May 17, 2013 § 4 Comments
Today’s post comes from the great mind of Alexander Slater, who aside from being a close friend and one of my all-time favorite intellectual sparring partners is also a counsel at O’Melveny & Myers, where he works in the White Collar and Corporate Investigations practice. He has degrees from Yale, Harvard, and Oxford, is a former foreign policy adviser to Chuck Schumer, and is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist Network. He and I were in Turkey together in March, and as Prime Minister Erdoğan is visiting DC this week, it is a good opportunity for Ally to expound on the gap between the constant rhetoric from the U.S. and Turkish governments about the friendship between the two countries on the one hand and the reality of the public opinion numbers on the other.
When the Obama Administration originally announced yesterday’s White House meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it explained that “[t]he Prime Minister’s visit underscores the close friendship between the United States and Turkey.” But are Turkey and the United States really friends?
This is not an idle question. As the United States’ close relations with Canada and the United Kingdom show, genuine friendships among states, as opposed to alliances based on the coincidence of national interests, can be powerful strategic assets. Especially in electoral democracies, relationships based on a mutual admiration among their people, not merely their governments, can endure beyond momentary, or even lasting, differences in foreign policies. (Canada’s refusal to join the coalition of states participating in the Iraq War is a case in point.)
Given the importance that Turkey and the United States place on their bilateral relations, then, the White House’s statement should be seen as more than polite diplomatic speak. Unfortunately, it also appears to be wrong, at least if the results from Pew Research’s 2012 Global Attitudes Survey are to be believed.
According to the survey, only 15 percent of Turks have a favorable opinion of the United States. Even fewer —only 13 percent—indicated they have a “favorable view of the American people.” (This was the lowest score of people from any of the twenty-one countries surveyed. By contrast, 32 percent of Egyptians and 39 percent of Chinese—nationals of countries with arguably more contentious relations with the United States than Turkey—had a favorable view of Americans.) These results are surprising because many people from both countries have a lot in common, even if their historical, religious, and cultural backgrounds differ.
I know this because in March I spent two weeks in Turkey as a participant in the third installment of the Young Turkey, Young America program, an intercultural exchange run jointly by the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, and Sabanci University’s Istanbul Policy Center. As part of the program, fifteen Turks and fifteen Americans, all young professionals, spent a month together traveling across the two countries, meeting with officials from their commercial, political and civil society communities. The Pew survey results paint a very different picture than what I saw and heard during our travels.
For instance, according to the Pew survey, only 14 percent of Turks said they “like[d] . . . American ways of doing business.” (Like the results discussed above, this was the lowest score of people from any of the twenty-one countries surveyed.) And yet, while in Turkey, I saw officials and executives promote commerce and conduct business in ways similar to Americans: The Izmir Chamber of Commerce advertised how the region was a great place for investment; a government official in Ankara proclaimed that Turkey would inspire other countries as a modern economic power where markets and debtors could be trusted; and, while in Istanbul, an executive at one of Turkey’s leading conglomerates sought our ideas on using social media to promote brand development.
There seems to be a similar dynamic at play on political issues. According to the Pew survey, only 13 percent of Turks said they “like[d] . . . American ideas about democracy.” (This was the second-lowest rating, ahead of only Pakistan.) However, what I observed of the practice of politics in Turkey reminded me of these activities in America. At a meeting with an AK Party official, we saw a savvy integration of public relations and religious overtones that could have come straight out of the political handbook of Karl Rove. And almost every day during the trip, newspapers carried stories about Prime Minister Erdogan’s efforts to resolve the Kurdish conflict, including a push for constitutional reform that recognizes Kurds’ minority rights, which would make Turkey’s democracy will look more, rather than less, like its American counterpart.
A sharp critic might respond that these observations are based only on visits to the urban areas of Izmir, Ankara, and Istanbul—places where one would expect there to be convergence with Western commerce and political practice. This is true. However, together, these three regions represent approximately 30 percent of Turkey’s population and 70 percent of Turks overall are city dwellers, with more moving in every day. These places are increasingly representative of what Turkey is all about.
The issue seems to be that, among large portions of the Turkish public, there are substantial misperceptions of Americans. While recent political differences over the Syrian conflict and the Iraq War may contribute to Turks’ overall negative view of the United States, these policy problems seem unrelated to their apparently unfavorable view of American ways of doing business and democracy. This negativity is all the more surprising given that President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan reportedly have a deep personal relationship.
As the survey data shows, however, a connection between leaders, no matter how popular they are, is not enough to create friendship among peoples: if the two administrations are intent on forming an American-Turkish alliance built on more than a coincidence of interests, they must also devote effort to building up its foundations. One place to start would be to add to a future agenda the development of a bilateral strategy to emphasize domestically what Turks and Americans have in common.
April 18, 2013 § 1 Comment
Yesterday I wrote a post taking the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, to task for his comments on Fazıl Say as reported by Hürriyet Daily News. According to HDN, when asked by reporters to comment on Say – who was sentenced to a 10 month suspended prison sentence for comments deemed to be insulting to religious beliefs – Ricciardone quoted his brother as saying, “A very bad piano player hit the wrong key.” I interpreted this comment to mean that Ricciardone believes that Say was out of line and that the Turkish court system acted appropriately in prosecuting and convicting him, and I was accordingly unsparing in my criticism of the ambassador. Since the piece quoting Ricciardone was published in HDN, which is an English language newspaper, the Turkish language version of the same paper – Hürriyet – has run a one paragraph article in which the quote attributed to the ambassador is slightly different. Hürriyet relates the line as, “Çok fena, piyanist yanlış tuşa bastı,” which translated means, “Too bad, the pianist pressed the wrong key.” To me, there is no substantial difference between this iteration and the original iteration, as I interpret this second version in the same way; the clearest and most obvious reading is that Ricciardone is making a joke about the Say case and implying that Say got himself into trouble for saying the wrong thing.
