The Means Matter As Much For Democracy As The Ends

January 9, 2014 § 2 Comments

One of the tricky things about democracy is that we think of it as being an end-state that a country can hopefully achieve and maintain – hold regular elections with peaceful transfers of power, establish rule of law, incorporate and protect civil rights – but the pathway to getting there matters. It matters for two main reasons. First, democracy is not only about substance, but also about procedure. Countries that have hollow democratic institutions, where you have parties and elections but ones that are rife with corruption, patronage, irregularities, may look democratic from the outside but are not because their process is fundamentally undemocratic. Elections themselves do not magically confer democracy. Second, people and governments are not inherently democratic. Democracy generally emerges as a way out of a political stalemate or as a compromise between parties who are not powerful enough to impose their will on everyone, and as democratic behavior is repeated and becomes habituated over time, genuine democracy takes hold. In other words, behaving democratically is not innate, but it becomes second nature as it is carried out.

The idea that process matters is enormously important  in order to understand what is taking place in Turkey, and why the AKP’s constant drumbeat of claims about the high quality of Turkish democracy must be taken with a huge dose of skepticism. Almost everyone agrees that one of the AKP’s benchmark achievements has been to bring vertical accountability to Turkey, meaning that no unelected entity – in this case the military – wields ultimate power. It is for this reason that Iran is not a democracy no matter how many elections they have and no matter how free and fair they might be (not that they are), and very few people except a band of the most hardcore secular Kemalists would dispute that taking the army out of politics is a good thing and that power should be vested in those who win elections rather than those who carry guns. So the AKP’s campaign to bring the military to heel is an unqualified victory for democracy in Turkey, right? Except that it is not quite that simple, since the way the military was brought under control was through two investigations and trials, known as Ergenekon and Balyoz, that were fundamentally flawed and involved everything from detentions without trail to blatantly forged evidence. Nobody believes that these trials were victories for the rule of law, even if the ultimate end served democracy. Officers were subject to a witch hunt and the army was the victim of a campaign of recrimination in retaliation for its own decades of hounding Islamists and religious Turks, and so while it is an unqualifiedly good thing that the army will no longer be intervening in Turkish politics, nothing about the way that this result was carried out was model democratic behavior. All it did was reinforce the idea that Turkish democracy means winning power through elections and then using that power to act in fundamentally undemocratic ways.

Looking at what is taking place now as the AKP purges thousands of police officers and prosecutors in the name of subverting a coup attempt, you see a similar dynamic. The AKP talks about the Gülen movement as an undemocratic “parallel state” whose power needs to be curbed, and much like the move to curb the power of the military, there is truth in this. After all, it was the Gülenists who were responsible for the shady military trials, and to mistake them for pure democratic actors would be rank naiveté. Yet even taking the AKP’s claims about their former friends at face value, and granting that the Gülen movement uses its influence in the judiciary and the police in unsavory ways and that there needs to be some sort of check, the process here stinks to high heaven. Reassigning hundreds of police officers at once because they arrest people suspected of corruption, nakedly trying to remove all separation of powers and subordinate the judiciary to the power of the government, sending envoys from the prime minister to personally threaten the lead prosecutor of the graft cases, prosecuting eight television channels for reporting about the graft and corruption investigations…there is no way to justify this on democratic grounds, and yet this is precisely the gambit that Erdoğan and the AKP are attempting. By claiming that there is a coup attempt underway and that extraordinary measures must be taken in the name of protecting Turkish democracy, Erdoğan and his government are simply demonstrating that they don’t know the first thing about democracy or how it works.

It is a classic authoritarian gambit to use the powers of the state to go after your enemies and to claim that it is all being done in the name of security and democracy. The fact that the Gülen movement used this tactic to go after the military does not make it acceptable to use the same tactic to go after the Gülen movement. The notion that the corruption investigations constitute an attempt to carry out a coup and overthrow the government would be laughable if what was taking place in Turkey right now wasn’t so damaging to Turkey in the long term. When a government violently cracks down on protestors, fires prosecutors and police who dare to investigate allegations of gross misconduct, introduces legislation to eviscerate judicial independence, and darkly talks about foreign conspiracies supporting domestic terrorists without any shred of evidence, and does all of this in the name of “protecting democracy” and fulfilling the will of the people – people who, if the latest polls are correct, overwhelmingly condemn Erdoğan’s move to block the investigations and purge the police – it has taken an Orwellian turn for the worse. This goes double when hints of changing party rules midstream to allow Erdoğan to run for a fourth term are portrayed as being democratically necessary rather than extraordinary manipulation.

Process and procedure matter. Rule of law is not something to be subverted in order to arrive at democratic ends, because the process of implementing rule of law is itself the mark of democracy. The more that Erdoğan and the Turkish government do whatever they please because they have won elections, the more Turkish democracy withers. The only way for democracy to really take root is to have democratic behavior become repeated ad infinitum until it is routine. As Steven Cook so aptly points out today, the AKP is trying to manipulate Turkish political institutions to achieve its own ends, and Erdoğan’s and the AKP’s “fealty to democratic change extends only so far as it advances their interests.” For those still desperately clinging to the vestiges of 2002 through 2007 and the conviction that “Turkey has never been more democratic than it is under the AKP” despite all recent evidence to the contrary, the repeated and by now habitual flouting of democratic process is not something that Turkey will be able to just shake off when the AKP decides that it is time.

