August 31, 2012 § Leave a comment
I spent most of yesterday being inundated with Minnesota and Minneapolis-St. Paul corporate and government propaganda (for those of you who aren’t regular readers, this is why), so you’ll excuse me if I sound as if I work for the Twin Cities Chamber of Commerce, but it occurred to me over the course of the day that there are actually some important lessons for Turkish politics that can be gleaned from observing the North Star State, and that bringing a group of emerging Turkish leaders here is a good thing.
First, Minnesota has an unusually high level of civic engagement and corporate innovation. We were told a couple of times that it has the highest voter turnout rate of any state, and I checked every election from 2000 through 2010 and that held true for all of them. Minnesota voters turn out to the polls in larger numbers than their fellow citizens and the lesson of civic engagement and the important of voting is a good one, particularly given that the small and nonrandom sample I took today of my Turkish colleagues indicates that they do not feel terribly connected to their politicians. A number of the people we spoke with today waxed effusive about a sense among Minnesotans that politics is not only important but that politics can be a real driver of change and that local politics here is extremely responsive to its citizens. It is a good model for the Turkish visitors to observe, because it shows the importance of political engagement and the less cynical side of what can be accomplished through the political system. Minnesota also has the largest number of Fortune 500 companies per capita, which is a good reminder that innovation and corporate success do not have to be limited to the east and west coasts. Much of Turkey’s economic growth over the past decade has come from outside the big cities, and Minnesota mirrors that while illustrating that economic dynamism will flourish with an educated populace (which Minnesota has, with Minneapolis-St.Paul having the highest percentage of any metropolitan area in the country of adults with a diploma at 90%).
Second, Minnesota state politics is a great example of a diverse system that is not captured by one party and that tolerates, and even embraces, divided government. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, represents a district right next door to Michele Bachmann, who is currently notorious for her anti-Muslim witch hunt targeted at Huma Abedin. Two years ago, a Republican governor and Democratic legislature flipped completely, and Minnesota now has a Democratic governor and Republican legislature. Minnesota votes for Republican governors like Tim Pawlenty and complete wildcard governors like former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura at the same time that it votes for extremely liberal senators like Paul Wellstone or Al Franken. The state is hard to characterize politically and reveals a real openness to a wide spectrum of political ideas and personalities. Turkey, on the other hand, is a country that right now effectively operates as a one-party state given the AKP’s dominance and the CHP’s feckless impotence. As I’ve noted in the past, an unhealthy political system is ultimately going to hamper Turkish economic and political development and harm Turkey’s status as a geopolitical power. Minnesota presents a great demonstration for this next generation of Turkish political, business, and press leaders of a political system that is not captured by any one party or set of policies and that does not stagnate as a result of stale politics or a static political environment.
(This post has been brought to you by the State of Minnesota. The brainwashing will cease soon.)
August 29, 2012 § 3 Comments
One of the themes that I continuously harp on in the course of writing this blog is the vital importance of the U.S.-Turkish relationship. The U.S. and Turkey are strategic partners and have been for decades and cooperate on a host of security and trade issues. While U.S.-Turkey ties rest on a shared foundation of common interests, they are ultimately sustained by government officials, business leaders, and opinion makers in both countries who are committed to keeping the relationship strong. Starting today, I am officially going to be part of this group.
For the next two weeks (and then again for two weeks in Turkey in the spring) I will be participating in the Young Turkey Young America program, which is run by the Atlantic Council and sponsored by the State Department and aims to connect 30 young professionals from the United States and Turkey to examine key foreign policy issues and build a group of emerging leaders committed to bilateral cooperation. This year’s group has a bunch of really impressive Americans and Turks who are, among other things, government advisers, journalists, non-profit executive directors, CEOs, local elected officials, and academics, and I can’t help but feel that I kind of snuck in the back door. We are starting off in Minneapolis today, then moving on to New York and finally Washington, and will be having meetings and panels with members of Congress, executive branch officials in charge of Turkey policy, corporate leaders, academics, and policy experts. The agenda looks great, and I am really excited to spend the next two weeks constantly thinking and speaking about the current and future state of the U.S.-Turkey relationship with smart and talented folks from both countries.
