August 3, 2015 § Leave a comment
I have a new piece in Foreign Affairs on Turkey’s recent agreement to engage in the fight against ISIS, and what Ankara is really hoping to accomplish, namely an assault against Kurdish nationalism both at home and abroad. While it is evident that Turkey’s airstrikes have so far been directed primarily at the PKK rather than at ISIS, Ankara is at the same time directing a political assault against the HDP, Turkey’s Kurdish political party, in the hopes of killing two birds with one stone. Here is my argument in Foreign Affairs:
On July 23, Turkey finally joined the fight against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and it did so with much fanfare. It began with a series of air and artillery strikes to push back ISIS forces in Syria and seal what has been a porous southern border. The Turkish government also gave the United States access to its Incirlik and Diyarbakir airbases, opening them up to support combat missions, not just surveillance operations.
This was a major win for the Obama administration, which, for months, had been negotiating with a reluctant Turkey to get it to recognize the ISIS threat. U.S. officials are now hopeful that ISIS can be set back on its heels, since Ankara will be able to wage a more robust bombing campaign given its proximity to the conflict. The U.S.–Turkish agreement about the Incirlik and Diyarbakir airbases apparently also involved the establishment of a safe zone in northwest Syria just north of Aleppo, something the Turkish government has long demanded, although Washington has refused to commit to it. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has argued that a safe zone would naturally emerge after removing ISIS forces from that part of Syria.
Yet all is not as it seems. Although Washington trumpeted the agreement as a potential game changer in the fight against ISIS, Ankara’s recent behavior suggests that its primary mission is to use the opportunity to simultaneously fight the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist group that the government has been fighting for decades. The group, however, has also been on the frontlines battling ISIS.
As Washington celebrated Turkey’s new commitment, Ankara’s initial airstrikes last week targeted both ISIS and PKK positions, and, as some have noted, the United States has essentially enabled Turkey to cloak its primary objective—striking the PKK and its Syrian cousin, the People’s Protection Units (also known as the YPG)—in the general fight against ISIS. Turkey would also be able to ensure that U.S. strikes against ISIS positions do not benefit Kurdish fighters in the process by coordinating joint missions and moving Turkish troops into areas immediately following U.S. sorties. By conceding to Washington’s requests to do more against ISIS, Turkey is actually hoping to achieve its true goal, which is to prevent the autonomous Syrian Rojava canton currently controlled by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) from turning into a truly independent Kurdish state and additionally, using the Kurdish issue to bolster its political standing at home.
Turkey has also targeted its own Kurdish population through heightened policing after the July 20 terrorist bombing in the border town of Suruc. Linked to ISIS, the attack was directed at pro-Kurdish activists and left 23 dead. Since then, Turkey has been conducting an anti-terror sweep that as of July 29 has resulted in the arrest of 137 suspected ISIS sympathizers and 847 suspected PKK members. Writing in the pro-government paper, Daily Sabah, the influential presidential foreign policy adviser Ibrahim Kalin explicitly linked ISIS and the PKK . He essentially argued that the PKK and ISIS are two sides of the same coin because both groups use terrorism to achieve their political goals, and that PKK attacks are just as big a threat to Turkey as those carried out by ISIS.
Fighting the PKK and thwarting Kurdish ambitions in Syria are not the only dynamics driving Turkish actions. In addition to all of this, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is head of the current caretaker government that will rule the country until a new coalition is formed (or, if one fails to form, until new elections are held in the fall), is attempting to reverse the political consequences of its Kurdish Opening policy, which granted Turkish Kurds greater rights in using the Kurdish language and expressing their Kurdish culture. It brought momentary peace, but appears now to have weakened the AKP’s hold on power.
To read the rest, please head over to Foreign Affairs.
July 14, 2015 § 7 Comments
There are two huge pieces of news today that interest me, and while the one I really want to write about is the New Horizons spacecraft reaching Pluto and sending back amazing pictures and data on Pluto and Charon (which everyone refers to as one of Pluto’s moons but isn’t technically an accurate description since Charon doesn’t orbit Pluto and the system’s center of gravity lies in between them, but don’t get me started), for some reason people seem to want to know what I think about the Iran deal rather than what I think about the Plutonian atmosphere. So after spending some time reading through all 159 pages (except for the lists of companies and individuals on which sanctions will be lifted, which I skimmed), here is my initial take on where I think this deal works and the myriad ways in which I fear it won’t.
Starting with the good, there are some really good elements in this deal when it comes to keeping the wraps on Iran’s nuclear activity that we currently know about. The sections dealing with preventing a break out are pretty strong in terms of absolutely limiting Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium beyond a 3.67% level for fifteen years and turning Fordow into what is essentially a centrifuge museum. The only centrifuges that will actually be spinning uranium for the first ten years are 5,060 first generation centrifuges, and despite what sounds like a high number, nobody is actually worried about these. Any uranium in excess of 300 kilograms gets down blended and all spent fuel from reactors gets shipped out of the country The IAEA monitoring system in place for these centrifuges and the more advanced ones that Iran has developed also seems very strong to me, with full IAEA access, control, or electronic monitoring in various ways. Iran also has to address IAEA questions about its past activities, which should provide some additional clarity for preventing illicit Iranian activity going forward. Based on the provisions of this deal, I think it very unlikely that Iran will produce a nuclear weapon at any of its known facilities or with any of its current centrifuges in the next decade.