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What I Got Wrong, 2013 Edition

December 30, 2013 § 4 Comments

As it’s the end of the year, it’s time to revisit my 12 months of screw-ups (last year’s mea culpa is here). There don’t seem to be as many big ones this year as last year, but that is not a function of my improving analysis and is rather a function of my increasingly neglectful blogging habits; last year I wrote 276 posts, this year only 65. Thankfully for all of you though, there’s still plenty of material for you to use in heaping scorn upon my head. Here are some of the lowlights.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks: On February 13, I wrote a post entitled “The Prospects For Real Peace Talks” in which I downplayed the idea that Israel would enter into substantive talks with the Palestinians. I didn’t think the makeup of what I expected to be the new Israeli coalition government would allow for real negotiations to take place, and I wrote, “even if Tzipi Livni brings Hatnua into the government nobody should be getting their hopes up too high for a big diplomatic push on the horizon.” We can debate whether the current talks are going to lead anywhere real, but certainly the process is taking place and there have been enough signs that the talks have been substantive and are going well that this call was wrong on my part.

Erdoğan’s relative reasonableness: This seems destined to become a permanently recurring theme, as a similar prediction made this list last year too. Last year it was about Erdoğan realizing that his interests should override his harsh rhetoric on Israel, and this year it was about Erdoğan realizing that his interests should override his harsh stance toward the Gezi protestors. In trying to figure out how Gezi was going to resolve itself, I wrote on June 7, “Erdoğan does not want to back down, but my instincts tell me that as he is reminded of just how much his popularity depends on the economy and as he faces the prospect of losing the bid for the 2020 Turkish Olympics, he will try to come up with some sort of solution to end the chaos in the streets without having to go so far as to issue a formal full-blown apology. The fact that there is no opposition party poised to take advantage of the situation makes backing down slightly easier for him to do, and even Erdoğan understands just how crucial it is for his and his party’s longterm political future to make sure the Turkish economy keeps humming along. Only the prospect of serious economic damage will get him to back down, since giving in to the protestors in any way is completely anathema to his general philosophy and outlook. How long it will take for him to get to this point is way beyond my prognostication skills, but I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get there at one point or another.”

Oops. Erdoğan did not ease up on his rhetoric in any measurable way, and he in fact actually became increasingly harsher and waited for the protests’ momentum to peter out over time, which it did. Eleven days after my prediction, I was forced to write another post dealing with Erdoğan’s even more over-the-top responses to Gezi, as the prospect of economic losses clearly had not moved him. It’s worth remembering now as the corruption scandal is raging around him, since unlike last year, this time I really have learned my lesson. The only way Erdoğan is backing down this time, economic crisis be damned, is if his party forces him to do so by default in replacing him.

Bibi’s position in Likud: I don’t know why I am so insistent on this point, but every few months I seem to write a post predicting trouble on the horizon for Netanyahu within Likud to the point that he will be split the party or be ousted. While I am going to stubbornly insist that events will at some point vindicate my point of view, they haven’t yet. On June 27 in a post called “The Likud Bell Is Tolling For Bibi” I ran through some of Netanyahu’s recent troubles and then denigrated an op-ed my Mati Tuchfeld in which he predicted that Netanyahu could retake the party pretty much any time he wanted. I wrote, “I think this is a bad misreading of the situation that does not take into account just how much things have changed. Likud members used to venerate their prime minister, but at last year’s Likud convention, Netanyahu was being disparaged left and right in a way that had never occurred before. In addition, much like the younger generation of Congressional Republicans here, folks like Danon have little desire to stand on tradition and do not venerate Netanyahu, and are not going to “fall at his feet” just because he wishes it….There is a new coterie of deputy ministers and up and coming backbenchers who not only do not like or trust Netanyahu, they don’t feel as if they owe him anything. He did not mentor them and they got to where they are now via the Likud primary, which Netanyahu now wants to get rid of, and so they are not going to back him just because he asks. And unlike a year ago, they are no longer revolutionaries and they speak for a larger percentage of the party.”

While my assessment of the dynamic was correct, my assessment of Netanyahu’s grip on the party and power to influence outcomes was not. Earlier this month, three proposed Likud constitutional amendments whose aim was to weaken Netanyahu were withdrawn under pressure before they could even be brought up for a vote. It seems clear that the new deputy ministers do not like or trust Netanyahu a great deal, but it seems equally clear that Netanyahu is still very much in control of the party and is not going anywhere.

I’m sure there is more, and please feel free to point out any other things that I got egregiously or embarrassingly wrong this year. Here’s hoping to a great 2014.

My Blogging Hiatus

October 9, 2013 § 17 Comments

Hopefully some of you will have noticed that I have not written a blog post since the last week of August. This seems like a good time to explain why.

First, the good. I successfully defended my dissertation this morning, so I am now officially no longer a Ph.D candidate but an actual Ph.D. Finishing the writing and editing took some time, as did making sure I actually knew what I had written, and so in the interests of not getting distracted by outside stuff, I figured it would be good to lay off blogging until the process was behind me. Getting a Ph.D. is a funny thing, since nothing is substantively different now than it was a few hours ago; I am no more or less knowledgeable, no better or worse a writer, no sharper or duller an analyst, yet somehow those three letters confer an added level of credibility. Whether that means that some will take me more seriously or that some will expect a higher level of analysis I can’t say, but I am certainly glad to have it behind me.

