March 4, 2013 § 4 Comments
I am headed to Turkey later today for the second part of the Young Turkey Young America program (in case you have forgotten or are new to this blog, explanation here) and will be spending the next two weeks in Ankara and Istanbul getting the Turkish perspective on the current state of U.S.-Turkey relations. As I noted after the first part of this program in September, the relationship between the two countries seemed stronger than ever, and U.S. government officials, business leaders, and foreign policy analysts were overwhelmingly positive about Turkey’s global role and its importance to U.S. interests. Turkey was seen as a crucial and helpful ally, President Obama and Prime Minister Erdoğan clearly had a strong personal relationship, and everything was humming along as smoothly as possible.
Since then, however, some storm clouds have developed on the horizon, and I will be very interested to see whether the wide variety of Turkish officials with whom we are meeting are as positive about the U.S. as American officials were about Turkey back in the fall. In the period since then, a number of issues have either cropped up anew or have intensified, and Washington and Ankara do not seem to be as much on the same page as they were before. The two governments have had sharper disagreements over the proper course to pursue in Syria, with Turkey wanting to aggressively arm the rebels and the Obama administration (wisely in my view) holding back. There is also friction over Iraq and how much independence the Kurdistan Regional Government in the north should have from Baghdad. Issues surrounding freedom of speech and imprisonment of journalists have become more prominent as well, and Ambassador Francis Ricciardone was called on the carpet after criticizing the government over the Ergenekon trials. Then there is the lingering Israel issue, with Erdoğan’s Zionism-equals-fascism comment last week only the latest in a long line of vitriol directed at Jerusalem that complicates Turkey’s standing here in Washington. In September I wrote the following:
The deterioration in relations between Turkey and Israel is clearly weighing on policymakers’ minds, and it was repeatedly brought up as something that needs to be fixed before it starts to adversely affect Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. A couple of people made allusions to the fact that Israel is always going to politically win out over Turkey in the U.S. and so it is vital for Turkey that the two countries repair their ties. Given the prevailing view in Turkey that the fallout with Israel has been relatively cost-free, I think that some of my Turkish colleagues were surprised to hear that this was an issue that could possibly bleed over into U.S.-Turkey bilateral ties. It’s not terribly surprising from my perspective given that Israel and Turkey are two of the most important U.S. allies in the region and the U.S. would like to go back to the era of being able to coordinate with them in concert, but I’m not sure my Turkish friends had thought about it much from this angle.
I think this is even more salient now than it was a few months ago, and with the establishment of an Israel-Hellenic caucus in Congress and arms deals with Turkey either being held up or not being introduced into committee at all, there is no doubt in my mind that Turkey’s feud with Israel is adversely impacting its interests in the U.S. Furthermore, the danger for Ankara is that its standing among policymakers is contingent upon it being seen as a helpful ally because it does not have a real independent base of support here otherwise. Unlike Israel, which has a strong relationship with the U.S. for a host of reasons – including the strength of AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups – but that all stem from the fact that Israel is immensely popular with most Americans and even loved by many, Turkey does not enjoy this same status. If Erdoğan and his government keep on having disagreements with Washington over Syria, Iraq, Israel, and other issues, Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. is bound to suffer a decline, no matter how often Obama and Erdoğan talk on the phone.
Over the next two weeks, aside from enjoying time spent with good friends in one of my favorite places in the whole world, I will be thinking about these issues and trying to assess U.S.-Turkey relations in the larger context of everything else taking place. The relationship is one of critical importance, and while nobody expects both countries to agree on everything or to see eye to eye on every issue, it behooves them both to ensure that bumps in the road do not turn into roadblocks. So with that, an iyi yolculuklar to me, and I will do my best to blog what I can over the next couple of weeks.
January 31, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Today’s post comes to you courtesy of Nick Danforth. Nick is a fellow Georgetowner and is a Ph.D. candidate in history currently spending his time in Turkey’s archives and writing his dissertation on national identity, democratization and U.S. foreign policy in Turkey in the 1940s and 1950s. Nick also occasionally writes about current Turkish politics, and is the proprietor of a geekily awesome new blog about Ottoman/Turkish/Middle East cartography called The Afternoon Map. If you have any interest at all in maps, go check it out. Nick’s post details the ways in which ideological polarization and using undemocratic means to pursue allegedly democratic ends has made for a hollow sense of justice in Turkey, and I think it is particularly timely given that these are the very same two issues currently tearing Egypt apart. Given the problems that Turkey faces on these fronts, it does not instill a sense of optimism for what lies ahead for the Arab world’s most populous country. But now for the topic at hand, which is Turkey, the AKP, and the courts:
Standing outside in the cold Istanbul rain on the 19th to commemorate Hrant Dink’s death – with a sign saying “For Hrant, For Justice” in Kurdish – it seemed like as good an opportunity as any to meditate on the frustrating contradictions of Turkish democracy.
