Netanyahu Is Going To Trade One Headache For Another

December 3, 2014 § 3 Comments

The big news from Israel this week is that early elections, long predicted by many, are now officially here. Following months of bickering between Bibi Netanyahu and his various ministers, internal upheaval within Likud, and fights over legislation involving the budget and the Jewish nation-state bill, Netanyahu yesterday fired Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni from the cabinet, the Knesset voted to dissolve, and elections have been scheduled for March 17. This government did not even make it to the two year mark before dissolving (elections were in January 2013 and the coalition was formed in March of that year), but this shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. This was in many ways the strangest and most unlikely coalition government to ever be compiled in Israeli history. You had ministers from other rightwing parties not even trying to hide their desire to at some point soon supplant Bibi by overthrowing Likud, ministers from Bibi’s own party quitting because of their distaste for him, an alliance between two parties – Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi – that had little business allying on anything but did so in an effort to box Bibi in, and such polar opposite opinions between ministers on matters ranging from Jerusalem to the peace process to the budget to Israel’s identity that the government could not credibly claim to have a unified coherent opinion on anything. So this was never a matter of if the government would spectacularly implode, but a matter of when.

Yet despite the complete dysfunction and mayhem that has marked Israel’s 33rd government, Netanyahu’s move to fire his ministers now and to hold new elections is a misstep for him. Netanyahu’s thinking seems rather straightforward here, and theoretically makes sense; the polls indicate a bigger share of votes for rightwing parties in general, so he can go to new elections, construct a coalition that leaves out Lapid and Livni and thus eliminates his budgetary nemesis and his peace process nemesis, and bring in the Haredi parties instead – who will do whatever Bibi wants provided they get their usual buy-offs in the form of subsidies and benefits – and have a much easier time managing his government. It seems simple enough to trade in the current coalition for a more rightwing and pliable one, but Netanyahu may find in the end that he is going to get more than he bargained for, because while this plan makes sense on paper, the path to getting there is not quite so easy.

For starters, a more rightwing coalition doesn’t necessarily mean a more pliable one. The truth is that for varying reasons, Netanyahu has very few allies left on the right aside from Yuval Steinitz and Bogie Ya’alon. Not only is he without allies, but leading rightwing politicians actively and openly despise him. President Ruvi Rivlin, whose Likud credentials are unimpeachable, would love nothing more than to see Bibi toppled following the prime minister’s failed attempt to prevent Rivlin from replacing Shimon Peres as Israel’s president and views Bibi as unnecessarily inflaming relations between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Gideon Sa’ar, who is enormously popular among the rank and file and who was the leading vote getter in the last Likud primary, resigned his ministerial and Knesset posts in September, but gave a “retirement” speech in which he made plain his disdain for Netanyahu and that he would be returning to politics in the near future. Moshe Kahlon, another popular Likud politician who was a main driver of Mizrahi votes for the party, suddenly quit the party right before the last election over reported differences with Bibi and has now formed his own party with the aim of siphoning more votes away from Netanyahu. The enmity between Netanyahu and the ascendant radical Likudniks such as Danny Danon and Moshe Feiglin is well-documented and this group smells blood in the water as an isolated Netanyahu now sits on an island occupying the left pole of the party. Then there is Avigdor Lieberman, who is zigging and zagging – including releasing his own peace plan last week – and trying to be all things to all people in hopes of fulfilling his long held dream of becoming prime minister one day himself. He is only going to cooperate with Netanyahu to the extent that it furthers his own career interests, and given that the best way of positioning himself is to differentiate himself from the current prime minister, I don’t anticipate much altruism from Lieberman being directed Bibi’s way.

Finally there is Naftali Bennett, who is slated to take over Yair Lapid’s role as Bibi’s bete noire in the next government. Despite appearing to have reached a detente in recent months, Bennett and Netanyahu are still at odds, still have personal issues with each other (thanks to Sara Netanyahu), and are natural political rivals. Unlike Lapid though, Bennett represents an actual threat to Bibi, because he has the ability to hit Bibi where it hurts by stealing the prime minister’s own base. I have been arguing for years that the real political threat to Netanyahu comes not from his left but from his right, and Bennett is the personification of that threat. He is more appealing to the settler right and to nationalists – and let there be no doubt that Netanyahu’s championing of the Jewish nation-state bill is primarily an effort to win back the mantle of Israel’s most vigilant nationalist – and more appealing to the economically conservative technology and entrepreneur class as he is one of them. The right trusts him in a way that they don’t trust Bibi, and this goes double for religious voters. Bennett has also made a naked play at broadening Habayit Hayehudi’s electoral appeal by amending the party’s constitution in September to allow him to directly appoint every fifth candidate to the party’s electoral list in order to get more secular and Russian candidates into Habayit Hayehudi’s Knesset bloc. The upshot of all this is that Bennet doesn’t want to help Netanyahu; he wants to replace Netanyahu. He knows that it is unlikely to happen outright in this election, but if Bennett emerges from elections with the second most mandates in the Knesset, he is going to spend his time either pulling Netanyahu rightward  – and loudly taking the credit for the results – or setting up showdowns designed to expose Netanyahu as a fraud to Israeli rightwing voters. Either way, Netanyahu may end up longing for the types of battles that he had with Lapid rather than those that will be orchestrated by Bennett.