Next, the bad. On the afternoon of September 4, just a few hours before the beginning of Rosh Hashanah and the onset of the Jewish new year, my mother passed away after a far too brief eight month battle with a brain tumor. Her diagnosis came out of the blue and was a death sentence, and she hung on valiantly for as long as she could but ultimately succumbed. My blogging had been a lot lighter in 2013 for that reason, as my mom was diagnosed in early January and my family and I logged a lot of hours going back and forth to NY every two weeks to visit her. Since she passed away, I have not been in the frame of mind to devote the time and attention to the blog as it requires, and so despite all of the things going on in Turkey, Israel, and the wider world, I have kept the blog dark.

This is all to say that it is time to get back into things, and I plan on picking things back up next week. I hope that my readers forgive me for the time away, and that I actually have some readers left.

Happy Blogversary To Me

March 13, 2013 § 6 Comments

One year ago today I sat down at my laptop, signed up for a WordPress account, thought for five minutes about what to name my blog, and started writing. Although I hoped someone would notice, I had very little expectation that anyone outside of my family and friends would read it, and I just wanted to use it as an outlet to get my thoughts down in some sort of regular fashion as I had been frustrated at repeatedly sending pitches to places like Foreign Policy and the Atlantic and rarely having them accepted. One year later, the attention O&Z has gotten has outpaced anything that I anticipated, and I am truly grateful to all of my readers for listening to what I have to say and engaging me with your comments, emails, and responses. There are few things that give me more enjoyment than meeting someone new who turns out to be a reader of the blog, and interacting and debating with other folks in these arenas of Israeli politics and Turkish politics has led to a bevy of new friendships and professional contacts and immensely enriched my own knowledge and understanding of Israel and Turkey. The circle of people who seriously study one or both of these countries is growing, and I hope that even more people join the chorus of voices in writing about these two places in one form or another. For evidence that blogging is a worthwhile endeavor, just take a gander at my list of publications and note how many of them came pre-O&Z and how many of them are from the past year. So a sincere and heartfelt thank you to anyone who has ever made their way over to this corner of the Internet, I hope something I have written has made you think whether or not you have agreed with it, and I’ll do my best to keep writing about issues that I feel should be highlighted. In the meantime, since I doubt there is even a minyan of people who read my first post back on March 13, 2012, I am reproducing it below since it still applies one year later.

 

This is a blog about Turkey. And Israel. And Turkey and Israel. As someone who has lived in, written about, and studied both countries intently, I spend a good chunk of my day thinking about the politics of each. There is a lot of good commentary out there on Israeli and Turkish politics and current affairs, but I think I come from a unique enough place to add my voice to the din.

Over the past few years, in response to the domestic politics of each country and exacerbated by the Mavi Marmara flotilla affair, there is a growing trend among commentators and analysts who feel the need to pick sides and institute a mutually exclusive dynamic where you can be either “pro-Turkey” or “pro-Israel.” It escapes me why this has to be the case, but it is nevertheless largely the state of affairs that exists. This blog is an attempt to move past this dynamic. I love the culture, language, history, and general environment of both countries, and I also recognize that both of them are deeply flawed. I think that one can comment on both, considered separately and together, without letting one’s feelings about either of them adversely affect one’s analysis. This blog is an attempt to put forth what I hope will be an interesting take on the geopolitics of two important states without the animosity that characterizes lots of the commentary about both.

Aside from my own academic and professional interest, Turkey and Israel are fascinating to study in their own right. As I have written in a different (and far more distinguished!) venue, Israel and Turkey are remarkably similar. Both are non-Arab countries in the Middle East seeking to attain regional hegemonic status and are the two strongest military powers in the region; both were founded by staunch secularists who thought that the influence of religion would wane over time and yet both countries now find themselves with increasingly religious populations and are struggling to balance the religious with the secular; both are dealing with similar foreign policy problems; both have significant populations either within their borders or under their control that would like to form an autonomous state; and until recently the two were firm allies who remain linchpins of American strategy in the Middle East.

Despite this, Turkey and Israel seem to be moving in opposite directions in the eyes of the world. Turkey is widely seen as ascendant, with a strong economy, a growing hand in world geopolitics, and a foreign minister widely respected and viewed as one of the world’s influential thinkers. In contrast, Israel is viewed by many as a country under siege, with an imminent demographic problem, a rapidly deteriorating relationship with its most important Arab neighbor and ally, and most crucially a possible war with Iran on the horizon. Tracking these developments over the next few years as the aftershocks of the Arab Spring continue to be felt will be fascinating to me, and I hope to others as well.

So there you go. I hope to make this blog a valuable resource for commentary, analysis, and links on all things related to Israel and Turkey, and pick up some readers along the way. And given my past academic life and other interests, don’t be surprised to see some ruminations along the way on constitutional issues related to war and civil liberties, the Boston Red Sox, the politics of the American Jewish community, or why Parks and Recreation might be the best sitcom in the history of network television.

What I Got Wrong

December 28, 2012 § 3 Comments

As 2012 comes to a close, I want to take a look back at the big things I got wrong this year. Crowing about what I got right is a lot more fun – and I don’t waste many opportunities to remind everyone that I was correct about an Iran strike – but it is also far less useful for me and for my readers, since it doesn’t allow me to recalibrate my thinking or give all of you a sense of when and why you should be ignoring me. I started this blog on March 13 of this year and this is my 276th post so I don’t have the time to comprehensively go through every single one, but after trying to go through the bulk of them, here are some of my biggest misfires from 2012.

