What I Got Wrong, 2013 Edition

December 30, 2013 § 4 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This Is What A Panicked Erdoğan Looks Like

December 26, 2013 § 8 Comments

I said last week that I thought things were inevitably destined to get uglier, and it seems that uglier has arrived. The latest from the AKP-Gülen fallout is that over 500 Turkish police officials and officers have been sacked, investigations have been launched into Prime Minister Erdoğan’s sons Bilal and Bürak along with the newly government-appointed Istanbul police chief, the chief prosecutor in the corruption case has publicly claimed that the government is obstructing his case by ordering the police not to arrest suspects and not to implement judicial decrees, and, in the biggest sign of just how much things have gone off the rails, Erdoğan last night replaced ten cabinet members at once. There is now no question left that this is the biggest crisis by far of the AKP’s time in power and that it overshadows Gezi by orders of magnitude.

If anyone still harbors any doubts that this is an AKP-Gülen fight, those doubts can be put to rest. After the initial arrests and announcements of corruption probes, Erdoğan purposely went after one of the Gülenists’ strongholds in replacing high-ranking police officials wholesale. What is now happening is a showdown between prosecutors, who are still largely Gülenist, and newly appointed police who refuse to carry out the prosecutors’ orders. Any semblance of impartiality and rule of law on either side has been completely thrown out, and Turkish institutions are being harmed in ways that will take years to overcome. When the courts and the police are being used to further nakedly political agendas, it is the first and easiest sign that Turkish democracy is as hollow as it has been since the military was openly running things. How this is going to eventually be sorted out I have no idea, but at this point neither side appears willing to back down and each day brings a new escalation.

Were this the only element to this, I’d put my money on Erdoğan emerging from this bloodied but still standing. However, the earth shattering cabinet shuffle, how it was done, and how Erdoğan assembled his new cabinet lead me to believe that the prime minister is in very serious trouble. In fact, this is the first time it has ever crossed my mind that his tenure as PM is legitimately in danger. First there is the fact that in the span of just a couple of days, Erdoğan went from denouncing any and all allegations of wrongdoing as a foreign plot to accepting the resignations of the three ministers he had been defending so wholeheartedly. Of the three, his closest ally was Erdoğan Bayraktar, who on his way out revealed that he was not resigning of his own free will but had been fired, and – this one is the real shocker – threw Erdoğan under the bus by alleging that any corruption in construction deals had been signed off on by Erdoğan and called on him to resign. For those of you who do not follow Turkey as obsessively as others, high level AKP officials simply do not publicly challenge Erdoğan like that. To put this in context, deputy PM Bülent Arınç made front-page headlines last month when he criticized Erdoğan’s stance on mixed-sex university housing and said that there was a contradiction between his own statements on the issue as the official government spokesman and the PM’s position. That was about the harshest public disagreement I can ever recall seeing between Erdoğan and one of his cabinet members or inner circle. Now, one of his closest cabinet allies has called on him to resign and implicitly accused him of wrongdoing. In addition, the previous interior minister, Idris Şahin, resigned from the party over the police purge and after accusing Erdoğan of allowing a small oligarchy to run the party. While this might be sour grapes due to his being replaced in the last cabinet shuffle earlier this year, it is still another crack in what up until now has been an impenetrable dam. Bayraktar made his comments during a live interview on NTV, which tried to cut him off and then later edited the interview clip on its website and during subsequent airings on television so that Bayraktar’s comments about Erdoğan were absent. That Turkish cabinet ministers now have to be censored because of comments they have made about the prime minister, and particularly when it is a minister known to be close to him, is one sign that the AKP is right now floundering around without much of an idea how to right itself.

Another sign is that it wasn’t just the three ministers whose sons have been implication in corruption who were shown the door. Egemen Bağış, who was EU Affairs minister and who is one of Erdoğan’s closest confidantes and attack dogs, and who often provides a window through his comments into what the prime minister is actually thinking, was removed as well, which to me is the most illuminating part of this entire episode. There have been rumors floating around about Bağış’s role in the scandal and about videotapes of him accepting seven figure bribes, but jettisoning him under pressure is still a remarkable move given his proximity to the prime minister. Furthermore, the new cabinet ministers are only going to make the AKP’s political problem worse, because instead of appointing people who might be more conciliatory, Erdoğan appears to have doubled down in appointing close allies with not much political experience and who are known hardliners. As a representative example, new Interior Minister Efkan Ala is not a member of parliament but is rather one of Erdoğan’s political aides, and reportedly urged Erdoğan to crack down harder on Gezi protestors this summer, calling the Istanbul chief of police to cajole him to use greater force. This is the guy who is now going to be in charge of Turkish domestic security and dealing with unrest, which signals to me that Erdoğan is in full panic mode and not thinking clearly. Once the public becomes more involved in this ongoing saga, things are going to get even worse, and I fear that what we have seen so far is just the warmup act to much more unpleasantness ahead.

