I am back from two weeks in Turkey, and it was easily two of the best weeks that I have spent anywhere. The meetings were nearly all informative, the speakers engaging, and it was wonderful to spend so much intense time with a great group of friends. Not to mention that Turkish cuisine is my favorite type of food, spring in Istanbul cannot be beat, and I barely had to pay a dime for anything. There was so much to digest that one blog post is never going to cover all of it, but there were some larger themes that repeatedly emerged, however, and some big picture thoughts that crossed my mind, so here goes.
I have written before about the corrosive and long lasting effects of military intervention on political institutions, and I have of course spent countless hours of my life thinking about this issue with regard to Turkey, but in the context of conversations over the past couple of weeks, it occurred to me that Turkish groups and institutions are still subconsciously operating under the shadow of this history despite the widespread belief that military coups are a thing of the past. I noted last week at how open and straightforward individual Turkish politicians were when speaking with us, but there was a stark contrast between individual forthrightness and general organizational or institutional forthrightness. The institutions that govern Turkey or that are influential in Turkish society are unusually opaque, with uncertainty over their true goals and motives. For instance, I spent a lot of time debating with my Turkish friends about the AKP and whether it is an Islamist party or not. As readers of this blog are well aware by now, I don’t think that the AKP is an Islamist political party, but rather is a political party run by Islamists, and that the focus should be on the AKP’s authoritarianism rather than its alleged Islamism. One particularly smart Turk and I argued over this point repeatedly, with my challenging her to point to any policy that the AKP has put forth in over a decade of rule that can be deemed Islamist, and her just as adamant that the AKP only does not advance Islamist policies because it doesn’t have the backing for it, but that once it transforms society it will rule as openly Islamist. We went back and forth, but the heart of the problem is that nobody can satisfactorily answer this question because we just have no way of knowing. Given AKP leaders’ past statements and history, they might be playing a long game, or they might actually be what they seem, which is a pro-growth socially conservative party with authoritarian tendencies but not harboring ambitions of Islamist rule. Because the AKP keeps things deliberately ambiguous, there is simply no way to say one way or the other.
Similarly, I had lots of conversations with trip participants, journalists, outside friends, and acquaintances about the Gülen movement and what precisely the Gülenists are up to. It is evident that the movement’s activities in Turkey are different from its activities elsewhere, with my best guess being that in Turkey it is engaged in revenge against its former antagonists and in the U.S. it is trying to bring Turks into the country on work visas and make as much money as possible. Nevertheless, I can’t say for sure, and neither can anyone else. The Gülen movement cages its intentions and motivations so that it can be difficult, if not actually impossible, to ascertain what it really wants or what the end game is. One organization we met with while in Turkey seemed to have the hallmarks of a Gülenist group in some ways, but then one of its representatives was railing against religion and the Gülen movement in a side conversation, all of which made for a great guessing game later on that day. Another group we met with portrayed itself as a straightforward economic and trade organization, and then over the course of an hour of questioning made it clear that it actually had a seriously political and religious agenda, which you would never know from the group’s official website, pamphlets, or statements. I should also point out that none of these organizations can be deemed underground, and in fact are all very close to the corridors of official power in Turkey, and yet they feel the need to hide the ball.
All of this got me reflecting on why this might be, and I think the answer has to lie in Turkey’s history of military interventions in civilian politics. Irrespective of how eviscerated the army might now be, when it has a history of executing and jailing politicians, activists, journalists, and anyone else who ran afoul of its prerogatives, that is an extremely difficult thing for any of its potential opponents to overcome. The AKP now rules the country virtually unopposed, but its members have a history with the military. The same goes for the Gülenists, and many other religious groups. Organizations have an incentive to hide their true motives in order to give themselves plausible deniability since the specter of military rule still haunts Turkey, even if the possibility of a coup has been consigned to the dustbin of history. It is a remarkable thing to see powerful groups feel the need to stay closed to the outside world, and it is yet another reminder of how political patterns are incredibly resistant to change and how institutions can remain affected by past events long into the future.
Next, the one issue that was brought up time and time again by politicians and business leaders was Turkey’s energy consumption and the difficulty of meeting the country’s energy needs. Turkey’s current account deficit can almost entirely be attributed to its imports of natural gas from Russian and Iran, and it is not in a position to do anything about it because it has no natural resources with which to create domestic energy supply of its own and is locked into extremely onerous contracts with its foreign suppliers. Nobody we spoke to had a good solution for fixing this problem, and while nuclear power might do the trick, my friend Aaron Stein has convincingly demonstrated that this is not in the cards any time soon. I don’t know what the answer is, but there is a lot of money to be made in figuring out a way for Turkey to meet its explosive energy demands while reducing its reliance on Russian natural gas.
Finally, let me make a plea on behalf of the Young Turkey Young America program. Because of the sequester, the State Department is unlikely to fund YTYA next year, which will be a huge loss. The U.S. and Turkey need each other for a host of reasons, and this program forges bonds and relationships between future leaders in both countries that will withstand the test of time. It is also a force multiplier, because everyone in the program is now engaged in promoting the bilateral relationship in one way or another, whether it be through civil society projects, op-ed writing, educational initiatives, or cultural events, and in so doing spreads the message of the importance of ties between the U.S. and Turkey and a greater understanding of each other’s politics, society, and culture. If this enormously valuable and important program is to continue past this year with a new crop of participants, some other source of funding has to be located. So if you are reading this and you have any interest at all in ensuring that U.S.-Turkey ties remain strong going forward and you work for an organization that has the means to help out in sponsoring the program in the future, please get in touch with me.
P.S. For those of you who have asked for my thoughts on the new Israeli government, I may get to it later this week or next, but do not feel an overwhelming need to write about it given that everyone seems to think that the new coalition will not last long, which I predicted on election day two months ago. As things have turned out as I expected (including the makeup of the coalition) I don’t feel the need to rehash things. As for President Obama’s visit, the market for analysis on this is so oversaturated with predictions, advice for the president, advice for Israelis, and general peace process commentary that there’s nothing left to be said about a visit that is not going to have much of an effect on anything. The executive summary is, don’t expect any big pronouncements from either side, and count on Obama and Netanyahu pretending to have smoothed over any differences between them.