Migron’s evacuation: On March 26, I wrote, “Yet, I’ll bet almost anything that Migron is not evacuated and demolished by August 1, and that Likud’s younger rightwing vanguard does everything in its power to make sure that the Migron decision is consigned to nothingness. The Knesset’s current coalition politics will not allow anything less, and Israel will continue to fight a losing battle to convince the world that it is blameless for the situation with the Palestinians and that it will be able to withdraw from part of the West Bank whenever the Palestinian leadership is interested in returning to the negotiating table.” 

While this was technically correct since Migron was still standing and fully populated on August 1, the idea behind it was wrong as Migron was evacuated by the first week in September. In this case, I did not give enough credit to the Israeli government and its willingness to carry out an unambiguous High Court decision.

Palestinian civil war: This one was a big misfire. On April 3, I wrote that Hamas and Fatah were on the brink of open armed conflict. My logic was that the Palestinian Authority moves to quash dissent in the West Bank were aimed at limiting Hamas’s ability to operate in Fatah’s stronghold, and that Hamas would do the same in Gaza in response and that eventually the entire tinder box would blow up. This has of course not happened, and I think I was too glib about just how drastic things would have to get for a civil war to take place.

Ehud Barak and Atzmaut: On May 3 I wrote that Barak and his party were going to make the threshold for getting into the next Knesset once elections happened. While this has not actually been proven wrong yet, Barak has decided not to run and Atzmaut is going to fold, so this prediction will be wrong quite soon. Let’s just all pretend that I did not write the following: “So despite the polls, remember that you read this prediction here first: Atzmaut is going to have seats in the next Knesset, will serve in the governing coalition, and Ehud Barak will continue as defense minister.”

Kadima staying in the coalition: On July 3, I predicted that the Likud-Kadima unity government was going to hold together despite the Plesner Committee – which was tasked with figuring out a solution to Haredi and Arab military exemptions –  being disbanded. When my prediction was proven incorrect, I wrote a long post taking stock of where I went wrong, so no need to rehash that again.

Turkey’s response to Operation Pillar of Cloud: On November 14, I wrote in The Atlantic that Turkey and Prime Minister Erdoğan were going to maintain a muted response to Israel’s Gaza operation because of the hypocrisy entailed in a more vocal response given Turkey’s tactics against the PKK. Here’s the relevant part:

But Turkey’s situation has changed in a very important way since Cast Lead. In 2008 and in the aftermath of the flotilla in 2010 Turkey was dealing with a quieter Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Kurdish separatist group. Today, that is no longer the case. Since this summer, Ankara has been waging a full-blown war with the Kurdish terrorist group, inflicting hundreds of casualties and suffering many of its own.

Much like Israel’s fight against Hamas, Turkey’s fight with the PKK has not been without civilian collateral damage. Last December, the Turkish military carried out an airstrike in Uludere that killed 34 civilians who the military thought were PKK fighters attempting to cross the border into Turkey. Earlier this year, the government sealed off the Semdinli district in the Hakkari province for months while it fought the PKK, not letting any information out or any journalists in.

Turkey’s problem with PKK terrorism, combined with the inevitable civilian casualties that occur when fighting terrorist groups embedded amongst the general population, makes it harder this time around for Turkey to angrily denounce Israel as it once did. While I expected Turkey to issue a condemnation of Israeli actions, it is not surprising that it did not have the full force as it has in the past given the uncomfortable parallels that exist between Israel’s actions against Hamas and Turkey’s actions against the PKK.

Of everything that I’ve written this year, this is the prediction that was perhaps the one that was most off-base, as Erdoğan later blasted Israel repeatedly for days. My error here is pretty easy to identify, which is that I for whatever reason convinced myself that a desire to not look like a hypocrite was going to override the strong political incentives that existed for Erdoğan to continue foaming at the mouth any time Israel comes up, and to tie himself to the Palestinian cause at every opportunity. Rest assured my naiveté on this issue is done with.

So there you go. I am sure I’ve missed things, and if anyone knows what those are, please let me know in the comments. Happy New Year, and see you all back here in 2013.

When It Comes To Turkey & Syria, Is Robert Wright Right?

October 11, 2012 § 9 Comments

Robert Wright has been keeping an eye on developments between Turkey and Syria, and unlike me, he thinks there is at least a 50/50 chance that the two countries end up going to war. Wright’s argument boils down to the fact that events on the ground are rapidly spinning out of both Turkey’s and Syria’s control and Turkey is facing serious refugee and Kurdish problems, so that “both of these issues–refugees and Kurdish nationalism–could lead Turkey to conclude that the sooner the Syrian civil war ends, the better.” In addition, Wright believes that the U.S. and NATO may get involved, and that the Turkish-Syrian border is not going to quiet down since Syria cannot afford to ignore it and because Turkey is basically poking Syria in the eye by arming the rebels.