All the while, Erdoğan’s comments and the comments of those around him increasingly beggar belief. Whether it is veiled threats to expel the U.S. ambassador, the by now rote accusations of U.S. and Israeli perfidy, the denunciation of foreign plots, Erdoğan’s claiming that photos of ministers accepting bags from businessmen implicated in the corruption scandal could be bags of books or chocolate rather than money (yes, he really said both of those things), Ahmet Davutoğlu’s tired refrain that this is all resulting from the jealousy of unnamed foreign countries determined to keep the new Turkey down…does any of this sound like it is coming from a government that has things under control? Let’s also keep in mind that this is all going down before large-scale or widespread public protests have broken out, and if Erdoğan already felt so much pressure that he was backed into turning over his cabinet in the middle of the night, just think about what will happen once real mass public pressure begins to bubble up. The AKP is shockingly off-message and has gone into full-blown populism mode, but with everything that has gone on and the implicit acknowledgement with the cabinet shuffle that all is not right, I think that Erdoğan might actually have suffered a fatal political wound. If the AKP does worse than expected in the local elections in March, which is a very likely possibility, it seems to me that Erdoğan’s aura of invincibility and stranglehold on his party will be permanently broken. Once that happens the long knives are bound to come out, and with the perfectly acceptable alternative of Abdullah Gül waiting in the wings, Erdoğan’s tenure as the sun around which Turkish politics revolves (to quote my friend Steven Cook) may be done. While I have learned enough to know that Erdoğan should never, ever be counted out or underestimated, we may have finally arrived at the exception to this longstanding rule of Turkish politics.

Graft, Gülen, and the Future of the AKP

December 17, 2013 § 10 Comments

For months now there has been open war between the AKP and its erstwhile allies in the Gülen movement. The feuding can be traced back to an overzealous Gülenist prosecutor’s attempt to interrogate Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, and things have spiraled downward from there, with Gülenist media outlets such as Zaman now routinely slamming the prime minister and government officials making shadowy threats about the Gülen movement having to be put down. When the government announced a couple of months ago that it was going to shut down the largely Gülen-run prep schools called dershanes, things began to get really nasty, and despite Tayyip Erdoğan’s eventual partial walk back, in which he announced that nothing would be done about the dershanes until September 2015, this was an effort to strike directly at the Gülenists’ livelihood, which they could not simply ignore. The aftermath of the dershane fight saw all sorts of uncomfortable leaks about the government, including the revelation – that the government did not deny – that back in 2004, the Turkish National Security Council had issued a directive (signed by Erdoğan and Abdullah Gül) that plans should be made to counter and block the Gülen movement. While deputy PM Bülen Arınç and others immediately claimed that the directive was only advisory and was never implemented, the damage was done and the fighting between the top layers of the AKP and the Gülenists was fated to keep on escalating.

That brings us to today, when Turkish police arrested nearly 50 people at Halkbank, including the sons of two cabinet ministers, over corruption allegations in the government tender process. Halkbank has long been reputed to be actively involved in evading U.S. sanction on Iran, and indeed is the bank that processes Turkish payments for Iranian oil and gas, so it is highly likely that this probe is not based on fictitious charges. Nevertheless, it does not escape notice that the Turkish police and judiciary are dominated by Gülenists, and that the Istanbul prosecutor’s office has now arrested a number of people who are prominently connected to the government. Given the timing involved, this does not seem like a mere coincidence. I’ll also note that this fight has been taking place on the margins for awhile (in June 2012 I speculated that a split was coming, and I think that my hunch about who had tapped the PM’s office was likely correct in light of recent events).

Parsing what exactly is going on here is difficult, but I’ll take a stab at it nonetheless. The first big mystery is why Erdoğan decided to take a conflict that had been going along at a barely perceptible simmer and turn it into a huge conflagration with his aborted move against the dershanes. My hunch is that after three national elections in which each subsequent margin of victory was larger than the previous one, Erdoğan decided it was time to flex his muscles and show the Gülenists – who are in many ways natural rivals given their own Islamic, conservative backgrounds and tendencies – who was boss. In doing so, Erdoğan made a mistaken political calculation to rival the mistake he made in his approach to Gezi. If you need proof of this, think about how the conversation a few months ago was about who Erdoğan was going to install as a puppet PM after he assumes the presidency, and now it’s about whether he will be able to control his own party. Because Erdoğan never admits wrongdoing and loathes backing down, this feud was destined to get worse, and my bet is that it will get even worse still. Erdoğan is not going to crawl into a corner and lick his wounds, and I’d bet my last Turkish lira that the fallout from this will get uglier yet. As of this writing, Erdoğan is putting together a board that will have the power to fire prosecutors, which is a direct shot across the bow at the Gülenists.