Then there is Netanyahu’s assumption that the result of elections in March will be more overall Knesset seats for the rightwing bloc, and I’m not so sure about this one either. The current polls certainly reflect this to be the case, but the election is three months away and Israeli polls are notoriously unreliable. If Lapid and Livni band together, which by all indications is going to happen, it is going to pull the combined party to the left as Lapid will bring Livni along with the socially oriented economic program that he cares most about while Livni brings Lapid along with the peace process program that she cares most about, and such a party has a good shot of picking up more votes than the individual sum of its parts. In addition, Kahlon is polling well despite having literally no platform or real public positions yet, and that may dissipate very quickly once he is held to the fire. Even if it doesn’t, Kahlon’s party may end up being more leftwing than rightwing given his historical focus on socioeconomic issues for Israel’s more underprivileged sectors. The Israeli economy has suffered since the Gaza war, and if Netanyahu’s economic stewardship becomes a loud campaign issue, which Lapid and Labor are both trying to make happen, it does not bode well for any of the parties on the right given Netanyahu’s reputation as the godfather of unbridled Israeli capitalism.

Leaving aside the right more generally, Likud itself may not even match its current nineteen seats despite the early polls. Voters are wary about the state of the economy, and for the first time in a decade there is a real sense of unease over the domestic security situation given the spate of attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Netanyahu’s choice of making such a big deal over the nation-state bill is also an odd one, as his traditional appeal is as the only experienced grownup in the room who can truly protect Israel in a time of growing threats. There is risk in pursuing this battle-tested strategy coming on the heels of a mixed performance in Gaza and new upheaval on the Palestinian front, but it is also true that many more Israelis are inclined to support Netanyahu’s no-nonsense rhetorical approach when they are feeling less safe. There is far less consensus on the nation-state Jewish identity issue than there is on being vigilant with Israel’s security, and by seizing upon the nation-state bill to benefit his own campaign, Bibi is taking a risk that he is actually using a wedge issue that will harm him. Likud is more likely to draw votes by primarily projecting itself as the ultimate guarantor of Israelis’ safety than by primarily projecting itself as the ultimate guarantor of Jewish identity. There is also the fact that a not insignificant chunk of voters seems to be annoyed that Netanyahu is going to early elections and don’t quite see the point beyond political expediency, which could hurt Likud. Finally, it is looking like with everyone gunning for Netanyahu personally, this campaign may end up being a referendum on the man himself, and while he has been popular enough to slide by with a plurality of votes in a very divided political system, he is not universally popular in any objective sense of the word.

A lot can happen in the three months between now and the election that will affect votes in unanticipated ways, be it rock throwers on the Temple Mount or Sara Netanyahu’s Haagen Dazs budget, but my educated guess this far out is that the right’s share is not going to be too much above 60-65 votes and that Likud is going to lose ground relative to Habayit Hayehudi so that the power imbalance between Netanyahu and Bennett narrows further. Netanyahu is living in a cocoon and has been at the top for so long that his instincts are off. If he ends up with a narrower margin above the leftwing parties than he is expecting along with a further empowered Bennett looking to stick a knife in his back at every opportunity, Netanyahu may just end up wishing that he had left well enough alone and stuck with his current low-grade headache rather than trading up for a migraine.

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Sticks And Stones May Break My Bones, And So Will Words

October 29, 2014 § 3 Comments

Frustrating the deeply held convictions of “Zionist Occupied Government” conspiracy theorists everywhere, it has not exactly been a banner week for the U.S.-Israel relationship. First there was the Bogie Ya’alon snub during his sojourn to Washington, where the Israeli defense minister met with Chuck Hagel and Samantha Power – the latter reportedly only because the White House was too late in trying to prevent it – but was not granted meetings with Joe Biden, John Kerry, or Susan Rice. Then came yesterday’s already legendary Jeff Goldberg piece in the Atlantic, henceforth known as the chickenshit article, during which an unnamed senior administration official used that moniker to describe Bibi Netanyahu. The piece, which proclaimed a crisis in U.S-Israel relations, was right and has now inflamed that crisis even further. As dedicated readers may recall, in July I wrote that despite the very bad personal relationship between Netanyahu and President Obama, the bilateral U.S.-Israel relationship was not going to be threatened in the long term, and I think that is still true. Nevertheless, what is going on now is certainly serious and can derail things in the short term. So to make up for my lack of recent blogging, and my even longer lack of blogging about Israel specifically, here are some semi-extensive thoughts about the entire contretemps.