As I noted yesterday, Ricciardone has gotten into hot water with the Turkish government for being critical of crackdowns on journalists, the army, and general violations of freedom of speech. Indeed, I wrote in the last paragraph of my post, “kudos to him for his previous efforts to highlight abuses of democracy by the Erdoğan government.” That element is what makes this situation such an odd one, as given the entirety of his track record, I am surprised that our ambassador would say something so seemingly callous about the Say case and give cover to the Turkish government to defend Say’s verdict. Nevertheless, the quote as reported appeared to stand for itself, which is why I did not hesitate to be harsh with my criticism.
After I posted yesterday’s blog, it was suggested to me both publicly over Twitter and privately that Ricciardone’s comments could be interpreted in another way, which is that he was criticizing the decision rather than Say. In this reading, his reference to the bad piano player or the pianist means the court, and it is the court that hit the bad note. I think this is a stretch based on the actual comment, but I certainly cannot rule it out, particularly given Ricciardone’s recent history of trying to draw attention to Turkey’s more egregious behavior when it comes to violating freedom of expression. I consequently reached out to the ambassador in an effort to see if he was accurately quoted and whether he would like to clarify his comments, since as readers of this blog hopefully have seen, I am not a flamethrower and I do not harbor an ideological agenda but try to be the best and most accurate analyst I can be. I am not a journalist so I am reliant on what is reported by other but if I got this wrong, I wanted to be able to clarify, correct, and apologize for any mistakes I may have made. Following my reaching out, an embassy spokesperson got back to me today and said, ” The ambassador’s remarks were taken out of context.”
Now, is it possible that Ambassador Ricciardone was criticizing the court’s decision and expressing sympathy for Say, and that he did it in a clumsy manner that got misinterpreted? It certainly cannot be ruled out, and as I said, it would make sense based on the sum total of what we know that he would come down on Say’s side rather than the court’s side. On the other hand, interpreting the line that way requires some mental gymnastics, and the claimed missing context to the comments has not been provided, and most importantly the quote itself has not yet been disputed. So those are all the facts as I know them, and I will leave it up to my readers to decide what Ambassador Ricciardone intended when he commented on the Say case. I will say for myself that if Ambassador Ricciardone intended to express his support for Say and to criticize his conviction, then I unreservedly and without hesitation retract my strident and harsh comments from yesterday and personally apologize for maligning the ambassador, although I am not entirely sure that I am convinced of this interpretation of events quite yet. If there’s more on this to come, I will keep you all posted.
April 17, 2013 § 5 Comments
Earlier this week, Turkish pianist Fazıl Say was handed a 10 month suspended jail sentence by a Turkish court for the crime of insulting religious beliefs. Say’s sentence was based on a series of tweets he wrote a year ago quoting the famed medieval poet Omar Khayyam and voicing the belief that thieves and stupid people are always religious believers. In order to stay out of prison, Say has to avoid a relapse of his alleged crime for the next five years. Say is actually fortunate to be a famous and high profile person, as were he an ordinary Turkish citizen, he would already be serving time in prison and would not have had his sentence suspended, as the case of Abdulkerim U. – who was sentenced to six months in jail for insulting the prophet Muhammad on Facebook – vividly demonstrates. In a move that perfectly encapsulates in one short moment the essence of Prime Minister Erdoğan and what makes him both a successful and infuriating politician, he responded to reporters’ questions about Say by smiling and saying, “Do not occupy our time with such matters.” Unsurprisingly, other government officials followed Erdoğan’s lead in dismissing concerns about the verdict and even justifying it, such as EU Affairs Minister Egeman Bağış who declared the need for people to learn to respect that which is sacred to others, which will no doubt come as great consolation to, say, Turkey’s Alevi community, which is used to having its beliefs and rituals routinely mocked by the prime minister.
On the other hand, observers who are not AKP members were not quite as non-plussed as Erdoğan and his coterie of followers. CHP chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu did not pass up the opportunity to hammer away at the government and questioned whether Turkey actually has a justice system and declared that democracy in Turkey is at stake, and a variety of columnists including Yavuz Baydar and Murat Yetkin have both criticized the substance of the verdict and noted the damage to Turkey’s image abroad. Amnesty International also weighed in, calling the verdict a “flagrant violation of his [Say's] freedom of expression,” and the EU expressed its concern and called on Turkey to take care in respecting freedom of speech. As is apparent, everyone outside of the AKP is taking the Say case very seriously and recognizes it as a stain on Turkish democratic aspirations.
