March 27, 2014 § 9 Comments
The short answer is, nothing good. No matter how things shake out on Sunday when Turks go to vote in municipal elections, I don’t thing the results are going to alleviate Turkey’s current instability but will only exacerbate it. The reason for this is that whether the AKP does well or the AKP underperforms relative to expectations, it is going to take away the wrong lesson from the whole process.
Let’s assume that the AKP does well and hangs on to Istanbul and Ankara, more or less sweeps the interior of the country, and limits its losses to the CHP to Izmir and a couple of other cities along the southeastern coast, along with losing Diyarbakır and Van to the BDP. Should this happen, Prime Minister Erdoğan and the AKP are going to seize upon this as a vindication of everything they have done – the harsh rhetoric against demonstrators, the purges of Gülenists, the cowing of the media, blocking Twitter, etc. – and assume that the only opposition they have comes from unruly and anarchist “Gezi people” or terrorist sympathizers; in other words, nobody whom Erdoğan views as legitimate. This is the story that Erdoğan has essentially been repeating over and over again ad nauseum for months, and I don’t think it is just campaign rhetoric. Erdoğan and his inner circle genuinely think that everything they have done is for Turkey’s benefit, don’t see how anyone can believe otherwise, and view all opposition as a Kemalist or Gülenist or leftist or military or Zionist or foreign plot to humiliate them and bring the “new Turkey” to its knees. A perceived electoral victory will convince Erdoğan that his version of events is the correct one, and he will only double down on the over the top rhetoric and the polarizing policies that are designed to appeal to his base of supporters, who at this point are not prepared to believe anything that is reported about corruption, graft, illicit business dealings, personal failings, or anything else.
The other factor here is that Erdoğan fetishizes elections in the sense that he views them as conferring the right to do absolutely anything he pleases. He is a true republican (small r) theorist in that once the people have voted and empowered their representatives, the representatives are not encumbered by any type of public opinion or populist will until they are turned out of office. This is the reason he has been hyping these elections so heavily and talking about them as a demonstration of the AKP’s power. Should the AKP do well, Erdoğan will point to the election results as an ex post facto legitimation of anything and everything that he has done, and it will only spur him to make sure that the party does even better during the presidential election this summer and the parliamentary elections next year. He will not view this as a bullet dodged, but as an exhortation to keep up the pressure on his opponents. In short, a victory will magnify all of his worst instincts and inclinations and convince him that his vision for the country is the right one and that it must be enforced at any cost.
Should Erdoğan and the AKP do worse than expected, and somehow lose Istanbul – which to them is the worst possible thing that could happen given its symbolic importance to the AKP, its role as a political bellwether for the rest of the country, and Erdoğan’s view of the city as his own personal fiefdom – they will not take it as a humbling warning. They will go into panic mode, and lash out at everything and anything. Expect to hear claims of election fraud, efforts to obstruct AKP voters, and Gülenist plots. Social media will become an even bigger target, protestors will be dealt with even more harshly, and Turkish cities will become even more frequent sites of confrontations between police and civilians. The hyper nationalist rhetoric will get turned up, and I wouldn’t even put it past the realm of possibility that Erdoğan would seek to create a distraction, such as military escalation with Syria, to change the subject and try to regain his footing.
If I had to make a prediction, I think that there is a good chance that the CHP takes Ankara, but the AKP will hold on to Istanbul. In Ankara, Mad Melih Gökçek seems to have jumped the shark – all you need to know is that part of his election platform is his pledge to build a Las Vegas hotel-type canal, replete with gondolas and everything, in landlocked Ankara – and the polls there (to the extent they are in any way reliable) are as tight as I’ve seen anywhere. When you add in the recent scenes of teargas and bludgeoning of protestors, I have a feeling that the CHP will pull out a victory. In Istanbul, however, Erdoğan is not going to allow any other party to win. I say that in the sense that Istanbullu friends tell me that the mismatch in money and campaign organizing between the AKP and CHP is evident all over the city, and I say it in the sense that the APK will do anything to win Istanbul, legal or not. Istanbul has huge symbolic importance given its status as the imperial Ottoman capital during Turkey’s glory days, to which Erdoğan and the AKP constantly harken back, and the AKP sees it as its headquarters. Erdoğan micromanages everything in the city, which is what led to the Gezi Park crisis and protests in the first place, and I don’t see him giving it up willingly.