First, just as Israeli officials are completely out of line and do damage to their own cause and interests when they make nasty comments about Obama, Kerry, and other U.S. government officials, the same goes for the inane and childish comments made to Goldberg about Netanyahu. I am and have been highly critical of Ya’alon, Naftali Bennett, and others who have launched inappropriate personal attacks; it reflects terribly upon them and does absolutely nothing to rectify whatever it is that has made them upset. This is no different, and the intensely personal nature of denigrating the courage of a former Israeli special forces commando is particularly ugly. Literally taunting an Israeli prime minister for not bombing Iran – as if the issue is a lack of guts rather than an array of barriers to doing so, from Israel’s security cabinet to intense differences of opinion about such a move across the political and military spectrum to serious pressure from the U.S. – is boorish and petty and smacks of smug, childish amateurism, not to mention a terrifyingly myopic and incomplete view of how foreign policy actually operates. I hope that the outrage expressed by some in the U.S. when Ya’alon has insulted Kerry in the press is also expressed today. On the flip side, those who found nothing wrong with Ya’alon’s remarks a few months ago should have the appropriate sense of self-perception to keep their mouths shut now as well. It’s not good when Israelis trash their American counterparts, and it’s not good when Americans trash their Israeli counterparts, but if you are a pro-Israel American, your outrage at one had better be matched by your outrage at the other.

Second, Netanyahu’s broadside in return today is a great example of a world leader who does not properly appreciate his country’s position in the international system. Israel is a regional power in its own right, but it is also largely dependent on the largesse of its great power patron – for which, by the way, it has no genuine feasible alternative replacements should that largesse ever be withdrawn. Despite the heady excitement Israelis have over increased trade ties with China and India, the optimism that this will translate into political support is misplaced, as excellently outlined by Rory Miller in Foreign Affairs, who demonstrated that both countries have completely delinked their economic relations with Israel from their political relations with Israel, and are not going to reverse that path any time soon. Were Netanyahu smart about this, he would have expressed his anger and disappointment behind closed doors, and publicly kept his mouth shut. The fact is that Israel and the U.S. will never be equal. There is an enormous power imbalance in the relationship, and the U.S. can afford to alienate Israel (although it shouldn’t and it would make things harder for U.S. initiatives in the region) but Israel can absolutely not afford to alienate the U.S. I get why Netanyahu’s impulse is to lash back out, but this is a tit-for-tat exchange that Israel will always lose. Israel’s greatest geopolitical advantage is its relationship with the U.S., and thus a well thought out plan would be to swallow whatever American insults come Israel’s way and do nothing to harm that relationship. Some Israeli leaders, including rightwing Likud politician President Ruby Rivlin, get this. Netanyahu quite obviously does not.

Third, leaving aside the damage in the day to day working relationship, the infamous chickenshit interview has potential to backfire on the U.S. when it comes to the Iranian nuclear program in two ways. One has to with Israel, and the other has to do with Iran. On the Israeli side of the equation, the White House is quite obviously happy that Jerusalem has so far sat on its hands and kept its planes far away from Fordow. In the context of an Israeli populace and political class that sees external threats rising up around it, nervousness that the U.S. is getting snookered by Iran in the nuclear negotiations and will agree to nearly any terms to just make the problem go away, and an election coming soon in which the threats to Netanyahu come not from the left but from the right, is there a better way of prompting Netanyahu into taking military action against Iran than denigrating him as a chickenshit who is too scared to use his military? It’s almost as if the person or persons who felt the need to go blabbing to Goldberg are trying to end up with egg all over their faces. I’d agree that the chances of Israeli action at this point are remote, but just listen to some of the saner and more respected security voices in Israel – Amos Yadlin and Ya’akov Amidror are two who come to mind – and you will quickly realize that Israel does not necessarily share the same view of these unnamed administration officials that a bombing run is completely off the table.

On the Iran side of the ledger, I agree with Dan Drezner that there is a component to this that involves signaling to Iran. I am not as certain that it is intentional, however; rather, my fear is that the U.S. is instead unwittingly and massively reducing its negotiating leverage by openly doubting Israel’s ability and willpower to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, and by implying that it sees a nuclear Iran as a near fait accompli. Any Iranian leader reading the Goldberg interview would logically assume that there is nothing Iran can do that will invite a strike against its nuclear program, and that it really has no reason to offer any negotiating concessions at all. Irrespective of whether or not the Obama administration has privately decided that it wants a deal with Iran at any cost, this is terrible negotiating strategy and very poor strategic behavior.

Fourth, the chickenshit comments are more likely than not going to exacerbate the type of Israeli behavior that frustrates the U.S. unless the insults and vitriol are ultimately accompanied by a genuine change in policy toward Israel. If things continue along the same path, meaning that there is no real penalty for increased settlement activity in the form of reduced intelligence and military cooperation, reduced defense aid, or reduced support at the United Nations, the takeaway message for Netanyahu is going to be that the only price for driving U.S. officials to apoplexy is having to absorb personal insults. I don’t know whether policy is going to change following the November elections or not; I have read some predictions that the cover for Israel at the U.N. in particular is something that will be endangered, but I have serious doubts as to whether that will be the case. The point is, if Goldberg’s unnamed official thinks that his or her words alone are going to have any real effect on Israeli policy, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it.

