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After Turkey’s March 30th Local Elections

13 Apr

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            Never in the history of the Turkish republic have municipal elections of the mayors of cities and towns meant so much to the political life of the country as those held on March 30. It is not a sudden turn to localism around the country or in the big cities, although the commercializing of the urban landscape in large Turkish cities, especially Istanbul, is a matter of serious concern to an influential and discontented segment of the citizenry. The primary explanation for this great interest in these local elections, exhibited by a record voter turnout, had to do with an embittered and multi-faceted opposition to the national leadership provided by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and above all, by its controversially charismatic leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Both the government and the opposition treated these elections as a referendum on the leadership being bestowed upon the country by Erdogan, its stormy prime minister during the past 12 years.

 

            What was surprising about the outcome to most observers was the persisting strength of public support for AKP leadership, reflecting a widely shared approval on the part of ordinary Turks combined with the sense that the main opposition forces, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the National Action Party (MHP), had little to offer the country, and if given the chance to govern would likely plunge the country into recession and chaos, and possibly even collapse. In such an inflamed atmosphere, the AKP received approximately 45% of the vote, up from 39% in the last local elections held in 2009, while the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) received 28% and the rightest National Action Party (MHP) about 14%. The support of the CHP was mainly concentrated in the large Turkish cities in the West. In the cities of the Turkish East where minorities often dominate, especially Kurds, the CHP turns its back, has no organizational presence, and received less than 1% voter support in such leading cities as Diyarbakir, Van, Sanliurfa. It is a strange anomaly of Turkey that in a country of 77 million the AKP is the only political party that competes for votes throughout the entire country, and seems responsive to the expectations and grievances of all sections and ethnicities.

 

            Looked at differently, the election returns also disclose that 55% of the Turkish public opposes Erdogan and the AKP, and this would suggest that Erdogan’s presumed presidential ambitions might never be realized. In the presidential elections scheduled for this August the winner must poll over 50%, although not necessarily on the first round. Erdogan’s candidacy might still be a possibility, if done with the support, or at least acquiescence, of the current president, Abdullah Gul, and if the Kurds could be persuaded to vote, Erdogan, which is a distinct possibility. As of now, Erdogan has not disclosed his intentions about the presidency or, more generally, his political future. Whatever happens, so long as Erdogan remains active, his presence is likely to be the lightning rod that dominates the Turkish political landscape, and keeps the atmosphere tense.

 

            From an outsider’s perspective this level of reaffirmation of citizen confidence in the AKP and Erdogan seems implausible at first glance. The mainstream international media has been increasingly hostile toward Turkey since 2010 or so, especially contending that his leadership in recent years was slouching toward authoritarian rule. This line of criticism portrayed Erdogan as a Turkish version of Vladimir Putin. This international turn toward a critical view of Erdogan undoubtedly reflected several developments: the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations following the Gaza War of 2008-09 culminating in the Mavi Marmara incident the following year in which Israeli commandos killed nine Turks on a Turkish passenger ship carrying humanitarian supplies to beleaguered Gaza in defiance of an Israeli blockade; the Turkish pursuit of a foreign policy line more independent of American priorities, especially in relation to Iran, highlighted by a 2010 Turkish/Brazilian initiative to resolve tensions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program and followed by a related refusal of Turkey to go along with the Western push in the UN Security Council for intensifying sanctions on Iran; and more recently, with Turkey standing almost alone in the Middle East and the West in its refusal to welcome the 2013 military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood led Egyptian government or to be silent when the new military leadership under General Sisi committed vicious state crimes against those that resisted the efforts of the new regime in Cairo to impose total control over the society after overthrowing the elected Morsi government.

 

            Such Turkish deviations from the Western consensus on regional policy were not really as dramatic or systemic as made to appear. The Turkish Government has long made it clear that restoration of normal diplomatic relations with Israel would be welcomed if Tel Aviv acted reasonably, and accepted responsibility for the Mavi Marmara deaths and lifted its unlawful blockade of Gaza maintained since mid-2007. In relation to Iran, the NATO group has always claimed, as does Turkey, to seek a diplomatic solution, and seemed at one stage even to encourage and welcome the Turkish/Brazilian initiative to find a solution for the storage of Iran’s enriched uranium. Besides, Ankara’s relations with Iran have cooled considerably in light of their opposed positions in Syria. Further, given the bloody record of the post-Morsi leadership in Egypt, the United States and others in the region should by now feel ashamed of their failure to stand up for democratically elected leaders and insist that the Sisi leadership show at least minimal respect for the rule of law and human rights before lavish economic assistance is forthcoming.

 

            Additionally, on a host of other issues Turkey remains solidly in the Western camp, including the controversial deployment of defensive NATO missile systems on its territory, strong opposition to the Assad regime in Syria, provision for over one million Syrian refugees in a form that meets international standards, tendering of crucial and unwavering support for the Syrian rebel insurgency, and participation in the NATO intervention of 2013 in Libya, and even in the controversial NATO operation in Afghanistan. On balance, Turkey in recent years was doing nothing more disruptive of its long-term Western orientation in foreign policy than to behave like an independent sovereign state of rising regional influence and global status. Turkish behavior should have been viewed in Washington and Europe as a positive and natural development in this post-Cold War era, especially if compared with the violent instability, entrenched authoritarianism, and economic stagnancy that continues to prevail throughout most of the Middle East.