Keeping up my usual daily blogging schedule over the next two weeks is going to be tough, but I am going to try to blog as often as possible. Many of the conversations and meetings the group will be having are going to be off the record and so I am not going to be able to write about them specifically, but I plan on writing about the general insights that I glean from my colleagues – particularly the Turkish ones – about the opportunities and challenges in the bilateral relationship, and some thoughts about where U.S.-Turkey ties are headed. So basically, the blog is going have a changed tenor for the next two weeks and will not be as news-focused as usual, but hopefully it will be just as interesting (to the extent that it is ever interesting) in a different way. And don’t worry, if something big happens in Israel or Turkey I will make sure to leave all of you with my two cents.
August 28, 2012 § 1 Comment
Dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians was dealt a big blow yesterday with the announcement that bitterlemons.org was shutting down after twelve years. For those who aren’t familiar with Bitter Lemons, it is a website that publishes Israeli and Palestinian views across the spectrum on the peace process and wider Middle East issues, and it was founded and run by Yossi Alpher and Ghassan Khatib. In explaining why they are ending their website, Alpher and Khatib both emphasized that dialogue and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians are at their lowest ever point, and that not only is there no peace process at the moment but there is not even a prospect for one to emerge. More disturbingly, both asserted that this freeze at the top has filtered down to society. Khatib informed us that in the past, “despite the feeling among many in the Arab world that contact with Israelis is tantamount to accepting Israel’s occupation, seldom did authors decline an invitation. Lately, we have observed that this has changed, that even once-forthcoming Palestinians are less interested in sharing ideas with Israelis just across the way.” Alpher echoed this theme, writing, “Here and there, writers from the region who used to favor us with their ideas and articles are now begging off, undoubtedly deterred by the revolutionary rise of intolerant political forces in their countries or neighborhood.” When an outlet dedicated to advancing a wide and diverse array of ideas and perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict feels like it has reached a dead end, it is a terrible sign of things to come.
While the Israeli-Palestinian front grows increasingly dire, there are a couple of encouraging reasons for optimism when it comes to the polarized environment that exists between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Following the attempted lynching of Jamal Julani, an Israeli Arab teenager, last week, eight suspects have been indicted for racially motivated aggravated assault and a ninth suspect has been indicted for inciting violence. The indictments and investigations are important but are also the ordinary course of the justice system at work, so this is neither uncommon nor unprecedented. What is, however, is that Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar ordered all Israeli junior high schools and high schools to dedicate a special lesson on the first day of school yesterday to the Julani beating and to discuss racism and violence in Israeli society. The treatment of Israeli Arabs is an uncomfortable topic in Israel, as they enjoy full citizenship rights but are routinely discriminated against, and the attack on Julani in the heart of Jerusalem exposed a dark undercurrent of racial violence that exists in some quarters. Ordering a national discussion in schools about the incident is a small step but an important step nonetheless, and it shows a heartening willingness on the part of the Israeli state and society for introspection. Certainly this will not heal all wounds or eliminate the problem of racism and violence toward Israeli Arabs, but it is a start toward building a more tolerant and aware Israeli polity.
In this vein, a friend directed me toward this remarkable interview with Forsan Hussein, an Israeli Arab who is currently the CEO of the Jerusalem YMCA. Hussein grew up in Sha’ab a small Arab village near Acco, managed to win a full scholarship to Brandeis (where he was two years ahead of me, although I didn’t know him), and later got a masters from SAIS and an MBA from Harvard. It is mind-boggling that he accomplished all this despite the fact that Sha’ab had no high school and Hussein spoke almost no English when he came to the U.S. to start college, but that is not what is most remarkable. What is most remarkable is that despite growing up in Israel as a clearly disadvantaged minority and in a community that feels very little connection to the state, Hussein spent his teenage summers establishing and running a peace camp for Jews and Arabs and then returned to Israel after working for an investment fund in the U.S. and is emphatic about the need for Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs to work together to improve their country. Despite his background and growing up with what he describes as a one-sided narrative, he is proud to be an Israeli and wants to improve Israel rather than tear it down. He ends the interview as follows: “My dream and vision is to work on the business side of peace — to be an ambassador for Israel in the Arab countries, and for the Arab countries in Israel. One day.” That someone like this exists provides me with hope that Israel is not as lost as its detractors claim, and that there are many more Forsan Husseins out there who embrace their country despite its faults and are able to overcome their understandable resentments in working toward building a stronger and more integrated Israel.