Everyone outside of the AKP, that is, with one notable exception. U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone’s comments on the subject of Say’s sentence were that his brother David Ricciardone, a Massachusetts Supreme Court Judge, remarked to him that “a very bad piano player hit the wrong key.” Yes, you read that correctly: our government’s official representative in Turkey not only declined to condemn what is clearly a gross miscarriage of justice and a blatant violation of democratic values and practice, but tacitly endorsed the court’s decision and joked about it with reporters. I suppose that the good people of Massachusetts are fortunate that Judge Ricciardone is a state judge rather than a federal judge, since his understanding of the First Amendment seems to be on par with that of my 10 month old son. Moving onto the bigger culprit here, it is inconceivable that Ambassador Ricciardone’s initial reaction is one of anything other than outrage. Yes, we don’t want to be meddling in another country’s internal affairs and we want to respect laws abroad that are different from our own, and we also want to maintain a good relationship with the Turkish government, but none of that applies here. Plenty of Turks, both individually and institutionally, are criticizing the Say verdict to the high heavens, and so this does not fall into the category of respecting another culture. This is an instance where if we have any respect for our own democratic values, we are compelled to make it crystal clear that what has taken place with regard to Say and to Abdulkerim U. and to the other hundreds of Turkish citizens who get prosecuted on similar charges is completely unacceptable in our view. Ricciardone instead has chosen to act as a lackey for the Turkish government and turn a blind eye to behavior that we routinely call out on other occasions, and it is evident to me that this is becoming a chronic problem in our relationship with Turkey.
Both publicly and privately, U.S. diplomats who are in charge of our Turkey policy talk about the country as being more democratic now than it has ever been, and while acknowledging some problems with freedom of speech, the overarching and worrisome issues are generally swept under the rug in a disturbing fashion. As I noted a year ago, the U.S. needs Turkey on a host of regional issues, and so it studiously ignores Turkish bad behavior and sticks to the party line about the strength of Turkish democracy. It is one thing, however, to pretend that a problem does not exist, and quite another to contribute to that problem worsening. I am going to assume that the U.S. will express its displeasure with Turkey over the Say verdict behind the scenes, but backing up the government in such a public way like Ricciardone did is enormously damaging irrespective of what goes on later behind closed doors. Ricciardone has been criticized in the past, including just a couple of months ago, by the Turkish government for perceived interference in Turkey’s internal affairs, and kudos to him for his previous efforts to highlight abuses of democracy by the Erdoğan government, but it appears as if his response has been to go way too far in the opposite direction in an effort to curry favor with Ankara. If that is the case, his completely out of line and inappropriate response to the Say verdict should be the impetus for him to take a major course correction immediately.
The embassy says that Ambassador Ricciardone’s quote was taken out of context; please read my follow-up post - http://ottomansandzionists.com/2013/04/18/more-on-ambassador-ricciardone-and-fazil-say/
April 5, 2013 § 2 Comments
While the large number of journalists imprisoned in Turkey is getting increasing attention in the Western media and from press NGOs, an even more widespread – and in some ways more insidious – problem is press intimidation. Journalists in Turkey are under all sorts of pressure not to criticize the government, and end up engaging in self-censorship or are forced to limit what they write by their editors, who are themselves squeezed by the government. This pressure comes in the form of overt intimidation, such as when Prime Minister Erdoğan publicly attacks the press collectively or even singles out individuals for criticism, and comes in the form of de facto bills of attainder, such as when the Doğan Group was fined nearly $3.8 billion in taxes following an investigation into charity fraud that implicated government officials. Reporters and columnists are afraid to write anything about the government, the AKP, or Erdoğan that will be perceived as too harsh, and so much goes unsaid.
In this week’s Economist, Turkish journalist Amberin Zaman details how this process works by relaying how advisers to the prime minister will call an editor to complain about a columnist’s work, that columnist will be asked to tone things down, and will be then fired if he or she does not comply. Zaman notes that anything that has a whiff of scandal about the government gets buried, as do stories about Turkish support for Syrian rebels and Turkey’s role in transferring arms shipments to Syrian groups from the Gulf. None of this is new ground, but Zaman’s piece is especially notable for its timing: after starting to write her essay but before it was published, she was fired from her job as a columnist at Turkish newspaper HaberTürk for – you guessed it – being overly critical of the government. It will be interesting to see if the issue of journalist intimidation gets more traction now outside of Turkey given that Zaman is the Economist’s Turkey correspondent and frequently writes for other American and British publications. In any event, this type of behavior is enormously damaging to Turkey and is bound to backfire. By doing everything it can to protect its reputation at home by staunching criticism, the government is only ensuring that its reputation abroad takes a hit, and government officials’ loud proclamations about Turkish democracy ring hollow as long as reporters and editorialists do not feel free to speak their minds because they are constantly worrying about their job security.
On the flip side, Israel this week provided a good example of why sometimes journalists who are free to write whatever pops into their heads might sometimes want to think before putting down something particularly egregious. Amira Hass, a columnist for Ha’aretz, wrote an ode to Palestinian stone throwing on Wednesday, opening her column with, “Throwing stones is the birthright and duty of anyone subject to foreign rule. Throwing stones is an action as well as a metaphor of resistance.” In advising that some guidelines be developed, she wrote that limitations “could include” – rather than should include – throwing rocks at civilians or at children, although Hass naturally does not want to dictate to Palestinian stone throwers who their targets should be. She went on to make some actually positive and useful suggestions on how Palestinians might implement classes on civil non-violent disobedience and better educate themselves to document Israeli military abuses, but when that stuff comes after you have laid out the divine right of violent stone throwing, it tends to get lost in the ensuing maelstrom. The Yesha Council has accused Hass of inciting violence and filed a police complaint and lodged another complaint with the attorney-general, which will undoubtedly lead to Hass being seen in some quarters as a martyr for press freedom and journalistic integrity.