 

            Undoubtedly, the domestic realities of Turkey, even ignoring the recent flare ups, seemed likely to weaken Erdogan’s hold on popular support. To begin with, any democratically elected leadership that has been in power for more than a decade has a tendency to make an increasing proportion of its citizenry restless. Furthermore, most political parties to long in control of the government become increasingly susceptible to corrupting temptations. Such extended governance even without scandals generates feelings in the public that it is time for a change. Although in Turkey such a prospect of change is worrisome, as the alternatives to AKP leadership seem so lacking in capacity and vision. It is a definite weakness of Turkey’s political life that there is absent a responsible opposition that could at least elevate the level of policy debate and offer constructive ideas about addressing national policy options. Without such a responsible opposition the body politic of a democratic society is subject to the unhappy choice of relying indefinitely on a single governing party or taking its chances with the irresponsible opposition that may not even be able to manage the economy, much less steer the ship of state through the perilous political waters of the region.

 

            In the background, was a deep seated and uncompromising opposition to the AKP and Erdogan on the part of the old secular establishment that had ruled the country ever since its initial electoral success in 2002. Such sentiments of discontent in Turkey were given a fierce endorsement by the Gezi Park demonstrations of mid-2013, and even more so by the lethal force used in response by the government to maintain public order. Whether these developments did more than strengthen the will and intensify the shrillness of anti-Erdogan forces is hard to say, but the recent electoral results suggest that no serious erosion of pro-AKP support occurred. Erdogan’s abrasive refusal to address the Gezi protests in a respectful and statesmanlike language that sought reconciliation produced widespread critical comment at home and abroad. His initial praise for police tactics also alarmed commentators, and reinforced the impression that Erdogan was insensitive to the abuse inflicted on aroused citizens who were doing nothing more than exercising democratic rights of peaceful protest. It is also relevant to note that the international media was much more critical of Erdogan’s response to Gezi Park than to the far bloodier responses of General Sisi’s regime to peaceful demonstrations of the Muslim Brotherhood in the public squares of Cairo. Also, it should be taken into account, that what started in Gezi Park as a youth movement of environmental protest against the destruction of a heritage site in Istanbul quickly escalated into an anti-Erdogan hate fest, calling for his resignation, if not his head, and savagely attacking the entire economic and political program being pursued by the AKP. Also overlooked by the international media and internal opposition were the several moves toward reconciliation made by Erdogan, including meeting with opposition leaders, accepting a judicial decision as to the future of Gezi Park, and generally, trying, if belatedly to calm the situation and move on.

 

            What followed after Gezi in recent months came as a startling surprise to most outsiders, and seemed far more threatening to the AKP hold on political power: the split between the Hizmet Movement headed by Fetullah Gulen from his unusual command center in rural Pennsylvania and Erdogan. This split dramatically ruptured the unity of the two leading Islamic tendencies in Turkish political and cultural life. Without considering the complexity of what produced this bitter conflict between these two powerful Islamically oriented personalities, it seemed that such an organizational cleavage would gravely weaken the AKP appeal, especially against the background of seemingly rising dissatisfaction that seemed on the increase throughout Turkey in recent years. This dissatisfaction seemed further magnified by the spectacular corruption charges put forward on December 17, 2013, purporting to implicating the highest levels of the Erdogan administration, and inducing four ministers to resign in disgrace. There were additional accusations of major corruption also directed at Erdogan and his son, but the evidence made public so far relies on untrustworthy and possibly fraudulent, and certainly unlawful, surveillance tapes that did not enjoy high credibility.

 

            Assessing the overall leadership of Erdogan is not an easy task. Ever since the AKP came to power Erdogan has been hated by the Turkish secular opposition and adored by his populist followers. In the early years of the AKP administration, Erdogan was cautious, pragmatic, and exceedingly effective in steering the country onto a course of action that involved economic growth, the control of inflation, a pronounced effort to accommodate the European Union’s criteria for membership, control of the armed forces, relative mildness in his personal pronouncements, and a range of regional and extra-regional foreign policy initiatives that won widespread admiration around the world. Despite the electoral mandate and difficulties associated with a resistant bureaucracy that reflected largely CHP and MHP views as to Turkish national policy, it seemed clear to most objective observers that Turkey was under capable leadership impressively pursuing constructive national goals, especially as compared to unfolding events elsewhere in the Middle East.

 

            Yet, the opposition was unwilling to act responsibly, seeming to be only interested in finding reasons to attack the Erdogan administration, and even to generate a crisis of legitimacy that would be conducive to a coup of the kind that had displaced several elected Turkish governments in the past. Talking to secular critics in the early years of AKP governance, there were several lines of response all aggressively hostile: the main one was the suspicion that the real intentions of the AKP was secretly to prepare the ground for making Turkey into ‘a second Iran,’ that is, a governing process reflecting Islamic values and contrary to the secular principles associated with the founding vision of Kemal Ataturk and enshrined in the Turkish constitution; a somewhat less belligerent theme of the AKP critics was to belittle its record of success, which was difficult to deny altogether, as a byproduct of the Turkish effort to satisfy EU requirements for membership or benefitting from the good luck of an economic package that had been bestowed on the country by the IMF and took hold just in time for the AKP to claim credit for a record of sustained economic growth that it didn’t deserve.

