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Is anyone happier about Menendez's demise than Erdogan?

Is anyone happier about Menendez's demise than Erdogan?

The shrewd Turkish president thinks he may get his F-16s after all.

Europe

Senator Bob Menendez’s indictment on federal corruption charges has rocked congressional politics and sent shockwaves through the foreign policy establishment.

The New Jersey Democrat was, until recently, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a powerful role that has enabled the New Jersey Senator to wield outsized influence over a wide array of pressing foreign policy issues.

Menendez has been a leading voice of congressional opposition to the pending U.S. sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey. There is “nothing new,” he said earlier this summer, reiterating his concerns over Turkey’s hold on ratifying Sweden’s NATO membership, Ankara’s human rights record, and its hostilities with fellow NATO member Greece.

"How does it work for us to have one NATO ally be belligerent to another and someone sell them F-16s?" he said. Menendez has remained steadfastly opposed to the F-16 deal even after President Joe Biden, to whom the senator has been an important even if occasionally eristic ally, signaled his readiness to move ahead with the transfer.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made no attempt to conceal his pleasure over Menendez’s ongoing political implosion. “One of our most important problems regarding the F-16s were the activities of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez against our country,” he said. “Menendez’s exit gives us an advantage but the F-16 issue is not an issue that depends only on Menendez.”

Ankara has tried to exploit the issue of Sweden’s NATO accession — which must be explicitly approved by every NATO member state before it can be formalized — as a source of leverage on the F-16 deal. Meanwhile, Menendez has insisted that Sweden’s NATO membership is something that “should naturally occur” and not an object of barter between Erdogan and the West.

“I’ve always said that the ratification of Sweden, which should naturally occur, is not the sine qua non of why I would lift the hold on F-16s,” Menendez said. “There’s bigger issues than just that alone.”

Menendez is accused of using his considerable influence over U.S. foreign policy to benefit the Egyptian government. The allegations have already spurred calls, endorsed by Menendez’s fellow top Senate Democrat Chris Murphy, to dial back U.S. aid to Egypt.

"I would hope that our committee would consider using any ability it has to put a pause on those dollars, pending an inquiry into what Egypt was doing," Murphy said. "I have not talked to colleagues about this yet, but obviously this raises pretty serious questions about Egypt, Egypt's conduct.”

Questions of Egyptian involvement have rightfully received overwhelming public attention given the contents of the corruption charges leveled at Menendez, but there are other factors to consider. Though relations between Ankara and Cairo have been fraught since the 2013 ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, with the two sides only recently restoring full-fledged diplomatic ties, Menendez’s signaling against Turkey might be better explained by concerns closer to home.

The senator’s home state boasts sizeable diaspora communities from Greece and Armenia, countries that have long been on a hostile footing with Erdogan’s Turkey. Menendez has emerged as a forceful voice in support of Armenia, urging recognition of the 1915-1917 genocide of Armenians in the former Ottoman Empire and pushing for sanctions against Azerbaijan, Turkey’s close ally, over allegations of human rights abuses against ethnic Armenians in the Azerbaijani enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Asked by Reuters in July 2023 about the conditions for lifting his ongoing hold on the F-16 transfer to Turkey, Menendez said, “If they [the Biden administration) can find a way to ensure that Turkey's aggression against its neighbors ceases, which there has been a lull the last several months, that's great but there has to be a permanent reality."

As noted by Erdogan himself, Menendez’s downfall does not necessarily guarantee the immediate passage of the F-16 deal long sought by Ankara. Indeed, there appears to be an emerging consensus in Congress around Menendez’s position that Turkey must approve Sweden’s NATO bid without preconditions for the F-16 negotiations to progress.

“I’m reading the tea leaves, and he was one of the four that was still kind of holding out, so I think it’s more likely it’s going to be approved — but Sweden’s got to be admitted to NATO,” said representative Mike McCaul (R-TX). “We’re saying we’re not going to consider this if you’re going to play hardball against Sweden.”

It is clear that Menendez’s standing as a key congressional voice on foreign policy issues will be degraded whether or not he manages to weather this latest corruption scandal. His potential resignation from the senate would altogether remove one of the principal obstacles to the fighter jet deal.

But Erdogan and his allies have reasons to rejoice beyond the F-16 issue; Menendez’s plight will weaken the U.S. Armenian lobby, curb congressional opposition to the Aliyev government amid rising fears of “ethnic cleansing” in Nagorno-Karabakh, and dampen congressional voices urging the White House to take a tougher line on Ankara.

Outside of Eurasia, the Menendez indictment is not without possible implications on this side of the Atlantic. The New Jersey senator has been a principled opponent of steps toward rapprochement with Cuba, particularly including efforts to roll back parts of the U.S. embargo on Cuba. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee shakeup opens the door for a rekindling of diplomatic dialogue between the White House and Cuba, promised by Joe Biden during the 2020 presidential campaign, but it remains to be seen if the White House will seize this opportunity.

A program of engagement with Cuba has support from segments of the left, with New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) denouncing the embargo as “absurdly cruel,” but could prompt a backlash from parts of the Cuban American community and will draw charges from some Republicans that the administration is soft on Havana.

Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Sean Carnes); Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Shutterstock/murathakanart)
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