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.

The Bilious Bond Between Bibi, Barack, and Boehner

January 22, 2015 § 30 Comments

Anyone reading this blog knows by now that it has been a wild and wacky 24 hours in the never-ending soap opera that is Prime Minister Netanyahu and his involvement – whether direct or indirect – in American politics. The newest chapter was sparked by President Obama’s State of the Union vow to veto any new sanctions bill that Congress passes targeting Iran, and Speaker John Boehner’s response the next day of inviting Netanyahu to address Congress and speak about “the threats posed by radical Islam and Iran.” While Netanyahu is often himself accused of trying to intervene in American politics, this was a clear cut case of someone else using Netanyahu to intervene in American politics, as Boehner’s hope is that a speech to Congress by Netanyahu will rally the troops and establish enough political cover for wavering legislators to override any future veto by Obama. The White House was obviously incensed, and declared this to be a breach of protocol since Boehner had invited a foreign head of state to Washington without first checking with his own head of state. Things started to become a bit more sticky today when Nancy Pelosi confirmed that she had nothing to do with the invitation and thus it was not a bipartisan invite, and then the White House stated that Netanyahu would not be meeting with Obama while in Washington because it is longstanding policy not to meet with visiting political candidates so soon before an election, and Netanyahu’s visit is going to be two weeks before Israeli elections on March 17.

This last point is key, because contra Max Fisher, who primarily sees this whole thing as the latest Netanyahu intervention into U.S. politics, I don’t think that is what Netanyahu is actually up to here. When Boehner was the one who invited Netanyahu in a clear effort to bolster GOP thinking on Iran policy, it strikes me as strange to argue that this is somehow a Netanyahu initiative, and that this is really the GOP cheerleading an anti-Obama campaign on Netanyahu’s part rather than the GOP using Netanyahu for its own ends. No doubt Netanyahu is as eager for new sanctions on Iran as his Republican friends, but the main reason speaking before Congress at the beginning of March holds appeal for him is because it is a unique campaign rally opportunity. One of the largest criticisms the Bujie Herzog-Tzipi Livni Zionist Camp alliance has had of Netanyahu’s conduct of foreign affairs is that he has needlessly alienated the Obama administration, and in so doing damaged relations with the U.S. and Israel’s standing in the world. Given the paucity of serious security figures in the Labor-Hatnua list, not to mention the fact that Labor’s comparative advantage when it comes to Israeli voters is on social and economic issues, harping on the alleged damage that Netanyahu has caused to U.S.-Israel ties is going to be the left’s biggest security and defense campaign issue. This is even more salient in the aftermath of this summer’s fighting in Gaza and given the widespread disillusionment with the Palestinian Authority and the peace process across the political spectrum, removing Netanyahu’s foot dragging on two states as a potent campaign issue.

In such a political climate, Netanyahu would be hard pressed to come up with a better rejoinder to the left’s argument about deteriorating relations with the U.S. on his watch than being invited to speak before Congress for a third time (tying his hero, Winston Churchill) and being cheered and applauded by members of both parties as he touts the common U.S.-Israel fight against Islamic extremism. The timing here couldn’t be better for him in terms of the vote, and no doubt he will use the speech during the final two weeks of his campaign as proof that the relationship with the U.S. is still rock solid and that Herzog and Livni are off-base with their criticisms, never mind the fact that Congress does not the entire U.S. government make.

