Tom Friedman Dashes Any Hopes I Had For A Peace Deal

February 4, 2014 § 8 Comments

As regular readers know (although since I have been so neglectful about blogging, I’m not sure I can legitimately claim to have any regular readers anymore), I am never optimistic that a successful Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is on the horizon. For some reasons why not, you can read this or this or this or this. The two sides are way too far apart on core issues, don’t even necessarily agree about what the most important core issues are, make demands that the other side will not meet, and feel that they have better options available to them, not to mention the fact that the negotiations are designed to rectify the problems of 1967 when in reality the issue is 1948. There is no sense of urgency and the two sides are completely talking past each other. Despite all of this, the reports from the Kerry camp have been consistently optimistic, the team led by Martin Indyk has been beefing up staff, and it actually seems like maybe both sides will accept a framework agreement. So despite my conviction that none of this will lead to anything permanent or concrete, maybe it all demonstrates that there is some light at the end of a very far tunnel.

And then I read Tom Friedman’s column this week in the New York Times, and I am now even more pessimistic than before. Entitled “Abbas’s NATO Proposal,” it turns on the idea that NATO will have to keep troops in the West Bank indefinitely in order to have the security arrangements for a peace deal fulfilled. In Abbas’s words, NATO troops “can stay to reassure the Israelis, and to protect us. We will be demilitarized. … Do you think we have any illusion that we can have any security if the Israelis do not feel they have security?” Friedman argues that this is a suggestion worthy of consideration because it meets Israeli security needs and meets Palestinians needs to not have an Israeli military presence in the West Bank after an initial five year period, and presumably only NATO can bridge this gap.

It all sounds very nice, but the fact that Abbas is pushing it says to me that he is either fundamentally unserious or knows just how desperate the situation is, and neither of those possibilities is encouraging. None of the three constituencies involved in this scenario would ever actually accept the parameters as Friedman lays them out. Start with the Palestinians, for whom it would be a hard sell having some security force confined to the Jordan Valley, and then think about the idea of having foreign troops spread throughout an entire Palestinian state forever. It is one thing to have foreign troops confined to a very distinct area, as is the case with American troops in South Korea, and quite another to have them literally anywhere and everywhere. I find it hard to believe that Abbas speaks for his own constituency in opening up this possibility, let alone for groups like Hamas that don’t accept his authority at all. The loss of sovereignty that comes with a demilitarized state is a hard enough obstacle to overcome, and throwing this additional factor on top blows the whole thing up. Troops for a finite number of years, or confined to a specific location, or with limited authority; these are all things that are potentially workable from the perspective of what the Palestinian side might reasonably accept. What Abbas suggests is not, plain and simple, and it makes me wonder whether he has any credibility left on his own side.

Next come the Israelis, who as Abbas relayed via Friedman do not want to have any third party overseeing their own security, and rightly so. UN troops based in Sinai literally cleared out of the way in 1967 when Nasser ordered them out in preparation for a strike against Israel (a strike that the Israelis preempted with the Six Day War), and the UN force in Lebanon hasn’t exactly been effective at preventing Hizballah from shooting rockets across the border, abducting soldiers, or conducting sniper attacks. That Friedman brings these examples up as something that Israel has tolerated before is completely removed from the reality of what Israel will accept when it comes to territory right on Tel Aviv’s doorstep. In both of these instances, foreign forces meant to in some measure safeguard Israeli security have been complete and unmitigated failures. Furthermore, Friedman is talking about NATO troops, and in case you haven’t been paying attention, Israel and various European NATO countries aren’t always on the best of terms. Israel is convinced that Europe is out to get it and that Europeans side with the Palestinians over the Israelis in every instance – convictions, by the way, that are not entirely unrooted in fact – and accepting American troops as guarantors of Israeli security would maybe, maybe eventually be ok with the Israelis. But NATO troops as the first line of defense against Palestinian rockets? I find it very hard to see an Israeli government that can be elected in the current climate ever acceding to that condition.