Finally, it is pretty clear to me that this is not just a random attempt to make Bibi look bad here, but a deliberate ploy to damage his political prospects. There is a perception among Israeli elites that picking a real fight with the U.S. is fatal for Israeli politicians, and many in various U.S. administrations believe that as well. My friend Brent Sasley has argued otherwise, although others take a different view of the Shamir loss in 1992. In this case, in the short term the fight seems to have bolstered Bibi, with people like Bennett coming out and strongly backing him against the chickenshit comments. It makes him look like a stronger leader standing up to a petty and bullying American administration. In the long term, however, I think that the White House political calculation here is correct in the sense of wanting to play up the hostility between Netanyahu and the White House in order to damage him. There are going to be elections in the next few months, and there are plenty of rightwing politicians aspiring to unseat Bibi who can claim that they will stand up to Washington when need be but do not have the baggage that Bibi has. Ya’alon is obviously not in this camp, but Bennett, Moshe Kahlon, Avigdor Lieberman, and even Yair Lapid will all try to take advantage of this dynamic to siphon votes away from Likud and toward themselves.

Ultimately, whomever it was that has now made the term chickenshit a permanent part of the foreign policy lexicon may feel a lot better today after a self-satisfied venting session, but this kind of thing is entirely counterproductive. Allies can and do disagree, but this is not the way to do it. Nobody in the Obama administration should be too pleased with themselves this afternoon.

Turkey’s Syria Spillover Problem

October 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

I wrote the following piece for Foreign Affairs, arguing that the true threat to Turkey from ISIS is not a military one, but is rather the spillover effects that are going to impact Turkish domestic stability as a result of ISIS’ rise.

To listen to officials from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and read Turkey’s pro-government press is to dive into a happy place in which Turkey has never been better. It is a democratic beacon shining its light on the rest of the Middle East, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is leading the charge to consolidate Turkish democracy and create a new regional order, the Turkish economy is humming along despite villainous credit rating agencies’ efforts to destroy it, and Turks of all stripes are united behind their government’s various initiatives. The official view from Ankara is sunny indeed — yet the clouds massing on the country’s border presage a hurricane.

AKP rule has brought a measure of stability previously unknown to Turkey. Here, a growing economy and concerted efforts to address Kurdish grievances have contributed. On a more disturbing note, so have the gradual reining in of the free press and open dissent. For better or worse, the country has become safely predictable and the AKP has been able to govern without seriously being challenged. Even those not in the AKP camp acknowledge that today’s Turkey seems eons removed from the days of terrorism and assassinations in the streets, military coups, and runaway inflation.

But the chaos on Turkey’s border with Syria threatens to upend all of this. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has threatened Turkey’s internal balance in a number of ways. But the danger does not come from ISIS itself. Although the group has proved its military bona fides during its rampage through Iraq and Syria, it does not present a serious territorial challenge to Turkey, which has a large NATO-backed army, a modern air force, and the resources to hit back at ISIS should it choose. Rather, it is the follow-on effects of ISIS’ march through the region that may herald a return to the bad old days.

To read the rest, including my analysis of Turkey’s economic problems, burgeoning issues with the Kurds, and the rise of nationalism, please head over here to Foreign Affairs.

The Politics of the Anti-ISIS Coalition

September 23, 2014 § 1 Comment

Now that U.S.-led airstrikes – or according to the UAE’s press release, UAE-led airstrikes – have begun against ISIS positions in Syria, it seems we have an actual coalition to size up. Participating in one way or another were the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE, with Qatar the only one of the six to not actually drop bombs or shoot cruise missiles. One of these things is obviously not like the others, and that is Qatar. Aside from the fact that Qatar’s participation is going to remain limited to logistics and support, Qatar’s inclusion in this group is striking given that the four other Arab states represent one distinct camp in the Middle East, while Qatar represents another. There has been lots of talk the past few years about a Middle Eastern cold war taking place between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but there is a separate battle taking place between what I’ll call status quo Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, etc. and revisionist Sunni states Qatar and Turkey. The latter are trying to upend the current regional order, and have thus spent lots of capital – both actual and rhetorical – supporting Muslim Brotherhood groups and other actors opposed to the current regional configuration. It is interesting to see Qatar openly participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, and it is likely a response to the charges that Qatar is tied to terrorism and has been funding shady jihadi and Islamist rebels. Qatar wants to demonstrate that it is not aiding ISIS, and this is the best way of going about that.

