Is This What A Presidential Takeover Looks Like?

February 5, 2015 § 6 Comments

For political scientists interested in political development, it is in many ways more interesting to study why democracies break down than how democracies form. After all, the best predictor of whether a state is democratic at any given time is whether the state was a democracy previously, so delving into how and why authoritarian reversals occur is a fun field (for a deep dive into the subject, Jay Ulfelder does really good work, such as this). Democratic breakdowns come in a few flavors, but the two most common are military coups and incumbent takeovers (this latter category being when an elected government undermines democracy and the future electoral process). Writing in the British Journal of Political Science last year, Milan Svolik compellingly argued that we should be paying attention to the different categories of breakdown because doing so can give us a sense of where a state might be heading before breakdown occurs. The most interesting insight in Svolik’s article to me was his contention that democracies consolidate against military coups but not against incumbent takeovers. In other words, as a democracy ages and democratic rule becomes institutionalized, the risk of a military coup occurring substantially decreases at some point (according to Svolik, this happens somewhere between the 17th and 26th year of democratic government), but the risk of an incumbent takeover does not decrease. He also points to factors that make incumbent takeover a greater or lesser possibility, with a presidential system ten times more likely to break down than a parliamentary or mixed system, while having a history of past military rule makes incumbent takeover less likely because, in Svolik’s words, “In a democracy that lacks a history of military rule, an incumbent may succeed in accumulating enough power to subvert democracy, especially if aided by a presidential constitution and natural resources. But in a democracy that was preceded by a military dictatorship, these factors may be insufficient for a successful incumbent takeover because any such attempts will be preempted by a military coup.”

Why do I bring any of this stuff up? Because various happenings in Turkey make it look like the country is dangerously on the brink of an incumbent takeover, and Svolik’s piece is a useful guide in assessing what might be going on. It will come as no surprise to anyone who regularly reads this blog (or really anyone who keeps on top of international news) that things in Turkey have been going downhill for awhile. The question is not whether Turkish democracy has suffered, since it unquestionably has, but rather at what point do we cease talking about Turkey as a democracy and call it a flat out authoritarian state. I have never liked terms like illiberal democracy or quasi-democracy or troubled democracy, since I think of democracy similarly to the way I think about pregnancy: either a state is a democracy or it isn’t. Just as you can’t be sort of pregnant, you can’t be sort of democratic. So if Turkey has ceased to be a democracy, how will we know and what will that reversal look like?

My friend and erstwhile co-author Steven Cook has a piece in Politico comparing Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule to that of patrimonial Arab dictators, and laying out the ways in which Erdoğan has accumulated power and dominated politics. I’d add that since assuming the presidency, Erdoğan has done so in ways that subvert the Turkish constitution by taking over powers accorded to the prime ministry without formally amending the constitution. While it is true that the president has the constitutional power to preside over a cabinet meeting if he so chooses, this power is supposed to be reserved for extraordinary situations such as wars or other crises. And yet, there was Erdoğan last month chairing a meeting of the cabinet and purposefully not ruling out doing so again. Erdoğan has assembled a shadow cabinet of advisers around him that in many ways mimic Turkey’s actual cabinet, and he has asserted himself in all sorts of areas that are reserved for the prime minister. The biggest power play was actually symbolic but spoke volumes, when Erdoğan announced that Prime Minister Davutoğlu was to reside in the Çankaya presidential palace because Erdoğan was taking for himself the newly built, monstrously large palace that had been intended for the prime minister.

There is no question that Erdoğan is amassing power in what are unprecedented ways for Turkey since the death of the unapologetically all-powerful founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. As former AKP parliamentary foreign affairs chief Suat Kınıklıoğlu writes, “Not a day goes by when our president is not to be seen on television, sometimes three times a day. Close to a dozen TV channels broadcast his speeches live. Even a prominent music channel cuts its broadcast and televises the speech. Total control. It is rather ironic to see how a political movement that aspired to break the authoritarianism of the old order has come to establish an even more effective authoritarian regime itself.” Everyone knows what is going on, as it is taking place in broad daylight and over the vociferous opposition of anyone not connected to the AKP. It is also in many ways completely and unabashedly shameless. Look at the government’s takeover of Bank Asya just yesterday, for example, which everyone knows is being done to punish Erdoğan’s current designee as Public Enemy Number One, Fethullah Gülen. The Gülenists in Turkey have hounded their own enemies for years, and their anguished cries of complete innocence are laughable, no matter what Gülen himself claims in the opinion pages of the New York Times (for a pitch perfect takedown of the op-ed, look no further than Claire Berlinski’s rejoinder to Hocaefendi yesterday). Nevertheless, whatever the Gülenist movement’s actual sins, nobody credibly believes that the “Bank Asya decision has no political dimension, it is a completely legal decision,” as Davutoğlu claimed with a straight face. This is a bill of attainder, pure and simple, and the fact that the people and institutions being targeted are themselves unabashed power-grabbers who subvert Turkey’s legal system for their own ends does not make the government’s actions democratic or legal. In a more candid moment, Davutoğlu said at a political rally yesterday that he doesn’t see why a religious movement needs a bank. Neither do I, but two wrongs don’t make a right.