For the uninitiated, Hrant Dink was a Turkish-Armenian journalist and champion of Armenian rights who was assassinated in 2007. After originally being content to charge Dink’s 17-year old shooter with acting alone, prosecutors recently decided that there was enough evidence to link Dink’s murder to a broader conspiracy. As with so much else related even peripherally to the sprawling Ergenokon case, the substance of the charge is perfectly plausible, even long overdue, but much else about it is suspect. That the shadowy people behind the killing had some shadowy ties to some of the other shadowy Ergenekon figures is all too likely, but it also fits nicely with the AKP’s ongoing efforts to blame every crime Turkey on its political enemies. The government continues to insist, to take only one of the most striking examples, that the brutal murder of three Christian missionaries in southeastern Turkey some years ago was not the work of radical Islamists, but a false flag operation, designed to look like just the sort of crime radical Islamists might have committed.
More broadly, while a number of people have documented the increasing mess the Ergenokon investigation has become, one of the things that makes these prosecutions both insidious and effective is that every round of arrests has included at least several figures who were almost certainly involved in plotting to topple a democratically elected government – alongside all the others whose only crime was being a little too critical. Tellingly, it was in one of the last and most suspect rounds of Ergenekon-related arrests that the government finally nabbed former Admiral Özden Örnek, whose “coup diary” remained one of the soundest pieces of evidence in the whole case.
The recent Paris murders were yet another example of the fact that, for far too many people like Dink who have been killed for being the wrong religion, the wrong ethnicity, or the wrong political orientation, no court’s verdict will ever convince more than half the population in this politicized climate. While many Kurds blame the government and the government blames rival Kurdish factions, the French police have gone so far as to speculate that it might have been nothing more than a crime of passion. Over the years, columnist Ismet Berkan has been fond of pointing out that when any incriminating evidence against one’s ideological allies can be dismissed – often rightly – as propaganda or disinformation, everyone will continue to believe their own version of the truth whatever facts emerge. On Saturday it was striking how many people were waving signs accusing the AKP of complicity in covering up the murder. When Muammer Güler , Istanbul’s mayor at the time of Dink’s death, was recently appointed Interior Minister, Dink’s lawyer called it another drop in a sea of shame.
The problem is not that people are overly susceptible to conspiracy theories (though that doesn’t help). The problem is that with the Dink case, as with the PKK murders and Ergenekon, there clearly was a conspiracy of some sort, but the Turkish political system in its current form cannot satisfactorily unravel it. Until the government gives its citizens reason to have faith in the independence if the judiciary and the independence of the press, its investigations, no matter how sincere or successful they are in any particular case, won’t convince anyone.
There are moments in conversations with AKP supporters where it seems like they are troubled by the undemocratic means their party has adopted in handling the Ergenekon case and the way this has politicized the country. Yet at the same time, many suggest that these means are justified by the historic magnitude of the problems they are trying to resolve. That is to say, some false arrests are a small price to pay for finally freeing Turkey from the grip of military authoritarianism. Unfortunately, it seems a similar – understandable but ultimately self-defeating – rationale is likely to justify the government’s heavy handed approach to resolving the Kurdish issue.
Negotiations with PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan already have already produced one striking example of questionable means directed at admirable ends. After a prosecutor called the legality of these negotiations into question and demanded that Turkish Intelligence Chief Hakan Fidan testify about them in court, the parliament speedily passed a law, recently upheld by the Constitutional Court, saying that the Intelligence Chief could only be forced to testify with the express approval of the Prime Minister.
The whole issue offers the depressing sight of arbitrary executive power pitted against arbitrary prosecutorial power, with the intelligence service a little bit closer to regaining the immunity it enjoyed in the heyday of the deep state. Where we once all hoped the AKP would steer Turkey toward a more democratic future in something resembling a straight line, Turkey now seems at best to be tacking towards that destination like a sailboat, moving closer to it in one direction and further away in another.
More depressing is the growing realization that in the coming year, the AKP will use the power it has amassed by bullying and censoring the press in order to win support for a policy of ending official intolerance and forced assimilation of Kurds. And those challenging the government by highlighting these undemocratic means will likely not be progressive liberals but the MHP, alongside the more nationalist wing of the CHP. With tolerance and minority rights ranged against against press freedom and rule of law, justice for Dink and his fellow citizens seems more elusive than ever.