 

            As time passed, two things became obvious: first, the Turkish armed forces were not willing, as in the pre-AKP past, to take control of and responsibility for the state, suggesting that the democratically elected AKP was no longer on a collision course with the military as had been a widespread conjecture in the years immediately following their electoral victory in 2002; and secondly, the Turkish citizenry confirmed their support for the AKP in election after election up through the just concluded local elections of 2014, and especially exhibited an expanding base of support for AKP in the 2011 national elections. This trend and the 2011 outcome added to the polarization that reflected the atmosphere of distrust and hostility on both sides of the Turkish political divide. It is true that after 2011 Erdogan often behaved as if intoxicated by political success and the tangible achievements during his time as head of state. The opposition became hysterically alienated, both convinced that they possessed no democratic path by which to displace the AKP from the commanding heights in Turkey and fearful and angry about Erdogan’s more strident and opinionated portended a descent into oppressive rule. Putting the issue in more conceptual terms, Erdogan was becoming more of a populist leader buoyed by the enthusiasm of his political base, interpreting the 2011 electoral mandate from the perspective of majoritarian democracy, that is, without taking into account the views of the opposition, ruling on behalf of the majority rather than exhibiting sensitivity to the interests of the whole of Turkish society.

 

            On the night of the March 30 elections, Erdogan delivered a victory speech from the balcony of his official residence that could be read in either of two ways, and probably should be understood as expressing an unresolved tension in his own mind. Because of some aggressive language directed toward the opposition, especially bitterness toward the tactics and behavior of the Gulen movement, it could be viewed as it was in a NY Times editorial as indicating Erdogan’s thirst for revenge. His words were strong: “We’ll walk into their dens..Now is the time to comb them out, with the law. Why? Because from now on, neither the nation nor we will show tolerance to such networks.” It seemed to suggest that with the elections behind, a purge of Gulen adherents would be carried out with merciless resolve by the Turkish state.

 

            There was a different message also contained in the speech. It was a message of reconciliation and unity, addressed to the whole of the country, and celebrating, rather than bemoaning Turkish diversity. “We have said one nation with Turks, Kurds, Laz, Caucasians, Abkhasians, Bosniaks and Roma people. I love them as a Turk for being a Turk, a Kurd for being a Kurd, or a Laz for being a Laz.” This multiculturalism was reinforced further: “Today..the process of national unity and fraternity won. Not even one person among the 77 million lost, because a cadre that is ready to serve them without any discrimination is in office.” This is a welcome departure from an ethno-nationalist past nurtured by Ataturk in the state-building early phase of modern Turkish history, in which being Turkish overrode non-Turkish ethnic identities, producing discrimination and sometimes severe and dangerous tensions, especially in relation to the large Kurdish minority.

 

            As we look to the Turkish future we can thus see two different dominant scenarios of AKP/Erdogan leadership: the first is to remain in an internal confrontational mode with a combative leadership in Ankara lashing out at all those that disagree with its style and substance; the second is to give meaning to the promise of leadership on behalf of the whole of Turkish society, requiring Erdogan to moderate his rhetoric and to be less publicly opinionated about social life style issues, and to restore a foreign policy approach dedicated to the peaceful settlement of regional conflcts and positive engagement with Africa, the Balkans, and Central Asia. Two starting points for this preferred approach would be a concerted revival of the Kurdish initiative, which seemed quite hopeful a few months ago and a reset on Syria that gave priority to ending the violence and addressing the humanitarian emergency in the country and supported an inclusive diplomacy that tried hard to make Iran part of the solution rather than the core of the problem.

 

            At stake, is the quality of Turkish democracy, which must at once value the procedures of election, but also confirm the importance of constraints on the power of the state via genuine support for the rule of law, freedom of expression in the media, accountability of political leaders, a credible anti-corruption campaign, and a respectful attitude toward the political opposition. In effect, what is being proposed is a move away from the excesses of majoritarian democracy, and toward the implementation of republican ideas of separation of powers and checks and balances. Of course, also, the opposition needs to play its part by desisting from demonizing the leadership, acknowledging the accomplishments of government alongside the mounting of criticisms of its shortcomings, and adhering itself to legal and responsible limits associated with respect to surveillance and the use of social media. Turkey retains the potential to carry a bright torch of hope into the future if it can restore political stability, sustain economic growth, engage with the more democratic trends in the region, and resume a foreign policy that rests on ethical principles and ambitions as well as national interests.

 

            The assessment of the deadly sarin gas incident that killed as many as 1500 people living in the Ghouta neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus on August 21, 2013 has now cast a new dark shadow across the Turkish post-election political scene. Seymour Hersh, a highly respected American investigative journalist, has recently published a devastating account of how the Turkish government facilitated the acquisition of sarin gas by the Al Nusra Front in Syria with the intention of producing a false flag operation in Syria that would cross Obama’s red line relating to chemical weapons, and lead to a devastating American air attack on Syria, and swing the war there back in favor of the anti-Assad insurgency. [See Seymour M Hersh, “The Red Line and the Rat Line,” London Review of Books, April 6, 2014; reinforcing Hersh’s account is an interpretative article by Robert Fisk, an equally prominent journalist, appearing on April 10, 2014 in The Independent with the inflammatory title, “Has Recep Tayyip Erdogan gone from model Middle East ‘strongman’ to tin-pot dictator?”]