To all my Turkish friends and readers, please make sure to go out and vote on Sunday, and let’s hope that the aftermath is not quite so dire as I predict.
March 21, 2014 § 5 Comments
Governments that ban social media platforms under the flimsy justification of them being national security threats are not democracies. Prime ministers who say things like, “I don’t care what the international community says, everyone will witness the power of the Republic of Turkey” sound more like Emperor Palpatine or Bond villains and not like democratic leaders. Cabinet officials who received Fulbright scholarships to study in the U.S. and have MBAs from schools like Northwestern and call shutting off access to Twitter the better of a series of bad options are nothing but toadies of an autocratic prime minister who has ceased functioning in a rational manner.
When you shut down Twitter and yet the president of your country, your deputy prime minister, and other elected officials in your party nevertheless circumvent your attempted ban, it not only shows how out of touch you are with reality, but what a laughingstock you are becoming. It also shows you to be sadly incompetent. When you shut down Twitter ten days before elections in a transparent effort to control the flow of information, you are a menace to your own citizens and the principles of free speech, liberalism, and democracy.
The worst part of all of this is that it will likely have zero measurable effect on the upcoming local elections, as AKP supporters at this point have gone into hear no evil, see no evil mode, and have genuinely convinced themselves that everything Tayyip Erdoğan and his government are doing is in the service of fighting for Turkish democracy. Even if the Twitter shutdown did convince people to cast their votes elsewhere, a government that does this sort of thing is unlikely to be reluctant to take other more insidious measures when it comes to ensuring that the vote goes their way.
The best part of all of this is that Turks are not taking this lying down, and are tweeting, mocking their dear leader, and defacing AKP elections posters with Erdoğan’s visage by painting on them the numbers for the DNS server that allows Turkish Twitters users to bypass the ban. Many Turks are not willing to let Erdoğan dictate to them what they can or cannot do, and that is a very heartening thing to see. If there is another silver lining to this, it is that any remaining reticence in Western capitals to see Erdoğan for what he has become should be gone for good. The prime minister’s decade-old comment about democracy being a train that you ride until you are ready to disembark has never seemed more salient.
The final point to note here is that Erdoğan, whose political instincts used to be top notch, appears to have badly miscalculated this time. The courts are denying that they issued any shutdown orders, other countries and NGOs are criticizing him left and right, and the economy has taken yet another dip in response to his latest move. Even if the local elections at the end of the month go the AKP’s way, Erdoğan’s own political viability has never been more in question. He may have some more tricks up his sleeve, but it is difficult to envision how Erdoğan ever recovers the colossal stature he had only a couple of short years ago.
March 19, 2014 § 3 Comments
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon gave a speech yesterday at Tel Aviv University during which he said some things that have got the White House pretty annoyed. Ya’alon inferred that President Obama wants to play out the clock and punt dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue to the next president, fingered the U.S. for demonstrating weakness in a variety of areas including in its response to the Crimean crisis, pointed out that U.S. military aid to Israel is not entirely altruistic but operates to American benefit as well in the areas of intelligence and technology, and finally predicted that U.S. weakness will come back to haunt it in the form of terrorism and direct challenges from revisionist powers. All in all, it was quite the rhetorical broadside. I will refrain from extensively commenting on Ya’alon’s last point except to note that by the standards of many of Ya’alon’s ideological compatriots and Likud fellow travelers who excoriated John Kerry when he predicted that the failure of the peace process will lead to greater international isolation of Israel and accused him of advocating for Israel to be treated as a pariah, Ya’alon has now done something far more serious than offer a prediction that the U.S. will suffer future attacks.