With one exception (the point about the U.S. and NATO), all of these things are arguably correct to some degree, but Wright is overlooking a bunch of other factors that either mitigate or cancel out completely the variables that he has pointed to as reasons a full blown war may happen. First and most importantly is that Turkey does not necessarily have the ability to intervene in Syria in such a way as to end the civil war. As friends of O&Z (and superb guest posters) Aaron Stein and Dov Friedman persuasively argued in the National Interest yesterday, Turkey’s military options in Syria are actually quite limited. Ankara does not have the intelligence capability to carry out extensive target selection, its air force faces a challenge in the face of Syrian air defenses, and its months-long bluster has not been backed by equivalent action, destroying its ability to use credible threats to deter Syrian provocation. In short, Turkey has been exposed as a paper tiger when it comes to Syria. Despite General Özel’s constant tours of the Syrian border and the military buildup, this appears to be similar to what Turkey did following the downing of its F-4 during the summer, when it made a show of force but ultimately did not use it. This is the double secret probation strategy, in which Turkey keeps on ramping up the threats to punish Syria to the point of absurdity. Wright’s argument is that Turkey will end up intervening in Syria in order to put a swift end to the civil war, but the inconvenient reality here is that Turkey might not have the capability to do so, which has obviously been affecting Ankara’s calculus this whole time. In addition, even if Turkey did have the capability to step in and put an end to the sectarian fighting in Syria, Wright assumes that this would put a damper on Kurdish nationalism, but in fact it might very well have precisely the opposite effect. Once the Assad regime falls, the PYD and other Syrian Kurdish groups are likely to try and carve out their own autonomous sphere within Syria, and Turkish intervention on the side of the rebels could accelerate this process.

Wright’s argument about NATO arrives at a similar dead end. He writes that “helping fight it [the Syrian civil war] could help end it–especially if Turkey’s fellow members of NATO help out. Speaking of NATO: The fact that a Turkish-Syrian war could draw America into the conflict will make such a war more attractive to some backers of American intervention.” There is, however, no way that NATO is going to get drawn into this war. There is zero appetite for it among NATO countries not named Turkey, and while NATO may be willing to convene an Article 4 meeting any time Turkey requests one and issue strongly worded condemnations of Syria, that is as far as NATO is going to go. The same goes double for the U.S., which is also going to sit this one out no matter how much Turkey begs and pleads. Wright is buying into the Turkish pipe dream that an international coalition is eventually going to be shamed into intervening in Syria, but I don’t see any plausible way that this happens.

Finally there is Wright’s point about the shelling along the Syrian border and Turkey already essentially fighting a war against Syria by arming and training the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups. The tit-for-tat shelling has been going on now for a week, yet despite this Syria has shown no inclination to ramp up its military activity, and Turkey has been making a big show of force while essentially standing pat. Wright asks, ” If Syria doesn’t want a war, and Syrian shells that fall on the Turkish side of the border could start a war, why doesn’t Syria quit firing shells anywhere near the border?…The answer is simple: The Syrian regime is fighting for its life, and along the Turkish-Syrian border lies the lifeline of its enemy.” There is another simple calculation in play here as well though, which is that Syria is not targeting Turkey with its shelling but is targeting the rebels on its own side of the border, and Syria knows that Turkey knows this too. Intervening in Syria is a potential nightmare for the Turkish army given the sectarian issues and the fact that Turkey will be fending off attacks from not only the Syrian army but Kurdish fighters well. When Syrian artillery misses, as it is bound to do, and kills Turkish civilians, then Turkey is forced to respond, but Turkey does not want to go into Syria on its own and will do nearly anything to avoid such an outcome. By the same token, Turkey has been arming rebel groups now for months, yet Syria is not deliberately shelling Turkish military positions because it too does not want to draw the Turkish military across the border. I get that there is a logic of unintended consequences at work here with the potential to spiral into a war, but Wright’s arguments for how this will happen ignore that there is a very powerful set of incentives on both sides to avoid such an outcome.

Gallimaufry: Islam and Democracy, Star Wars and Literacy

October 5, 2012 § 4 Comments

Time to dive into my when-I-feel-like-it Friday tradition and do some quick hits on interesting or random things I read this past week. Today’s gallimaufry is a little more all over the map than usual, but if you stick with it I promise you will come across something you might not have otherwise been exposed to.

First up is the New York Times, which ran an extremely odd feature in its Room For Debate segment yesterday on whether Islam presents an obstacle to democracy. Why do I call this odd? To begin with, six different people were asked to weigh in with opinions, and all six of them came to the same conclusion, which is that Islam and democracy are compatible with each other. Now, this is a position that I happen to agree with for a variety of reasons, but it seems strange to hold a “debate” in the world’s most influential newspaper in which all of the participants agree with each other and espouse the same view. Seriously, New York Times? You couldn’t find one credible voice to argue the opposing side? The entire world of scholarship and punditry is open to you and still you decide it would be interesting to your readers to solicit six short essays all making the same basic point?

What is perhaps stranger about this NYT feature though is that it is posing a basic political science question, but instead of asking even one political scientist about his or her views, it polls a former Islamist, a policy analyst, a professor of creative writing, an historian, and two professors of religion. I understand that part of this equation has to with Islam, on which some or perhaps even all of the experts the New York Times got in touch with have something credible to say, but the other half of the equation deals with factors that make democracy more or less likely to occur, and not one of the six people opining in yesterday’s NYT are logical choices to answer that question with any degree of expertise. There has been lots of research done on the question of whether democracy and Islam go together, such as this or this or this, and maybe getting in touch with someone who actually studies this question for a living would have been a good idea. After all, if the New York Times wants to ask me my views on whether there is other intelligent life somewhere in the universe because it is a topic that I love to read and talk about, I am happy to give an answer but it doesn’t mean that NYT readers should lend my views on the subject any particular credence as I am not an astrophysicist.