 

            This scenario that came perilously close to happening, being aborted at the last minute by the unwelcome realization in the Obama White House that the sarin attack could not be convincingly attributed to the Assad regime. According to Hersh’s analysis Obama shifted course at the last minute when it became clear that the evidence indicated that it was rebel forces, and not the Damascus government, that fired the missiles containing the poison gas into a crowded urban area. Obama reportedly changed course when presented with the revised account of the events on August 21 by the top American military commanders. Both the United States and Turkish Governments have issued sharp denials of the Hersh allegations, and continue to insist that there still are no reasons to doubt that the attack on Ghouta was done by Assad’s forces. Whatever the reality, this controversy has been seized upon by Erdogan’s foes in Turkey to renew their attack on the legitimacy of his leadership. These charges are extremely serious, and if reliably established and do not just fade away, could tip the Turkish balance against Erdogan as an acceptable political leader.       

 

Imperiled Polities: Egypt and Turkey—Two Visions of Democracy

25 Jan

 

The Meaning of a 98.1% Vote

 

In mid-January there was a vote in Egypt as to whether to approve a constitution drafted by a 50-person committee appointed by the interim government put in place after the military coup carried out on July 3, 2013. The constitution was approved by 98.1% of those who voted, 38.6% of the eligible 53 million Egyptians. This compares with 63.8% support received by the constitution prepared during the presidency of Mohammed Morsi from the 32.9% of the Egyptian citizenry that participated in the vote. It should be observed that this new constitutional referendum was boycotted by both the Muslim Brotherhood and various of the youth groups that has been at the forefront of the anti-Mubarak upheaval in 2011. Also the validity of the vote was further discredited because of the atmosphere of intimidation in Egypt well conveyed by the pro-coup slogan: “You are either with me or with the terrorists.” Not only had the MB been criminalized, its assets seized, its leaders jailed, its media outlets shut down, but anyone of any persuasion who seemed opposed to the leadership and style of General el-Sisi was subject to arrest and abuse.

 

In the background here are questions about the nature of ‘democracy,’ and how to evaluate the views of people caught in the maelstrom of political conflict. On one level, it might seem that a vote of over 90% for absolutely anything is an expression of extraordinary consensus, and as a result el-Sisi’s constitution is far more popular than Morsi’s constitution, and hence more legitimate. Reflecting on this further makes it seem evident, especially when the oppressive context is to taken into account that the one-sided vote should be interpreted in the opposite manner, making Morsi’s vote more trustworthy because it reached plausible results. Any vote in a modern society that claims 98.1% support should be automatically disregarded because it must have been contrived and coerced. In effect, we cannot trust democratic procedures to reveal true sentiments in a political atmosphere that terrorizes its opponents, and purports to delegitimize its opposition by engaging in state crime. The consent of the governed can only be truly ascertained if the conditions exist for the free and honest expression of views for and against what present power-wielders favor.

 

Maybe, however, the connections made between democracy and legitimacy, seeking this populist signal of approval by the ritual of a vote, is itself a kind of blindfold. It would seem that a majority of Egyptians did, in fact, welcome the el-Sisi coup, believing that a military leadership would at least ensure food and fuel at affordable prices and restore order on the streets. In other words, most citizens in crisis situations posit order and economic stability as their highest political priorities, and are ready to give up ‘democracy’ if its leaders fail to meet these expectations. In my view, what has happened in Egypt is the abandonment of the substance of democracy by the majority of the Egyptian people, as reinforced by the suppression of a minority hostile to the takeover. This dynamic is hidden because the discourse and rituals of democracy are retained. It is this process that I believe we are witnessing as unfolding in Egypt. In effect, polarization of the first two-and-half years following the overthrow of Mubarak has been followed by the restoration of autocratic rule, but due to the intervening embrace of political freedom, however problematic, the new autocrat is even harsher than what was rejected at Tahrir Square three years ago.

 

The Politics of Polarization and Alienation  

 

Amid this political turmoil that has been spoiling the politics of the Middle East is a conceptual confusion that contributes to acute political alienation on the part of those societal elements that feel subject to a governmental leadership and policy agenda that is perceived as hostile to their interests and values. Such circumstances are aggravated by political cultures that have been accustomed to ‘one-man shows’ that accentuate tendencies toward adoration and demonization. Each national situation reflects the particularities of history, culture, values, national memories, personalities, and a host of other considerations, and at the same time there are certain shared tendencies that may reflect some commonalities of experience and inter-societal mimicry, as well as the deformed adoption of Western hegemonic ideas of modernity, development, constitutionalism, and governance, as well as of course the relationship between religion and politics.

 

The recent disturbing political turmoil in Turkey and Egypt, each in its own way, is illustrative. In both countries there are strong, although quite divergent, traditions of charismatic authoritarian leadership, reinforced by quasi-religious sanctification. Very recently, however, this authoritarian past is being challenged by counter-traditions of populist legitimacy putting forward impassioned demands for freedom, integrity, equity, and inclusive democracy, which if not met, justify putting aside governmental procedures, including even the results of national elections. Within this emergent counter-tradition is also a willingness to give up all democratic pretensions so as to restore a preferred ideological orientation toward governance, that is, resorting to whatever instruments are effecting in transferring control of the state back to the old order that had lost control of the governing process by elections, and had poor prospects of democratically winning power in the future.