January 28, 2013 § Leave a Comment
There were a couple of extremely consequential stories out of Turkey toward the end of last week that I didn’t get a chance to write about with the Israeli elections going on, but I would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity now to highlight them and comment. First was the Turkish cabinet shuffle, with the big move being the replacement of Interior Minister Idris Şahin with Muammer Güler. Şahin is about as hardline on the Kurdish issue as any Turkish government official – he referred in May to the civilians killed in December 2011′s Uludere air strike as “PKK extras” – and his sacking is important for two reasons. First, it signals that the Ocalan talks and Imralı process might actually be a real reorientation of the government’s policy and not just a ploy at running out of the clock or buying more time. Getting rid of the minister overseeing the terrorism fight who was absolutely despised by Kurdish politicians and ordinary Turkish Kurds and replacing him with someone who is likely to be a little more open to Kurdish sensitivities is an important step, and while there are concerns about Güler given his actions while governor of Istanbul, literally anyone will be an improvement over Şahin.
Furthermore, replacing Şahin with a new face in the Interior Ministry is important inasmuch as it signals a tacit admission on the government’s part that its strategy of pounding the PKK without making a real effort on the political front has been a mistake. The Imralı process also fits into this idea as well, and a new interior minister communicates a fresh start and that the old approach was not working. Prime Minister Erdoğan rarely if ever publicly admits that he was wrong, but this is as close to a public admission as you’ll see. The optics of this are important by themselves divorced from what ever actual policy emerges. By the same token, putting Ömer Çelik in the cabinet as Culture and Tourism Minister is important too as he is one of Erdoğan’s two or three closest advisers and has advocated a much more conciliatory approach than the government has adopted in the past. I expect him to be influential in the new Kurdish policy as well despite his portfolio, and his elevation to a cabinet position now is also a signal that the government has erred and that it needs to find a different formula if it wants to be successful.
The other noteworthy development last week was Erdoğan’s full about-face on the government’s assault on the military as embodied by the Ergenekon and Balyoz (Sledgehammer) prosecutions and widespread imprisonment of officers. After crowing for years about the defanging of the armed forces and how Turkey is now coup-proof, Erdoğan acknowledged over the weekend that things have gotten out of hand and said that the detention of generals is negatively impacting the fight against terrorism. As an example of just how dire the situation is, the Turkish navy now has no full admirals left after the resignation of Admiral Nusret Güner in protest over the fact that the officers under his command have mostly been arrested. There is literally nobody to fill the positions of Navy chief and fleet commander, since all that remain are vice-admirals, and there is never any way of knowing when those officers will be arrested either. While the situation is the worst in the navy, the other services are not in great shape either and have been decimated by arrests. Erdoğan now seems to realize just how out of control things have gotten, but the damage has already been done and there is no quick fix for the low army morale or the military’s readiness level. Like with the Kurdish issue, however, this is a very public admission that policy needs to change, and like the moves on the Kurdish front, this should be applauded.
While both of these developments were undoubtedly positive ones, there is some political maneuvering involved as well. As I wrote last week, the backtrack on the Kurdish policy has to be seen in context of Erdoğan’s desire to get his new constitution through the Grand National Assembly, and it seems even more clear now that he is going to turn to the BDP for support. The cabinet shuffle is all part of this longer view, and so the nakedly political angle to all of this should not be ignored. On the military issue, it’s difficult for me not to view it partially as a broadside against the Gülenists, who have lately turned on Erdoğan and the AKP. The military prosecutions have been driven by Gülenist prosecutors and judges, and when Erdoğan calls on the courts to either hand down verdicts or release the imprisoned officers, and even casts doubts on whether the accused were ever part of a conspiracy at all, you have to consider why he has suddenly decided that the Ergenekon and Balyoz investigations are a net negative rather than a net positive. There is little doubt in my mind that Erdoğan’s new position is the correct one as a matter of policy, since the government cannot be in the business of holding people on trumped up charges indefinitely – not to mention the side effect of making it far more difficult for the Turkish military to operate – but there is also an element of score settling here, with Erdoğan laying the groundwork for a possible public push against the Gülenists and the cemaat down the road. Whatever the case, it looks like from a policy perspective, 2013 is going to look a lot different than 2012 did in Turkey.
January 3, 2013 § Leave a Comment
There is some very strange stuff going on in Turkey and I don’t quite know what to make of it just yet, so I thought I’d do some speculative musing out loud in the hopes of sparking a discussion. In September, Prime Minister Erdoğan completely out of the blue fired his head of security and many of his bodyguards en masse and replaced them with new people. In October, his office went through a complete root and branch renovation. These moves led to speculation that Erdoğan was concerned that he’d been spied on, since they seemed like unusual steps to take absent some evidence of outside parties listening in and monitoring the prime minister’s private communications. Then in December, Erdoğan revealed that his home office had been bugged, and more bugs were found in his parliamentary office and his car. Erdoğan initially blamed the deep state, and then later essentially said he wanted to just put the whole thing behind him, although the MIT (Turkish intelligence) is investigating. Erdoğan also issued special “crypto phones” to all Turkish ministers in order to prevent their communications from being intercepted as well.