Far more intriguing is who is not part of this coalition, and that would be the other member of the Sunni revisionist camp. Along with Jordan, Turkey is the country most threatened by ISIS given its long border with Syria and the growing number of Turks being recruited as ISIS fighters. Turkey’s hostages have just been released by ISIS, so the biggest reason for Turkey’s hesitation has been removed, and yet Turkey is adamantly not joining the coalition. Aaron Stein has a good rundown today of what Turkey is doing behind the scenes to help out, but there are still reasons why Turkey is not going to publicly join the fight. The big one is that Turkey isn’t actually for a particular outcome; it only knows what it doesn’t want. It does not want Bashar al-Assad to benefit from any moves taken to degrade ISIS, but it also does not want ISIS to permanently control territory in Syria, but it also does not want the Kurds to benefit from ISIS being rolled back. Where Turkey runs into trouble is that not one of these outcomes can be realized in its entirety without limiting the success of the other outcomes. Eliminating ISIS will benefit Assad and the Kurds, while removing Assad creates a vacuum that will be filled by ISIS and/or the Kurds, and limiting any gains by the Kurds necessarily means that ISIS is maintaining its strength in northern Syria. Turkey wants a combination of goals that cannot be filled simultaneously, and yet it does not want to or cannot choose between which ones should be shunted aside.

The irony here is that by not throwing the full force of its weight behind getting rid of ISIS, it is risking a bigger domestic problem with Turkey’s Kurds, some of whom are crossing the border to fight with Kurdish forces against ISIS. Turkish Kurds blame Ankara for allowing ISIS to fester and even empowering the group with its previous see-no-evil-hear-no-evil border policy, and thus the more half-hearted the Turkish government behaves with regard to getting rid of ISIS, the harder any Kurdish peace process and any effort to fully integrate Kurds into Turkey will become. In trying to appease ISIS by not taking a public role in the fight against the group – and thereby attempting to head off any jihadi terrorism inside of Turkey’s borders – Turkey is going to reignite an entirely different type of domestic problem. It is also foolhardy to believe that ISIS is a fire that won’t burn Turkey if the country steps away from the issue. At some point, ISIS violence is bound to come to Turkey whether Ankara participates as a full in open partner in the fight against the group or not, and when that happens, the vendetta against Assad and the worries about Kurdish nationalism are going to seem myopic.

The other regional player absent – although this is altogether unsurprising – is Iran. John Kerry and others have expressed hopes that the U.S. and Iran can cooperate together against ISIS given that the group presents a common threat. While I don’t rule out an eventual U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement (although I am skeptical), there is never going to be open Iranian cooperation with the U.S. on any shared goal such as the fight against ISIS, despite the optimism running rampant today following Hassan Rouhani’s charm offensive in New York. Iran is an ideological state, meaning that it references explicitly ideological claims or a programmatic mission in justifying political action and allows those claims or mission to constrain its range of actions. Ideological states behave very differently from non-ideological states because ideology is used as a source of regime legitimacy, and so fealty to the state ideology is crucial for the regime to maintain its rule. To the extent that the ideology is institutionalized, its protection becomes vital, as a blow to the ideology is a blow to the state’s legitimacy among its citizens. The ideology also becomes the most important feature of the regime’s legacy, and no true guardians of the state ideology want to be responsible for its downfall or delegitimization. A large element of the Iranian regime’s ideology is opposition to the U.S.; it is the reason that the regime has harped on this point for decades on end. When you base your legitimacy and appeal in large part on resisting American imperial power, turning on a dime and openly helping the U.S. achieve an active military victory carries far-reaching consequences domestically. It harms your legitimacy and raison d’être, and thus puts your continued rule in peril. Iran wants to see ISIS gone as badly as we do, if not more so, and ISIS presents a more proximate threat to Iran than to us. Despite this, Iran cannot be seen as helping the U.S. in any way on this, and simply lining up interests in this case is an analytical mistake as ideological considerations trump all when you are dealing with highly ideological regimes. The same way that the U.S. would never have cooperated with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War to defeat a common enemy – despite being able to come to agreement on arms control negotiations – because of an ideological commitment to being anti-Communist, Iran will not cooperate with the U.S. against ISIS. Those naively hoping that ISIS is going to create a bond between the U.S. and Iran are mistaken.

ISIS and Ideology

September 11, 2014 § 6 Comments

I am no expert on ISIS and I won’t pretend to be. I don’t know what their true capabilities are, whether they are a function of U.S. troops invading Iraq or a function of U.S. troops leaving Iraq, or whether they would exist if we had armed less extreme Syrian opposition groups at the outset of the Syrian civil war. I do know, however, that President Obama’s statement last night that we will “degrade and ultimately defeat” ISIS can only partially be true. The U.S. can certainly degrade ISIS’s capabilities based on the military plan Obama laid out, and perhaps it can even defeat the group itself by some metric of victory. But ISIS is not a prime mover; it is a symptom. At its core, ISIS is an ideology, and even if the group comprised of jihadi fighters is defeated, it will simply be reincarnated with a different name because ideologies – with very rare exception – do not die on the battlefield. They die when their utility is proven worthless or when they lose out to a superior idea. Unfortunately for the U.S., airstrikes and logistical support for Iraqi and Kurdish troops is not going to translate into a defeat for the ideology that is motivating ISIS.