Hass’s column is largely reprehensible. Not to disturb the righteous indignation of Hass and her supporters, but throwing stones at civilians is inexcusable violence under any guise, and Israel’s military and settler presence in the West Bank does not justify using potentially deadly force against Israeli civilians. Lest you think this is hyperbole, stones thrown at cars in the West Bank in the last two years have killed Asher and Yonatan Palmer – the latter an 11 month old infant – and put 2 year old Adele Bitton in critical condition, in addition to causing numerous other civilian injuries. Calling out stone throwing does not mean that I condone abusive Israeli military behavior in the West Bank, of which there is plenty, since anyone who reads me knows that I do not. But aren’t most of us taught at a very early age the simple maxim that two wrongs does not make a right? In what world is serious violence a “birthright” or a “duty” except to a seriously fevered mind? Just as the attempted lynching of Jamal Joulani for no other reason than his being an Arab hanging out in West Jerusalem was odiously inexcusable, so is throwing rocks at Israelis for no other reason than them being Jews daring to set foot in the West Bank. It would be great if Palestinians lit upon a successful strategy for non-violent resistance to Israeli occupation, and a mass movement along those lines would force the Israeli government to actually change course. In contrast, continuing to advocate violence against Israelis based on the logic that stone throwing is a pittance compared to Israeli machine gun fire is guaranteed to be a losing strategy that perpetuates Israeli control of the West Bank forever. It is wonderful that Hass is free to say whatever she pleases, and it is one of the ways in which Israel’s system of government is far more advanced than Turkey’s, but let’s not pretend that Hass’s abuse of her freedom of speech is a courageous act when it is nothing more than advocacy of violence hiding behind a morally superior attitude and haughty anti-imperialist mask.
March 25, 2013 § 6 Comments
As everyone knows by now, on Friday Bibi Netanyahu talked to Tayyip Erdoğan (for the first time since Netanyahu was elected in 2009!) after being handed the phone by President Obama and apologized for operational mistakes causing the deaths of nine Turks aboard the Mavi Marmara in 2010. Netanyahu also agreed to pay compensation to the families of the deceased, and both men somewhat fudged the issue of the Gaza blockade by noting that Israel has already lifted some restrictions and pledging to work together going forward to ease the humanitarian situation in Gaza. This formula should not be surprising; in November I wrote the following:
All this aside, there seems to me to be an obvious out here. As I mentioned above, the real long term sticking point here is the demand that Israel end the Gaza blockade, but the imprecise language makes this a point that can easily be massaged. Israel is not going to end its naval blockade, particularly given the renewed focus on Iranian missiles that are being shipped to Sudan rather than directly to Gaza in an effort to avoid the Israeli navy. There is also, however, the land blockade that is enforced by both Israel and Egypt, and if Israel and Egypt jointly loosen restrictions on the land crossings to allow more goods in and out of Gaza, then Israel and Turkey can both reasonably claim victory, and it might pave the way for the countries to make up. Unless something changes though, feel free to ignore any and all news reports about secret talks and back channel negotiations between Ankara and Jerusalem.
As readers of this blog know, I have maintained for awhile that Israel was ready and willing to apologize to Turkey but that I did not think Turkey was prepared to accept an apology given the domestic political benefits for Erdoğan and the AKP of feuding with Israel. Indeed, over the past few months there have been reports of Ahmet Davutoğlu and other Turkish officials rebuffing Israeli attempts to meet and lay the groundwork for a rapprochement. That the apology was suddenly offered and accepted took me by surprise, and got me thinking about what would make Turkey change its calculus. I wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs identifying Turkey’s suddenly more pressing need for better intelligence in Syria given the chemical weapons angle and Ankara’s desire to meet its energy demands through channels other than Russian natural gas as the primary reasons, and noting that the timing here is also related to the successful talks with PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. Here’s the core of the argument:
For Ankara, the Syrian crisis has been a major headache. Turkey has suffered a loss in trade, been forced to rely on NATO for Patriot missiles to defend against border threats, and accepted just under half a million Syrian refugees. Ankara’s demands for Assad to step down have fallen on deaf ears, and its requests for NATO intervention in the form of a no-fly zone and heavy arms for the Syrian rebels have also been brushed aside.
All this has been unfortunate for Turkey’s leaders, but it was the recent introduction of Syrian chemical weapons into the equation that really changed Turkey’s calculus; now more than ever, the country needs better intelligence and allies to bring an end to the civil war or at least prevent it from spilling over. Turkey cannot afford to have chemical weapons used anywhere near its border with Syria, and the longer the fighting goes on, the greater the chances of a chemical weapons strike gone awry. Israel simply has better intelligence on regional developments than Turkey does, and Turkey can use that help to monitor Assad’s weapons stores and troop movements on both sides. In addition, whereas the United States and other NATO countries have been reluctant to support the Syrian rebels in any meaningful way, Israel has a greater incentive to make sure that the moderate Sunni groups prevail over the more radical jihadist elements of the opposition. As the situation in Syria heats up, Turkey and Israel will be thankful that they can talk to each other and coordinate.