A couple of things here are particularly odd to me. First, why did Erdoğan decide in December to publicly reveal that he’d been spied on? The rumors were flying for months, but it seems like a very strange thing to confirm since the benefit of doing so is not readily appreciable. It relays a sense of governmental incompetence, particularly given the scope of devices that were allegedly found, and does not inspire confidence in Erdoğan and his team. The announcement was also not made in an effort to be as transparent and informative as possible, since neither of these things are exactly hallmarks of the current Turkish government. Erdoğan is also a guy who almost never admits he was wrong about anything, and while having your office bugged and phones tapped is not an error on Erdoğan’s part, his letting everyone know that it happened is an unusual admission that something went wrong somewhere.
Second, why did Erdoğan rush to blame the usual suspects in the deep state and then offer to drop the subject entirely? It’s almost as if he geared up for another fight with the military and other deep state actors, and then was somehow frightened off. Certainly it is very much out of character for Erdoğan to publicly back down on anything, and even more out of character to offer not to pursue someone who has spied on him. It leaves the impression that either something or someone spooked him, or that his initial conjecture about the responsible parties was wrong. I can’t recall another instance of Erdoğan giving off the impression that he is ready for battle and then bowing out.
Here are some completely unfounded ideas as to what may be going on here. Taking all of this together, I think that things in Turkey are about to get a lot more unpleasant, with a new round of arrests, prosecutions, and trials. If Erdoğan did not intend to go after someone or something, there would have been no reason for him to announce that his office was bugged. Letting the public know is an effort to get on the right side of public opinion before whatever comes next, much like exposing coup plots, whether real or imagined, was necessary before prosecuting hundreds of military officers. Erdoğan revealing that he is being spied on signaled to me the beginning of a renewed campaign of Ergenekon redux.
The weird part then is his backtracking, and I still don’t know what to make of it. Does whoever bugged his office have information being used to blackmail Erdoğan? Is this whole thing an exercise in paranoid delusion? I have no clue at all. The other question is, who was Erdoğan preparing to go after? It could be the military, which would make sense given his initial blaming the deep state. On the other hand, there are rumors that the party responsible for the bugs is the Gülenists. To my mind, if Erdoğan is preparing to go after someone, it is Gülenists rather than the military, since the growing split between the prime minister and his former cheerleaders has been a long time coming. There is irony in Gülenists banding together with Erdoğan in using shadowy tactics and accusations to bring down the military, to now have Erdoğan turn around and use the same playbook on the Gülen movement. As I said, this is complete conjecture on my part, but something is definitely going on behind the scenes and I think it’s about to get messy. If anyone can shed any more light on this whole strange affair, please don’t hesitate to let me know.
November 28, 2012 § 7 Comments
Friend of O&Z and frequent guest poster Dov Friedman – who tweets from @DovSFriedman – is back today with thoughts on Egypt and President Morsi, and whether focusing on the Islamist character of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood risks missing the forest of authoritarianism for the trees of Islamism. Bonus points for relating the debate over Morsi to the debate over Turkey and the AKP and making sure to cover the Ottomans portion of this blog, which has been lacking as of late due to Gaza and the upcoming Israeli elections. Without further ado, here’s Dov:
In The New Republic on Monday, Eric Trager criticized those who bought into the idea of Mohamed Morsi as a moderate during the Egyptian uprising. The timing of the piece makes sense, as Morsi expanded his already considerable power last Thursday in a constitutional declaration. Trager was among the analysts consistently skeptical of the supposed moderation and democratic potential of the Muslim Brotherhood. Yesterday’s piece served to remind observers that not every analyst bought into last year’s dominant narrative. As evidence, Trager provides excellent detail about the Muslim Brotherhood’s “cultish” structure and immoderation:
That’s because the very process through which one becomes a Muslim Brother is designed to weed out moderates. It begins when specially designated Brotherhood recruiters, who work at mosques and universities across Egypt, identify pious young men and begin engaging them in social activities to assess their suitability for the organization. The Brotherhood’s ideological brainwashing begins a few months later, as new recruits are incorporated into Brotherhood cells (known as “families”) and introduced to the organization’s curriculum, which emphasizes Qur’anic memorization and the writings of founder Hassan al-Banna, among others. Then, over a five-to-eight-year period, a team of three senior Muslim Brothers monitors each recruit as he advances through five different ranks of Brotherhood membership—muhib, muayyad, muntasib, muntazim, and finally ach amal, or “active brother.”