The second big mystery is what the Gülenists hope to get out of this. There are some who think that the electoral alliance between the AKP and the Gülen movement is now over, but I’m not so quick to declare this marriage completely spent. I don’t see that the Gülenists have anywhere else to go; are socially conservative, religiously pious, pro-growth voters suddenly going to abandon the socially conservative, religiously pious, pro-growth party and vote for CHP? The same CHP that in public and in private denigrates religious voters, or that is so closely associated with the institution – the military – that is the Gülen movement’s biggest foe? I find it very difficult to see a situation in which that is a long term or even sustainable short term political solution for Gülen adherents. I think what is going on here is a struggle to take over the AKP rather than cast it aside now that the Gülenists are feeling personally threatened by past and present government decisions. Based on what I observe, the calculation seems to be to weaken the party ahead of municipal elections in March to the point where some important posts, such as the Istanbul mayoralty, are lost, and make the AKP higher ups realize that they risk losing a great deal if they so blithely cast the Gülenists aside. At the same time, the Gülenists seem to want to do whatever they can to destroy AKP officials or keep them under their thumb, which explains the rumors flying around now about AKP ministers on tape accepting 7 figure bribes and the Halkbank prosecutions. I don’t think the intention here is to break away from the AKP, but to more thoroughly control the AKP.

The great danger in all of this, of course, is that once things get too far out of hand, there is no going back. The Gülen movement may want to show how valuable/powerful they are in an effort to control the party, but the law of unintended consequences always rears its head and may end up blowing up the party instead. Similarly, Erdoğan may want to put the Gülen movement in what he views as its proper place while keeping them in the fold, and instead could prompt his own downfall. There is just no telling where all of this will lead, and neither party seems to want to back down or deescalate in any way. Both the AKP and the Cemaat may have a final aim in mind and think they know how to get there, but the environment right now is amazingly combustible and volatile. Each side is playing a very dangerous game of chicken, and anyone who claims to know precisely how this will end is much wiser than I. But stay tuned, because this is a battle of epic proportions whose chaos has the potential to overwhelm everything else taking place in Turkey.

Structural U.S.-Turkey Tension Isn’t Going Away

December 4, 2013 § 2 Comments

Ahmet Davutoğlu this week implicitly acknowledged that the U.S. and Turkey have seen better days in their relationship, saying that “relations are proceeding on a dynamic and honest ground,” which is not exactly the “model partnership” that the Turkish foreign minister was so fond of touting a couple of years ago. Whatever “dynamic and honest ground” means, unquestionably things are not going nearly so well as during President Obama’s first term, when Prime Minister Erdoğan was on Obama’s Oval Office speed dial and Turkey was viewed by U.S. policymakers as the key to a new Middle East. Many events have conspired to shatter that vision, and Turkey is no longer through such rose-colored glasses as it was. To my mind, the new status quo is not just a temporary blip in an otherwise robustly healthy relationship; there are major structural forces that are putting the U.S. and Turkey increasingly at odds over issues large and small, and three in particular stand out.

The first is that the U.S. perceives Turkey to be pursuing short term aims, oftentimes explicitly political ones, at the expense of long term goals, and the pursuit of these short term aims often conflicts with U.S. interests in the region. For instance, the rift that the Turkish government opened up with the Egyptian government following the military coup that dislodged Mohamed Morsi when Erdoğan not only insisted that Morsi be reinstated but refused to even acknowledge the new Egyptian officials as legitimate was an example of Turkey pursuing a policy that caused long term harm (to wit, the Turkish ambassador to Egypt was expelled last month) for no purpose other than domestic politics. Another obvious example is the continuing feud with Israel, where Turkey has continuously blocked Israeli participation in NATO summits, sold out Israeli intelligence assets in Iran to the Iranian government, bolstered Hamas and given it as much international credibility as it can at the Palestinian Authority’s expense, and dragged its feet in every way possible to avoid true reconciliation with Israel following Bibi Netanyahu’s apology last March for the Mavi Marmara deaths. In both of these cases, the U.S. would strongly prefer that Turkey work with its other allies in the region, and Turkey’s intransigence in both instances is not the result of any bigger plan or in the pursuit of foreign policy aims, but is rather almost entirely for domestic political consumption.