Continuing the theme of factors that affect political development, my friend Armin Rosen directed me to this piece of mad genius brilliance arguing that the galaxy created by George Lucas in the Star Wars films is largely populated by illiterates, and that this accounts for how the Empire was able to destroy the Republic and amass so much power. I want everybody to read this for themselves since it just ridiculously awesome and so I won’t go into all that much detail in the hopes of forcing you to click on the link and read the original, but the gist of the argument is that nearly all of the information in all six Star Wars movies is conveyed via hologram recordings, we never see anyone pick up a book or newspaper, there is no evidence of journalism or reporting of any type, and history largely seems to be of the legendary type passed down orally. The consequences of this are that it is easy for tyranny to flourish. As Ryan Britt, who is the guy who wrote this and whom I now want to meet, puts it:

Padme points out that liberty dies “with thunderous applause,” but really their liberty is dying because most of them can’t read and are powerless and disenfranchised. In fact most of the surviving characters at the end of the prequels are the bad guys, and they can probably read. The Jedi seem to be the most educated people in the prequels, but that changes when they all get killed. This would be like a real life Empire going and burning down all the colleges and schools and killing all the teachers. The academy, the keepers of literacy would be gone. And once that happens, it’s easy for a tyrannical empire to take over, to control the information. Maybe Padme should have said “this is how literacy dies…”

I say we start some sort of fund right now so that Ryan Britt can spend his days writing more of this type of stuff. I’m not joking.

Finally, while we are on the subject of once dominant republics that are now crumbling and whose citizens are powerless to remove the corrupt authoritarians running the show, I give you this great Charles Pierce reflection on the epic failure known as the 2012 Boston Red Sox. Pierce makes a fantastic point, which is that not only was this year’s team the worst in almost half a century in terms of wins and losses, but it was a true throwback Red Sox team that kind of makes you nostalgic. As Pierce says,

This was the way it was in my childhood. These were the kind of days that brought me back to my youth, the way all the baseball propagandists say the game is supposed to do. These were my Red Sox — overpaid and underachieving backbiters who ended up as comic relief. This was the Fenway Park of my youth — a rancid snake pit of venomous egos, and not a theme park. This was how I became a Red Sox fan before Becoming A Red Sox Fan became a piece of performance art. This was the way the season always used to end — with a discreet, but complete, collapse that hardly anyone noticed, because they were paying attention to other, real Major League Baseball teams that had not devoted six months to eating their own livers. The Red Sox went into Yankee Stadium and lost to a team that will not think about the Red Sox again until next April, or perhaps even later than that, if next year’s start is anything like this year’s start was.

When I read this, I was instantly transported back in time to being a kid in the 80s and early 90s watching mediocre teams populated by malcontents and managed by morons where the players all hated each other playing in a rundown dump. I remember going to Fenway Park as a little kid with my dad, and falling in love with the ballpark but being confused why the seats were so uncomfortable and the concourse so dark and why it was the only place in this country I had ever seen a giant trough in the bathroom in place of urinals. The old Fenway is gone forever, but the old Red Sox are back with a vengeance, and now that the unbelievable euphoria of 2004 has passed into the mists of history, I hate to admit that I kind of enjoy being able to bitch and moan about my dysfunctional team again.

Gallimaufry: Adelson, Clark, Architecture, and Curiosity

August 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

You know the gallimaufry drill by now. I read a bunch of interesting or infuriating things this week that either required too little commentary for a separate blog post or have absolutely nothing to do with Israel, Turkey, the Middle East, or foreign policy, so let’s get started.

First is the essay on Jim Lobe’s blog by Marsha Cohen loathsomely titled “Protocols of the Elders of Las Vegas” which should have been more accurately and self-referentially named “Protocols of the Elders of Morons” given Cohen’s line of reasoning. Cohen’s argument – and I use that term loosely – is that there is a conspiracy afoot in which billionaire Republican Sheldon Adelson wants to “devote a small portion of his vast wealth to a neoconservative agenda determined to thwart negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinians; prevent the reelection of an incumbent U.S. president; engineer the destruction of political liberalism; and reshape the political environments of the U.S. and Israel by funding the election of politicians who serve his own corporate and ideological interests.” Cohen outlines Adelson’s myriad of immoral and illegal activities such as establishing a conservative think tank and a right wing newspaper in Israel, donating money to AIPAC, contributing money to political campaigns, devoting his time to political and philanthropic causes rather than concentrating solely on his business interests…wait, what’s that you say? None of this is immoral or illegal in any way? But Marsha Cohen claims that Adelson is orchestrating a vast illicit conspiracy! What Cohen is either too dim to see or too partisan to acknowledge is that under the First Amendment and the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, Adelson has every right to do all of these things, and in fact the only one that Citizens United specifically enabled him to do is donate tens of millions of dollars to Super PACs. Adelson has lots of money and is entitled to use it as he sees fit, and the real problem that Cohen has is not that Adelson is doing these things, but that he is doing them for Republicans. The implication is that right wing ideas, and particularly neoconservative ideas – which believe it or not have a long tradition in American political thought and discourse – are illegitimate and thus can only be advanced through nefarious means. I don’t agree with Adelson’s views on much of anything, and I think that Citizens United was a poorly decided case that has negatively reverberated in the exact way that the majority dismissed out of hand, but none of that is the point. The point is that Marsha Cohen thinks it appropriate to play on the most anti-Semitic of conspiracy theories about Jewish puppet masters using their money to control the world (and if you think I am being overly dramatic, go back and read again the verbatim quote where she describes what Adelson is doing) and has no problem retching venomous illiberal bile regarding free speech because she doesn’t like Adelson’s views. Someone please explain to me why a person willing to stoop to such an abhorrent low should be allowed in polite company.