But even giving credit to the P5+1 negotiators for doing a good job on knocking out the break out option in the short term, this deal is indicative of the absurdly short attention span we Americans seem to have, where we think that ten years is a long time when in the context of international relations it is the blink of an eye. While it is true that Iran cannot enrich uranium in a worrisome manner over the first ten years of the deal, the agreement basically lets Iran do all the prep work during this ten year period to accomplish the higher uranium enrichment later on in advanced centrifuges without actually doing so during this initial decade. Once the ten year limit expires, Iran is in a position to break out really quickly if it so chooses, since while it commits to 3.67% enrichment for fifteen years, after ten years it can enrich uranium in more advanced centrifuges and install the advanced IR-8 centrifuge infrastructure in Natanz and manufacture new complete advanced centrifuges. So while it will still only be enriching uranium at low levels for fifteen years, it will have five years of testing and manufacturing more advanced machinery before the deal’s restrictions on enrichment levels expire. Despite the fact that the NPT and the Additional Protocol will still apply in perpetuity, Iran has quite clearly violated the NPT in the past and I see no reason to assume that it won’t do so again, so I do not assume that the break out provisions are going to operative past fifteen years.
When it comes to sneak out, I am less satisfied. The agreement provides for only 150 IAEA inspectors to monitor the entire country, which frankly is a joke in a country the size of Iran. The prevention of a sneak out path to a bomb is predicated on Iran having to declare all of its existing facilities before the deal is implemented and having to inform inspectors ahead of time if it decides to build any new facilities, since otherwise detecting secret centrifuge facilities – as opposed to plutonium facilities – is not easy (see Fordow for a relevant and recent example). Furthermore, if inspectors request access to a suspected undeclared location, Iran has two weeks from the time that access is requested to think about it, and if it decides to keep inspectors out, a majority of the Joint Commission (P5+1, EU representative, and Iran) has to vote to force Iran to resolve the situation, at which point Iran has another ten days to negotiate and implement whatever solution the Joint Commission ultimately imposes. This is certainly not the “anytime, anywhere” inspections that were going to make deal skeptics comfortable and that would be required for true, absolute verification of Iranian compliance. Aaron Stein, who is my guru on the technical issues, is far more sanguine on the arms control provisions of the deal, and I am told by those who know these issues much better than I that three and a half weeks is not nearly enough time to dismantle a covert enrichment facility and scrub all evidence of the centrifuges, tubing, etc. so perhaps the two weeks plus ten days is not as disastrous as it seems to my admittedly amateur eyes. But ultimately, your comfort level here has to rest on trust. If you assume that Iran is not going to hold anything back or try to cheat the system, then you’re probably ok with the measures that this deal puts in place. But as President Obama himself said earlier today, the deal is predicated verification rather than trust, and assuming that Iran has nothing that they won’t tell us about appears to me to be a big hole in the deal when you don’t really have a good way of detecting secret facilities. Given that much sanctions relief and embargo relief can expire earlier than the designated eight year period if the IAEA certifies that all nuclear material in Iran remains in peaceful activities, and that the additional requirements on top of this deal imposed by the NPT and the Additional Protocol rely on eternal Iranian compliance, I wouldn’t bet very much money that Iran is going to remain in its nuclear box in perpetuity.
The other big element that I have an issue with is the question of Iran’s conventional weapons and lifting the current arms embargo. It was widely reported in the last couple of days that the deal was stuck on this point, and Obama’s statement today portrayed this as a win since the weapons embargo will last another five year and the ballistic missile ban another eight years. Why this wasn’t set as an absolute red line related to Iran’s non-nuclear behavior is mystifying to me, since it is Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism worldwide, rather than its nuclear program, that create an impetus for a general arms embargo. I understand why the compromises on Arak and Fordow are smart, since they hand Iran a pyrrhic victory by allowing it to save face and claim that it keeps all of its facilities while at the same time rendering those two facilities more or less harmless given the monitoring regime that has been set up for known nuclear sites. The conventional arms and ballistic missiles would have been a red line for me, and that we are essentially denying Iran nuclear weapons – which it would have been highly unlikely to actually use anyway and which are historically defensive weapons – and in return allowing it to arm to the teeth with stuff that it will use to create trouble around the Middle East is worrisome to say the least.
Which brings me to my next point, which is that it is difficult to see how this deal advances conventional peace and stability in the Middle East over the next decade even as it pushes a nuclear Iran farther away. Contra the president’s assumptions, Iran is almost certainly going to use the money in sanctions relief to continue fighting proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and continuing its general covert war with the Sunni world, not to mention its sponsorship of terrorism against Israeli and Western targets. By all means celebrate a temporary victory on the nuclear front, but the idea that this will bring peace in our time or stability to the Middle East is ridiculous. The impetus for the deal from the administration’s perspective has clearly been a conviction that Iran is changing socially and politically and that the regime cannot go on forever, and that a nuclear deal will empower moderates, create pressure from below for change, etc. This view is hubristic; I know of nobody who can accurately predict with any type of certainty or accuracy whether and when regimes will collapse, or how social trends will impact a deeply authoritarian state’s political trajectory (and yes, Iran is a deeply authoritarian state, liberalizing society and elected parliament or not). Certainly providing the regime with an influx of cash, cooperation on regional issues, and better access to arms is not going to hasten the end of the mullahs’ rule, so much as I find it hard to condemn the deal entirely because of some clear positives on the nuclear issue, I find it just as hard to celebrate this as some clear and celebratory foreign policy victory.