The reason Svolik points to presidential systems as being prone to takeover is because presidential systems can be dangerous. The United States is a remarkable exception to this rule, but new democracies largely try to avoid them these days because of their instability. The only presidential democracy with an extended history of constitutional continuity is the U.S., and parliamentary democracies generally last more than three times as long as presidential democracies. A presidential system promotes a strong figure at the top of the food chain with an independent power base, which can be dangerous in divided societies or states without countervailing strong legislative and judicial institutions. Part of the argument against presidential systems comes from a sort of selection bias, in that they were adopted (and failed) in states where the conditions made them especially prone to failure, but the numbers also back up the fact that they lead to more short-lived democracies. Yet, just yesterday Davutoğlu had the following to say: “There is an argument that the presidential system will create authoritarianism. What’s your proof for that?  Those who have little knowledge of politics and political science know that democracy is implemented both under presidential and parliamentary systems. These are both described as democratic systems in comparative political studies. Inclinations for authoritarianism can come from parliamentary systems as well.” Yes, it is true that democracy is implemented in both types of systems, but it is also true that one breaks down at a rate ten times that of the other. Surely the prime minister does not think this is a mere coincidence.

The transformation of Turkey to a presidential system is worrying when it comes to incumbent takeover, but so is the military component, because Svolik’s reason for why a military past tends to prevent incumbent takeover does not apply here. The threat of a military coup is supposed to deter an incumbent from amassing too much power and eroding the democratic system, but Turkey’s military has been so hollowed out and beaten down by the AKP (and its former move-along-nothing-to-see-here Gülenist allies) that the chances of a coup are close to nil. In fact, in many ways Erdoğan is primarily motivated by Turkey’s military past and sees his attainment of more and more power as the ultimate victory over the era of military tutelage. The unique history of the relationship between Erdoğan and the military in the pre-AKP era and the relationship between the AKP and the military since 2002 – and particularly since the failed coup by memorandum attempt in 2007 – actually make Turkey’s military past an exacerbating factor rather than a mitigating one. Combined with what Erdoğan has been doing since his election last summer, I don’t think any warning about what is coming down the road can possibly be strident enough.

The long and short of it is that Erdoğan is trying to institute a presidential system, and he is determined to do it one way or another. If he (meaning the AKP, his “former” party) passes the magic 330 seat threshold in the June election, he will attempt to do it by using his parliamentary supermajority to amend the constitution without a referendum, and if the AKP falls short, he will just keep on doing what he’s been doing until it is a fait accompli. But presidential systems are dangerous vehicles for shaky democracies, and that is even more so when the president is vocal and open about his contempt for liberal and democratic norms, views the entire country as something to be controlled by his personal whims, and sees checks and balances as nothing but a minor inconvenience. I don’t know if a complete incumbent takeover has yet happened, but I do know that if we ask that question again five or ten years from now, it will likely be too late.

We Have Lost

January 13, 2015 § 21 Comments

There’s been lots written about the Paris attacks, and I don’t feel the need to add much to the cacophony on the issue of what specifically motivated the attackers, or whether this represents a problem with Islam, or how best to respond. I’ve been trying to collect my thoughts for a few days, and the one thing that I keep returning to in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher is not so much the attacks themselves, but the responses to the attacks, and I find it difficult to conclude anything other than the fact that we have lost.

