Turkey was an important country. To illustrate, Trump ran his campaign on the idea of bringing all US troops home, then Erdogan steps forward and says —in the famous December 2018 phone call— that Turkey can take care of Syria so Trump can take all his troops home. To the surprise of John Bolton and others, Trump thought: okay that’s great, we’re leaving.

Will Trump allow sanctions to be imposed or will he just leave it as a problem for Biden to deal with? That depends. If Trump imposes sanctions on Turkey, Erdogan would be angry at Trump, but then on January 20th Trump would become the former president. That makes things easier for Joe Biden. He can start dialogue afresh and pursue a position whereby he offers help if Erdogan works with him. If Trump holds off on issuing the CAATSA sanctions, as soon as Biden is sworn in to office, people on Capitol Hill like Senator Menendez will start demanding that Biden impose sanctions. Besides, Biden will have a tough time dealing with Turkey simply because he positioned respect for human rights, freedom of press, assembly, and protest, and LGBT rights so high on his agenda.

I don’t think Erdogan has very many friends left. Putin is not a friend. He is more like a businessman. He is selling Turkey natural gas, making agreements with Turkey for pipelines, and building a very expensive nuclear power plant in the country. Most importantly, Putin is selling Turkey S-400 defense systems, which will never be able to integrate into NATO. They’re not like S-300s, they are radically different systems; and unless they’re integrated into the NATO network, they’re basically worthless.

MY: Turkey’s Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar has said that the S-400 issue could be solved, noting that their offer of a joint working group was still on the table. Do you think this is possible?

ES: Certainly not in the near-term, but maybe in the long run. Democratic members of the Senate pound their fists on the desk, demanding sanctions when they are opposition; but once the president is from their own party, they might start being really quiet. So, it could be that Hulusi Akar is getting some really good advice and is putting out feelers and hints that Turkey is open to conversations that would resolve the conflict. It’s almost like he’s putting out bait and waiting to see if you he gets any nibbles.

There are some people who have such animus towards Erdogan that they overlook the value of Turkey to US interests. Still, State Department professionals and people within the foreign policy community in Washington, DC and in academia understand Turkey’s importance given its geography and its population, which is one of the most well-educated populations in the greater Middle East. Turkey is also a dual periphery country of both the Middle East and Europe; it has a foot in both places, but it’s not in the center of either, which means that it is very affected by both geographies. Ultimately this begs the question: how can one have a positive relationship with Turkey given the presence of Erdogan?