Moving from unsubstantiated attacks to those with a little more substance, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe and erstwhile presidential candidate General Wesley Clark has a new gig hosting a reality show on NBC called Stars Earn Stripes in which B-list celebrities perform simulated special forces military challenges, and it has a bunch of people upset on the left because it glorifies violence and a bunch of people upset on the right because it cheapens the military. Spencer Ackerman wrote an absolutely devastating putdown of Clark’s post-Army career, accusing Clark of being an unprincipled corporate shill, a failure as a general, and an idiot to boot. Clark’s son, Wesley Clark Jr., then emailed Andrew Sullivan with a defense of his dad that vociferously defended him from all of Ackerman’s charges and explained his decision to become a temporary reality show host as a way to get some much needed rest and spend time with his grandchildren. The entire exchange is really quite extraordinary, and you should read Ackerman’s critique and Clark Jr.’s retort.

From the Department of Comically Entertaining Miscellany, the New York Times had a great piece about a guy living on the North Shore in Massachusetts named John Archer who has constructed a 13,000 square foot mansion out of architectural salvage. Archer is clearly a unique kind of eccentric who has spent what has to be millions of dollars constantly buying and building and renovating, and the article about him is fascinating, but what you really want to look at is the accompanying slide show of pictures of Archer’s house. It is weird and stunning and beautiful and confusing all at the same time. Make sure to check out picture 13, in which there is a house in the background that looks like it was plucked from a medieval storybook and then you realize that it is actually the Danvers wing of Archer’s own house, and picture 16, which could pass for an Oxford dining hall.

Finally, I can’t let the opportunity pass without linking to something about the Mars Curiosity rover, which has to be the most impressive feat of science, creativity, and engineering in the history of mankind. Don’t believe me? Watch this 5 minute video simulation showing how Curiosity plunged through the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 miles per hour, slowed down to 200 mph with a supersonic parachute, hovered above the surface of Mars by basically turning itself into a jet-pack, and was then lowered to the ground on a sky crane. Then contemplate that there are people walking this Earth who not only imagined that such a thing could be possible but figured out how to do it, and then made it work despite the fact that it takes 14 minutes for signals to travel from Mars to Earth but 7 minutes for Curiosity to get from the atmosphere to landing, so that this was all done completely blind (!). It is literally the most incredible science fiction come to life, and I challenge anyone to watch this video and then tell me that not every single penny spent on the space program is completely and entirely justified.

Another Friday Gallimaufry

July 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

Another Friday, another gallimaufry post. This one is going to be even more all over the map than the last one since I read a more diverse group of interesting stories and essays in the last few days that all deserve some mention.

First, it was good to see the Turkish Foreign Ministry speak out against the Bulgaria bombing yesterday, using the phrase “crime against humanity” and strongly condemning the terrorist attack. Turkey has often gone out of its way to note when Palestinian civilians are killed and drawn charges of displaying a double standard when Israelis are killed, and this strongly worded statement is a positive step in blunting that criticism. Matan Lurey had pointed out that Turkey was initially quiet and argued that a statement from Turkey would be important in demonstrating that Israeli-Turkish relations were not at the point of being unsalvageable, so I’m glad that Turkey came through in a forthrightly unambiguous way.

Moving from condemnation of one kind to condemnation of another, Tablet published an essay this week by Anna Breslaw in which she tried to write cogently about the television show Breaking Bad by expressing her disgust for Holocaust survivors. For a representative sample of how Breslaw thinks, try this:

I had the gut instinct that these [Holocaust survivors] were villains masquerading as victims who, solely by virtue of surviving (very likely by any means necessary), felt that they had earned the right to be heroes, their basic, animal self-interest dressed up with glorified phrases like “triumph of the human spirit.”

I wondered if anyone had alerted Hitler that in the event that the final solution didn’t pan out, only the handful of Jews who actually fulfilled the stereotype of the Judenscheisse (because every group has a few) would remain to carry on the Jewish race—conniving, indestructible, taking and taking.

After the altogether justified uproar that Tablet, a Jewish outlet, would publish such anti-Semitic drivel, editor-in-chief Alana Newhouse issued a clarification that was certainly not an apology or even arguably an acknowledgement that the essay was inappropriate on many levels, beginning with the blatant anti-Jewish bigotry and ending with the fact that concentration camp survivors were used as an analogy for a fictional drug dealing murderer. Readers who know me outside of this blog (or who have engaged with me on Twitter) will be aware that I am a free speech absolutist and that I believe in every situation that the answer to objectionable speech is more speech. If you don’t like an argument that someone has made, the proper response is not to censor them or shout them down but to counter with a better and more convincing argument. Breslaw is entitled to her own warped and disturbing opinions and she should be allowed to air them in any venue that is willing to print them. The question I have is whether Tablet, an outlet that describes itself as one for “Jewish news, ideas, and culture” should be that venue. There is a Jewish tendency to push the bounds of discourse – after all, the site that is the best known clearinghouse for hateful screeds against both Jews and Israel is run by Philip Weiss – and that is one of the reasons that Judaism is such an intellectually vibrant tradition, but I don’t quite think it is Tablet’s role to be publicizing frivolous attacks on Holocaust survivors that assail them for the crime of not dying in a gas chamber at the hands of Nazis. If Tablet disagrees and thinks that this is precisely the role that Tablet should be playing, it should come out and say so clearly and forthrightly.