One of my newest pet peeves is referring to ISIS as nihilistic. ISIS is actually the very opposite of nihilistic; it does not believe that life has no meaning or purpose, but in fact has a very concrete belief in what the purpose and meaning of life might be. Its wanton disregard for human life is not the same thing as nihilism, and it absolutely believes in something. The fact that it believes in its purpose and mission so vehemently is why any military victory over it will be hollow. Political ideologies offer a criticism of existing society contrasted with a vision of a “good” society and propose the means by which attainment of a “good” society will be achieved. Just because ISIS’s vision of a “good” society does not resemble anything we would recognize as good does not make it nihilistic. Ideologies are ideal types that involve some programatic element, which in ISIS’s case is establishing a caliphate over a large section of the Middle East, so while it is a bloodthirsty and brutal movement, nihilistic it is not. It is rather highly ideologically motivated, to a point that harkens back to an age when political and religious ideologies were far more paramount in global politics.

The reason ideology is so dangerous is because it can be overwhelming and impossible to stamp out. Ideology is a powerful force, and those steeped in an ideology can come to exude a level of commitment that transcends other interests. First order values and beliefs cause an ideology’s followers to act in order for those beliefs to be realized, and a military defeat does not render those values and beliefs invalid in the eyes of the ideology’s adherents. The guardians and enforcers of an ideology, who have built a political order upon an ideological foundation, should not be expected to simply let their ideology, which they have fought to impose and which has guided their decisions, lapse just because they lose to a superior fighting force. Ideology exerts such a powerful influence because it imbues a regime’s actions with spiritual or existential authority in addition to secular authority, and while this is true of secular ideologies, it is all the more true of religious ideologies such as that espoused by ISIS. Leaders and citizens make themselves over in the image of the ideology, creating no space for dissent from ideological norms. The process is designed to penetrate individual consciousness and alter perception so that a situation where the ideology does not reign supreme is unimaginable. If ISIS is beaten by some combination of the U.S. Air Force and the Iraqi army, it doesn’t alter this fundamental dynamic of belief in ideological supremacy. The heirs to ISIS will not concede ideological defeat along with military defeat, which is what makes the fight against radical jihadi groups so difficult.

Furthermore, ISIS’s ideology is a revolutionary one seeking to overturn the status quo and to constantly expand, which makes it particularly susceptible to living on beyond the elimination of its primary advocate. Much like Voldemort’s life force after he attempts to kill Harry Potter as a baby, ISIS’s ideology will not die just because its host body is decimated. It will lurk around until another group seizes upon it and resurrects it, and much like ISIS seems to be even worse than al-Qaida, whatever replaces ISIS is likely to be more radical still. The problem with Obama’s speech yesterday was that it set an expectation that cannot be fulfilled. Yes, ISIS itself may be driven from the scene, but the overall problem is not one that is going to go away following airstrikes or even ground forces.

The stubborn nature of ideological survival is not unique to ISIS, religious ideology, or jihadism. If you want to see the power of ideology in a different, less violent context, look at what is happening in Scotland, where the simple ideas of nationalism and independence have a good chance of subsuming what is in Scotland’s economic and security interests. There seems to be little question that Scotland’s economy will be better off as part of the larger economy of the United Kingdom, and certainly it will be less able to weather financial shocks should it become independent. I also cannot envision a scenario in which Scotland’s national security is made safer by removing itself from the protection of the second largest army in the EU and a nuclear power. Yet, ideas are powerful stuff, and the notion of Scottish independence exerts a hold on many people that falls outside the bounds of economic rationality.

Now, none of this is to suggest in any way that the U.S. is engaged in a clash of civilizations, or that the U.S. cannot be safe until Islamism – whatever that might constitute – is defeated. It is rather a way of pointing out that our expectations need to be recalibrated, and that beating ISIS into submission is not going to be the end of the problem. Groups like ISIS are going to keep emerging until those most susceptible to buying into the idea of jihadism are won over by a more compelling idea. I don’t know what the U.S. can do, if anything, to hasten that process along, but airstrikes aren’t going to be enough.

Turkey’s Iran Quandary

September 3, 2014 § 9 Comments

Taking a step back and looking at the Turkish-Iranian relationship, it strikes me that it is following a similar pattern to the one Turkey had with Syria until 2011. The Turkish relationship with Syria was based largely on economic ties, and Ankara played down any political factors that might cause tension in the name of trade and economic growth. When Bashar al-Assad’s murderous behavior became more pronounced as the Syrian civil war heated up, Tayyip Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu operated on a mistaken assumption that they could softly manage the problem and convince Assad to change his ways. They presumed that in the same way that they saw economic growth and trade as a factor outweighing everything else, Assad would view things the same way. Assad had far larger and more pressing concerns, however, and after promising to Davutoğlu’s face not to kill civilians, he promptly continued his massacring of Syrians, which led Erdoğan to blow a gasket after feeling personally betrayed and adopt a policy of getting rid of Assad at any cost. This in turn caused the rapid downward spiral of Turkish foreign policy, which has largely collapsed due to the government’s Syria policy – a policy that was neither well thought out or well planned, and one which the Turkish government concocted on the fly. It chose to ignore all sorts of warning signs and then turned on a dime, all to devastating effect.