While the logic might seem sound to both Boehner and Netanyahu, there are some potentially serious pitfalls in the plan. Starting with the GOP, there is the risk that the charge Fisher raises – of it being unseemly to side with the leader of a foreign country over one’s own president – will stick, particularly given the contention that it is inappropriate for Congress to invite a foreign leader without first consulting with, or at least informing, the president in advance (as an aside, I get the head of state argument, although I don’t see why Congress needs to clear its speaking invitations with the president, no more than the White House needs congressional approval to hold a joint Rose Garden press conference or hold a state dinner – I’d be grateful if any readers with particular expertise in constitutional law could elucidate whether there is a separation of powers problem here or not). More importantly for Boehner’s purposes, the Netanyahu invite could potentially backfire from a tactical perspective if there is a backlash against invoking the strength of the pro-Israel lobby to torpedo a president’s policy priority. This is precisely what happened in the 1981 fight during the Reagan administration over selling AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia, where the role of pro-Israel lobbying became a hot button topic. After public opinion had initially been opposed to the arms sale, with 73% opposed, Israel’s strident lobbying became an issue and public opinion shifted as a result, with 53% expressing that “once the President had decided to sell the planes to Saudi Arabia, it was important that Congress not embarrass him with the rest of the world,” and 52% agreeing that “the Israeli lobby in Washington had to be taken on and defeated so it’s a good thing the U.S. Senate upheld the plane sale to Saudi Arabia.” By explicitly tying Israel to new sanctions, Boehner is hoping to capitalize on Israel’s general popularity with voters and Netanyahu’s popularity among GOP and some Democratic lawmakers, but doing it so nakedly and overtly can have some unintended consequences.

Moving to Netanyahu, I’m not sure this is a winning maneuver for him, and I think he is actually taking a substantial risk. He is already being criticized at home for trying to subvert election laws through this speech to Congress, and in fact there has already been a petition filed to judicially block the speech from being aired on Israeli television. Furthermore, he is opening himself up to a mountain of opprobrium for further damaging relations with the Obama administration – and yes, the refusal to meet with Netanyahu when he is here may be justified given the election timing, but it is also an unambiguous slap down from a furious White House – and Democrats in general. Don’t forget that Pelosi has already hung him out to dry, and other Democrats will follow suit as they do not appreciate Netanyahu’s blatant coordination with the Republicans, irrespective of how they feel about Israel or further sanctions on Iran. If Herzog, Livni, Lapid, Kahlon, and the rest of the cast of characters looking to take down Bibi are smart about it, they will also seize on the fact that Netanyahu is being used as a political football here and either not aware enough to realize that it is going on, or worse, willingly allowing it happen. It does not speak well to Netanyahu’s instincts or leadership to be manipulated by Congressional Republicans for their own purposes and possibly damaging himself in the process.

Finally, in accepting such a charged invitation to speak, Netanyahu is keeping to a pattern of putting his personal political prospects ahead of Israel’s longterm interests with regard to the U.S., and that is where the real danger comes from. It’s one thing to blame Netanyahu for bad relations with a president who will be out of office in two years; one can argue that this is a problem that will resolve itself with no residual effects. But if you view Netanyahu’s machinations in a larger context, by constantly and openly favoring the Republican Party – either himself or through Ron Dermer’s actions in Washington – he is putting Israel itself at long term risk by helping make it a wedge issue in American politics. I constantly argue that Israel’s primacy of place in the U.S. is due to popular opinion, but the caveat there is that this only works when it is bipartisan popular opinion. Netanyahu’s actions, where he sides with the Republicans in a very exaggerated manner, are having a serious effect and eroding traditional cross-spectrum popular support for Israel, and once that passes a point of no return, Israel is going to have serious problems. I don’t place the blame for wavering support in the Democratic Party for Israel solely at Netanyahu’s feet by any means, but he is a big part of the problem and has stoked the fires at many points. The GOP has an obvious political interest in making Israel a full-fledged wedge issue and using it as a cudgel to hammer the Democrats as often as it can. The burning question for me is why Netanyahu is so willing to allow himself to be used in furthering this outcome when it is so obviously not in Israel’s interests.

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?

Netanyahu Is Going To Trade One Headache For Another

December 3, 2014 § 4 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 29, 2014 § 4 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turkey’s Syria Spillover Problem

October 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

The Politics of the Anti-ISIS Coalition

September 23, 2014 § 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.

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