In response, an unnamed senior Obama administration official hit back at Ya’alon for undermining security ties between the U.S. and Israel and calling the entire relationship into question. To quote, “We were shocked by Moshe Ya’alon’s comments, which seriously call into question his commitment to Israel’s relationship with the United States. Moreover, this is part of a disturbing pattern in which the defense minister disparages the U.S. administration, and insults its most senior officials. Given the unprecedented commitment that this administration has made to Israel’s security, we are mystified why the defense minister seems intent on undermining the relationship.” This is not the first time this year that the White House has responded to comments from Ya’alon that it deemed to be over the line, as in January it was leaked that Ya’alon had disparaged John Kerry, which drew a disappointed, albeit less harsh, American response.
What is driving Ya’alon here? Ultimately, causing a rift with the U.S. is not going to benefit Israel in any way, and Ya’alon is presumably smart enough to know that trying to rhetorically peer pressure the U.S. into taking a more confrontational approach with Iran is not going to work. Furthermore, Ya’alon knows from intimate firsthand experience, first as IDF chief of staff and now as defense minister, just how close security cooperation between the two countries is, and so pretending that it’s not such a big deal rings hollow. In addition, the timing of going after Obama personally just as the U.S. is actively involved in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and figuring out the security parameters of a longterm presence for IDF troops in the Jordan Valley is an awful strategy. If Ya’alon wants to ensure that the White House becomes more sympathetic to Palestinians complaints about Israeli intransigence, this would be one good way to go about it.
Certainly some of Ya’alon’s frustration is real. It is no secret that Israeli officials are worried about the direction of events in the Middle East, particularly with regard to Iran, and fear the U.S. stepping back from the region. What looks like cautious realism in the West Wing is viewed by Israelis as weak-kneed appeasement and wavering, whether it be negotiations with Tehran, an unwillingness to intervene in Syria despite repeated threats to do so, not bolstering Hosni Mubarak or dealing more harshly with the Muslim Brotherhood, etc. In addition, as Jonathan Schanzer points out, Ya’alon is upset about the U.S. not giving Israel weapons systems that would help in an Iran strike. Perhaps all of this boiled over at once and Ya’alon just couldn’t contain himself.
Or, perhaps there is more at work here, and Ya’alon’s outburst was a bit more politically strategic. Bibi Netanyahu has long had a real problem within his own party, and it is only compounded by the current peace negotiations. The younger and more hardline Likud members don’t trust him, and they have sought to embarrass him countless times, whether it be at Likud conventions, Likud primaries, or looking to amend the party’s constitution. Some of these efforts have been more successful than others, but if Netanyahu makes any real concessions with regard to the West Bank, the party is fated to split apart and there are no two ways about it. All of that is assuming that Netanyahu does not do the deed himself at some point and go the route of Arik Sharon, forming a new party and leaving a rump Likud behind (which would be deeply ironic since Netanyahu was the one who took the helm of the badly weakened Likud when Sharon formed Kadima). Ya’alon has been doing a good job of courting the Danny Danons, Yariv Levins, and Miri Regevs of the world, and they trust him a lot more than they trust the prime minister. Should it come down to needing a replacement for Netanyahu, Ya’alon seems like an obvious choice, and he can keep it that way by consistently espousing hawkish views such as the ones he did yesterday.
On top of this, the mood among Israel’s rightwing is no longer as uniformly pro-U.S. as it has been. There is a deep distrust of the Obama administration of course, but also a sense that the U.S. is moving in a very different direction than Israel. Netanyahu and his circle were genuinely surprised by the outcome of the 2012 presidential election, and simply did not grasp the internal American political dynamics, the changing demographics, or the war weariness of the American public. Throw on top of this the pressure coming from the White House on the peace process, and it just compounds the notion for some that the U.S. is harming more than it is helping. Many Israelis are for the first time in awhile openly questioning whether the U.S. can be reliably counted on, and nowhere is this more prevalent than among the younger Likud ideological vanguard who are the party’s future. Ya’alon recognizes this, and has been subtly playing into it for some time, which is why I think his comments about Kerry in January and his speech yesterday were more coldly calculating than he may want to let on. The other component to this is that Avigdor Lieberman, who wants to be prime minister one day and can only do so through Likud and is thus engaging in some jockeying for position of his own, has been criticizing the anti-American tone since his acquittal of fraud charges and his return to politics and publicly reminding Israelis that they should be wary of ruining the relationship with Washington. To the extent that Ya’alon views Lieberman – a hawkish nationalist who is very at home among the younger Likud folks – as a potential future rival, setting himself apart from Lieberman in a way that the Likud base favors is only smart politics.