Another area in which Turkey needs Israel’s assistance is energy. Turkey’s current account deficit, which stood at $48.8 billion in 2012, is almost entirely a result of the country’s reliance on oil and natural gas imports; Turkey has no natural resources of its own. Furthermore, Turkey is paying through the nose for both Russian and Iranian natural gas, due to onerous price contracts. Earlier this month, I talked with a number of people in Turkey — government ministers, opposition politicians, business tycoons, and trade group leaders — and they all mentioned Turkey’s growing energy needs and lamented the country’s overreliance on Russian and Iranian natural gas. Israel, meanwhile, has just discovered two major natural gas basins, the Tamar and Leviathan fields, off its coast in the Eastern Mediterranean. Since Turkey has no hope of smoothing over ties with Cyprus, its longtime adversary, which has been the other main beneficiary of the Mediterranean gas boom, it will likely turn to Israel as a natural gas supplier. With Turkey’s economic growth slowing, Israel’s potential as a partner makes reconciliation more attractive now than at any point in recent years.
Because it is – in my view – Turkey that changed its mind on reconciling, I focused on the Turkish side of things in the FA piece, so I thought I’d now write a little bit about the Israeli side. From Israel’s perspective, making up with Turkey has made sense for awhile now, and the reasons to do so only grew stronger with each passing day. First, there is the regional dynamic in the Middle East, which is hardly trending in Israel’s favor post-Arab Spring. While I do not think that Israel has anything to fear from new governments in the region, the upheaval has opened up power vacuums in the Sinai and Syria that allow hostile non-state actors to operate with impunity. Add to this the existing threats from Hamas and Hizballah and the distinct possibility that the Jordanian government falls, and Israel desperately needs any friend who will have her. Making up with Turkey means that at least Israel is not entirely alone in the region, and being able to coordinate with Turkey and with Jordan (so long as King Abdullah remains in power) will be extremely helpful in containing the spillover threat from Syria. While I highlighted the urgency for Turkey in my FA piece, Israel’s biggest concern with regard to the Syrian civil war has always been the transfer of chemical weapons to hostile non-state actors, and now that the chatter around chemical weapons has increased, apologizing to Turkey took on an urgency for Jerusalem that was absent before.
Second, Turkey has successfully blocked Israel from NATO military activities and summits, and the ability to get back in the game has always been important to the Israeli government. While the Noble Dina naval exercises with Greece and the U.S. that Israel began doing in 2011 are nice, they are a poor substitute for Israel being able to use the vast Turkish airspace for aerial training or being able to participate in NATO military exercises. Israel has attempted to ramp up its military relations with Greece and Cyprus in response to the freeze in relations with Turkey but this has always been a suboptimal solution, and Israel has felt this acutely as the government has become increasingly preoccupied with possible threats from Iran. Furthermore, Israel’s defense industry has had billions of dollars in contracts with Turkey suspended by Ankara, and being able to resume sales to Turkey should provide a nice jolt to the Israeli economy.
Nobody should expect Israel and Turkey to go back to where they once were. Turkey does not feel as alone in the region as it once did, there is still a benefit from having cool relations with Israel, and too much has taken place between the two, from Davos to the Mavi Marmara to the “Zionism is equal to fascism” kerfuffle of a month ago. It is unfortunately not surprising to already see Erdoğan backing away from his commitment to normalize relations, although it will happen sooner rather than later since this is only Erdoğan playing politics in response to some hardline domestic criticism over the deal with Israel. Exchanging ambassadors and resuming limited military and intelligence cooperation does not negate the fact that bashing Israel will remain a potent element in Erdoğan’s box of tricks, and I expect to see issues big and small arise between the two countries, particularly as things remain static on the Israeli-Palestinian front and settlement building in the West Bank continues. Nevertheless, this restoring of formal ties is good for both sides, and I hope that both countries can get over their past issues and begin work on developing a healthier relationship.
March 19, 2013 § 2 Comments
I am back from two weeks in Turkey, and it was easily two of the best weeks that I have spent anywhere. The meetings were nearly all informative, the speakers engaging, and it was wonderful to spend so much intense time with a great group of friends. Not to mention that Turkish cuisine is my favorite type of food, spring in Istanbul cannot be beat, and I barely had to pay a dime for anything. There was so much to digest that one blog post is never going to cover all of it, but there were some larger themes that repeatedly emerged, however, and some big picture thoughts that crossed my mind, so here goes.
I have written before about the corrosive and long lasting effects of military intervention on political institutions, and I have of course spent countless hours of my life thinking about this issue with regard to Turkey, but in the context of conversations over the past couple of weeks, it occurred to me that Turkish groups and institutions are still subconsciously operating under the shadow of this history despite the widespread belief that military coups are a thing of the past. I noted last week at how open and straightforward individual Turkish politicians were when speaking with us, but there was a stark contrast between individual forthrightness and general organizational or institutional forthrightness. The institutions that govern Turkey or that are influential in Turkish society are unusually opaque, with uncertainty over their true goals and motives. For instance, I spent a lot of time debating with my Turkish friends about the AKP and whether it is an Islamist party or not. As readers of this blog are well aware by now, I don’t think that the AKP is an Islamist political party, but rather is a political party run by Islamists, and that the focus should be on the AKP’s authoritarianism rather than its alleged Islamism. One particularly smart Turk and I argued over this point repeatedly, with my challenging her to point to any policy that the AKP has put forth in over a decade of rule that can be deemed Islamist, and her just as adamant that the AKP only does not advance Islamist policies because it doesn’t have the backing for it, but that once it transforms society it will rule as openly Islamist. We went back and forth, but the heart of the problem is that nobody can satisfactorily answer this question because we just have no way of knowing. Given AKP leaders’ past statements and history, they might be playing a long game, or they might actually be what they seem, which is a pro-growth socially conservative party with authoritarian tendencies but not harboring ambitions of Islamist rule. Because the AKP keeps things deliberately ambiguous, there is simply no way to say one way or the other.