The use of “we” here is somewhat loaded, and I don’t use it as a means of implying a Samuel Huntington clash of civilizations argument. I don’t think that the West is fated to clash with the “Muslim world” – however one wants to define such an amorphous term – and I also don’t think that vast hordes of Middle Eastern Muslims are seeking to overrun the West or reestablish a caliphate. Different people coming from different cultural environments are going to have different worldviews, and most just want to live their own lives according to their own values. There exists in France a cadre of extremely nasty, retrograde, barbaric, brutal Islamist terrorists, three of whose lives were thankfully extinguished by French security forces last Friday. There are more where those three came from, and the fact that they are Muslim is neither an irrelevant piece of information nor the only relevant piece of information one needs. The situation is bad enough; there’s no need to exaggerate it and extrapolate from Paris that all Muslims are terrorists, that all Muslims are responsible for the acts of some, or that holding intemperate views of Western society, Israel, or Jews automatically makes one a suicide bomber in waiting (although it certainly doesn’t speak well for most people who do hold those intemperate views). There is also no need to pretend that the Islamist views held by these three particular terrorists are simply a coincidence, that they were motivated solely by poverty and cultural alienation, and that their womanizing and weed-smoking pasts mean that their late-in-life religious awakening makes them completely unconnected from any authentic and authoritative version of Islam.

With that out of the way, by “we” I mean non-extremists of all stripes, and we are losing the fight against extremists. I don’t mean this in a military sense, as committed Western states will always be able to kill far more terrorists thugs than terrorists can kill civilians. As I wrote a few of months ago in relation to ISIS, the real fight here is against an ideology rather than against a specific group of people, and until the ideology itself becomes discredited, the symptom of jihadi violence is going to be here to stay. Contra Francis Fukuyama circa 1992, we have not yet arrived at the end of political history and reached some sort of political equilibrium, and until the ideology motivating jihadi extremism is defeated on the battlefield of ideas, we can kill as many al-Qaida leaders as we can find and station as many soldiers in front of synagogues and Jewish schools as we can manage, but it won’t end the problem. Ideas are defeated by more powerful ideas, not by military hardware and firepower.

This may be my own bias at work here given my obvious personal and professional interest, but the largest bellwether to me in illustrating the fact that we are losing is Turkey. You’ll never see me spout the simplistic platitudes about Turkey having one foot in the West and one in the East or using the metaphor of Istanbul being a land bridge between continents to glean some larger lesson, but it is highly relevant that Turkey is a Muslim-majority country that is part of NATO and is looking to join the EU, as these variables make it exposed to Europe and the West in a significant way. If Turkey buys into the extremist rhetoric and outlandish ideas rocketing around the Middle East, then we have little hope of convincing those who have less firsthand experience with the West that we aren’t evil personified.

So what do we see coming from Turkey? For starters, as Steven Cook highlighted yesterday, there’s the unwavering belief that jihadi terrorism is caused by Islamophobia, and thus victims such as the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists have it coming to them due to their actions (never mind the inconvenient fact of Jews murdered in a kosher grocery store just for being Jewish rather than for anything they have allegedly done). This line of argument is spouted not just by uneducated Anatolian farmers, but by the president, prime minister, and foreign minister of Turkey.  It is an argument that deeply believes free speech must have limits, and that when those limits are violated, the responsibility for any ensuing terrorism or violence primarily lies at the feet of those whose speech went too far. If you want a sense of the zeitgeist in Turkey with regard to this issue, Ibrahim Kalın – President Erdoğan’s top foreign policy advisor – has a column in this morning’s Daily Sabah that lays out the argument dominating the thinking of Turkey’s government and pro-government elites, in which he explicitly makes the case that Islamophobia is as large a problem as al-Qaida terrorism, and that stopping and condemning hate speech against Muslims is as important to preventing future attacks as is taking counter-terror measures. I do not mean to imply that Islamophobia isn’t real, or that it’s not a genuine problem, but when your initial reaction to a terrorist attack is, “that’s what happens when you let free speech get out of control,” I’d suggest that you are well outside the proper and appropriate Western consensus. I have a personal mantra that I am sure I have used on this blog and that my coworkers make fun of me for spouting ad nauseum, which is that the response to objectionable speech should always be more speech. It should certainly not be terrorist violence. I am a free speech absolutist and I do not believe that speech should ever be censored; if someone says something you don’t like, then use your right to free speech to argue with them and make sure that your speech, rather than theirs, wins in the marketplace of ideas. If you are not willing to unreservedly condemn terrorism against Charlie Hebdo, Jyllands-Posten, Theo van Gogh, and others because you are offended by what these publications and people had to say, then you’re doing it wrong. But the fact is that large swathes of people, not just in Turkey but also in countries ranging from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia, disagree with me, and that means that we are losing.