At first glance, Ya’alon’s comments certainly seem puzzling, and they will not do any good for Israel itself. The question is whether Ya’alon was directing them toward Israel’s future or his own, and as usual, I think there is a heavy dose of internal domestic politics that is being overlooked. Yes, the frustration is real and is not entirely manufactured, but there is a method to the madness inasmuch as Ya’alon is thinking instrumentally about his political prospects down the line.
March 12, 2014 § 4 Comments
Yogi Berra’s famous dictum was the first thing that came to mind yesterday as I watched yet another round of peaceful protests overtake Turkish cities and be met with the predictable barrage of TOMA water cannons, tear gas, and massive police force. This round of protests is in many ways an extension of the Gezi protests last summer, as they were ignited by the death of Berkin Elvan, a fifteen year old boy who had been in a coma since being hit in the head with a teargas canister in June. Just as the government’s overreaction in June directly led to yesterday’s events, no doubt the effects of the police response yesterday and the continuing teargassing of mourners during today’s funeral will reverberate down the road, as more civilians were injured yesterday, including people struck with teargas canisters. So yet again Turkey’s cities are filled with protestors angry at the government, and the official government response is to cause chaos and destruction in urban centers and send the message that protest and dissent will not be tolerated in any form. This is becoming habitual rather unique, which does not augur well for the future.
The most remarkable part of all this is that the government has demonstrated that it has learned absolutely nothing from its experiences of the past year. Not only was yesterday’s response inappropriate, it was also ineffective and counterproductive. For some reason, Prime Minister Erdoğan – who, by the way, given his propensity to micromanage everything from local construction projects to whom television stations interview is no doubt directing the police response – believes that violence will succeed in getting everyone off the streets and creating compliantly meek citizens. Rather than indicating that he has heard Turks’ legitimate complaints and grievances and is working to address them, he deems it better to act as imperious as always. An apology from Erdoğan for Elvan’s death does not seem to be forthcoming, and there has not even been a simple statement of regret. Contrast this to Erdoğan’s public tears and repeated decrying of the Egyptian government for the deaths of Egyptian protestors, and you can understand why many Turks are fed up. Given that Elvan was killed after leaving his family’s home to buy bread and that Turks have been hanging bread outside their doors as a symbol of protest and mourning at his death, Claire Sadar’s bitingly sarcastic prediction that we are perhaps about to see the emergence of the bread lobby as Erdoğan’s newest bogeyman captures well how tone deaf Erdoğan’s past rhetorical broadsides have been. Successful leaders learn from their mistakes and move on, but there is no evidence that Erdoğan has even a sliver of this trait.
Turkey’s claims of enhanced democracy under the AKP are crumbling in other ways as well. The protests are overshadowing the news that former army chief of staff General Ilker Başbuğ and other military officers ensnared in the Ergenekon trials were released from prison over the past week, exploding forever the idea that the AKP’s greatest achievement has been subordinating the military to civilian control by punishing officers for numerous coup plots. Whether the military will be willing to align with Erdoğan in his fight with the Gülen movement after everything it has been through is an open question and my hunch is that the answer is no, but it’s clear that the prime minister is eager and open to partner with anyone in his latest battle. The Ergenekon prosecutions were largely shams, so releasing officers who were convicted under false pretenses is a good thing, but do not think for a second that this is being done in the service of democracy. Rather, it is being done to curry favor with one undemocratic actor in order to create a stronger coalition against another undemocratic actor. In the process, the AKP’s claim to have installed a consolidated democracy by defanging the military has gone up in smoke, as the government itself has now conceded that the trials themselves were marked by all manner of irregularities and is working to reverse the verdicts. In the process, Turkey’s justice system is turning more and more into one big kangaroo court.