That does not mean that everything on the regional front will be doom and gloom. Think about Iran before sanctions were imposed in 2006. Was Iran considered to be an existential threat to U.S. security? To work security? In a position to be a regional hegemon that was going to imminently dominate the Middle East? Certainly Iran was a real foreign policy problem, but nobody worried that the era of Iranian domination was nigh. This deal basically restores the status quo ante in that regard – with the one very large exception that Iran’s reliable Syrian ally Bashar al-Assad is in a much worse position than he was – and so the question is whether Iran has been so successful under sanctions that the lifting of sanctions is now going to automatically mean a regional apocalypse. My bet is that the answer to this question is that it has not. Israel has obviously been the country most concerned about Iran, and Bibi Netanyahu has not in any way tried to hide his anger over the deal since its conclusion was announced, but in some ways I think this deal actually benefits Israel more than it does the U.S. As I have emphasized, the pure nuclear component is the strongest element here, and so I truly believe that Israel can breathe more easily about a nuclear Iran for at least a decade, which is more than it would be able to do were there no deal at all. If Iran is spending its energies and new conventional capabilities and wealth on propping up Bashar al-Assad, fighting ISIS, reinforcing the Houthis in Yemen, providing security for the government in Iraq, and all of the other things it is doing around the region, then Israel is better off than it would otherwise be. Iranian backing for Hizballah is still an enormous problem that should not be underemphasized, and once the Syrian civil war is over it will primarily be a problem for Israel, but faced with a choice between a nuclear Iran vs. an Iran that can better arm and train Hizballah, most Israeli leaders would choose the latter option, even if it is a terrible one. A nuclear Iran was always a bigger problem for Israel than for the U.S., whereas an Iran that has more conventional capabilities to cause trouble for American allies and harass shipping in the Gulf is a bigger problem for the U.S. than Israel. Obviously these are not mutually exclusive, but to the extent that this deal makes the nuclear aspect less problematic and the regional adventurism more problematic, Israel benefits more. As one might guess, I do not think Israel’s initial reaction to the deal was particularly smart, but I’ll save that for another post later in the week.
The bottom line for me is that there are elements of this deal to like and elements of this deal to detest. Ceteris paribus on the sole question of nuclear weapons in the short term, this is certainly better than no deal, but the problem is that the deal cannot be judged solely on the nuclear question given everything else involved. It is tough for me to see how this agreement permanently prevents proliferation in the region in the long term and I certainly do not think it will transform the Middle East in a markedly good way. Ultimately, the whole thing really hinges on Obama’s bet on the future direction of Iran as opposed to Iranian compliance with the deal’s provisions, and as I have elaborated upon before at some length, I am on the opposite side of the president’s bet.
July 9, 2015 § 5 Comments
I have a piece out in Politico in which I argue that Israel’s tendency to take the most extreme position available on an issue is hurting it in tangible ways. The two areas that I point to – although there are others – are Israel’s influence on the Iran negotiations and Israel’s defense of its actions in Gaza. In both situations, Israel is largely in the right, but this fact gets obscured by the Israeli government setting a bar so high for itself that everything else it says tends to get ignored and it puts itself unnecessarily on the defensive. To my mind, it betrays a sense of Israeli insecurity that shouldn’t actually be there, and I wish that the Israeli government would take a step back and reassess its strategy for dealing with threats of all sorts. Here is the opening of the piece:
With the latest deadline for nuclear talks with Iran looming at the end of the week, we can already predict the biggest loser in the event of a deal: Israel. An agreement along the lines of what has been reported is not what Israel wanted. It was never going to be. But the shortsighted, take-no-prisoners stance of the Israeli government has guaranteed that its concerns got shorter shrift than was absolutely necessary.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s incessant calls to prohibit any Iranian enrichment of uranium—when it was clear very early on that the P5+1 was not going to proceed along such lines—did not serve to set a negotiating baseline. Instead, it ended up marginalizing Israel and created a situation in which the American negotiating team became even more indifferent to Israeli interests. By making what was an unrealistic goal the centerpiece of his opposition strategy rather than focusing on attainable elements, such as thorough inspections or limits on ballistic missiles, Netanyahu damaged his own cause. The perception that he, not Iran, was the unreasonable party marginalized Netanyahu and assured that negotiators would not take anything else he said seriously, irrespective of the underlying truth at the heart of his position, namely that Iran is a bad actor that has spent decades fighting Israel and the West and destabilizing the Middle East.
The arena of Iranian negotiations is not the only one in which Israel’s tendency to take an extreme position has obscured the justice of an underlying issue. While Iran is the threat that looms largest in the eyes of the Netanyahu government, another major one is diplomatic isolation, a multi-tentacled menace that requires a coordinated response if Israel is to defeat it. The danger is embodied by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which seeks to isolate Israel economically and culturally, but the larger risk lies with a growing perception among mass audiences that Israel deserves extra opprobrium for actions that are depicted as extraordinarily beyond the pale. Recognizing the danger of this development, the Israeli government has attacked it with guns blazing, but often in a way that leads to Israel shooting itself in the foot.
Read the rest at: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/07/iran-deal-israel-119852.html#ixzz3fOuJ1tTW
June 8, 2015 § 1 Comment
If you read any of the coverage of yesterday’s Turkish election, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the AKP suffered a crushing defeat. Tayyip Erdoğan’s dreams of an imperial presidency appear to be dead, the AKP no longer has a majority of seats in the Grand National Assembly and will be forced into either a coalition or a minority government for the first time since coming to power in 2002 (and go read Aaron Stein for a great breakdown of the various possibilities), and the party performed far below nearly everyone’s expectations (including my own). At the same time, calling this a defeat seems bizarre given that the AKP beat the second place CHP by 15 points and 126 seats and will still control the government, albeit from a weakened position. I wrote about the election today for Foreign Affairs and argued that the election results should not give cause for instant jubilation to the AKP’s opponents:
Imagine a country in which the ruling party—having won three consecutive national elections over the past decade-plus—wins its fourth in a row, beating the second-place party by over fifteen percentage points, and yet nearly every outside observer declares the result to be a disastrous loss for that party. This is the situation in which Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) now finds itself following Sunday’s parliamentary elections. Prime Minister turned President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is still ensconced in his thousand-room palace, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu will remain at his post, and the AKP is going to continue dominating the government as either a minority ruling party or as the lead party in an extremely lopsided coalition. Wherever you look, though, the AKP’s political obituary is being written.