 

In Egypt, this circumstance led to unconditional opposition to the elected leadership, especially to Mohammed Morsi, the president drawn from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood. The aim of this opposition, whether or not consciously espoused, seemed to have been to create a crisis of governability of sufficient depth to provoke a crisis of legitimacy, which could then produce a populist challenge from below that brought together ideological demands for a different orientation and material demands for a better life. It is true that Morse lent a certain credibility to this rising tide of opposition by a combination of incompetence and some clumsy repressive moves, but this was almost irrelevant as his secular and fulool opponents wanted him to fail and never allowed him even the possibility of success. For such opponents, the idea of living under a government run by the MB was by itself intolerable. In the end, many of those who had pleaded so bravely for freedom in Tahrir Square were two years later pleading with the armed forces to engage in the most brutal expressions of counter-revolutionary vengeance. Whether this will be the end of the Egyptian story for the near future is difficult to discern, the downward spiral suggests insurrection and strife for the foreseeable future.  

 

In Turkey, such a collision has recently produced turmoil and highlighting the dangers and passions that accompany lethal polarization, initially, in the encounters of the summer of 2013 at Gezi Park and some months later in a titanic struggle between Tayyip Recip Erdogan and Fetullah Gulan generating a rising tide of mutual recriminations and accusations that threatens the AKP dominance of the political process, a threat that will be soon tested in the March local elections, especially those in Istanbul and Ankara. Turkey is different than Egypt in at least two major respects. First of all, its economy has flourished in the past decade, producing a rising middle class, and a business community with lots to lose if investor confidence and currency exchange rates decline sharply. This reality is complicated by the fact that part of those that have gained economically have been aligned with the AKP, and by the degree to which the Turkish armed forces are also major stakeholders in the private sector. Secondly, a major achievement of the AKP leadership has been to depoliticize the role of the Turkish military, partly to protect itself against interference and partly to satisfy European Union accession criteria.

 

Alienation and emotional distress is more a symptom than an explanation of why there exist such strong political tensions. Better understood, these conflicts are about class, religion, status, political style, the benefits of governmental control, and availability of capital and credit. An additional source of public antagonism is the unresolved, and mostly unacknowledged, debate about the true nature of democracy as the legitimating ideal for good governance in the 21st century. One perplexing element is language, especially its use by politicians concerned with public opinion. There is this impulse on one side to base governmental legitimacy on pleasing the citizenry, and the impulse on the other side is to insist upon fidelity to law and constitutionalism. Both sides have powerful arguments that can be invoked to support their claims. There is no right and wrong, which is infuriating for polarized discourse that can only raise its voice to shout in higher decibels, but can never reach a conclusion of the sort that might resolve a scientific debate or solve a mathematical puzzle. Each side is motivated by unshakeable convictions, and has no disposition to listen, much less appreciate, what the others are saying. In effect, good governance is impossible in the absence of community, and what has become evident is that society unity is currently unattainable in the presence of the sort of alienation that has gripped the publics in Egypt and Turkey, and elsewhere. 

 

Part of the controversy, but only part, can be reduced to these differences over the very nature of democracy. Another part, as discussed in relation to the vote on the Egyptian constitution, involves the abandonment of democracy in substance while insisting on its retention in form.

 

Varieties of Democracy

 

The word democracy itself needs to be qualified in one of two ways: majoritarian or republican. And here is the central tension: the public myth in all countries that deem themselves ‘modern’ endorse the republican tradition of limited government and internal checks and balances, while the political culture is decidedly ambivalent. It can spontaneously legitimize the majoritarian prerogatives of a popular leader with strong backing on the street and among the armed forces, even at the cost of republican correctness. Because of this reality, there exists a tendency by those social forces being displaced through societal power shifts to view a newly ascendant leader through a glass darkly. They suddenly lament authoritarian tendencies that never troubled them in the past when their elites held the reins of governmental authority. Part of the recent confusion is that sometimes the authoritarian tendency gets so corrupted that it loses support even among those who share its class and ideological outlook, and a reformist enthusiasm emerges. This happened in Egypt, but its tenure was short lived as its adherents, drawn from the ranks of the urban educated elites, quickly realized that their interests and values were more jeopardized by the ‘new’ order than it had been by the excesses of the ‘old’ order. 

 

We find in Egypt this pattern played out through the wildly gyrations in the perception of the armed forces as a political player. In the Mubarak Era the armed forces were the central pillar of the state, and a major beneficiary of governmental corruption, neoliberal inequities, and a principal perpetrator, along with other security forces, of state crime. In the Morsi period of governance the armed forces seemed to stay in the background until either responding to or prompting the populist mandate of the opposition exhibited by mass demonstrations and media mobilization based on a paranoid image of Muslim Brotherhood rule and widespread genuine distress about economic stagnancy and political disarray.