August 24, 2012 § 1 Comment
Suat Kiniklioğlu wrote a clear headed column in Today’s Zaman on Wednesday in which he argued that Turkey is effectively at war with Syria and that the only solution to ending the Syrian problem is a military one. Given that Turkey is supporting and arming the Free Syrian Army and Kiniklioğlu contends that Syria is responding with increased support for the PKK, he wrote that Turkey has two basic options before it. Option one is to engage in direct war with Syria and set up a no-fly zone or buffer zone, and option two is to continue Turkey’s indirect war through supporting the opposition. After laying out the inherent problems with both approaches, Kiniklioğlu implied that he favors the first option of a more direct war:
The Syrian crisis and the concomitant rise in PKK terror have bitterly reminded us of the need for a professional fighting force. It is inconceivable that after three decades of fighting against the PKK we are still fighting with non-professional forces. Whether we like it or not the Syrian crisis has turned into a regional imbroglio. We must bring an end to the Syrian crisis — that can only be done through military means. Our government has the responsibility of holding to account those responsible for bombing our cities on a Ramadan holiday evening in Gaziantep.
This sentiment is an understandable one. The longer the mess in Syria drags on, the more it brings Turkey’s foreign policy credibility down with it. Things have become so bad that there are now calls for Ahmet Davutoğlu, who many assumed would replace Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as prime minister, to step down from his post as foreign minister. Turkey’s demands on Assad have fallen on deaf ears, Syrian provocations such as the downing of the Turkish reconnaissance jet have gone unanswered, and in the midst of all this the PKK has ramped up its attacks and made this the bloodiest summer for Turkey in decades. Arming the opposition has not gotten Turkey anywhere, and as Kiniklioğlu writes, the problem with a more direct military approach is that the Obama administration and NATO have shown close to zero willingness to intervene, which makes a unilateral Turkish intervention a far more difficult task. Turkey is in such a bad position at the moment that it almost seems as if there is no other choice but direct military confrontation with Syria, if for no other reason than to take the fight to the PKK. To paraphrase one of President George W. Bush’s more memorable lines, it’s better for Turkey to fight the PKK over there so it doesn’t have to fight the PKK over here.
The problem with this approach is that Turkey is having an enormous amount of trouble handling the PKK on its own territory, and I shudder to think about what will happen should the Turkish military chase the PKK over unfamiliar ground while adding the Syrian army into the mix. Nobody has any idea what is really going on in Hakkari, and just yesterday another six soldiers were killed in PKK bombings and assaults. As many PKK terrorists as the Turkish army is taking out, the military is suffering significant casualties of its own, and this despite sealing off an entire swath of southeastern Turkey and having the benefit of fighting on its own turf. Let’s say that Turkey decides to invade Syria with the dual purpose of eradicating as much of the PKK as possible and hastening the end of the Assad regime. How well would such an operation possibly go? Turkey has already sadly been on the wrong end of Syrian air defenses and would be fighting on foreign soil against the PKK, the PYD, some part of the Syrian army, and one cannot discount Iran at that point entering the mix. I get the bind that Turkey is in and the frustration at feeling impotent to control events despite having the second largest army in NATO, but stepping up overt military operations against Syria is a bad idea at this point. Turkey is in a terrible mess at the moment – albeit one partially of its own making given its years of supporting Assad and its complete lack of any Kurdish policy – but an invasion of Syria would only make things worse. There aren’t really any good options, which is what Kiniklioğlu’s column is getting at, but I think that the only real course Turkey has for now is to keep fighting the PKK at home, hope that Assad falls soon, and pray that whatever replaces him will be able to contain the fallout from migrating across Turkey’s borders. Intervening in Syria alone will not lead to a positive outcome, and in fact would have a high chance of creating even more headaches and security problems for Ankara than it already has.