It is easy to understand why schadenfreude reigns supreme among the 60 percent of Turks who voted for a party other than the AKP. In the span of one election, the AKP has gone from 49.8 of the vote and just three seats short of a coveted supermajority in the Grand National Assembly to having to rely on the backing of another party for the first time since it came to power in 2002. Six in every ten Turkish voters cast their ballots for an opposition party, and when taking into account Erdogan’s very public drive for the AKP to win 400 seats in order to give him the increased presidential powers that he so desperately covets, it is in many ways a devastating blow. The path to a formal presidential system—one that many feared would put Turkey on the fast track to full-blown democratic breakdown—has petered out. This in itself is plenty cause for celebration. However, the exuberance that reigns supreme in many quarters should be tempered; although the results of this election will prove good in the long run, the short-term aftermath may prove decidedly unpleasant.
To read the rest, including why I think the AKP’s disappointing performance may counterintuitively empower Erdoğan, please head over to Foreign Affairs.
June 4, 2015 § 5 Comments
When Turkish voters go to the polls this Sunday, it will mark the end of what has been an interminable 15 month long election cycle in Turkey encompassing municipal elections, a presidential election, and finally parliamentary elections. This would be have been taxing under the best of circumstances, but given the factors involved – including but not limited to the transition of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from prime minister to president, the fate of Erdoğan’s desired constitutional overhaul and prospective presidential system, the pending forced retirement of term-limited AKP legislators, the ongoing fallout from the Syrian civil war, the Kurdish peace process hanging on by a thread, the increasingly nationalist tone of the government following the 2013 Gezi protests, the war between the AKP and its former Gülenist allies, worsening assaults on freedom of speech and expression, and allegations of rampant AKP corruption – the last 15 months have been rough on Turkish society and Turkey’s political system, to say the least. Many of my Turkish friends are eager for Sunday’s election to be behind them and hope that this will mark a turning point of some sort that puts an end to what has been a volatile time by any measure.
Despite this fervent wish, not only are the parliamentary elections unlikely to bring much stability, but there is a significant likelihood that the immediate and medium-term aftermath will be even stormier than the past couple of years. There are too many variables in play that hinge on the election’s results, and many of them will create chaos irrespective of the outcome. Rather than do a deep dive into what the actual outcome of the elections themselves will be – for that you can read excellent previews from Carnegie Europe, the Center for American Progress, and my friend Aaron Stein, and your first and last source for polling and polling analysis should be the indispensable James in Turkey blog – I thought I’d highlight some issues to watch out for that are main drivers of Turkish political volatility and that will be magnified in the election’s aftermath.
The most immediately pressing issue is the role of Turkish Kurds going forward. The outcome of the election will primarily hinge on the success or failure of the Kurdish HDP in passing the 10% vote threshold – the world’s highest such threshold – that is required for a party to sit in the Grand National Assembly, and nearly everything that happens is going to follow from this result. When the last legal polls were published last week (publishing polls is prohibited within ten days of the election), the HDP was hovering between 10.2% and 10.6%. For comparison’s sake, the HDP’s candidate in the presidential election, Selahattin Demirtaş, received 9.76%, which surprised most observers as he was not expected to do so well, and most analysts attributed his success to his personal appeal rather than to the party’s. Demirtaş is the party leader and is thus the public face of the HDP for this election as well, but he needs to improve his party’s performance by pulling off two difficult maneuvers that are diametrically opposed. He has to simultaneously attract disaffected liberals who voted for the AKP or CHP in past elections and attract religiously conservative Kurds who voted for the AKP in 2002, 2007, and 2011. Without siphoning off voters in both of these groups, the 10% threshold is going to be hard to crack as there is not a large enough base for the party to rely on its traditional Kurdish supporters alone. While I hope that the HDP makes it into the Assembly since it represents a new and important voice, my gut tells me that it will not. Aside from having a tough uphill climb, it is operating in an environment in which the AKP has an enormous incentive to ensure that the HDP does not make it in (more on that below) and is close enough to the 10% line that some well placed election fraud – such as occurred in last year’s municipal elections – will guarantee that it falls short.
If this happens, Turkey is going to experience protests and unrest on a scale that equals and likely surpasses those that rocked the country during the Gezi protests of June 2013. The southeast of the country, where the majority of Turkey’s Kurds reside, is going to be a disaster zone, since it will be impossible to convince Kurds that the HDP lost fair and square. Turkish Kurds are highly distrustful of the government and believe that the government has been supporting ISIS in an effort to stamp out Kurdish nationalism. Kurds blame the government for not actively aiding Kurdish fighters in the fight against ISIS for the Syrian town of Kobane and for preventing the fighters from being resupplied, and this resentment is not one that will merely linger and eventually dissipate. Kurds also see the handwriting on the wall of a potential coalition between the AKP and the ultra-nationalist MHP if the AKP does not receive enough seats to form a government outright, and such a result will mean the cessation of any conciliatory moves in the name of the Kurdish peace process. In short, Turkish Kurds believe that the government has sold them out and will continue to do so in the future, and if the HDP does not receive a high enough vote share on Sunday, there is going to be unrest on a mass scale. It will also raise the question of how Kurds fit into Turkey’s political system, since the decision by the HDP to run as a party rather than as independents signals a Kurdish desire to renounce violence and separatism, and to work within the confines of Turkish politics. If this gesture is rebuffed in a way that convinces Kurds that the government is fraudulently trying to keep them out, it will be a terrible squandering of a historic moment in relations between Kurds and the Turkish state. It will tell Kurds that their grievances will never be redressed through politics, and it will empower the PKK and those who are inclined toward terrorism and separatism, unleashing a new round of violence similar to that which racked Turkey in the 1990s.