Finally comes NATO itself. Think about the reaction the vast majority of Americans have right now to sending U.S. troops to another location overseas in order to fight a war or safeguard vital American interests. Then think about the reaction people will have to sending U.S. troops to police a political and territorial dispute in which we are not involved in any way. Then realize that nearly every other NATO country is even more reticent than we are to put troops into harm’s way, particularly when it will involve those troops being stationed in a Muslim-majority country. I could keep going, but it seems unnecessary at this point. No elected politician will be able to justify any type of real commitment to such an operation, and quite frankly, why would they even if they could get away with it politically? I care about Israeli-Palestinian peace as much as anyone, but this is not something that NATO countries will be eagerly signing up for, not to mention that it is well, well beyond NATO’s mandate. Is Abbas or Friedman suggesting that a NATO country is at risk, necessitating placing NATO troops inside the West Bank? Or that NATO has somehow evolved into an organization that is willing to send its resources anywhere in the world for the sake of peace?

The bottom line is that if this proposal is what a peace agreement will hinge upon, you can forget seeing anything resembling a permanent agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians for decades. I hope Abbas has something else up his sleeve.


Erdoğan, Master Linguist

June 18, 2013 § 6 Comments

When the AKP came to power in 2002, Prime Minister Erdoğan and his party set out on an ambitious mission to remake Turkey’s economy and politics, turn Turkey into a regional power, and step up efforts to join the EU. It was a huge undertaking that was successful in some ways and unsuccessful in others. In recent days, however, the prime minister has embarked on an even greater challenge, since this time he is not content to simply remake Turkey. Instead, Erdoğan has decided to tackle a more global problem, which is redefining words whose definition seems clear in every language but which the prime minister has decided do not adequately reflect realities as he sees them.

Let’s start with the word “terrorist” which is often contested in terms of details but generally means a person who uses violence as a way of causing mass fear and intimidation. It seems relatively simple to distinguish terrorists from people who are not terrorists. For instance, Osama bin Laden is a terrorist for a number of reasons, including bringing down the World Trade Center. The folks who hang out in Franklin Square during my lunch hour are not terrorists since all they are doing is standing around. Erdoğan has apparently decided that the common definition is not good enough because it is too limiting. For him, the word terrorist must encompass all sorts of actions, such as protesting against the government, running away from police who are teargassing you, criticizing the prime minister or the cabinet or the police on Twitter, heading an opposition party, and almost certainly soon to include people who, like the folks in Franklin Square during my lunch hour, just stand around not doing much of anything at all. The new ingenious wave of protests sweeping Turkey encompasses nothing more than standing still, which began with a single man named Erdem Gündüz who spent hours standing silently in Taksim Square and has sparked hundreds of people doing the same (here are some awe-inspiring pictures of the phenomenon, and to see more go to Twitter and search #duranadam). The government claims that it will not intervene in the Duran Adam (Standing Man) protests unless there is a menace to public order, but I have little doubt that in a few days, as this spreads to more cities and grows to even greater heights, that Erdoğan will figure out a way to broaden the definition of “breaking public order” and we will all be enlightened as to how Gündüz is actually a foreign agent acting on the orders of the interest rate lobby, financial lobby, international media, social media, Communists, leftwing terrorists and anarchists, Zionists, foreign provocateurs, and how anyone who emulates him must be a foreign agent as well. And in case you are wondering, yes, he was in fact briefly detained by police for standing, a fate that also met Davide Martello’s piano after he played it for the crowds in Taksim over the weekend. It’s good to know that the piano spent a couple of days in jail, as you can never be too careful when it comes to terrorist musical instruments.