I encourage you to read the whole thing.
The problem with Trager’s analysis is that the facts marshaled fail to support the hypothesis—it uses evidence of ideologically conformist Islamism to support a claim about Morsi’s authoritarianism. Of course this may be correct, but it is not inherently so.
This same conflation occurs in the conversation about Turkey, the AK Party, and Prime Minister Erdoğan. At its most benign, the error manifests itself as The Economist’s insistence on calling the AK Party “mildly Islamist.” The same misdirected criticism turns quite noxious at times. Look no further than Daniel Pipes or Andrew McCarthy in National Review.
As Istanbul-based independent journalist Claire Berlinski has argued, it would be more appropriate—and more helpful—if The Economist called the AK Party “mildly authoritarian.” Put differently, AK Party acts increasingly authoritarian in ways unrelated to its Islamist roots. Critics’ focus on Islamist identity diverts their attention from the main problem: alarmingly anti-democratic developments under Erdoğan’s rule. So they may snarl at last year’s education reforms or the current project to build a mosque in Taksim Square, but they miss Erdoğan’s systematic crackdowns on free speech, press, and association.
I cite Turkey as an example because the decade of AK Party rule has contained policy approaches that confounded critics. In the early 2000s, Kemalist and secularist critics invoked fears that AK Party would impose a radical ideology on the country. Erdoğan and President Gül stymied criticism by pursuing, among other policies, EU accession—the centerpiece of Kemalist and liberal dreams for Turkey. When the AK Party did pursue some conservative domestic policies, the earlier conflation of Islamist identity and anti-liberalism robbed opponents of clarity in their criticisms.
Similarly, the early moments of AK Party’s authoritarian creep coincided with a period in which Turkey’s foreign policy was becoming deeply internationalist and aligned with the West. In 2007 and 2008, Turkey spearheaded mediation efforts between Israel and Syria, and between Serbia and Bosnia. In 2009, Istanbul hosted the Alliance of Civilization. In 2010, a former Turkish MP served as president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. At the same time, in 2010, the government levied punitive fines on Doğan Holding, an AK Party critic. By 2011, Turkey already imprisoned journalists in alarming numbers. Erdoğan and other government officials have filed suit and won judgments against individuals who “insult” them. The Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials mutated in recent years from legitimate investigations to score-settling efforts to crush opposition voices. Here again, arguments about Erdoğan’s nefarious Islamism were easily brushed aside, and—worse—masked some crude anti-democratic domestic developments.
Yesterday in The Atlantic, Trager expanded upon the previous day’s post and broadened the argument. He argued that Morsi’s domestic power grab suggested that after the Brotherhood’s domestic power is consolidated, Morsi would construct a conservative Islamist foreign policy. As evidence, he pointed to a series of distressing statements by top Muslim Brotherhood officials.
Prime Minister Erdoğan has also made distressing statements of late, as Michael has discussed in previous posts. He’s called Israel a terrorist state and claimed that rocket fire is a legitimate means of resistance. Turkey observers recognize that while these statements are odious—and likely detrimental to Turkey’s foreign policy standing—they may also serve a more complex purpose than simply representing the Prime Minister’s foreign policy beliefs.
I note these pairs of similarities to make a relatively simple point. The number of world leaders with Islamist backgrounds has increased in the post-Arab Uprisings world. Funneling analysis of their domestic and foreign policy actions through the lens of their radical Islamist ideology may, at times, inhibit the ability to understand not only why these leaders act in particular ways but also how these leaders may act in the future. A strict focus on their Islamist identities may also overlook actions that are deeply problematic but do not naturally fit into a discourse of Islamist creep. This has certainly been the case with Turkey.
Trager is very knowledgeable about Egypt, and thus I defer to him and other analysts to continue informing those of us for whom Egypt is an interest but not a specialty. However, nuance in interpreting not only what has happened but also why it has happened remains crucial.
October 29, 2012 § 5 Comments
Today is Republic Day (Cumhuriyet Bayramı) in Turkey, which marks the anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. While most Americans would probably assume that Republic Day is like July 4 here and that it is a controversy-free public holiday where people gather with friends and family to celebrate, Republic Day is not quite that simple. Because Turkey’s institutions were created concurrently with Kemalism, a set of challenges arose that continue to this day, and the various controversies playing out on this year’s Republic Day illustrate how unsettled Turkey still is when it comes to the basic issue of what the purpose of the state should be and what role ideology should play.