 

After the July 3rd coup led by Morsi’s Minister of Defense, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the armed forces set aside the constitution, installed a transitional government, promised new elections, and set about drafting a constitution that embodied the hegemony of the armed forces. What has taken place, however, is an undisguised exercise of authoritarian closure based on declaring the former choice of the citizenry, the Muslim Brotherhood, to be a ‘terrorist’ organization whose leadership were victims of several atrocities, imprisoned, forced underground, and fled the country. Nevertheless, despite these repressive measures, the armed forces are proceeding on a basis as if their action has been mandated by ‘democracy,’ that is, by majoritarian demands for change enacted on the streets of Egyptian cities and through the subsequent endorsement of the repressive steps to be undertaken by the regime, eventually validated through demonstrations, voting, and electoral ratification. In the background of such a counter-revolutionary turn, of course, were weak institutions of government accustomed to operate for decades within a strict authoritarian political space, and a governmental bureaucracy whose judiciary and police continued to ideologically aligned with the old order. Such an entrenched bureaucracy seems to have regarded the reemergence of authoritarian and militarized politics as natural, linked in their imaginary with Egypt’s ancient heritage of greatness and more comfortable with such domineering figures as Nasser and Mubarak as compared to the density and seeming incapacities of Morsi.

 

Challenging Democracy in Turkey

 

The situation in Turkey is much more subtle and less menacing, yet exhibits several analogous features. Despite the outcome of elections that brought the AKP to power initially in 2002, a development subsequently reinforced by stronger electoral mandates in 2007 and 2012, most of the opposition never accepted these results as politically acceptable, and immediately sought to undermine the elected leadership in a variety of legal and extra-legal ways. In the background of this alienation was the implicit and feared belief that the AKP was mounting a challenge to the hallowed legacy of Kemal Ataturk, as well as to the rigid Turkish style of secularism that was periodically reinvigorated by the armed forces that staged coups, which in 1982 had imposed a highly centralized, security oriented constitution on the country. With political acumen, the AKP maneuvered pragmatically in an impressive manner, creating a rapidly growing economy, seeking to play a conflict resolving role throughout the Middle East, and repeatedly proclaiming a fidelity to the secular creed as the foundation of public order, and by stages subjecting the armed forces to civilian control. Despite the magnitude of these achievements the AKP and Erdogan never gained an iota of appreciation or respect from the anti-religious Kemalist opposition that claimed to be the only legitimate guardians of Turkish ‘secularism.’  Strangely, this alienated opposition was never able to present a responsible political platform that could give the Turkish people a positive alternative, and so the prospects of mounting an electoral challenge remained poor, especially given the accomplishments of the AKP.

 

In such a setting this intensely alienated opposition seemed increasingly dependent on manufacturing a crisis of legitimacy that would restore the old state/society balance that had prevailed since the founding of the republic in 1923. The Ataturk legacy included a somewhat reluctance acceptance of procedural democracy in the form of free and fair elections with the apparent implied assumption that the outcome would remain faithful to his modernist orientation, modeled on Europe, that accompanied the founding of the republic. The range of opposition was limited by a law allowing the closure of political parties that seemed to be straying from the prescribed Kemalist path. When the AKP defied these expectations in 2002, the opposition became quickly fed up with the workings of  ‘democracy,’ and seemed early on to count on being rescued, as in the past, by a military intervention that they hoped would be encouraged by the U.S., which was assumed to be unhappy about the Islamist leanings attributed to the AKP political base and leadership.  The disappointment among the old secular elites arising from the failure of these expectations to materialize deepened the alienation and frustrations of opposition forces, especially on the part of urban elites in the main cities of Turkey in the western part of the country, which exaggerated the faults of the government and ignored its achievements.

 

With such considerations in mind it was understandable that there would be exhilaration among the opposition generated by the Gezi Park demonstrations in the summer of 2013, especially in its initial phases that were as much a protest against the AKP’s embrace of an environmentally rapacious neoliberalism as it was against the authoritarian excesses of the Erdogan leadership. This enthusiasm weakened when the Gezi movement was substantially hijacked in its subsequent phases by the most extreme tendencies of the alienated opposition, which seemed to believe that Gezi presented an opportunity to fashion a full-fledged crisis of governability out of this narrowly focused protest that might force the resignation of Erdogan, if not the collapse of the AKP. There was an attempt to take advantage of escalating public outrage that resulted after excessive force was used by the police to maintain order in the Gezi context. Of course, Erdogan’s harsh style of discourse, including off the cuff opinions that reflected his Islamic devoutness, were part of the broader political atmosphere, and were particularly alarming to an already alienated opposition, reinforcing their their underlying beliefs that any alternative would be better for Turkey than what the AKP was bestowing upon the country. The situation was aggravated  after the AKP electoral success in 2011. It seemed to give Erdogan confidence that he need no longer adhere to his earlier cautiously pragmatic approach to leadership, and he adopted the sort of swagger that both frightened and disgusted an opposition that was not inclined to give him any leeway.