Another term that Erdoğan is having issues with is “democracy.” Just yesterday, we found out from the prime minister that the European Union has no respect for democracy despite it encompassing the largest federation of democratic states in the history of the world. By criticizing Turkey, Erdoğan says that the EU is anti-democratic, which is funny because I was under the impression that democracy had something to do with free and fair contested elections for effective power along with granting and protecting a set of liberties, but apparently democracy is henceforth to be defined as agreeing with the current Turkish government. In fact, while one might argue that the right to criticize, as the EU has done with regard to the Turkish government’s response to the protests, is actually in itself a hallmark of democratic behavior, the prime minister wants to set us straight by letting us know that in fact criticizing the Turkish government is the very definition of anti-democratic behavior. Erdoğan chided the EU for supporting those who attack the freedom of others, since he insists that the Gezi protestors are restricting his own freedom rather than the other way around. Again, I was under the impression that the entity that detains, arrests, beats, teargasses, and chemically burns civilians was the party restricting freedoms, but once again I must be mistaken. Thankfully, Erdoğan has most helpfully educated all of us by instructing the world that it is not the ones who do the detaining, arresting, beating, teargassing, and chemically burning who restrict freedom, but in reality it is the ones who are themselves detained, arrested, beaten, teargassed, and chemically burned who are restricting freedom. As always, good to know. In addition, the prime minister would like us all to be aware that the Turkish police have an “inherent right” to use as much teargas as they please, so I’m happy to see that at least one group’s rights are being zealously protected by the state. And in case you were wondering, Minister for European Affairs Egemen Bağış assures that there is absolutely no state violence in Turkey and that this is all a foreign plot. Phew! I was starting to think that maybe Turkey was having some issues with democracy.

I could go on like this for literally hours, but you get the point. When a government has to resort to the most tortured explanations, absurd rhetorical flights of fancy, and outright dishonesty and dissembling to try and convince the entire world that what it is seeing in the streets is not actually happening, then there is something rotten afoot. I still can’t tell if Erdoğan has completely lost his mind or if this is a deliberate strategy, but no matter what the answer is, the Turkish government is looking more foolish and unhinged by the hour. The government has announced that it is writing new laws to regulate the use of social media in Turkey, and as Yigal Schleifer pointed out earlier today, the irony is thick when a prime minister who was imprisoned for reciting a poem tries to imprison people for exercising their rights to free speech on Twitter and Facebook. As the government moves to arrest people without charges and hold them indefinitely while throwing around vague accusations of terrorism, coup plots, and links to leftwing anarchist groups, it is eerily reminiscent of the prosecutions of the military, which also involved allegations of shadowy conspiracies and detentions without charges. We know how that game ended, and it appears as if the government is once again pulling out the Ergenekon playbook. All the meanwhile, Erdoğan attempts to convince everyone that up is down, black is white, and freedom and democracy mean getting mauled by police for protesting. War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength. All that’s left is for Erdoğan to announce that the protestors will be dealt with by the Ministry of Love. If you can’t convince your citizens that basic terms mean something other than what everyone always thought they meant, then what’s the point of being prime minister anyway?

Egyptian Elections and the Turkish Model

May 23, 2012 § 3 Comments

For anyone who spends their time thinking and writing about the Middle East, today’s big news item is the Egyptian presidential election. While I spend most of my (non-dissertation) time on Turkey and Israel these days, my original academic interest was in the Arab world and I follow it generally, and Egypt specifically, very closely. Lots has been written over the past year about the “Turkish model” and whether it is applicable to Egypt, and indeed a recent Brookings poll indicates a preference among Egyptians to emulate Turkey. There is no need for me to rehash the specific reasons that Egypt may or may not be a good place to replicate the Turkish model, since plenty of smart people who know Egypt far better than I have already done so. I would only quickly note that based on the Brookings poll, Egyptians don’t actually know how Turkey is governed, as 54% of the respondents listed Turkey as the country that best reflected their aspirations for the role of Islam in politics while 66% of Egyptians support basing their laws on sharia. Even allowing for the 83% that say sharia should be adopted to modern times, a majority of Egyptians appear to believe that Turkish law is based in some loose way on sharia, which is not the case.

Instead of getting into the weeds on Egypt, I’d like to discuss why no country, Egypt included, should be looking to replicate the Turkish model. To be clear, when I talk about the Turkish model I don’t mean the military being the arbiter of secular politics or guardian of the state, but an ostensibly Islamic party governing through secular state institutions without imposing any religious dictates. To begin with, the synthesis of Islam and democracy in Turkey has taken a very long time. The fact is that the Turkish model has only emerged in the past ten years after decades of instability, military coups, varying degrees of authoritarianism, and a complete lack of vertical accountability. 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.