Similarly, I had lots of conversations with trip participants, journalists, outside friends, and acquaintances about the Gülen movement and what precisely the Gülenists are up to. It is evident that the movement’s activities in Turkey are different from its activities elsewhere, with my best guess being that in Turkey it is engaged in revenge against its former antagonists and in the U.S. it is trying to bring Turks into the country on work visas and make as much money as possible. Nevertheless, I can’t say for sure, and neither can anyone else. The Gülen movement cages its intentions and motivations so that it can be difficult, if not actually impossible, to ascertain what it really wants or what the end game is. One organization we met with while in Turkey seemed to have the hallmarks of a Gülenist group in some ways, but then one of its representatives was railing against religion and the Gülen movement in a side conversation, all of which made for a great guessing game later on that day. Another group we met with portrayed itself as a straightforward economic and trade organization, and then over the course of an hour of questioning made it clear that it actually had a seriously political and religious agenda, which you would never know from the group’s official website, pamphlets, or statements. I should also point out that none of these organizations can be deemed underground, and in fact are all very close to the corridors of official power in Turkey, and yet they feel the need to hide the ball.
All of this got me reflecting on why this might be, and I think the answer has to lie in Turkey’s history of military interventions in civilian politics. Irrespective of how eviscerated the army might now be, when it has a history of executing and jailing politicians, activists, journalists, and anyone else who ran afoul of its prerogatives, that is an extremely difficult thing for any of its potential opponents to overcome. The AKP now rules the country virtually unopposed, but its members have a history with the military. The same goes for the Gülenists, and many other religious groups. Organizations have an incentive to hide their true motives in order to give themselves plausible deniability since the specter of military rule still haunts Turkey, even if the possibility of a coup has been consigned to the dustbin of history. It is a remarkable thing to see powerful groups feel the need to stay closed to the outside world, and it is yet another reminder of how political patterns are incredibly resistant to change and how institutions can remain affected by past events long into the future.
Next, the one issue that was brought up time and time again by politicians and business leaders was Turkey’s energy consumption and the difficulty of meeting the country’s energy needs. Turkey’s current account deficit can almost entirely be attributed to its imports of natural gas from Russian and Iran, and it is not in a position to do anything about it because it has no natural resources with which to create domestic energy supply of its own and is locked into extremely onerous contracts with its foreign suppliers. Nobody we spoke to had a good solution for fixing this problem, and while nuclear power might do the trick, my friend Aaron Stein has convincingly demonstrated that this is not in the cards any time soon. I don’t know what the answer is, but there is a lot of money to be made in figuring out a way for Turkey to meet its explosive energy demands while reducing its reliance on Russian natural gas.
Finally, let me make a plea on behalf of the Young Turkey Young America program. Because of the sequester, the State Department is unlikely to fund YTYA next year, which will be a huge loss. The U.S. and Turkey need each other for a host of reasons, and this program forges bonds and relationships between future leaders in both countries that will withstand the test of time. It is also a force multiplier, because everyone in the program is now engaged in promoting the bilateral relationship in one way or another, whether it be through civil society projects, op-ed writing, educational initiatives, or cultural events, and in so doing spreads the message of the importance of ties between the U.S. and Turkey and a greater understanding of each other’s politics, society, and culture. If this enormously valuable and important program is to continue past this year with a new crop of participants, some other source of funding has to be located. So if you are reading this and you have any interest at all in ensuring that U.S.-Turkey ties remain strong going forward and you work for an organization that has the means to help out in sponsoring the program in the future, please get in touch with me.
P.S. For those of you who have asked for my thoughts on the new Israeli government, I may get to it later this week or next, but do not feel an overwhelming need to write about it given that everyone seems to think that the new coalition will not last long, which I predicted on election day two months ago. As things have turned out as I expected (including the makeup of the coalition) I don’t feel the need to rehash things. As for President Obama’s visit, the market for analysis on this is so oversaturated with predictions, advice for the president, advice for Israelis, and general peace process commentary that there’s nothing left to be said about a visit that is not going to have much of an effect on anything. The executive summary is, don’t expect any big pronouncements from either side, and count on Obama and Netanyahu pretending to have smoothed over any differences between them.
March 11, 2013 § 1 Comment
Apologies for not doing a better job of blogging while in Turkey, but last week was a very busy one. Now that we have left Ankara and moved on to Istanbul, it seems like a good time to set down some brief thoughts on what I found particularly interesting in our meetings with Turkish politicians of all stripes and what it means for the future of U.S.-Turkish relations. When I say politicians of all stripes, I mean it: so far we have spoken with, among others, Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, AKP co-founder and MP Reha Denemeç, Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Volkan Bozkir, CHP vice chairman and MP Faruk Loğoğlu, and MHP deputy chairman Tuğrul Türkeş. This is a very influential group but also a fascinating one, and taking the sum total of what they said has made for a good overview of the state of things here. All of these meetings were off the record and so I cannot go into particulars, but there have been some general themes running throughout conversations with nearly everyone we have spoken with that I can talk about in a broader context.