While Tablet provided a terrible example of how to use a personal narrative to make a larger point, my friend Steven Cook provided a great one with his reflections on the recently departed Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. Steven writes about the meetings he had over the years with Suleiman, and points out that the spymaster was so blinded by his own conceit that he himself was responsible for Egypt’s stability and could control events that he never saw the revolution coming or conceived of the possibility that the Tahrir uprising would lead to Mubarak’s ouster. The regime’s thinking, as personified by Suleiman, was way behind the thinking of Egyptians in the streets and even of foreign governments, who saw the writing on the wall before Mubarak actually stepped down, and it had real consequences as it drove the Egyptian government’s actions. This is a useful reminder that in many cases we have no real idea what authoritarian leaders are thinking or how they perceive various actions, and the net result is that while actors may intend to convey a certain message, the intended target’s takeaway might be something completely different. We assume that encircling Iran, both literally with warships and figuratively with sanctions, will convey Western seriousness about dealing with the Iranian nuclear program, but Tehran might very well be hearing the message that because no military strike has happened yet that this is all a bluff. Similarly, just because the world is warning Bashar al-Assad about the dire consequences of using chemical weapons does not forestall their use, since Assad might assume that the chances of him hanging on now are remote and that deploying chemical weapons is the best remaining path to staying in power. Just because we assume that cues are universal and will lead to what we view to be rational behavior does not mean that rationality is a fixed variable (paging Kenneth Waltz).

Finally, and on a lighter note, one of my absolute obsessions is space. If I had to choose between catching a Red Sox game at Fenway or spending the day at the Hayden Planetarium, it would be a genuinely tough decision. One of my two or three biggest regrets in life is that I was never good enough at math or science to be an astrophysicist (one of my two A+ grades in college was Astronomy, and that was relatively elementary stuff but the math still killed me), and I am constantly on the hunt for things to read or watch about the latest discoveries in astrophysics that are accessible to a non-expert audience (NOVA on PBS is a great example). If I could meet any one person, it would hands down be Neil DeGrasse Tyson. So I was intrigued when I read this week that space does not smell like what I had imagined. I always envisioned space to be the ultimate example of fresh air – cool, crisp, the way it smells on a clear night in northern New Hampshire. Turns out that space smells like a scrap metal yard or a welding plant. Kind of makes sense when you think about all of the massive dust clouds and stars burning up at unimaginable heat, but who knew?

An Important Language Correction

July 6, 2012 § 2 Comments

Last week, Brent Sasley and I had an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor on Israel-Turkey relations. A few days ago, I noticed that one of the commenters on the article said that he had stopped reading after seeing the phrase “nine Turkish human rights activists aboard the Mavi Marmara.” This struck me as odd, because that is not how I have ever described the nine people who died on the Mavi Marmara, I was sure that neither Brent nor I had written that phrase, and I didn’t even recall reading it. Yet there it was, right in the first paragraph.

I went back and looked at the draft that we had sent CSM, and my memory was indeed correct – we had not used such a loaded phrase. The phrase we had written was “the Turkish citizens killed on the Mavi Marmara,” which was deliberate because it did not include a value judgment or indicate that we were taking sides between the Israeli version of “terrorists” and the Turkish version of “human rights activists.” In fact, I would never describe the nine people killed on board the Mavi Marmara as human rights activists for three reasons. First, there is no question that they were armed with clubs, chains, knives, and other similar weapons, which is not how one would characterize human rights activists. Second, some of the Israeli soldiers suffered gunshot wounds, which is also an unlikely move on the part of human rights activists. Third, the members of the flotilla initially refused Israel’s offer to inspect their cargo and then send it along to Gaza, which indicates that there were other motives at play here aside from simply alleviating suffering in Gaza. Furthermore, I have written about or mentioned the flotilla numerous times on this blog, and anyone is welcome to go back through the archives and look; nowhere will you find me ever describing the people who died on board as human rights activists, or any variant thereof. My record on this is both extensive and clear.

So, how did the phrase “Turkish human rights activists” get published under our bylines? As part of the editing process, some things got removed, others rewritten, and different sections of the piece were moved around, and both Brent and I somehow missed this crucial change, partially because it got moved from where we had it in the piece to the very top. I can give you some good excuses for why neither of us caught this – Brent was in Israel at the time with nothing but an iPad to work on, and I had a 3 week old baby at home and was running on less than my usual amount of sleep – but the bottom line is that this is entirely on us. It is not the Christian Science Monitor’s fault, but ours alone, and we have to deal with the fact that we were sloppy. This is an unfortunate but sobering lesson on the vital importance of triple checking everything that ever goes out under your name, and all I can do at this point is set the record straight here.

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