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 first successful 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. That the AKP was finally able to emerge out of the ashes of the Refah Party, win multiple elections, and govern without completely dismantling the state is the culmination of a long process of ideological softening on both sides. The overarching point here is that this process took 75 years to play out, and took 50 years after Turkey’s first democratic election. Democracy does not happen overnight under the best of circumstances, and Egypt is far from being an ideal staging ground. There are many things to contend with: a strong authoritarian legacy, social cleavages, a pending economic crisis, disputes over religion and what the state should look like, just to name a few of the big ones. Aiming for a synthesis of Islamic politics and secular government is a fool’s errand in the short run, and while Egypt may be able to eventually pull it off successfully, it will be years before that happens.

Another primary reason why the Turkish model cannot be replicated is that, as Steven Cook points out in Ruling But Not Governing, Turkey adapted for a specific purpose, which was joining the EU. The EU process made future military interventions more unlikely while also forcing the state to become more democratic, but at the same time it made the non-secular AKP soften any tendencies it might have had to weaken state secularism. When joining the EU is the ultimate goal, there is zero chance of adopting any type of sharia law or religious compulsion, and while I do not fall in the camp of those who think that the AKP actually desires to do this anyway, it would never happen while the EU negotiating process is underway. Egypt, and all other majority Muslim countries, do not have this structural constraint to contend with. If the Muslim Brotherhood is in power in Egypt and decides that it wants to legislate according to religious dictates, there is no comparable outside incentive to slow that down. The Turkish model did not emerge in a vacuum, but out of a highly specific context that does not exist elsewhere.

Finally, the specific electoral rules used in Turkey contribute to a unique situation in which extremist views on the poles of political thought are kept at bay. One need only look at the op-ed on Indonesia in the New York Times yesterday to get a sense of how this works. In Indonesia, the government coalition includes a number of extremely conservative Islamist parties, which in turn leads to restrictions on religious minorities and religiously motivated violence that the state ignores. In Turkey, however, the vote threshold for parliament is 10% of the vote, which means that smaller and more extremist parties get left out. This in turn has made the AKP a big tent that includes religious conservatives, merchants, the middle class, and some of the new urban elite. Such a party cannot afford to alienate religious minorities or condone any Islamist-led violence, and thus the AKP largely keeps its religious piety confined to personal behavior and governs over a secular state. Erdoğan’s lecture to the Muslim Brotherhood on his trip to Egypt about the vital need for secular governance was not an act; say what you will about him, but he practices what he preaches.

If Egypt is able to get to a place down the road where it embodies Alfred Stepan’s twin tolerations of the state being free from the yoke of religion and religion being free from the yoke of the state, it will be an amazing accomplishment. If it is able to replicate the Turkish model, it would be a positive development for its citizens and governing institutions. Nobody should fool themselves, however, on the likelihood of this happening. The Turkish model emerged out of a confluence of events playing out over decades with some unique structural constraints weighing on the entire process, and it is folly to imagine that this might happen elsewhere in what is in historical terms the blink of an eye.

Not A Great Week For Turkey and Western Institutions

May 3, 2012 § 2 Comments

For reasons of both history and geography, Turkey is a member of various institutions associated with the West, but its relationship with these bodies is sometimes acrimonious. This week demonstrated this dynamic perfectly on a number of fronts. First there was the continuing dispute between Turkey and other NATO states over who is going to get to participate in the NATO summit in Chicago later this month. I wrote last week about the fight over Israel, but it turns out that the arguing goes beyond that. Turkey says that it will also block EU participation in the summit unless the Organization of the Islamic Conference is invited as well. The logic is that the EU was extended an invitation because its preparation to take over peacekeeping duties in Afghanistan once the NATO mission there is terminated, and Turkey says that the OIC is in the same position and has actually contributed more so far than the EU has. This is particularly embarrassing because Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Council and European Commission presidents, have already received their invitations to the summit, and to rescind them would be a major diplomatic faux pas. Undoubtedly the other NATO members do not appreciate the headache that Turkey is now causing for them.

