Edward G. Stafford
Nov 09 2018

Turkey-U.S. relations: Trump strengthened in foreign affairs after U.S. mid-terms

How will the Democratic Party majority in the House of Representatives and increased Republican majority in the Senate following U.S. mid-term elections affect the United States’ relations with Turkey?

Firstly, bear in mind that the primary driver of U.S. foreign policy remains President Donald Trump. Thus, the “Put America First” rhetoric and policy along with his strongly personalised style of conducting foreign policy will not change. In addition, there are no indications that Trump will look for a new secretary of state or national security advisor, unlike rumours about a possible end of General James Mattis’ time as secretary of defence.

Secondly, it is the Senate, not the House, which plays a greater role in Congress in shaping and influencing U.S. foreign policy. Given that Trump’s support seems to have been crucial in increasing the Republican Senate majority, he will likely have an easier time convincing the Senate to move forward as he directs on most foreign relation matters, to include the appointment of ambassadors to important postings such as Ankara.

Thirdly, the House can make life difficult for Trump and his agenda by launching hearings or attempting to impeach him. Impeachment investigations would be a monumental waste of time with no chance of success - it is the Senate that must vote by two-thirds majority to remove a president impeached by the House – it has never happened in the past and the increased Republican majority makes it more unlikely now than over the past two years. House Democrats will have to decide whether to pursue a policy agenda with the president or attack him at every opportunity, to legislate or to investigate.  

What can we expect to see given the conditions listed above?

It likely will not be long before Trump puts out a tweet to counter statements by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that anger the American president. That said, Trump is getting most of what suits his personal agenda – Turkey’s release of American pastor Andrew Brunson and no public presentation of evidence of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s involvement in the planning of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder - as well as his foreign policy agenda – a reduction of Iranian oil imports.  His response if any to Erdoğan’s recent declaration of sanctions as imperialistic will be indicative of whether we are about to return to harsh tweets versus bellicose rhetoric.

Trump is likely to fill many senior U.S. government posts held in abeyance to avoid wasting Senate energy on non-judicial, and usually non-lifetime, appointments. A simple majority vote in the Senate is needed to confirm the appointees; the House does not vote on them. Among these will be ambassadorial appointments that would have resulted in extensive and time-consuming Senate hearings due to the difficult or complicated relations with the country in question, for example Turkey.

With a strengthened Republican majority in the Senate, and success in winning confirmation of the life-time appointment of two justices to the Supreme Court and 89 judges to the U.S. District and Courts of Appeals, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is likely to work with the White House in filling key ambassadorships regardless of the distraction from other business brought on by hearings and debate on the nominee’s fitness and competence.  

The eventual appointment of a new ambassador to Turkey will certainly spark contentious hearings, even with the removal of Brunson’s detention as a point of conflict between the two allies. Issues such as Turkey’s purchase Russian S-400 missiles, sales F-35 jets to Turkey, Fethullah Gülen’s extradition from the United States, Syria, the Syrian Kurds, and now Iran sanctions and oil exploration in Cypriot waters, etc. guarantee that the appointment of a new U.S. ambassador to Turkey will result in a long and tense confirmation process.  

The reduced Democratic Party minority cannot block the confirmation of a nominee, but it can force him or her to answer many questions, in part to highlight concerns with Erdoğan’s and Turkey’s actions and also to embarrass or at least make the White House uncomfortable about its conduct of relations with Turkey.

Trump will expect loyalty and support for his nominees from Republican Senators. The success of Democrat Joe Manchin, and failure of others, in defending his seat in a staunchly pro-Trump state after having voted to confirm the Trump nominee to the Supreme Court will not be lost on those from pro-Trump states. Yet the White House knows it cannot expect blind obedience – its call for a cease-fire in Yemen reflects its awareness that many senators are very uncomfortable with Saudi Arabia’s military operations there.  

Turkey can expect that certain senators will press the White House to confront Turkey about its proposed acquisition of Russian missiles as well as alleged links to jihadist Syrian rebel groups. There will be a few voices in the Senate, and many more in the House (to little effect), calling for Turkey to improve its respect for human rights, but like the White House, the criticism will be muted unless a U.S. citizen or U.S. national interests are threatened or harmed.  (Quiet efforts on behalf of Serkan Golge and three Turkish national employees of the U.S. diplomatic mission to Turkey will continue, but without the drama or leverage employed on behalf of Brunson.)

The addition of two Muslims to the House of Representatives will not have much direct impact on U.S.-Turkish relations. One woman, Rashida Tlaib, is of Palestinian heritage and we can expect her voice to be raised regarding U.S.-Israel relations. She, along with Ilhan Omar who was born in Somalia, will pursue a decidedly left-wing political agenda more than one driven by sympathies for overseas Muslims from other ethno-linguistic communities.  

Finally, Erdoğan could mis-read the election results as a wide and deep repudiation of Trump and his policies. That would be a mistake. America, like Turkey, remains almost equally divided between support for or opposition to its president.  America’s particular (and some would say peculiar) electoral system has strengthened Trump’s hand in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy - to think otherwise could lead to unnecessary and unwise miscalculations by foreign leaders dealing with him.