What Biden said about nuclear weapons at İncirlik base and what he can do
The declaration of U.S. presidents, or presidential candidates, on nuclear weapons at the İncirlik Base have almost started to become a tradition.
Yes, especially presidents should not confirm the existence of these topics as the official policy of the United States and they should not talk about it. But the presidents do not hesitate expressing their opinions when American journalists ask questions.
Of course, it is not surprising at all that former President Donald Trump, who has a record of overturning established rules, became the first in taking such a step.
When Turkey kicked off its “Operation Peace Spring” in Syria in October 2019, Trump faced an unexpected question in the White House amid the shock the operation created in Washington.
The date was Oct. 16, 2019. A journalist, in front of all cameras, asked Trump the following question: “One of the things that has been exposed by this Turkey situation is that as many as 50 nuclear weapons are at İncirlik Air Base in Turkey. How confident are you of those weapons’ safety?”
“We’re confident,” Trump said, and continued: “We have a great air base there, a very powerful air base.”
Will something happen to nuclear weapons at İncirlik?
We need to briefly mention the point of view that dominated this question. Regarding the military operation Turkey embarked in the east of the Euphrates River, one of the topics of concern for the American side was the possibility of Turkish soldiers coming face to face with American soldiers in the field, who are supporting the elements of the YPG, the extension of the PKK terror group in Syria.
The possibility of clashes between Turkey and the U.S. led to the question of “Will something happen to the nuclear weapons at İncirlik” among the U.S. media and opinion leaders. The discussion even led to this question being asked to the president at the White House. It is clear that in the event of a possible major bilateral crisis, some circles in the U.S. point to the idea that in such a situation, Turkey may retaliate in the İncirlik base.
The striking point was that while Trump stated that no one should be worried about this, reminding that Turkey is a member of NATO, he said that “[the U.S.] should get along with NATO member countries.”
Views of American opinion leaders
Trump’s acknowledgment of the existence of nuclear weapons at the İncirlik base, on his answer to the question, became an important news topic in the U.S. media at that time.
However, during that period, we saw that the questioning of the safety of the U.S. nuclear weapons in Turkey was not limited to the media alone. In prestigious think tanks, such as “The Brookings Institution,” assessments similar to “It’s time to get U.S. nukes out of Turkey” were published.
In the meantime, it is possible to come across a report in the New York Times on Oct. 14, 2019, stating that the U.S.’s departments of state and energy were reviewing plans for the withdrawal of these nuclear weapons from İncirlik during that period of tension. According to the report, a senior official from the U.S. administration said that these weapons in Turkey perpetuate a “nuclear vulnerability.” These opinions had also spread among the Congress circles. During those dates, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democrat Senator Chris Can Hollen submitted a sanctions bill and requested the administration to prepare a report for Congress, on valid alternatives to the U.S. personnel and military existence at İncirlik Base. Even though Senate did not pass this bill, this initiative should be noted that such opinions exist in Congress.
Joe Biden expresses discomfort as well
Before his election, Democratic candidate Joe Biden, too, joined this group. Curiously enough, the same issue also came to the fore in a meeting on Dec. 16, 2019 with the delegation, who penned the editorials of the New York Times, before Biden announced his candidacy for the presidential election.
The way the matter was asked to Biden itself reflects a similar view on the issue. These statements of Biden, which stirred outrage in Turkey, where he criticized Erdoğan with very strong expressions and said the opposition should be supported, were actually made to a question asked in the context of the nuclear weapons issue in Turkey.
The question of New York Times writers to Biden was as the following: “Do you feel comfortable with the United States still having nuclear weapons in Turkey given Erdoğan’s behavior?”
In the beginning of his answer, Biden overtly said that his “comfort level diminished a great deal” and after his evaluations on domestic politics, he finished his answer, saying he is “worried.”
İncirlik’s place on NATO’s nuclear deterrence
In other words, when Biden was entering the presidential run of 2020, he started out stating his discomfort regarding the nuclear weapons in Turkey. The person who has expressed such worry is currently sitting at the White House.
Can these statements of Biden reflect on the policies he will follow during his presidency? Let’s try to answer this question by examining the moves Biden has made on foreign policy.
Biden sees strengthening transatlantic ties, that is, relations between the U.S. and Europe, and institutional cooperation structures as one of his primary foreign policy goals. In this context, NATO appears as the most strategic institution for the U.S. president.
His strategy against Russia, which NATO continues to see as the main threat, is to protect nuclear deterrence, as reflected in all relevant documents of the alliance. In this context, we can remember the decisions of the NATO summit in Brussels in 2018. According to these, NATO’s nuclear deterrence is based on “the nuclear weapons deployed by the U.S. in the allied countries in Europe and the capabilities and infrastructure provided by the relevant allied countries” - as well as the contributions of the U.S. strategic forces and the U.K. and France.
One of the “relevant allied countries” is Turkey. Without a doubt, İncirlik has a very essential place in the infrastructure provided to the U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe. By allowing the possession of U.S. nuclear weapons in İncirlik and becoming the host to these weapons, Turkey has assumed a significant role in NATO’s nuclear deterrence. In this respect, İncirlik forms one of the most critical pillars of NATO’s nuclear umbrella under current conditions. Of course, the proximity of this base to not only Russia but also to the Middle East is undoubtedly a factor that needs to be taken into account.
Biden will continue the old policy but…
Given that İncirlik is so heavily integrated into NATO’s nuclear planning, it seems unrealistic to expect Biden’s sentiment in his interview with New York Times to be reflected in the U.S. official policy - unless there arises a major policy change.
Next month, the NATO summit in Brussels, where Erdoğan and Biden will meet face to face for the first time in the new period, will probably be finalized with a result that will emphasize NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy once again.
Nevertheless, if the Turkish-U.S. relations do not enter a period of recovery and continue to be the scene of crises as they are today, the possibility of further strengthening of the questioning view of the U.S. press, opinion leaders and the U.S. public opinion regarding the nuclear inventory in İncirlik should not be underestimated.