 

Similarly, the more recent, unexpected, and still obscure and bitter public falling out between the AKP and the hizmet movement has injected a new virus into the Turkish body politic posing unpredictable threats. It may turn out that this conflict represent nothing more fundamental than a struggle for relative influence and power that calmer minds will resolve before long. Perhaps also Turkey is experiencing some of the almost inevitable mishaps associated with keeping one political party with a strong leader in power for too long. Such prolonged control of government almost always produces scandal and corruption, especially in a political culture where the rule of law and the ethics of civic virtue do not have a very strong grip on behavioral patterns. In the more distant Turkish past are the memories of Ottoman times when the country was a regional power center, governed by highly authoritarian figures, a hallowed past that was secularized in the last century but not challenged in its essential role in Turkish political culture.

 

Majoritarian and Republican Democracy Assessed

 

With this mix of considerations in mind, the distinction between ‘Majoritarian Democracy’ and ‘Republican Democracy,’ although simplifying the actual political texture, seems important.  In Majoritarian Democracy the leadership is essentially responsible to the electorate, and if its policies reflect the will of the majority, the views and values of opposed minorities need not be respected. Critical views treat such forms of government as susceptible to the ‘tyranny of the majority,’ which has subjective and objective realities distinguishing between what is perceived and what is actually taking place. Arguably after Morsi’s election in 2012, and given the embittered opposition that seemed unwilling to accept the outcome of the vote, the Muslim Brotherhood used the prerogatives of office in a failed attempt to impose the majoritarian will, and may itself have been prepared to change the rules of the political game so as to retain control. Part of the majoritarian mentality is to locate a check on its excesses in the will of the citizenry, and thus when the people are mobilized to demand a new leadership for the country without waiting upon the niceties of the next elections, the path is cleared for the sort of military takeover that occurred last July. Of course, majoritarian dynamics are subject to manipulation by anti-democratic forces whose zeal is directed toward gaining control of the state.

 

‘Republican Democracy’ in contrast starts with a generally skeptical view of human nature, and seeks above all to find procedures and support the nurturing of a political culture that prizes moderate government over efficiency and transcendent leadership. The American self-conscious adoption of Republican Democracy at the end of the 18th century, as spelled out for the ages in The Federalist Papers, is a classic instance of molding a constitutional system that was wary of majorities and protective of minorities and of individual rights ( although totally blind to the human claims of slaves and native Americans). Unlike Egypt or Turkey, Americans were seeking to arrange a different future for themselves than was associated with British royalism, and its absolutist pretensions. In the background, were political thinkers such as John Locke with a stress on the link between good governance and rights and Montesquieu who argued along analogous lines about the cardinal relevance of separation of powers to the avoidance of the concentration and excesses of state power. Delinking government from religious claims of certainty was also consistent with republican sensitivity to human flaws and the general ethos of Lord Acton’s famous saying ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’

 

Because over time every political system faces crises, the American founders realized that the envisioned arrangements would only survive the tests of time if two conditions were realized: first, reverence for the constitution by both lawmakers and citizens, and secondly, judicial supremacy to override legislative and executive swings toward either implementing the momentary passions of the mob or aggrandizing power and authority, and thereby upsetting the delicate balance of institutions. Despite this self-conscious commitment to the republican approach, in times of war and crisis, the democratic feature of accountable power-wielding tends to yield to claims of national security and public expediency. And once such departures from republicanism become entrenched, as a result of a long period of warfare or in relation to nuclear weaponry, and now transnational terrorism, the authoritarian genie is able to escape from the constitutional bottle. As the American motto of ‘eternal vigilance’ reminds us, there are no safe paths to moderate government, and its most influential advocates realized that their wishes might be so defeated that they recognized that the people enjoyed ‘a right of revolution’ if despite all precautions the governing process had become despotic.

 

It need hardly be argued that neither Egypt nor Turkey are remotely similar to the United States or Europe, but the superficial embrace of democracy by these and other countries might benefit from examining more closely the menace of Majoritarian Democracy in a fragmented polity and the difficulties of establishing Republican Democracy in political cultures that have been so long dominated by militarism and authoritarianism. Egypt is experiencing the essentially anti-democratic restoration of authoritarian militarism, while Turkey is trying to preserve sufficient stability and consensus to enable the self-restrained persistence of procedural democracy and a successful process of constitutional renewal that rids the country of the 1982 militarist vision of governance, and moves toward creating the institutional and procedural frame and safeguards associated with Republican Democracy. Beyond this, however, will be the immense educational challenge of shaping a supportive political culture that entrenches republican values in public consciousness, above all a respect for individual and group rights and an inclusive approach to policy formation that seeks participation by and approval from stakeholding constituencies opposed to the majority. Such a vision of a democratic future for Turkey implies a process, not an event, and will require an ongoing struggle inevitably distracted by both manufactured and authentic crises of legitimacy. The hope is that moderate minds will prevail, serving the long-term interests of a state and its peoples that retain great potential to be a beacon of light for the region and beyond.

 

  

Two Forms of Lethal Polarization

17 Nov

Two Forms of Lethal Polarization: Egypt and Turkey

 

            There is a temptation to suggest that political life in Turkey and Egypt are both being victimized by a similar deepening of polarization between Islamic and secular orientations, and to some extent this is true, but it is also misleading. Turkey continues to be victimized by such a polarization, especially during the eleven years that the Justice & Development Party (AKP) has governed the country, and arguably more so in the last period. In Egypt, so describing the polarization is far less descriptive of the far more lethal form of unfolding that its political cleavage has taken. It has become an overt struggle for the control of the political destiny of the country being waged between the Egyptian armed forces and the Muslim Brotherhood, the two organized political forces capable of projecting their influence throughout the entire country, including rural areas.  This bitter struggle in Egypt engages religious orientations on both sides, and even the military leadership and upper echelons of the armed forces are observant Muslims, and in some cases extremely devout adherents of Salafi belief and practice.  