When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded Turkey out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, he did so with clearly thought out ideas about how his new state should be organized and what goals it should seek to attain. Furthermore, unlike in other states where an ideology may be adopted after the institutions of the state are already in place, Atatürk built Turkey’s political and social institutions at the same time that he was installing Kemalism as the state’s official ideology. This enabled him to create structures and rules that were explicitly designed to strengthen and enable Kemalism, meaning that any challenge to the state would unmistakably be a challenge to Kemalism as well. Kemalism was so entrenched and well articulated that its tenets were explicitly written out and incorporated into the ruling CHP’s flag during Atatürk’s tenure so that there was no ambiguity about which theories and actions comported with Kemalism and which did not.
Since ideology was so wrapped up and intertwined with the state itself, it meant that Turkey was unable to convert first order battles over ideology into a lower grade conflict even after the initial transition to democracy after WWII. Any ideological wobble away from Kemalism precipitated a crisis, particularly given the fact that the most important and powerful state institution, the military, saw itself as the ultimate guardian of Kemalism irrespective of which party was in power. Thus, ideological conflict ensured that once ideological fights erupted into the open post-transition, the system was unable to successfully manage them. Lingering ideological issues hampered Turkey’s political development for decades, leading to a cycle of military interventions and shaky returns to civilian government.
Turkey today under Erdoğan and the AKP seems to have broken the pattern of military coups, which is certainly something to be celebrated during this year’s Republic Day. The fights over Kemalism, however, and whether the state should still be pushing a specific ideology that is linked to both secularism and statism (among other things) are very much ongoing. On a positive note, this is the first Republic Day during Abdullah Gül’s time as president that the leaders of the Turkish military are attending the official reception at the presidential palace. The reason that they had not attended in the past was because Gül’s wife Hayrünissa – along with the wives of other top government officials – wears a head scarf, and Kemalism frowned upon head scarves to the point of banning them from government buildings and universities. That top officers are going to the presidential reception this year might partially be a function of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations intimidating the military into changing their behavior out of fear, which is not a good development, but I think that the stronger impulse at work here is an emerging realization that ideological battles need to be put aside and deemphasized in order to make Turkey the strongest and most successful state that it can be.
On the other side of the ledger on this Republic Day is the unfortunate tendency of the AKP government to view ideological challenges as existential threats that require clamping down on freedom of expression. The government banned any Republic Day gatherings at the old Grand National Assembly building, which is closely associated with Kemalism and the founders of the Republic, under the theory that they would devolve into anti-government rallies. As a result, politicians and journalists, including CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, have been sprayed with water hoses and pepper spray today while hundreds, if not thousands, of Turks have been prevented from entering Ankara. This too is a result of the lingering legacy of Kemalism, but unlike the standoff in previous years between Gül and the military, this episode is not being resolved peacefully or amicably, and instead is a reminder of the AKP’s darkening record on freedom of speech. While Republic Day rallies may very well be aimed at criticizing the current government, true democracies are able not only to absorb such criticism but to enable it. As Turks celebrate this Republic Day, they should at the same time hope that future Republic Days remind everyone what an amazing country Turkey is rather than get hung up on still-unresolved issues surrounding Turkey’s ideological legacy.
September 27, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Michael Doran and Max Boot wrote an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times calling for U.S. intervention in Syria and arguing that there are a number of reasons why this is the opportune time to do so. Plenty of people who spend a lot more time than I do thinking about Syria and the costs and benefits of U.S. intervention, including Doran and Boot, have been writing about this issue for months, and so while I happen to think that intervention is not a great idea, I’m not sure that I have anything new to add to the debate. Doran and Boot did, however, invoke Turkey a number of times in their piece, and each time it was in the course of making claims about Turkey that are incorrect.
First, Doran and Boot wrote that “a more muscular American policy could keep the conflict from spreading. Syria’s civil war has already exacerbated sectarian strife in Lebanon and Iraq — and the Turkish government has accused Mr. Assad of supporting Kurdish militants in order to inflame tensions between the Kurds and Turkey.” Turkey has indeed accused the Syrian government on multiple occasions of supporting the PKK, and maybe Assad is and maybe he isn’t (I think that he probably is), but Doran and Boot are still inflating the benefits of intervention here. To begin with, the Syrian civil war is in absolutely zero danger of spreading to Turkey in the form of sectarian strife, and that won’t change even if it rages for a decade. More relevant though is that the PKK foothold in Syria is firmly established and American intervention and the removal of Assad will not change that. The PYD, which is the Syrian equivalent of the PKK, controls a large swath of territory along the Turkish-Syrian border, and American intervention would not be aimed at dislodging the PYD. What this means is that it actually doesn’t matter all that much anymore whether Assad stays or goes when it comes to the PKK inflaming tensions between Turkey and its Kurdish population since the PKK’s safe haven is pretty well established. That ship has already sailed, and using Turkish concerns about Assad’s support for the PKK as an excuse to advocate U.S. intervention is a red herring.
