The US Midterm Elections and US-Turkish Relations


(Hürriyet Daily News and Economic Review)

by F. Stephen Larrabee

November 23, 2010

In the last several weeks, the Turkish press has been filled with articles seeking to assess the implications of the U.S. midterm elections, especially for U.S.-Turkish relations. Many Turkish commentators see a badly weakened President Barack Obama losing control of foreign policy. Some commentators have written off Obama as a lame duck and advised the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan government to begin reconsidering relations with the Obama administration in the post-election period.

The political implications of the elections, however, are not as clear-cut or negative as many Turkish commentators and pundits suggest. The elections were a major victory for the Republicans. They gained over 60 seats in the House of Representatives, giving them control of the House. The Democrats retained control of the Senate. But the Republicans picked up six seats, reducing the Democrats' room to maneuver.

However, foreign policy played virtually no role in the election. The U.S. economy and domestic policies were the main concern of the voters and will likely also be the focus of newly elected Republicans: reversing recent health care policy changes and extending current tax rates. These are the political battles that loom large over the U.S. Congress, not foreign policy.

The tea party movement, which provided much of the energy for the Republican victory, espouses no clear foreign policy ideology. Some, like Senator-elect Rand Paul of Kentucky, are isolationists, while others, like Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, are strong internationalists. What appears to unite them is a strong desire to reduce government spending and the size of the U.S. deficit. It is thus hard to predict what impact they will have on foreign policy.

Another key point is that the Republicans may find it challenging to establish and maintain party unity. The party has emerged from the midterm elections strengthened politically but more sharply divided ideologically.

Finally, it would be premature to write off President Obama as a lame duck president. Obama has clearly been dealt a serious political blow. But other U.S. presidents have recovered from mid-term losses. Bill Clinton suffered a resounding defeat in the midterm Congressional elections in 1994, when the Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, took control of the House and an impasse between Congress and the president led to a shutdown of the government. But Clinton changed his political strategy and went on to win a second term. Obama could, too, if he draws the proper lessons from his defeat.

A lot will depend on the state of the U.S. economy. The downturn in the economy, especially the high unemployment rate (9.6 percent), appears to be the source of much of the popular discontent and pent-up frustration that fueled the strong showing by the Republicans in the midterm elections. If the economy begins to pick up and there is a drop in the unemployment rate, this could give Obama a boost and increase his prospects for re-election. Hence in the coming months, Obama's main priority is likely to be domestic policy—especially the economy. That's where his political future will likely be decided.

The Republicans may advocate a more muscular foreign policy—former presidential candidate John McCain is calling for Obama to press for regime change in Iran—but a serious conflict with Iran is not likely to have strong appeal with voters concerned first and foremost with their jobs or the possibility of losing their homes.

From the Turkish perspective, an important issue is the impact of the midterm elections on the Armenian genocide resolution. Traditionally, Republicans have opposed the resolution because of the negative impact its passage would have on relations with Turkey. But many congressional Republicans have been angered by Turkish opposition to the imposition of U.N. sanctions against Iran and by Erdoğan's strident criticism of Israel. Thus Turkey cannot count on the same level of strong support from the Republicans as it could in the past.

Turkey's approach to missile defense will be important in this regard. Missile defense is an important priority for many Republicans. Turkey's reluctance to support missile defense could anger many Republicans and make them more willing to support the Armenian genocide resolution. Thus a lot is riding on the approach Turkey adopts to missile defense.

F. Stephen Larrabee, author of "Troubled Partnership: U.S.-Turkish Relations in an Era of Global Geopolitical Change," holds the distinguished chair in European Security at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making.

This commentary originally appeared in Hürriyet Daily News and Economic Review on November 23, 2010. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.