If the HDP does not crack the threshold, Kurds are not the only ones who will be upset. HDP votes will be reapportioned, with the AKP receiving most of them as the largest overall vote getter and the only other party that receives votes in the HDP’s stronghold of southeastern Turkey, and this could boost the AKP’s share to a 3/5 supermajority of 330 seats (the party currently has 311). This matters because Erdoğan’s single-minded focus since becoming president last summer has been on remaking Turkey’s political system into a presidential one, and 330 seats is the number he needs in order to submit a new constitution to a referendum. It is for this reason that he needs the HDP to fall short of the magic 10% number, and without that happening, not only is his dream of an empowered presidency dead in the water, the AKP is not guaranteed to reach the 276 seats it needs to form a government outright and may be forced to form a coalition for the first time since coming to power in 2002. The incentive for the party and for Erdoğan personally is to suppress the HDP’s vote, which is why both Erdoğan – who is constitutionally not allowed to campaign for any party and is prohibited from being a party member, but who in reality is still the de facto leader of the AKP – and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have been striking hard at the HDP and Demirtaş every chance they get. The prospect of an even more powerful President Erdoğan terrifies many non-AKP supporters, which is why if the HDP does not make it into the parliament, protests and unrest will not be limited to Kurds and southeastern Turkey. Anecdotally, there are a not insignificant number of erstwhile CHP supporters who are planning to vote for the HDP, and Istanbul and Izmir are likely to erupt should the AKP receive a supermajority on the back of a failed HDP bid. If I am right about the HDP ultimately falling short, Turkey is going to be in for a long and contentious summer, with all of the now-familiar scenes that have accompanied recent summers – tear gas, TOMA water cannons, police beating protestors, and mass arrests on vague and undefined terrorism charges.
Even if the HDP does garner 10%, another prevailing source of instability will be the continuing unraveling and unpredictability of Erdoğan, whose behavior has become nuttier as time goes on. If he does not get his presidential system, he is not going to react well to what will be his first real loss in over a decade, and for a guy used to getting what he wants – thousand room palaces, gilded drinking glasses, having his spy chief remain in his post despite said spy chief resigning and announcing a run for parliament – this will be a new reality for him. Erdoğan has built an independent power base of advisers and sycophants that make up a parallel government and that Turks now refer to in shorthand as “the Palace” and he intends to use it. If his presidential dreams are dashed, there is no telling what he will do and to what lengths he will go to try and get what he wants, but one can guarantee that whatever he does will be divisive and damaging to Turkish democracy, which as Erik Meyersson points out, is hanging on by a thread as it is even in the context of the very elections that purportedly legitimate Turkey as democratic. The perpetuation of Turkey’s current parliamentary system also means that the maneuvering between Erdoğan and the Palace on the one hand and Davutoğlu and the prime minister’s office on the other will continue, with jockeying between the dueling power bases. The AKP is already divided between the two camps, as personified by the spat between deputy prime minister and co-AKP founder Bülent Arınç and Ankara mayor “Mad” Melih Gökçek, and a setback for the prospective presidential system is not going to end this fight. It will continue to divide the AKP and prolong the Twilight Zone aspect of nobody knowing who is actually in charge and whether Erdoğan or Davutoğlu is running the country and the party. So long as the party controlling the government is unstable – and the AKP is as unstable as it has ever been – it is going to filter down into every aspect of governance, and while it may lead to the AKP’s downfall, which many will welcome, it may also lead to chaos for Turkey itself.
If the HDP does not get enough votes and the AKP does get to 330, this does not guarantee stability either. While Erdoğan has cowed dissident party members for years, there is significant dissension in the ranks. There is no guarantee that the AKP will march forward in lockstep toward unlimited Erdoğan despotism, and certainly the other parties are not going to lay down quietly without a fight. There will be nastiness ahead during the struggle over the terms of the new constitution within the Assembly, and then the real fighting will take place in the run-up to the referendum. As bad as things have been during the perpetual campaign of the past year and a half, it will be that much worse during the campaigning over the very future of Turkey’s political system. The talk of lobbies – Jewish, Armenian, interest rate, Greek, robot, preacher’s, blood, chaos, gay, atheist, and Alevi are among Erdoğan’s greatest hits – and foreign conspiracies will only intensify as Erdoğan seeks to paint all of his opponents as enemies not of him but of the “New Turkey” and of Turkish progress. If you think what has come up until now has been bad, just wait for what comes once Erdoğan really turns on the afterburners.