Second, they argue that “American leadership on Syria could improve relations with key allies like Turkey and Qatar. Both the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his Qatari counterpart have criticized the United States for offering only nonlethal support to the rebellion. Both favor establishing a no-fly zone and ‘safe zones’ for civilians in Syrian territory.” As anyone who spends any time studying the U.S.-Turkey relationship knows, bilateral ties between the two countries hardly need improving, and it can be argued that they have actually never been closer at any point in history as they are now. It is correct that Ankara is frustrated that it has not had much luck budging the Obama administration on intervening, but the implication that our relationship with Turkey is in need of repair falls somewhere between ludicrous and absurd. Doran and Boot are both extremely sophisticated analysts who know that catering to Turkish or Qatari wishes is not a good enough reason for the U.S. to undertake military action, and so they threw in the suggestion that by not intervening we are endangering ties with our allies in the region. As far as Turkey goes, that is just not the case.
Finally, in what is perhaps the most egregious mistake in their piece, Doran and Boot posited, “The F.S.A. already controls much of the territory between the city [Aleppo] and the Turkish border, only 40 miles away. With American support, Turkish troops could easily establish a corridor for humanitarian aid and military supplies.” Sounds like a piece of cake, right? In reality, the claim that this would be an easy and cost-free mission for the Turkish military is a highly dubious one. As it is, Turkey is having a difficult time dealing with the PKK inside its own borders and has suffered high military casualties in the past few months of fighting. Then consider the fact that establishing, but even more saliently then holding and defending, a corridor for aid and supply lines is no easy task under any circumstances, least of all during a civil war when you will be targeted along a miles-long corridor by whatever is left of Syrian troops, PKK terrorists, and possibly PYD fighters as well. Tack on that the Turkish military has no experience with this type of mission, is currently bogged down fighting the PKK, and is facing leadership and morale issues at the top stemming from the Ergenekon and Balyoz (Sledeghammer) cases and the simultaneous resignations of its chief of staff and service heads last year, and you will start to see just how the “easily establish a corridor” line begins to break down. In addition, from a political perspective, Turkey’s Syria policy is not popular domestically and a military invasion would be even less so. It would be certain to result in Turkish casualties, and so the decision to launch an invasion to establish a corridor inside Syria is not going to be an easy one for the government to make, which might explain why despite months of bellicose threats, it hasn’t yet happened.
There may be lots of good reasons why the U.S. should be intervening in Syria, but let’s not pretend that we should do so for Turkey’s benefit, or that our stepping in will solve Turkey’s PKK problem, or that our partnering with Turkey in a Syrian invasion will be a cost-free enterprise for our Turkish allies. If we are going to have a debate about intervention, it should be based on reality rather than on fantasy.
June 28, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Anyone who follows Turkey knows that there has been a perpetual debate during the past few years over whether Turkey is becoming more democratic or less democratic. The answer you get depends on whom you ask, and Turkey experts point to different factors to bolster their respective cases. To my thinking though there is no absolutely right or absolutely wrong answer to the question, because the truth is that Turkey is becoming both simultaneously; it just depends on where you look. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Steven Cook and I tried to capture this dynamic and explain the proper way of viewing what is going on in Turkey by harkening back to Robert Dahl’s definition of democracy that divides it into two elements, participation and contestation. Our article can be found here, and I have excerpted part of it below. I look forward to people’s feedback and comments.
The Turkish Paradox
How the AKP Simultaneously Embraces and Abuses Democracy
Michael J. Koplow and Steven A. Cook
MICHAEL KOPLOW is a Ph.D. candidate in Government at Georgetown University and has a blog called Ottomans and Zionists. STEVEN A. COOK is Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Prime Minister Erdogan sitting in a fighter jet on June 27, 2012. (Umit Bektas / Courtesy Reuters)
The Halki seminary, founded in 1844 as a center of learning for the Orthodox Eastern Church, was for decades a symbol of religious toleration and minority rights in the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic. But in 1971, Ankara closed the seminary when the constitutional court, dominated by adherents of Kemalism, the secular ideology of the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, ruled that only the army was allowed to run nonstate-supervised private colleges. So in March, when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the Halki seminary would be restored and reopened, it seemed that the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the country’s ruling faction since 2002, was furthering its reformist agenda of making Turkey a more open society by expanding personal, religious, and economic freedoms.