The variables with Iran are different, but the basic dynamic is similar. Turkey has cultivated a friendly and cordial relationship with Iran despite a host of structural reasons to be wary of its erstwhile regional rival and in the face of a coordinated Western effort to keep Iran isolated until concerns over Iran’s nuclear program are resolved. Turkey has made a concerted effort to improve ties with Iran for economic reasons, and in fact the two countries activated a deal last month to reduce trade tariffs with a stated objective of raising annual bilateral trade to $30 billion by the end of 2015, which would double the trade volume from 2013. I have written in the past about the power imbalance between the two due to Turkey’s over reliance on Iranian oil and gas, which is one of the primary reasons Turkey was such a willing partner in helping Iran evade sanctions by swapping gold for gas. The desire to boost commercial trade with Iran has only grown with the loss of Syria as a trade conduit, and thus Turkey has pressed forward on working to expand economic ties with Iran despite an effort among its NATO partners to isolate Tehran economically.

Like with Syria, the rial signs in Ankara’s eyes have blinded it to some larger geopolitical truths. Turkey and Iran have a shared interest in stamping out the threat from ISIL, and they have each played a big role in keeping Hamas alive and boosting its standing in relation to the Palestinian Authority, but otherwise they are operating at cross-purposes. While Erdoğan has stated his conviction that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear power is for civilian purposes only, Turkey has a longstanding policy of opposition to an Iranian nuclear bomb. Turkey and Iran are on opposite sides of the ledger in the struggle for hegemony in the region, with Iran wanting to limit the influence of a connected Sunni bloc and Turkey teaming with Qatar to boost Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni Islamist movements. As a NATO member and EU aspirant, Turkey is ostensibly in the Western camp while Iran is decidedly not. On Syria and Iraq, which have been the two most pressing hot spots in the region, Iran has strongly backed both Assad and Nuri al-Maliki, while Turkey has turned a blind eye for two years to groups like ISIL all in the name of ending Assad’s rule and clashed with Maliki repeatedly and consistently while he was at the helm in Baghdad. In short, you have two populous non-Arab states with the largest militaries in the region who differ on nearly every policy issue of consequence and who have historically each tried to control the Middle East, and yet Turkey has treated Iran with all due deference.

I have no insider insights into the status of the P5+1 talks with Iran, but given the frantic NATO/EU focus on Ukraine and the emergent ISIL problem occupying the White House’s attention, this would be the perfect time for a revisionist state such as Iran to take advantage of the chaos and take a harder line in talks or restart elements of its nuclear program. The spotlight at the moment is elsewhere, and given the previous extension of the deadline following the interim Geneva agreement, Iran would not be out of line in assuming that the U.S.’s priority is to get a deal even if it means letting up on issues such as enrichment. The upshot of this is that with other foreign policy problems eclipsing Iran’s nuclear program and an improved economic situation following the loosening of sanctions, Iran’s position is improving, which should worry Turkey deeply in a wider regional context. There is no question that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu both pine for the days of Ottoman power and would like to restore Turkey to what they see as its rightful role as regional leader, and a stronger Iran is not something that will help this project.

Turkey’s Iran policy up until now has been assume, like it did with Syria, that it can ignore the problems on the horizon and simply manage an ascendant Iran on its own. As with Syria, this has the potential to blow up in Ankara’s face in a big way, particularly once Iran no longer needs Turkey as an escape hatch out of its economic isolation. Whereas Turkey is reliant on Iran for its energy needs because it has no other viable suppliers yet, Iran is only reliant on Turkish capital and investment so long as it is under sanctions. Ankara’s assumption that Iran is always going to be a relatively friendly and cooperative neighbor flies in the face of the way regional powers operate, particularly when there is a power vacuum in the region in question. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu thought that they could manage Assad and that they could ignore ISIL outright, and that both problems would eventually melt away. They were wrong on both counts, and if Turkey keeps on treating Iran with kid gloves rather than realizing the threat that a powerful Iran presents to Turkish interests, it is ultimately going to end up with yet another foreign policy problem that it could have fended off with some foresight earlier in the process.

Is Turkey’s Future A Liberal One?

August 14, 2014 § 4 Comments

Now that Prime Minister Erdoğan is set to take over as President Erdoğan, analysts are pivoting to figure out what comes next. While many are speculating about who the next PM will be (I still think it comes down to Ahmet Davutoğlu or Numan Kurtulmuş), Soner Cagaptay has an op-ed in the New York Times looking at a much longer time horizon. He argues that Turkey’s future after Erdoğan will be a liberal one because the AKP’s support has peaked, and while the last great wave to sweep over Turkish politics was a conservative religious one, the next wave will be a liberal one. Thus, Cagaptay predicts that once the younger and more liberal generation turns its grassroots angst into political power, the AKP’s time at the top will be over.