More serious than these two cases is the shortsighted Turkish policy of allowing jihadi fighters to stream across the border into Syria in order to join the fight against Bashar al-Assad – a policy that even Turkey now seems to realize was dangerously myopic – and the agreement to purchase an anti-missile defense system from China, about which I have already written at length. Turkey’s Syria policy has been an unmitigated disaster, and the Chinese anti-missile decision has caused huge waves with the U.S. and Turkey’s other NATO allies, and both are examples of Turkey pursuing what it perceives to be easy short term gains to the great detriment of long term strategic goals. While Turkey is, of course, free to do as it pleases, both of these decisions have created great fallout for the U.S. and thus cannot be simply ignored by the Obama administration or chalked up to internal Turkish business. They fit into a general pattern of Turkey rushing headlong into foreign policy decisions without taking a minute to look at the big picture and assess the impact of its actions on other parties, specifically the U.S. in this case, which is bound to cause some friction.

The second structural force driving the two apart is that their priorities in the Middle East are moving in divergent directions. Just as Turkey was deciding to ramp up its involvement in the region and become more active and vocal, the U.S. was deciding to ramp down, pivot to Asia, and leave the Middle East behind to the greatest extent possible. The U.S. has a couple of core things it wants to be involved in, such as coming to some resolution over Iran’s nuclear program and pushing Israel and the Palestinians to work out a comprehensive peace agreement, but otherwise it wants to bow out as much as feasible. This is why the U.S. basically threw its hands up at the Egyptian coup and looked for any way out of getting military involved in the Syrian civil war. Turkey, in contrast, wanted to be deeply involved in reshaping the region in the wake of the Arab Spring (or whatever it is we are calling it these days), and was particularly assertive when it came to loudly insisting that Assad had to go. The problem is that Turkey could not force Assad out on its own and so assumed that the U.S. or NATO would eventually take care of the job, and after it became apparent that this was not going to happen, Turkey felt a sense of betrayal. In essence, the problem is that Turkey wants to see certain outcomes, but those outcomes require the U.S. to make them happen, and the U.S. has absolutely zero desire to get any more involved than it already is. So you have a hyper-involved Turkey that wants more active U.S. involvement on certain fronts, and a U.S. that just wants to be left alone.

The third structural force contributing to tension is the basic power imbalance that exists between the two countries. The U.S. has its own set of interests and oftentimes Turkey’s wishes and views rank low down on the list of American priorities, but at the same time Turkey tends to interpret U.S. action through a distinctly Turkish prism. Thus, the U.S. instinct to stay out of Syria was a result of war-weariness after Afghanistan and Iraq, sequestration and other budgetary problems, politics leading up to the 2012 election, a desire not to increase tensions with Russia, a growing sense that the Syrian opposition was extremely problematic…I could keep on going, but Turkey was not part of the equation. In Turkey, however, U.S. inaction in Syria despite months and months of Turkish demands for NATO involvement and strident Turkish calls for Assad to leave has been interpreted as a purposeful slap in the face to Turkey. Many Turks believe that the U.S. led them down the garden path and implied that help would be coming, and the fact that Assad is still in power is because the U.S. wanted to humiliate Turkey. The best example of this overall general dynamic was the controversy in Turkey in August of last year over the photo of Obama holding a baseball bat while on the phone with Erdoğan. As I wrote at the time, this had nothing to do with Erdoğan and was nothing more than the White House releasing a photo in the midst of a presidential campaign designed to reinforce the image of Obama as a regular guy, but in Turkey it was imbued with all sorts of deeper meanings over the type of hidden message that Obama was trying to send to his Turkish counterpart. Because it is Turkey’s most powerful and most important ally, the U.S. will always have an outsized image in Turkey and Turks will imagine that anything the U.S. is doing is directed at them, when in reality many Americans probably couldn’t even tell you what language is spoken in Turkey (you have no idea how many times I have had someone ask me if I know Arabic after hearing that I study Turkey), place it on a map, or identity Ankara as its capital. This imbalance, where Turkey always has the U.S. on its mind but does not get reciprocal attention, is another source of tension.

Of these three forces, the first one can easily dissipate, and in fact there are signs that it is already happening, particularly when it comes to Turkey’s Syria policy. The other two, however, are here to stay, and are not easily overcome. Does it mean a major rift between the two allies? Absolutely not. But it does mean that the halcyon days of Barack and Tayyip’s late night gabfests and both public and private talk of model partnerships is over, and unlikely to return anytime soon.

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