First, I must note that compared to U.S. politicians – and this includes private and off the record meetings I have been in with them – the Turkish politicians on this trip have been unusually open, honest, and forthright. They have defended their positions without trying to hedge or sugarcoat some of the rougher edges, and have rarely tailored their messages to what they think the audience in front of them wants to hear. Conversations with politicians from the AKP, CHP, and MHP have at times begun to approach being heated, and everyone we have spoken with has handled anything thrown their way. I myself have not shied away from asking tough questions about issues such as Israel, Patriot missiles, positions on Syria, realistic chances of joining the EU, differences between the PKK and Hamas, and others, and nearly every question has been answered in a straightforward way. Whether I agree with the answers or not, I greatly appreciate the engagement with the questions. I tend to think that politicians are the same everywhere in terms of being slippery and evasive, and that has been the case here too in some instances, but I have been pleasantly surprised so far particularly when comparing the people we have met to politicians back home.
Second, before leaving on this trip last week I observed that the relationship between Turkey and the U.S. is very much based on mutual interests rather than a sense of shared values or culture, as is the case with the U.S. and other countries in Europe or the U.S.-Israeli relationship. So far relations between the two countries have been framed exactly in the language of common interests, and while one official we spoke with talked about the importance of shared values, he failed to provide any concrete examples and went on to talk about shared interests instead. I happen to think that there are indeed values that bind the U.S. and Turkey together, whether it be democracy, secular government with fairly religious societies, etc. but on an official level the relationship is rooted in realpolitik, and everyone on both sides appears to realize that. As I noted before, what this means is that Turkey needs to be particularly careful about continuing to demonstrate its value as an ally, as it does not have a large base of support within the U.S. domestically upon which to fall back should there be a perception that Turkey is not as helpful as it could be. This is what happened following the Grand National Assembly’s decision not to allow the U.S. to use Turkey as a staging ground before the Iraq War, and another situation like that could easily crop up in the future.
Finally, the U.S. embassy staff in Ankara has an extremely clear-eyed and realistic view of the political situation in Turkey and the challenges that might crop up between the two countries, and it was extremely encouraging to be able to talk frankly with such a smart and talented group. Whether it be a keen grasp of the inherent political constraints on the Turkish government (and we all know that I can’t resist a good domestic political explanation for foreign policy moves) or an exposition of Turkey’s options for dealing with Syria, I cannot express enough how impressive I found our diplomats in Ankara. They gave me a lot to think about, including one historical angle on the U.S.-Turkey relationship from a standout State Department officer that I have been pondering all week, and I have no doubt at all that whatever issues or problems arise in the future, our embassy folks in Turkey are beyond well-equipped to handle them.
Many more meetings this week with politicians, think tankers, business people, and civil society groups, so hopefully more thoughts to come. And as always, there is nothing like being in Istanbul…
March 4, 2013 § 4 Comments
I am headed to Turkey later today for the second part of the Young Turkey Young America program (in case you have forgotten or are new to this blog, explanation here) and will be spending the next two weeks in Ankara and Istanbul getting the Turkish perspective on the current state of U.S.-Turkey relations. As I noted after the first part of this program in September, the relationship between the two countries seemed stronger than ever, and U.S. government officials, business leaders, and foreign policy analysts were overwhelmingly positive about Turkey’s global role and its importance to U.S. interests. Turkey was seen as a crucial and helpful ally, President Obama and Prime Minister Erdoğan clearly had a strong personal relationship, and everything was humming along as smoothly as possible.
Since then, however, some storm clouds have developed on the horizon, and I will be very interested to see whether the wide variety of Turkish officials with whom we are meeting are as positive about the U.S. as American officials were about Turkey back in the fall. In the period since then, a number of issues have either cropped up anew or have intensified, and Washington and Ankara do not seem to be as much on the same page as they were before. The two governments have had sharper disagreements over the proper course to pursue in Syria, with Turkey wanting to aggressively arm the rebels and the Obama administration (wisely in my view) holding back. There is also friction over Iraq and how much independence the Kurdistan Regional Government in the north should have from Baghdad. Issues surrounding freedom of speech and imprisonment of journalists have become more prominent as well, and Ambassador Francis Ricciardone was called on the carpet after criticizing the government over the Ergenekon trials. Then there is the lingering Israel issue, with Erdoğan’s Zionism-equals-fascism comment last week only the latest in a long line of vitriol directed at Jerusalem that complicates Turkey’s standing here in Washington. In September I wrote the following:
The deterioration in relations between Turkey and Israel is clearly weighing on policymakers’ minds, and it was repeatedly brought up as something that needs to be fixed before it starts to adversely affect Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. A couple of people made allusions to the fact that Israel is always going to politically win out over Turkey in the U.S. and so it is vital for Turkey that the two countries repair their ties. Given the prevailing view in Turkey that the fallout with Israel has been relatively cost-free, I think that some of my Turkish colleagues were surprised to hear that this was an issue that could possibly bleed over into U.S.-Turkey bilateral ties. It’s not terribly surprising from my perspective given that Israel and Turkey are two of the most important U.S. allies in the region and the U.S. would like to go back to the era of being able to coordinate with them in concert, but I’m not sure my Turkish friends had thought about it much from this angle.