The variable injecting massive uncertainty into everything this time around is the municipal elections scheduled for March 30. When the Gezi protests were violently suppressed, elections were still some ways off and there was room for the government to recover. Now, however, elections take place in less than three weeks, and will come on the heels of more injured protestors, more inflammatory government statements, the graft and corruption scandal, and they have also taken on an outsized importance in Erdoğan’s mind itself. If the AKP does not do as well as they have become accustomed to, or loses Ankara or Istanbul, it will severely damage what has been up until now an aura of invincibility surrounding Erdoğan and the AKP. Erdoğan himself has been saying for months that the municipal elections should be viewed as a proxy for the party’s national power, and given the allegations swirling around him and his family, the results matter more to him than perhaps even to the mayoralty candidates. With the stakes involved and more information coming out every day about the government’s illicit behavior and attempts to influence all sorts of decisions, I have grave doubts about whether these elections are going to be free and fair, and whether the AKP’s efforts to put its thumb on the scale are going to cross over into more egregious election violations.
Yet, there are some small rays of hope. President Abdullah Gül went farther this week in denouncing Erdoğan’s threats to ban Facebook and Youtube than he has in the face of similar comments in the past. Gül, Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek, and EU Affairs Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu all expressed condolences to the Elvan family yesterday, which is farther than any government official went during Gezi. So even if Erdoğan is too stubborn to ever change his ways, perhaps others in the AKP have learned something about how to interact with the people who have put them in office, even if it is nothing more than a small gesture such as offering sympathies to the family of a boy killed by the government for no reason while buying groceries. Let’s hope that Berkin Elvan eventually becomes an exception rather than a rule.
March 6, 2014 § Leave a comment
Bibi Netanyahu and the Israeli government have had the same two important decisions regarding the U.S. hanging over them for over a year, and they aren’t going away. The first is whether to cooperate with the U.S. to the hilt on the peace process and agree to anything the Obama administration asks them to do. The second is whether to cooperate with the U.S. to the hilt on Iran and agree to refrain from striking Iran, which is a commitment that the Obama administration clearly seems to want. The question is, if Israel does not deliver on either of these issues to the fullest extent, what will the fallout be, and which one is the higher priority for the U.S.?
There’s a lot of chatter recently about this being Israel’s last chance for peace with the Palestinians along with dark warnings about what will happen if the talks break down. In an interview with Jeff Goldberg last week, President Obama spoke at length about what he thinks the negative ramifications will be. Echoing John Kerry, he said that demographics, settlement growth, and the possibility that Mahmoud Abbas will be gone from the scene in the near future make this the last best chance for a deal, and that should a deal not happen, Israel will face increasing isolation and the end of its status as both Jewish and democratic. He also warned of a decreased ability on the part of the U.S. to protect Israel in international institutions and from the growing hostility of the international community. Goldberg interpreted this last point as (in his words) “a veiled threat” which would suggest that the U.S. may at some point stop using its veto to shield Israel from unfavorable UN Security Council resolutions.
This comes on the heels of months of Israeli-perceived threats from Kerry, including his prediction of a third intifada if talks fail, his denouncement of Israel’s military presence in the West Bank, and most recently his observation that efforts to boycott Israel are only growing. Never mind that none of these statements were threats but were rather predictions of how other actors will behave should the two state solution disappear; the important point is that Israeli leaders have interpreted these statements as a warning that the U.S. will abandon Israel should these talks not produce results. There is also the news that Israeli defense and intelligence officials have had visas to the U.S. denied at a much higher rate over the past year, which could be an effort to warn the Israeli government about what lies ahead should U.S. wishes be defied.