Then there is the related idea that Islamophobes are the ones who actually carry out terrorist attacks and purposely frame Muslims in order to discredit Islam in the West. Just read this column from Ibrahim Karagül in Yeni Şafak – one of Turkey’s most prominent Islamist newspapers – in which he says that the attack was a false flag operation designed to discredit Muslims, that the global war on terrorism was concocted by the U.S. and Europe as a way to shape the 21st century, and that terrorist attacks in the vein of the Charlie Hebdo massacre share the characteristic of being linked to intelligence agencies. To quote from this vile abomination of a column directly: “In this context, an extremely strategic target was chosen in the latest attack. The perfect excuse has been handed to the rising racist tide by killing a magazine team with a previous record. No better target could have been chosen to spur the European public to action. No other place could be found to nourish hostility against Islam and spur the masses to action. No better example could be provided to depict the link between Islam and violence.” On second thought, don’t read the column, as Yeni Şafak doesn’t deserve any more clicks that it already gets.

Keep in mind that this is not coming from the fringe, but from one of Erdoğan’s favorite papers and a reliable government mouthpiece. While the esteemed Mr. Karagül never fingers the true Paris culprit or culprits by name, you can imagine whom he believes is responsible. Just in case your imagination has limits, we can thankfully turn to the always reliable AKP mayor of Ankara, “Mad” Melih Gökçek, who is happy to let us know that the Mossad carried out the attacks in Paris in retaliation for France’s recognition of Palestine, and that it is all part of an effort to stir up Islamophobia by framing Muslims for the attacks. That this attitude is widespread within the AKP should not be surprising, as the tone was set from the top in 2009 when Erdoğan insisted that Sudanese president Omar  al-Bashir could not be responsible for genocide in Darfur because “it is not possible for a Muslim to commit genocide,” and therefore ipso facto it cannot have occurred. The same logic applies here, and thus it requires a search for the real killers, ignoring any shred of evidence that maybe, just maybe, the terrorist attacks in France were indeed carried out by Islamist jihadis inspired by ideas promulgated by groups like al-Qaida and ISIS.

I could go on, but hopefully by now you get the point. A NATO-member country, with massive commercial and defense links to the U.S. and Europe, whose leaders speak English and many of whom have been educated in the U.S. and Europe, should know better. It should know that terrorism against civilians must be condemned full-stop, that drawing offensive cartoons does not mean that you deserve to be killed, that the Mossad did not just engage in a deadly false flag operation, and that no government is killing its own people in order to gin up anti-Muslim sentiment and create a pretext for persecuting its own Muslim population. When it doesn’t seem to know these things, it means we have lost the battle of ideas, and the extremists are winning. Not insignificant numbers of educated and sophisticated people in the Middle East genuinely believe that what happened in Paris is part of a larger conspiracy to frame Muslims for violent acts, that the U.S. created ISIS as an excuse to launch new military operations in Iraq and Syria, that 9/11 was a false flag operation designed to further a clash between the West and Islam, and on and on. The debate over whether the appropriate approach to combating jihadi terrorism is a military one or a law enforcement one is the wrong debate, because it misses the point. Neither approach is going to do the job, because this is a war of ideas, and so killing or prosecuting terrorists will only get you so far. People need to be convinced that extremism is both futile and the wrong way of seeing the world, and I don’t know how best to wage that battle, but I am pretty confident it is the one that needs to be waged.

One of the widespread techniques used when teaching international relations to undergraduates is to look at the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War and apply different schools of international relations theory toward explaining this earth-shattering event. If you are a realist, you point to the fact that U.S. military spending and economic superiority were too much for the Soviets to overcome, and they were brought down by overwhelming American hard power that can be measured. If you are a constructivist, you look at the battle of ideas and trace the way in which Communism became so discredited in the face of Western liberal democracy and capitalism that the entire Communist edifice collapsed as it lost its legitimacy. I have always been more drawn to the latter explanation for a number of reasons, but most of all because it wasn’t just the Soviet Union that disappeared overnight, but Communism itself. Yes, small pockets of it remain (and no, China is not Communist today in any meaningful way), but for a political and economic system that controlled nearly half the world to just disappear is remarkable, and it wouldn’t have happened had the only blow been the fall of its largest state patron.

The same thing needs to happen when it comes to the philosophy of extremism motivating the type of jihadi terror as we saw in Paris last week. There is no way to prevent these types of attacks from a logistical perspective; Paris was not an intelligence failure, and while the French police can deploy thousands of soldiers and police to protect nearly every potential Jewish target in France, there is not enough manpower to sustain that permanently. Even if there was, it wouldn’t be a failsafe solution. Until attitudes change in a major way, until jihadi extremism is discredited, until more extremists believe that there is a better way, and until the ideas animating jihadi extremist terror are demonstrated to have failed abjectly and completely, we will continue to lose. Pretty depressing way to start the new year, huh?