Finally, there is the question of whether the end of this seemingly perpetual election season will restore some stability to Turkey’s foreign policy and its relations with its once and future allies. There is certainly an argument to be made that if Turkey has some space to strategically reorient itself with regard to the U.S. and to the Middle East, it will undo some of the damage that has been done. Unfortunately, while Turkish domestic politics and the over-the-top rhetoric that has served the government’s domestic political needs have contributed to its foreign policy disarray, I don’t think that the end of Erdoğan and the AKP’s permanent campaign mode is going to be enough. Jon Schanzer and Merve Tahiroğlu take a quick glance around the region and convincingly argue that Ankara’s isolation is a permanent feature rather than a bug of its quest for regional dominance given the constraints under which it operates. I myself argued in World Politics Review earlier this week that Turkey’s relationship with Israel is doomed to the status quo for the indefinite future, and despite the nascent cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey on training and arming a subset of Syrian rebels, there is too much dividing the two countries for the relationship to be as robust as it appeared during President Obama’s first term. As much as Turkey is trying to create a new normal for itself in its neighborhood, its efforts can only go so far.
In sum, whatever happens on Sunday, Turkey is not about to enter a newly stable period. Turkish politics are in flux in ways that haven’t been seen in decades, Turkish society is reaching a boiling point, alarm bells are going off all over the economy, and Turkey is involving itself in proxy wars all over the Middle East. While it would be nice to chalk up the last couple of years to the constant electioneering, the fact is that Turkey is in a bad place, and nobody can confidently predict that it will get better with the advent of a new government.
April 23, 2015 § 1 Comment
With the Turkish parliamentary election a little more than six weeks away – and being cognizant of the fact that I’ve been ignoring the Ottomans side of the blog in recent months – today’s guest post comes to you from Selim Koru, who is a research fellow at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV) in Ankara. He focuses on Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East and Central Asia, and his post delves into some of the policy changes the CHP has made in an effort to be more electorally competitive and cut into the AKP’s vote share in June. You can follow him on Twitter @SelimKoru
It is tempting to write the CHP campaign’s obituary before the June 7 elections. Turkey’s main opposition party has racked up one spectacular loss after another in the past two decades. It has been clinging to a bankrupt ideology, was consumed by internal squabbling, and blinded by a stubborn sense of entitlement that comes from being Turkey’s founding party. It survived on its core of ideological supporters, who are concentrated in big cities and the Western coast. In the absence of a viable opposition, the AK Party dominated the scene.
It appears however, that the CHP is now squinting into the light of electoral politics. Party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu introduced his platform last weekend, and to the country’s surprise, his more than 70-minute speech was not focused on the threat of creeping Islamization, or corruption under AK Party rule. He talked mostly about economic policy. His party seems to have come up with an overall economic plan, then dissected its electorate into groups and targeted each one in offering some reasons to vote for the party. Retired people get holiday bonuses, young people get their credit card interests lowered, farmers get lower fuel prices, newlyweds get lower housing prices and family insurance (delivered to women’s bank accounts) and so on. In other words, planners and strategists at the CHP seem to have done something resembling their actual jobs. They have tried to go beyond their core of 20-25 percent of the electorate, and to convince the middle to vote for them. And they haven’t done that through ideological tricks, like posing for photos with headscarved women, but with actual policy proposals.
Of course this brings problems with it. The Minister of Finance joked the next day that if the CHP showed him how they were going to pay for their promises without exploding the budget, he would vote for them. His point was well received. Turkish politics has a history of big promises, and people haven’t forgotten. In 1991, Tansu Ciller promised every farmer a tractor; the Islamist Necmettin Erbakan was going to abolish interest rates across the board; Süleyman Demirel said everyone would have “three keys” – to a home, a car, and a workplace – and once, that he would give “five liras more than whatever anyone else is giving.” That is why Kılıçdaroğlu’s election promises summoned the specter of the 1990s, a time of dysfunctional coalitions governments and debts to the IMF, remembered today as imperialist overlords. The AK Party press of course, has lost no time to accuse Kılıçdaroğlu of “exhuming old Turkey.”
That means that Kılıçdaroğlu treads a narrow path. He needs to grab people’s attention with ambitious promises, but remain credible. So far, things have been a little shaky. CHP spokesmen have said that the money for their election promises was there, but that the AK Party’s corruption kept it off the books. Kılıçdaroğlu himself has tried to reassure people by reminding them of his past as a star bureaucrat at the Ministry of Finance, where he managed the social security budget. He has been uncharacteristically confident on fiscal matters, recently responding to the Finance Minister’s comments by saying that “he doesn’t know how taxes are collected, I do.” He will have to stay on the offensive in the run-up to June 7.
The party leader is getting help from an eclectic team. He has chosen an unusual number of new parliamentary candidates, which should enliven the party’s base. The CHP leadership has also been fed polls and ideas by the Benenson Strategy Group, an American firm that has worked for Obama and is said to be working with the 2016 Clinton campaign. The real firepower however, comes from Ali Taran, whose advertising firm is known for its role in the rise of the “Genç Party” (Youth Party), which was founded right before its first and last elections in 2002. The party is infamous for having raised its vote from zero to 7.25 by making promises like free textbooks, or fixing the price of diesel gas to one lira. The CHP should not abandon responsibility, but it could well benefit from that kind of skill to liven up its base.
In the end, however, the CHP will have to pick off disillusioned AK Party voters if it wants to improve on its recent underwhelming performance, which should be possible in this election. Polls place the AK Party vote around the low 40th percentile, which is lower than usual. The party has lost much appeal in the past year, as even senior members have been chafing under President Erdoğan’s domineering presence. On the other hand, the AK Party continues to have by far the best grassroots organization and a superb communication strategy. Erdoğan has developed a grand narrative of Turkey as a rising regional power, which makes him impervious to external shocks. A slowing economy can be chalked up to the “interest lobby” and corruption allegations are mere “tricks of the parallel state.”