I think this is even more salient now than it was a few months ago, and with the establishment of an Israel-Hellenic caucus in Congress and arms deals with Turkey either being held up or not being introduced into committee at all, there is no doubt in my mind that Turkey’s feud with Israel is adversely impacting its interests in the U.S. Furthermore, the danger for Ankara is that its standing among policymakers is contingent upon it being seen as a helpful ally because it does not have a real independent base of support here otherwise. Unlike Israel, which has a strong relationship with the U.S. for a host of reasons – including the strength of AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups – but that all stem from the fact that Israel is immensely popular with most Americans and even loved by many, Turkey does not enjoy this same status. If Erdoğan and his government keep on having disagreements with Washington over Syria, Iraq, Israel, and other issues, Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. is bound to suffer a decline, no matter how often Obama and Erdoğan talk on the phone.
Over the next two weeks, aside from enjoying time spent with good friends in one of my favorite places in the whole world, I will be thinking about these issues and trying to assess U.S.-Turkey relations in the larger context of everything else taking place. The relationship is one of critical importance, and while nobody expects both countries to agree on everything or to see eye to eye on every issue, it behooves them both to ensure that bumps in the road do not turn into roadblocks. So with that, an iyi yolculuklar to me, and I will do my best to blog what I can over the next couple of weeks.
February 28, 2013 § 1 Comment
Halil Karaveli has an op-ed in today’s New York Times with the title “Turkey, The Unhelpful Ally” and in it he argues that Turkey is acting at cross purposes to American goals in Syria by exacerbating civil strife in backing Sunni groups to the exclusion of others. Karaveli actually takes the argument even further and maintains that in not reining Turkey in, the U.S. risks having sectarian tensions blow up into a regional war. He thinks that the U.S. has empowered Turkey and encouraged it to behave as a Sunni power in order to confront Iranian interests, and that doing so is creating incentives for unhelpful behavior on Turkey’s part.
Karaveli is correct that Turkey’s actions are contributing to sectarian strife and he is accurately describing the effects of Turkey’s policy choices, but I don’t think Turkey’s intentions are quite so nefarious. It is true that Turkey’s foreign policy has tended toward boosting Sunni power, and I am sure that Tayyip Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu harbor ambitions of being the great leader of the Sunni world, but what’s taking place in the Syrian context is something different. Other than Syrians themselves, Ankara wants Assad gone more than anyone, and it will do whatever it can to make that happen. In fact, the Turkish government so desperately wants to see Assad go that who or what replaces him has become a second order concern following the primary objective of just making sure that he is removed from power. To this end, Turkey did not back the Syrian National Council and now the Syrian National Coalition primarily because these groups are Sunni or Sunni-dominated, but because it was clear early on that they represented the best chance to remove Assad due to their strength, resources, organization and outside backing. That they are Sunni groups likely to act more favorably toward Turkey rather than Iran should they ultimately replace Assad is beneficial and part of the calculus, but it is not the only thing going on here.
Turkey is looking to back the group or groups best suited to overthrow the Syrian regime, and concern for a harmonious patchwork of Sunni and minority groups is not a priority at the moment because it is putting the cart before the horse. Karaveli writes that “the Turkish government has made no attempt to show sympathy for the fears of the country’s Alawite, Christian and Kurdish minorities. The Alawites and the Christians have backed the government in large numbers and fear retribution if Mr. Assad is toppled.” The minority groups in Syria are right to be concerned, but if this means that Turkey should drop its desire to see Assad go, it is simply not a reasonable suggestion given all of Turkey’s other interests. The aftermath of Assad’s fall, should it ever happen, is bound to be messy and it will be part of Turkey’s job as a responsible actor to exert its influence over Sunni groups to make sure that sectarian violence and retributions do not break out. None of that can happen though until Assad goes, and there does not seem to be a good way to get to that eventuality without backing the large Sunni opposition parties. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be negative externalities to Turkey’s policy, but I think Karaveli is downplaying the challenges Ankara is facing.
There is also the issue of Karaveli’s assertion that Turkey is behaving this way because of a rift with Iran. Yes, relations between Turkey and Iran are strained, but the idea that Turkey has decided to confront Iran in the same manner as the U.S. or the Gulf monarchies is not supported by the available evidence. Karaveli cites Turkey’s consent to deploying the NATO X-Band radar system on its territory, but Turkey ultimately had little choice in that matter if it wanted to remain in good standing with its fellow NATO countries, not to mention that the Turkish government went out of its way to assure that the radar would not be used as a way to protect Israel from any Iranian nuclear threat. Furthermore, Turkey has been helping Iran evade sanctions for months by using gold to buy Iranian natural gas and thereby get around the ban on financial transactions with Iranian banks. New sanctions aimed at just this activity have ground the creative evasion to a halt rather than a desire to confront Iran, and it is a curious assertion that the U.S. desire to pressure Iran has translated to Turkey and transformed its behavior in a negative way given Turkey’s cautious but non-hostile posture when it comes to Iran.
There are plenty of reasons to criticize Turkish behavior in the Syrian and Iranian spheres, but Karaveli should give Turkey a bit more breathing room than he does. Ankara’s motives are complex in this case, but there is no reason to believe that it does not genuinely want Assad gone for humanitarian, security, and stability reasons, rather than simply out of a desire to promote Sunni hegemony within Syria and the greater region.