The NATO disagreement is actually one that has spilled over from a larger fight with the European Union. One of the reasons that Turkey is blocking the EU from the NATO conference is that Cyprus is slated to take over the EU presidency on July 1, and Turkey is preparing freeze its relations with the EU once this happens and has even made noise about annexing Northern Cyprus. Turkey has continually objected to NATO sharing information with the EU since Cyprus became a member in 2004, and Cyprus in turn has blocked the EU from allowing Turkey to participate in the European Defense Agency. The back and forth between the two will no doubt step up come July with Turkish-EU relations suffering collateral damage, and blocking the EU from attending the NATO summit over Cyprus is Turkey’s opening salvo.

This was not the only negative development regarding Turkey and the EU this week. A report commissioned by the European Parliament threw some cold water on Turkey’s EU bid and said that it could not predict whether Turkey will have become an EU member by 2030. This is a disheartening signal given that Turkey will have been shooting for EU accession for decades by then, and with its application currently being held up over disagreements in five key areas, the ambiguous stance presented in the report cannot be seen as a positive development. Furthermore, the report explicitly tied Turkish power and influence to its potential EU membership, which is bound to make some in Ankara quite unhappy.

In addition, the S&P downgraded its outlook on Turkey this week from positive to stable, citing its high debt ratio and trade deficit and over-reliance on domestic demand, which immediately caused the Turkish lira to fall against the dollar. There is some disagreement among economists over whether this was a fair move on S&P’s part given the trading price of credit default swaps on Turkey that suggest a higher credit rating and the fact that Turkey’s trade deficit looks a lot worse when examined month by month rather than year by year (the trade deficit has fallen by $2.45 billion over the past year), but it is nevertheless not a positive development. Rather than taking it in stride, Erdoğan predictably went ballistic at S&P and other credit rating agencies, accusing them of targeting Turkey for ideological reasons and threatening to withhold Turkish recognition of S&P as a legitimate ratings body. This came on top of more measured denouncements of S&P by Turkey’s finance minister and deputy PM, both of whom said that the data was either inaccurate or outdated but did not accompany their complaints with threats.

The S&P was not the only institution that Turkey fell afoul of this week, as the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force has made plans to visit Turkey and meet with its justice and finance ministers over Turkish foot dragging on anti-terrorism financing legislation. The justice minister warned Parliament that Turkey is about to land on the FATF black list, which is humiliating since Turkey is one of the task force’s 34 member countries, but it is still unclear whether Turkey will pass the legislation despite pressure from the U.S., the UN, and the task force itself.

It is a hallmark of lazy analysis to talk about Turkey generally turning away from the West, as if this is something that can so easily be done or that is even true. Turkey embraces its status as having one foot in Europe and one foot in the Middle East, and the current government has pushed this theme more than any previous Turkish government since it realizes the value that this unique position confers on Turkey. Let’s also not forget that it is the AKP that has pushed for Turkish EU membership, and that Turkey can no more unilaterally disengage from the West than can any other European country. It is also true, however, that Turkey’s relations with the rest of Europe have plenty of room to become needlessly antagonistic and Turkey sometimes appears to be hurtling down that path. It does not benefit Turkey to be arguing with its NATO partners by bringing feuds with non-NATO states into NATO forums, or to further jeopardize its EU bid. It is also silly to prod the credit ratings agencies with a stick and increase the likelihood of being further mistreated, as if Turkish “recognition” of S&P will affect its business or reputation one iota. Turkey has chosen for decades to pursue integration with Western institutions, so treating those institutions with contempt or displaying antagonistic behavior is entirely self-defeating. Turkey has legitimate issues with Cyprus, and its sense that the credit agencies punish it unwarrantedly is not without merit, but it needs to grow up and act like an adult. Continuous tantrums, threats, and tit-for-tat fistfights only guarantee that when the next set of Western institutions is formed, Turkey will be left out.

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