But while Ankara encourages openness with one hand, it clamps down on it with the other. In May, Erdogan announced that the government would end state subsidies for the arts, closing the spigot on $63 million in annual funding and, in effect, endangering the country’s more than 50 state theaters and artistic venues across the country. The AKP claimed that it did so in the name of private enterprise and was instituting a modern approach to government patronage of the arts; opponents argued that it was a deliberate attempt to silence artists, some of whom had become highly critical of AKP rule. Since the AKP era began, the world has watched closely to see if Turkey would embrace, or abuse, democracy. What is becoming clear is that Erdogan’s strategy is to do both, simultaneously.
The key to understanding democracy under the AKP lies with the meaning of democracy itself. The Yale political scientist Robert Dahl wrote that democracy is defined by the extent to which citizens can participate in civic life and whether they can contest the government’s power. Looking at each factor separately illustrates why Turkey is such a paradox.
May 14, 2012 § 5 Comments
Another Monday, another post about 60 Minutes. Last night’s segment of interest was on Fethullah Gülen and the Gülen movement, and centered on the growing number of Gülen charter schools in the U.S. The gist of the report was that Gülen is himself a secretive figure whose true motivations cannot be entirely ascertained, but that he preaches a tolerant brand of Islam focused on education and social mobility and that his Harmony Charter Schools are by all accounts doing great work while at the same time stirring up controversy by appearing to skirt immigration laws. On the whole, the segment’s tone was a positive one, and in a lot of ways it painted Gülen as a cleric who fits in well with the general American creed of hard work, education, and capitalist ethos leading to success. The Gülenists, who can be notoriously thin-skinned, have to be happy with 60 Minutes for portraying them in a good light.
Far more interesting to me is not what 60 Minutes reported but what it didn’t report. All Turks of every political stripe would find it inconceivable that a major American network did a profile on Gülen and his followers without one mention of either Prime Minister Erdoğan or the AKP. In fact, someone with no prior knowledge of Gülenists at all would have thought after watching the report that the Gülen movement has little role in Turkish politics and is nothing more than a somewhat shadowy business conglomerate. The reality is that the Gülenists and the AKP have long been intertwined in many ways with their twin rises coinciding with each other, and the AKP’s decade in power has led to Gülenists now filling many high posts in Turkey’s judiciary and police. Gülen and his followers are not easily separated from politics and their many business interests are not the only part of the story. Gülen media organs, such as Zaman, championed Erdoğan’s rise and now consistently back him, and it has been alleged that the Ergenekon investigation is a reward to the Gülenists as a way for them to get back at the military that oppressed them during the 1980s. While recently there have been rumblings of a power struggle between the Gülen movement and the AKP, the fact remains that it is difficult to discuss one without discussing the other, yet this is the very feat that CBS managed to pull off. For someone who studies Turkey, it came off as a very strange omission.
One thing to give 60 Minutes credit for is that it did not give undeserved airtime to those arguing that the Gülen schools represent a secret plot to introduce creeping Islamization or sharia into American society. To begin with, while the Gülenists are controversial in Turkey because they often come off as a personality cult, there is little question that Gülen preaches tolerance, interfaith dialogue, and a distinctly non-confontational brand of Islam. The folks who rail against Gülen and his schools on ideological grounds have a problem with Islam in general and not with anything that Gülen is saying. There is also the inconvenient fact that the schools are all public charters, which means that like any other public school in this country, there is no religious instruction or school-supported religious activity of any kind. Opening a group of public charter schools would be a pretty boneheaded way of trying to carry out a program of religious indoctrination given that there is literally zero space or opportunity for religion to be pushed, and whatever else people may think of Gülen and his followers, stupid is one of the last words that comes to mind.
Most people who saw the 60 Minutes report probably came away with the impression that Gülen is a secretive guy who genuinely believes in promoting math and science education and whose followers are looking for creative ways to come to the U.S. and carry out this message while simultaneously making money. I don’t think this is a bad read on the situation at all, but given the fact that Lesley Stahl went to Turkey to see what was going on for herself, the absence (aside from a few seconds from Andrew Finkel) of any reporting related to the movement’s political activities in Turkey and the intense controversy that it has stirred up surrounding the prosecution of the military and its critics – no doubt Ahmet Şık would have had something interesting to say on the matter – was odd to say the least. Does this mean that CBS and 60 Minutes are naive or guilty of sloppy reporting once again, or is this more fodder for those who conspiratorially proclaim the awesome and secretive power of the cemaat to silence its accusers? Given what we saw from 60 Minutes a few weeks ago, I’d vote for the former, but no doubt the latter explanation will quickly gain currency among those who see Gülen’s hand in everything that goes on related to Turkey.