Kılıçdaroğlu will have to pierce that fog of inevitability and convince people that his party is a viable alternative. Given recent history, nobody should expect miracles. If his team stays focused, they might manage to move their vote a bit closer to 30 percent. Depending on how the CHP and other opposition parties perform, we might be looking at a coalition government come June. That could freshen up government, or it could bring back the paralysis of the 1990s. Whatever happens, a little political competition after a long rut is welcome.
April 21, 2015 § 3 Comments
Now that the Israeli elections are in the rearview mirror – although coalition negotiations are still ongoing – it is time to assess the damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship and figure out how to avoid clashes going forward such as those that have marred the past few years. There is no doubt that the relationship is at a low point politically, perhaps even historically low. But it is also the case that it will certainly recover and that we are not seeing the beginning of the end, but are rather going through the sort of blip that happened under Ford in 1975, Reagan in 1981, Bush in 1990, etc. The relationship between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu is the worst between any two presidents and prime ministers, and there is also wide distrust and dislike of ministers such as Bogie Ya’alon and Naftali Bennett in the White House with a corresponding disdain for people like John Kerry and Susan Rice in the prime minister’s office. Ultimately, Obama and Netanyahu are going to move on from the scene, and the robust institutional relationship that still exists at all other levels will be paramount. That said, this fighting at the top levels is ugly and counterproductive, and at some point threatens to become a lasting acrimonious trend rather than a temporary occurrence, so each side needs to think about what can and should be done to prevent future misunderstandings big and small.
Starting with the Israeli side, this government and all future governments need to understand that support from the U.S. is predicated on a number of things, but first and foremost on the idea of shared democratic values. I have written about this at length in academic form and the post-9/11 picture is a bit more complicated, but the executive summary is that it is easy to draw a direct line from public preferences to foreign policy formation in this particular case, and Americans don’t care whether or not Israel is a strategic asset or liability but do care whether or not Israel is a liberal democracy. Furthermore, the erosion of support for Israel on the left and among younger voters is even more tightly tied to this (whether Israel could do anything that would be able to satisfy some of this segment is a separate question). Netanyahu’s lackluster moves toward creating a Palestinian state and his ugly election day display thus matter hugely in this regard, and all of the “yes, but” arguments that seek to mitigate these things don’t matter, even if they are true. Maybe a Palestinian negotiating partner that was more serious and responsive to Israeli concessions or an altered security environment would prompt Netanyahu to leave the West Bank, and maybe Netanyahu’s rejection of a Palestinian state on his watch really was meant to be qualified and his warning that Arabs are coming to the polls in droves wasn’t about Arabs specifically but just shorthand for leftwing voters. Even if you fervently believe these things – and, for what it’s worth, I am hugely skeptical – it doesn’t matter when it comes to the relationship with the U.S., because they both chip away at the vision in the American mind of Israel as a like-minded country that we can easily understand and with which we can sympathize. What Israeli governments need to understand is that 99% of people outside of Israel are not following the daily back and forth of Israeli politics and policy, and so the rapidly spreading perception of Israel as an increasingly illiberal country seeking to shout down minorities and keep the Palestinians in a state of perpetual occupied statelessness doesn’t have to be true in order to be damaging. Once Israel is seen as abandoning the two state solution and the peace process, the game is over and Israel becomes like any other country when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. The only priority the Israeli government should have going forward when it comes to the U.S. is preserving the possibility of an eventual two state solution, even if such an outcome is currently impossible.
The Israel Policy Forum released a statement of principles last week that is dead-on in this regard. It explicitly recognizes that a negotiated two state solution is not imminent for a variety of reasons, but that preserving the possibility of two states happening at some point down the road is critical. It recognizes the security bind that Israel is in and thus does not demand that Israel simply pull out of the West Bank tomorrow, and unqualifiedly states that Palestinian moves to encourage the BDS movement or to use the ICC are counterproductive. At the same time, the statement is clear that advancing the goal of two states for two people is the key to U.S.-Israel relations, among other things, and that this means rethinking settlement policy and embracing ways out of the bind such as the Arab Peace Initiative. This is on target because it displays an understanding of the fact that just because Israel may not be able to create a Palestinian state at this point in time due to circumstances both of its own doing and beyond its control does not obviate the necessity to keep this goal alive, if for no other reason than to preserve the crucial relationship with the U.S.
For a variety of historical reasons, no matter what it does Israel is never going to be a normal country accepted by everyone. Anti-Semitism is a very real phenomenon and it underpins much (although not all) of anti-Zionism, and the strain of anti-imperial ideology that exists in many places is never going to be comfortable with Israel whether it pulls out of the West Bank or not. Israel does not and never will live a completely normal life. But this fact makes it even more important for Israel to have completely clean hands and to not give anyone any excuse to condemn her, since double standards when it comes to Israel are a permanent fact of life. The U.S. is a country that actually does sympathize with Israel for many reasons, whether it be because of a frontier mentality or Christian Zionism or respect for democracy or solidarity with a Westernized state in the Middle East. Even the U.S., however, is not going to give Israel a blank check, and needs to see that Israel is doing what it can within reason to live up to its ideals. Obama and Netanyahu will continue to loathe each other, and better Israeli behavior on settlements would have had absolutely zero bearing on mitigating West Wing retaliation in the aftermath of the Netanyahu speech to Congress, but looking at a longer time horizon and anticipating what happens once the principals change, Israel needs to do a better job on always acting like a country that values its democracy first and foremost, and that is ready to live next to a Palestinian state when the Palestinians are ready to live next to Israel. When you rule out that possibility entirely, what the Palestinians are or are not doing simply doesn’t matter when it comes to better relations with the U.S.