For whatever reason, there is much less talk – both here and in Israel – about what will happen to the relationship with the U.S. if Israel goes and strikes Iranian nuclear sites. This strikes me as strange for two reasons. First, I think that the possibility of this happening is at least 50% and yet there is a lot more speculation about Israel not doing its best to come to an agreement with the Palestinians. Second, I strongly believe that compared to a peace process failure, Israel defying U.S. wishes on Iran will be far more harmful to the relationship and will bring a higher degree of fallout.
I have always been clear in my belief that the consequences for Israel should the two state solution evaporate will be similar to what the White House describes: isolation, boycotts, and a far more difficult dance on maintaining Israel’s democratic character along with a Jewish majority. I am not quite sure that this is the absolute last opportunity, but were I the prime minister of Israel, I would be making plans for a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank in the eventuality that a deal cannot be reached. But that is another post for another day; the main point here is that should the talks fail, I do not think that the consequences from the U.S. will be much to fear. For starters, this show is not new. The Israelis and Palestinians have spent decades talking to each other or not talking to each other, all to no result, and the American-Israeli relationship has proceeded apace with no real ruptures. If these talks fail despite intense American intervention, it will be no different than Camp David, Wye River, Taba, the vaunted road map…you get the point. The U.S. and Israel have a long history of getting over peace process failures no matter if the administration puts the onus on Israel or on the Palestinians, and I suspect this time will be no different. The U.S. interest in getting this resolved has not grown more than it was under Clinton, and the damage to the U.S. should the talks fail does not present a vital threat. Furthermore, the peace process requires not just Israeli acquiescence but Palestinian acquiescence as well, and if reports are to be believed, the Palestinians have no intention of acceding to the security plan formulated by the U.S. and General John Allen. What this means is that if the Palestinian side is intransigent to a larger degree than the Israeli side (and so far reports indicate that to be the case), any failure will not be pinned on Israel. So for a number of reasons, this Israeli fear of a rupture is far-fetched. This is not an attempt to provide an excuse for Israel not to make a deal, since I think that Israel should agree to any and every U.S. request if it means getting an actual permanent agreement, but just an observation that the global consequences of failure will be a lot harsher than those emanating from the U.S.
In contrast, I think that Israel might want to tread more carefully when it comes to Iran, because an Israeli strike will be harder than a half-hearted peace process negotiation effort for the U.S. to shrug off. For one thing, there is not much recent history of Israel carrying out military operations that will clearly upset the U.S. and thus less of a history of getting over it for Israel to draw upon. Two examples would be the Suez crisis in 1956 and the bombing of the Osirak reactor in 1981, but neither of those are truly comparable. On Suez, Israel was operating in conjunction with Britain and France, which blunted the reaction as Israel was not seen as a sole rogue party, and on Osirak, Iraq was not viewed as such a vital interest for the U.S. and it did not embroil the U.S. in any messy aftermath. In the case of a hypothetical future Israeli strike on Iran, these conditions do not apply. Israel will be doing it alone, in defiance of U.S. wishes ahead of time, and it will affect what is likely the number one American foreign policy goal at the moment, which is a nuclear deal with Iran that leads to a more general rapprochement. Not to mention that many will view the U.S. as somehow complicit, and there is a chance of blowback directed against U.S. interests in the region. Also in contrast to the Palestinian issue, there will be no other party to blame; if things get hairy afterwards, Israel cannot share the burden of blame with someone else. It will not blow up the U.S.-Israel relationship, which is far too institutionalized and based on public affinity, but I can imagine a variety of unpleasant consequences, such as arms shipments being halted, intelligence and security cooperation suffering, the visa situation becoming even more difficult, etc.
I fully recognize that in Netanyahu’s eyes, these situations are not equal. Iran targets Israel in a variety of ways, with the seizure of the ship carrying missiles yesterday as just the latest exhibit in a mountain of evidence. Bibi views Iran as an existential threat whereas he views the Palestinian issue as one that can be managed. I disagree with his assessment, but it being what it is, his motivation and incentive structure is likely to go it alone on Iran. If Israel does that, however, it should at least factor in the costs of defying the U.S. and not assume that everything will be copacetic in the aftermath.