Turkey’s Syria Spillover Problem

October 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

The Politics of the Anti-ISIS Coalition

September 23, 2014 § 4 Comments

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

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

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

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

Turkey’s Iran Quandary

September 3, 2014 § 9 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

Is Turkey’s Future A Liberal One?

August 14, 2014 § 4 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turkey’s Secularists Surrender

August 9, 2014 § 4 Comments

This post is a co-production with my friend and colleague Steven Cook, and is cross-posted on his blog From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

When Turks go to the polls on August 10 to directly elect their president for the first time in the Turkish Republic’s history, the potential leading vote getter will be a man of impeccable religious credentials. This candidate has a graduate degree from al-Azhar University and previously served as the secretary-general of the Jeddah-based Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Before being appointed to this position that he held for eight years, he was the founding director-general of the OIC-affiliated Research Center for Islamic History, Art, and Culture. While in Saudi Arabia, he proved himself both an adept and savvy leader of the multinational organization in his charge as well as a faithful servant of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its worldview. He has decried the loss of spirituality in Islam and is himself the son of a well-known Islamic scholar. Yet this candidate is not Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; it is Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, who is carrying the banner as the joint candidate of the secular Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the rightwing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

For all of its militant secularism and decades of dominating Turkish politics, the secular old guard has lost the battle with the political forces that represent piety and religious conservatism, a fact that they implicitly acknowledge with Ihsanoglu—their white flag of surrender. Despite his formal training as a chemist, Ihsanoglu has devoted a considerable portion of his career to religious study and outreach. Of Ihsanoglu’s 25 books, nine are devoted to Islamic thought and culture. That Turks are being offered a choice between two religious candidates should be the final death knell for the meme that Turkey is a state being pulled apart by a battle between Islam and secularism. The truth is that religion won out a long time ago, and the fundamental divides in Turkish politics and society are organized around different fault lines.

Today in Turkey there is an unmistakable sense of “Muslim-ness.” Conventional accounts of Turkish politics since the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rise to power often use “Islamist” and “Islamism” to describe the party, but these terms have become one-dimensional and suggest parallels to groups like the Muslim Brotherhood without capturing the true nature of Turkey’s ruling party. The Justice and Development Party’s Muslim-ness is less targeted and more diffuse than Islamism, and while it certainly belongs within a broad classification of Islamist groups in the Muslim world, its underlying philosophical concerns and agenda are quite different from those organizations. This is a function of the Turkish experience, in which Muslim-ness involves a style of politics and a social setting in which piety flows through society. Limits on alcohol consumption or women donning the hicab reflect this religious sensibility, but Muslim-ness is broader. Toward this end, Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party have made exploration and expression of one’s Muslim identity not only safe and acceptable, but indeed valorized. Erdogan himself personifies the new Turkish man whose singular quality is being both proudly pious and Turkish. And the new Turkish woman, best represented by the wares of upscale fashion houses like Zühre or its down-market cousin, Armine, is quiet, confident, gorgeous, and covered. What is striking about these developments is how unremarkable they are in a political setting where not long ago, the hicab and public expressions of religiosity were indicators of reactionary backwardness.

Of course, drawing conclusions about the direction of society on the extent to which Turkish women are covering their hair in public is bound to be fraught with misunderstanding as well as bad social science, but taken with a range of other developments, the hicab is an important sociological and anthropological factor in the story of Turkey’s religious evolution, which is not as dramatic as one might assume. Observers of Turkish politics and society have long assumed that because Turkey was an officially “secular” republic, the Turkish people had unquestionably accepted the secularizing reforms of the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal . This was likely a function of the fact that scholars of an earlier generation and policymakers wanted to see in Turkey what they wanted to see, rather than a complex society that is extending well beyond the municipal boundaries of either cosmopolitan Istanbul or Turkey’s dreary republican capital, Ankara. It was also the result of dominant non-religious—or even irreligious—elites who were the primary interlocutors with the outside world. This group fervently believes in Kemalism, and when it ruled during the first eight decades of the Turkish Republic’s existence, its members enforced secular politics and secular social mores through a variety of non-democratic political, economic, and cultural mechanisms.