On the U.S. side, just as Israel needs to understand what is important to the U.S., the U.S. needs to better understand what is important to Israel. As a political scientist, one of the things that I think the Obama administration has gotten right is an understanding that countries have their own internal politics and that this cannot be simply brushed away as an inconvenient fact to be ignored. Public opinion matters, in authoritarian states as well as in democracies (in fact, it may be even more important in authoritarian states where the only outlet for dissatisfaction is violence in the streets), and even a government in a country like Iran with a Supreme Leader ironically has to take politics into account when taking action like selling a nuclear deal. Yet, when it comes to Israel, the Obama White House seems to forget this lesson and grants Netanyahu zero leeway. If the U.S. wants the Israeli government to stop acting so hostile, it needs to get a better sense of when to push and when to lay off, since not all perceived Israeli misdeeds are created equal.
To take an important example, the Obama administration’s views on the moral and practical problems with settlements are strident, but in expressing this, it rarely takes into account the fact that Israelis do not view all settlement activity as equal, and so putting all settlements into the same boat makes Israelis feel as if the U.S. does not understand Israeli realities. For instance, 90% of Israelis, if not more, do not view building in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as settlement activity, and are deeply resentful of efforts to prevent building in their own capital. Every time Marie Harf or Jen Psaki says something negative about Israeli construction in neighborhoods like Gilo or Har Homa, Netanyahu seizes the opportunity to slam the U.S. government, and not only is he not wrong to do so in the minds of the vast majority of Israelis, it wins him points in their eyes. Within the West Bank as well, many Israelis make distinctions between building in settlement blocs that will be part of Israel in any eventual deal and building in areas outside of the blocs, but the U.S. publicly does not recognize any distinction between an apartment in French Hill or Efrat and one in Kiryat Arba, and this is a problem. Just as Israel needs to recognize U.S. realities, the U.S. needs to do the same with Israeli realities, and one of these realities is that not all building outside the Green Line is equal by a long shot. When the administration treats all building as the same, it makes the Israeli government throw its hands in the air in frustration and assume that since it will get criticism no matter what it does, it may as well do whatever it likes. If this administration or any future one wants to get the Israeli government to crack down on the problematic settlements and to stop expanding blocs like Ma’ale Adumim or Ariel that legitimately cut into the West Bank so as to threaten its territorial continuity, then it has to be very clear with the Israeli government that it understands that Gilo and similar neighborhoods are always going to be a part of Israel. Without acknowledging where Israeli politics are on this issue, the U.S. will never have the trust of either the Israeli government or the Israeli public when it comes to territorial concessions. Even if the U.S. does not publicly acknowledge Israel’s right to build in Ramot or Alon Shvut, it needs to privately concede the point and pick its public battles more carefully if it wants an Israeli prime minister to ever be able to sell a deal with the Palestinians.
Relatedly, Netanyahu has obviously born the brunt of the anger coming from the White House and has been raked over the coals numerous times, and I think that in many instances it is deserved, but to give the man credit where it it due, he is capable of instituting a policy of doing no harm. He has not expanded settlements at a faster pace than his predecessors, and he has initiated new ones on a much reduced scale than his predecessors. He also instituted a building freeze outside of Jerusalem for nine months when asked, and has very quietly instituted a freeze on new settlement projects even in Jerusalem this year. The point is not that Netanyahu is a peacenik, but that even he is capable of doing things that will make the U.S. happy, and that giving the Israeli government a little bit of breathing space may do wonders for American priorities.
For both sides, it is imperative in the future to keep disputes behind closed doors rather than air them in public. This applies to the U.S. taking Netanyahu to task for a wide variety of real and perceived misdeeds, and it applies even more heavily to Israel doing things like trying to sabotage an Iran deal by embarrassing the White House in very public ways. Aside from the fact that it poisons the relationship, it ends up being massively counterproductive for everyone involved. Is there really anyone left who thinks that Netanyahu’s speech to Congress moved the needle in the direction he wanted rather than doing the opposite by forcing Democrats to publicly side with the president even if their inclination was to do otherwise? Does anyone really believe that publicly threatening to withhold American vetoes in the United Nations Security Council is going to have a salutary effect on Israel’s willingness to negotiate with the Palestinians? On issues like settlements, it is in fact vital that the U.S. try to accomplish what it wants in private, since if Netanyahu or any rightwing prime minister is going to give on territorial issues, they will not be able to loudly broadcast it and will need to maintain plausible deniability. The public sniping back and forth is bad for both sides and needs to stop, no matter how cathartic it may be for two parties that could use some couples therapy.
Despite the policy disputes, American and Israeli long term interests still align in many ways. Even on Iran, which is of course the most high profile and deepest disagreement that has caused the most acrimony, the issue may now be working to Israel’s benefit. The White House’s apparent desire to strike a deal at nearly any cost likely means that it will not want to rock the boat in any way with Congress, which makes Israel’s position at the UN a lot safer. Both sides have to learn from past mistakes, such as the U.S. not creating unreasonable expectations for Israel that can’t be met, like a total settlement freeze, and Israel not trying to win fights with an administration when it has no leverage and little influence. The personalities at the top will not be there forever, but if the U.S. continues to use Israel as a wedge issue to score points, or if Israel keeps on behaving as if it is an equal partner – such as when it makes very public demands from U.S. nuclear negotiators that are completely unrelated to the nuclear deal – when it is in fact very much a junior partner, then U.S.-Israel ties really will suffer a blow that is not so easily recoverable. Both sides need to step back, realize what is important to the other, what is doable within the confines of the political and security environment, and recalibrate things.