Vice President Biden's bridge-building trip to Turkey didn't win rave reviews in Ankara or at home, but even critical U.S.-based Middle East experts say that extending the olive branch to an angry President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was one of the most critical and difficult U.S. diplomatic missions over the last several years in the region.
There were plenty of outward signs that the quick one-day trip was a bust. The vice president was greeted on the tarmac in Ankara by low-ranking officials, including the city's deputy mayor, and before leaving to return home, the Daily Sabah, the pro-Erdogan newspaper, decried the visit as an elaborate waste of time.
But Turkish experts say state-aligned media bluster and Erdogan's cold stares in photographs with Biden come as no surprise, and are par for the anti-American course that has become the norm in the complicated and unlikely alliance between the two countries.
Peel back that layer of predictable anti-American hostility, and there are signs that tensions between the U.S. and Turkey have gone from a feverish boil to a smoldering simmer. In other words, the trip made progress, albeit measured in inches rather than miles, according to experts.
"It seems to have made a positive contribution to U.S. Turkish relations — things are a little better than where we started out a couple of days ago," Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Washington Examiner Friday.
"This was a quick and short visit — you can only get so much out of it, and it was probably one of the most challenging visits in the U.S. has had to make to Turkey in the last few decades," he said. "The anti-Western sentiment in Turkey was riding so high that Biden had a huge burden on his shoulders."
Still, Erdemir said Biden mostly managed the trip well in overall tone but lost on style points that could cause Erdogan to view him more as a "pushover" than a serious negotiator and powerbroker.
"A charm offensive some might call it," said Erdemir, whose tenure in the Turkish parliament spanned from 2011 to 2015. "But overall, I think we are still within a historic low point in bilateral relations and it takes more than just a quick charm offensive and an appeasement attempt to put things back on track."
Robert Pearson, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and former U.S. ambassador to Turkey during the Bush administration, was more upbeat than that.
"They keep up a steady stream of anti-American propaganda — I wouldn't expect anything different," he told the Examiner. "I don't think it necessarily reflects on the substance of the talks … on substance, it was a success."
"It put the relationship back closer to normal," certainly closer than it was before the visit, he added.
While the visit may have been a small first step toward repairing the frayed alliance with the Turkish government, others argued it did nothing to change perceptions of America among the Turkish public.
"Anti-Americanism is still very strong and the Turkish public has seen the trip as too little, too late," Gonul Tol, founder of the Middle East Institute's Center for Turkish Studies, said in an email to the Examiner.
In the days after the failed coup on July 15 and the subsequent government crackdown, Turkish officials lashed out at the United States, drumming up conspiracy theories that the U.S. was responsible. They also pointed to the fact that Fethullah Gulen, a self-exiled cleric they blame for the coup, lives in Pennsylvania as proof of America's culpability. Turkey has since demanded Gulen's extradition.
President Obama in July publicly denounced such claims, upbraiding the Turkish officials for spreading "utterly false" rumors about a U.S. role.
In contrast, Biden was conciliatory and empathetic during his visit, and agreed with a widely held Turkish mantra that the coup is Turkey's version of the Sept. 11 attacks.
During a tour through a bombed courtyard at Turkey's parliament building, in trademark emotive style, Biden asked a group of mainly U.S. reporters to imagine if the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11 had made it to the U.S. Capitol.
"Imagine what that would have meant, the psychological impact on the American people," he said.
In a more controversial remark during a meeting with Turkish Speaker Ismail Kahraman, Biden said he "wish[ed] Gulen were in another country," not the United States. He later told Erdogan that the U.S. will continue to "abide by its extradition system, and God willing, there will be enough data and evidence to be able to meet the criteria that you all believe exist."
The White House later tried to downplay the comment, and press secretary Josh Earnest said Biden was really trying to emphasize that the U.S. must follow the rule of law and its extradition treaty with Turkey.
That apologetic, "appeasing" posture, Erdemir said, was detrimental to the overall visit's mission. Erdogan takes a "tough-man approach" and while he appreciates the charm offensive, the best way to work with him is to be both "personable" and "tough," he said.
"What's needed is an honest and straightforward expression of mutual obligation, mutual expectations," Erdemir continued. "And this is the exact opposite of appeasement."
Erdogan responds better when foreign leaders, such as Russia's Vladimir Putin and Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu, state clearly and unequivocally their limits and punish Turkey when it crosses them, he said.
Putin and Erdogan recently renewed economic ties after a tough period following the Turkish downing of a Russian warplane in November, and he and Netanyahu in June normalized relations between Turkey and Israel in a deal spurred by energy prospects.
"I'm a little surprised that Washington missed these cues that are right there before their eyes and just taking place within the last two or three months," he said.
Others point to the renewed cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey on fighting the Islamic State in Syria with a new Turkish offensive against the Islamic State launched the day Biden arrived in the country, and consider that the most important breakthrough for the relationship in years.
While some regional experts argue that the real reason behind the new Turkish offensive in Syria was to try to contain the Kurds, it's still undoubtedly a positive development that Turkey and the U.S. are, "for whatever reasons, collaborating more closely since the July 15 coup on fighting ISIS," Pearson said.
In the aftermath of the failed coup, Turkish officials blamed a Special Forces commander sympathetic to Gulen for holding up the anti-Islamic State offensive in Syria for more than a year.
In making the point that the "Gulenists" were preventing greater cooperation with the U.S. on fighting the Islamic State, Pearson argues, they "also revealed an excellent reason for the U.S. to have nothing to do with the coup."
And it's critically important to have Turkey, which shares borders with Iraq and Syria, in the fight against the Islamic State, he added.
Turkish officials know and trust Biden, and that came through in the visit despite the cooler public reception, he said.
"They knew he would speak honestly and frankly so he was credible to them and they gave him long meetings in Ankara," he said. "That means they are truly interested in improving the relationship with the U.S., and that's why I view this as a successful trip to start mending the relationship."
Fethullah Gülen and his conflict with Recep Tayyip Erdogan Graphiq