[NEWS ANALYSIS] A Republican victory may widen rifts between Turkey, US

November 02, 2010, Tuesday/ 17:20:00
A probable Republican win in today's US congressional elections is likely to have a significant impact on communication between Ankara and Washington since key players taking a role in determining US Congress' approach towards Turkey and maintaining certain balances between the two capitals will change with such elections results.

Republican dominance in the House of Representatives along with the Democrat administration in the White House will weaken coordination between the government and the legislation in the field of foreign policy. For instance, if the Obama administration wants to block any congressional move against Turkey, it will have to persuade opposition party lawmakers. Turkey's vote against further UN sanctions on Iran and the deterioration in Turkish-Israeli ties have already raised questions in US Congress on the future of ties with Ankara. Last month, the US called on Turkey to back NATO's proposed missile defense system and took steps to counter growing resistance in US Congress to any future sale of drone aircraft. The atmosphere in Congress, which is not favorable for Turkey, is not likely to change for the better after the elections, since members in the new Congress will prioritize the concerns of Armenian-Americans and Greek-Americans when shaping their policies.

Turkey's vote against Iran sanctions and the crisis with Israel have already raised questions in the US Congress on the future of ties with Ankara. The atmosphere is unlikely to change for the better, since members in the new Congress will prioritize concerns of Armenian-Americans and Greek-Americans

Officials in Ankara, in line with foreign policy traditions of the Turkish capital, have refrained from making any comment on the probable composition of US Congress after the elections and the results of this composition in the foreign policy arena. The Israel lobby -- which wields significant influence in both houses of Congress and was upset with Turkey's harsh rhetoric after Israel's deadly assault on a Gaza-bound flotilla -- is known to be influential among the more conservative wing of the Republican Party.

Additionally, the Republicans generally have an ideological line that is more nationalistic and a pro-war rhetoric that attaches little importance to concerns of international legitimacy when it comers to foreign policy issues. Republicans assume a more hawkish policy than Democrats towards Iran. Such hawkish policies are not in line with Ankara’s peaceful line, which constantly seeks consensus on ways to solve global disputes.

Pentagon and legislation

Republicans are also expected to be open to suggestions from the Pentagon as they generally pay heed to the Pentagon’s security concerns. The Pentagon, which attaches importance to military cooperation with Turkey and, thus, a relationship with the Turkish General Staff, may become one of the units with the highest capability of lobbying in favor of Turkey in Congress.

For the issue concerning the pending resolutions for denouncing and recognizing as a genocide the World War I-era killings of Anatolian Armenians by Ottoman forces, eyes in Turkey will have to be on the speaker, the majority group leader and the chair of the foreign affairs committee at the House of Representatives. A largely symbolic resolution on the Armenian claims was passed by a House committee in March, but amid protests from Ankara, the House Democratic leadership never brought it to the chamber’s floor for a vote.

Current Speaker Nancy Pelosi, democrat of California, which has a large Armenian community, is likely to be replaced by Ohio congressman John Boehner if republicans take the House. Unlike California, there is no significant Armenian electorate in Boehner’s election district. During a vote on a similar House committee resolution in autumn of 2007, Boehner had opposed the resolution on ground of national interests. At the time, Boehner had called the debate on the resolution a “debacle” by democratic leaders. “This entire situation calls their judgment into question,” said Boehner.

In previous periods of Republican control of the House of Representatives, party leaders had blocked attempts to pass resolutions recognizing the World-War I-era killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide.

Following the elections, republican Eric Cantor of Virginia is widely expected to become House majority leader in place of democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland. Hoyer is sympathetic to the Armenian Diaspora and is a member of the congressional Armenian caucus, while Cantor is a pro-Israel politician.

Howard Berman, a congressman from California who serves as the democratic chairman of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, will lose this post following the elections. Berman’s performance as the committee chairman during the March committee voting was subject to harsh criticism by Turkish leaders, who accused him of failing to display a professional stance for pressuring committee members to vote for the resolution.

Republican congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, who is poised to replace Berman, is a pragmatic politician who tries to get along with different lobbying groups. The maternal grandparents of Ros-Lehtinen, the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress, were Sephardic Jews from Turkey who had been active in Cuba’s Jewish community. In March she had voted against the Armenian resolution.

‘National interests argument’

The whole picture of the day after today’s elections show that politicians who support Armenian issues like activists will be less likely to be key players in the House as democrats from California will be eliminated. Nevertheless, if the US Congress want to hurt Turkey and dare to do so, the Armenian resolution can still be revitalized.

It is also still possible to have the “national interests argument” prevail in US Congress at a time when NATO ally Turkey is overseeing activities that decrease direct or indirect risks for US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For some time the US administration has been having some difficulty in persuading Congress to approve Turkish requests for weapons sales. Time will reveal the approaches of the committee members in the new Congress concerning the same issue. Having committees related to weapons sales chaired by republicans may lead to relief to a certain extent, as the Republican party is known to be close to the arms lobbies based in the United States. Yet, it wouldn’t be realistic to expect republicans -- who heed national security concerns -- to stay silent if Turkey continues to not be on the same page with some vital US policies; for example, if it eventually opposes the planned NATO missile defense system.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, is expected after the elections to intensify its efforts to put an end to the US Senate’s delay in confirming US President Barack Obama’s choice of ambassador to Turkey. In July, he nominated career diplomat Francis Ricciardone as ambassador to Turkey. Yet, Ricciardone’s long-awaited confirmation has been delayed since then.

In a bid to reach out to the US Congress, a delegation from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) had talks in Washington in June, while a bureaucratic delegation led by Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu also had talks in the Capitol Hill in late August. At the time, a group of US lawmakers warned Turkey that its ties with Washington would suffer if it continued on what they considered an anti-Israel path, with both some leading republicans and democrats denouncing NATO ally Turkey for supporting the convoy of aid ships that tried to run the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

The lawmakers also criticized Turkey’s opposition to the UN Security Council resolution extending punitive sanctions on Iran for its secretive nuclear program.

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