As a result of this ingrained secular commitment on the part the Kemalist elite, Ihsanoğlu’s nomination was not without controversy. When leaders of the Republican People’s Party and Nationalist Movement Party announced their surprise challenger to Erdoğan, prominent commentators immediately declared it a cynical gambit intended to siphon religious voters from the AKP that was bound to fail. That seemed like a fair interpretation. Why else would the CHP choose someone like Ihsanoğlu, who violates core secularist principles and who neither looks nor sounds like traditional CHP standard bearers? Predictably, the nomination caused a firestorm within the CHP especially, whose more militant factions reacted with anger and vows not to vote for Ihsanoglu, dooming him from the start. What was shaping up to be a debacle would not be the CHP’s first misstep of the Erdogan era. There was a 2010 sex tape that felled the party’s longtime leader Deniz Baykal and more recently there was the party’s open support for Bashar al Assad in his blood soaked campaign to save his regime.

Baykal’s peccadilloes and the party’s strange position on Syria are a symptom of CHP fecklessness rather than its cause. Over the last decade the party has struggled to expand its constituency beyond its traditional bastions of support in Izmir, Aydin and other cities along Turkey’s western rim. It is the CHP’s electoral weakness that has made it what seems like the perpetual also-ran of Turkish politics, which is why its leaders and those of MHP turned to Ihsanoglu. Ihsanoglu must have seemed like a low risk-high reward gamble. Since neither the CHP nor the MHP had a chance of winning the election and toppling Erdoğan no matter who they nominated, why not join forces in an effort to expand their narrow constituencies and cut into the AKP’s base by running someone with strong religious credentials? As the thinking goes, if the Ihsanoglu experiment fails, then CHP and MHP will have lost no ground since it will be just the latest failure in a string of them dating back to the rise of the Justice and Development Party in 2002.

Yet the idea that CHP and MHP can dabble in religion for purely instrumental electoral reasons misinterprets where Turkey stands in 2014 on religious issues. The West’s romantic notion of Turkey as a secular country is a myth. According to the 2012 Pew survey of Muslims worldwide, 97% of Turks believe in God, 67% of Turks say that religion is very important in their lives, 44% of Turks attend mosque at least once a week and 42% pray multiple times a day. Religion is ingrained in a way that elides a meaningful religious-secular distinction. This phenomenon is the natural result when the AKP lifted the drab conformity of Kemalism, allowing Turks to express their Muslim identities in new ways without fear of punishment or discrimination.   Even among the ardently secular, religion is an important means of cultural and political expression. A young secular Turkish woman recently declared that among her many problems with Erdogan was that he “did not believe in God.” When challenged, she declared that nobody who believes in the God in whom she believes could ever act the way the prime minister does. Religion is baked into the Turkish cultural pie, which is why it was actually a crucial ingredient for Atatürk, who coopted Islam in his effort to forge the Turkish Republic in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Justice and Development Party has merely buttressed and extended these social and cultural dispositions with the Islamization of Turkey’s institutions—rules, laws, decrees—that has been underway throughout the AKP era.  This is a process in which Islamic legal codes, norms, and principles are either incorporated into existing laws, or supplant them. By grounding certain institutions in Islamic tenets, the Justice and Development Party has created an environment in which religion plays a greater role in society, including in areas that have not been directly Islamized.   It is not just restricting sales of alcohol or lifting the ban on headscarves at publicly funded universities, but also less obvious but more lasting measures like laws allowing graduates of preachers schools to enter the bureaucracy or alterations to the way judges are selected an promoted that will further embed Muslim-ness as a defining feature of Turkish society. In this way, society will transform state institutions rather than the other way around.

This is why Ihsanoğlu’s candidacy does not actually represent a radical departure. It is a logical progression of trends that have been in place for years, and is a harbinger of things to come rather than an outlier. The AKP’s success has been built on many factors besides for an appeal to religion, including nationalism, economic growth, and regional political power. Even if a majority of AKP voters—in the last parliamentary elections AKP voters represented a majority of the country—do not vote for AKP primarily because of its religious appeal, they are nevertheless made comfortable by the religious sensibility that the party conveys. The CHP and MHP have finally bowed to the demands of the electorate and through Ihsanoğlu have communicated that they understand this message. The dividing lines in the presidential race have nothing to do with religion, but rather revolve around the role of the state, Turkey’s place in the West, its treatment of minorities, and economic inequalities. Those looking for staunch defenders and guardians of a secular tradition that never really existed to begin with are fated to be eternally disappointed.

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