It’s a compelling theory, and certainly one for which I am hopeful, but I’m not entirely convinced just yet. For starters, Cagaptay relies on the fact that the AKP has plateaued in order to argue that it will be replaced, and he cites the fact that 48% of the country voted against Erdoğan on Sunday as a measure of the country’s polarization. I agree that the AKP has almost certainly reached the apex of its support and that the only direction in which its voteshare can go is down, but the relevant question is not whether more people are going to start voting for someone else; it’s whether enough people will start voting for the same someone else. Based on the presidential vote, Turkey is not close to being at that point. The 48% who were opposed to Erdoğan voted for two candidates from three parties, with CHP/MHP candidate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu receiving 38% and HDP candidate Selahattin Demirtaş receiving 10%. There is still a 14% gap between Erdoğan and Ihsanoğlu, which is obviously lots of ground to make up. Furthermore, CHP and MHP do not see eye to eye on a number of issues and banded together for this election, but the parties are not going to merge and are going to fragment the opposition vote even further come parliamentary elections in 2015. So while 52%-48% makes it sound like the AKP could be imminently be in trouble, the real story is quite different.

The crux of Cagaptay’s argument though is that the next big trend in Turkish politics will be liberalism as a response to AKP rule, and I partially agree with him on that count. Many Turks are fed up with AKP authoritarianism and demagoguery, and at some point soon the economy is going to crater thanks to Erdoğan’s bizarre ideological obsession with low interest rates, which will cut hard into the AKP’s electoral support. Much as the conservative and religious wave that the AKP rode to victory was a logical response to Turkey’s history of military coups and enforced secularism, a liberal backlash to AKP rule makes sense in a host of ways. The question, however, is whether this liberal wave will be enough to overcome Turkey’s religious and conservative majority. As I wrote with Steven Cook last week, the notion of Muslim-ness is well-entrenched in Turkey and the AKP is the only party poised to capture the gains from this dynamic. While a liberal opposition can tap into discontent on other fronts, I find it difficult to imagine a liberal party easily grappling with the majority of Turks who strongly feel this Muslim identity. While secularism and liberalism do not always go hand in hand – and in fact, they traditionally have not in Turkey – let’s not forget that the CHP in its current incarnation has attempted to meld these two together and has failed miserably.

Let’s set this aside for the moment and assume that a liberal party can manage to appeal to strongly self-identified Turkish Muslims. There is the larger problem of turning this liberal undercurrent that has mobilized for protests into concrete political action. Cagaptay’s conclusion is instructive here:

The liberals do not yet have a charismatic leader or a party to bring them to power, as Mr. Erdogan and the S.P. eventually did for Islamists in the 1990s. The country’s opposition, the Republican People’s Party, or C.H.P., is a mix of secularists and die-hard leftists. It needs to undergo a metamorphosis to become a real force. And although the Kurdish-led People’s Democratic Party, or H.D.P., has promoted a decidedly liberal message and increased its share of the national vote from 5 to almost 10 percent, it’s still a small party and having violent Kurdish nationalists among its ranks won’t help win broader support.

Turkey’s future liberal movement will have to bring together liberal Kurdish nationalists and liberal secular Turks. Its leader is yet to emerge. But the energy and ideology are there, and he or she will one day step forward to transform Turkish politics the same way Mr. Erdogan revolutionized the country after surfacing from the youth branch of his party.

He will go down in history as the leader who transformed Turkey economically, but the liberals will transform it politically.

There is an enormous gap right now between energy and action. I see it with my Turkish friends, who are primarily young, secular, liberal, and outraged at Erdoğan and the AKP, but do not know how to translate that into political power, or even political change. Some vote for the HDP despite not being Kurdish because they view that as the only appropriate way of expressing their electoral liberalism, but a plurality of Turks are never going to vote for a Kurdish party with a history of too-close ties with the PKK. Most simply express apathy with the entire system. Translating energy into action is the phase where protest movements and nascent political groundswells die. Look at Egypt, where millions of Egyptians went into the streets to oust Hosni Mubarak – and where a vast majority of protestors were not affiliated with or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood – and yet could not translate that into political organizing or electoral victory. Think about the dearth of new parties right here in the U.S., where granted the barriers to electoral victory for a new party are enormous due to the first-past-the-post voting system, yet massive discontent with both parties has not turned into a serious third party organizing effort. It is one thing to be outraged, another to spend all of your time recruiting candidates, writing party platforms, organizing voter drives, raising campaign money, building support, amassing a party organization of professionals and volunteers, and on and on.

I think Cagaptay is correct to highlight liberalism as a significant trend, but it’s far too early to assume that this means a liberal future for Turkey. New parties have enormous barriers to entry (not to mention the 10% vote threshold in the Turkish parliament), and the CHP is so feckless that despite being Turkey’s founding party, it has not been the leading vote getter in a parliamentary election since 1977. Many in the party believe that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s attempt to infuse liberalism into the CHP has been an electoral disaster, and the electoral results do not contradict this view. How a vehicle for the significant subset of liberal Turks functionally emerges I’m not sure, but Cagaptay is a bit too sanguine about its inevitability. He is right that the mood is there, but unfortunately when it comes to politics, the right mood is never enough.

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