 

            In effect, at this point, there is not a distinctly secular side that can be associated with post-coup Egyptian leadership under the caretaker aegis of the armed forces, although clearly most of the liberal secular urban elite and many of the left activists sided with the military moves, at least initially. Recent reports suggest more and more defections, although the price for making such a change of heart public can be high. For General el-Sisi the essence of the conflict seems to be between what is irresponsibly alleged to be a ‘terrorist’ opposition on the one side, which has been broadened somewhat to extend beyond the Muslim Brotherhood to whomever dares question the tactics or intentions of the new leadership, and political forces supposedly committed to a democratic future for the country on the other. If the core of the opposition can be effectively portrayed as terrorists in this post-9/11 world, then the criminalization of their activities and organization, and the neglect of their rights will seem prudent to many, and even a necessary ingredient of national security.

 

            The Egyptian state controlled media, along with the mainstream media in the West, has allowed the Egyptian post-coup leadership to so far get away, literally, with murder! This sort of distorted presentation of the conflict has been also indirectly endorsed by governments, and has somewhat surprisingly achieved strong backing throughout the Arab world with a few notable exception. Among the grossest distortions are the unchallenged depiction of the Muslim Brotherhood as purveyors of violence, given that the organization has renounced violence after 1978, and generally maintained such a posture despite decades of suppression and provocation by Mubarak government, and more recently by the forces arrayed against it. It should also be appreciated that Morsi’s clear counsel to his followers from the time of the coup was to insist on the legitimacy of the elected government and to resist the claims of the post-coup leadership, but to do so nonviolently.

 

            It is important to understand that neither the Egyptian or Turkish experiences of polarization are symmetrical processes. In each instance, the side that is fairly beaten by democratic procedures, especially elections, refuses to accept the implications of political defeat. Rather than form a responsible opposition, with an alternative political program, such an embittered opposition has recourse to extra-constitutional means to regain power, and strives to establish a justification for such extremist advocacy and initiatives by demonizing its adversary, especially the person of the leader.

In contrast, the side that enjoys democratic legitimacy relies on its right to govern, and sometimes on its performance, to justify the retention of governing authority. There is no doubt that Morsi was in a radically different position that Erdogan after his narrow electoral victory in 2012—having an economy on a downward slippery slope, a public with high post-Mubarak expectations of a change for the better, and a complete lack of governing experience.

 

            This phenomenon of polarization is becoming more widespread, an expression of growing alienation within societies as a response to disappointments with traditional political parties and their leaders at the national level. As dissatisfaction and frustrations with prevailing forms of governance grows in many countries, the opposition becomes ever more embittered, and tends to blame the elected leader with venomous rhetoric. Often such excessive attacks provoke a response from the government that further discredits the leader in the eyes of the opposition, widening the gap between those governing and those in the opposition. If the angered opposition senses that it is unable to win at the ballot box, it will be tempted to mobilize a populist politics in the street, and sometimes manages to enlist those parts of government bureaucracy (often the judiciary and security forces) that are aligned openly or secretly with efforts to create crises of legitimacy and governance.

 

            From such a combustible mix, explosive possibilities are possible on both sides, ranging from coups to various authoritarian abandonment of democratic procedures. Each side produces a self-serving narrative of national survival that shifts the blame entirely to its political enemy. There is no effort at dialogue, which is essential for the political health of a democratic society beset by serious challenges and policy disagreements. This does not mean that the two sides are equally persuasive, but it does suggest there are few informed and judicious voices that can be heard above the noise of the fray.

 

            Outsiders also complicate the scene, whether they favor the government or the opposition. The originality of each national situation needs to be taken into account. There are many variables, including history, culture, geography, stage of development, economic performance, levels of unemployment and poverty, quality of governance, role of violence, respect for human rights and the rule of law, degrees of corruption. And yet at the same time, there are patterns and transnational similarities that make certain regional generalizations illuminating.

 

            The comparison of Turkey and Egypt is suggestive of this broader regional, and indeed global, pattern of polarization that is undermining political discourse in more and more countries. The Turkish political scene is still very much shaped by the lingering socially constructed and politically maintained legacy of Kemal Ataturk, and his radical modernization project that sought a total eclipse of Turkey’s Ottoman past. This endeavor, although highly influential, never completely succeeded in creating a post-Islamic normative order in the country, although it did manage to produce a highly secularized and Europeanized upper middle class in the main cities in western Turkey that fiercely, with its own unacknowledged religious intensity, clings rather sadly to the outmoded Kemalist legacy as the only usable past.

 

            In Ataturk’s defense as a historical figure, it should be remembered that the challenges facing Turkey after World War I were primarily to create a strong unified state out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire while withstanding European imperial ambitions that were rampant elsewhere in the region. The Turkish defeat of colonial ambitions was spectacular, but it led to a dysfunctional form of hyper-nationalism that had three prominent features: the attempted erasure of minority identities, a discriminatory insistence on the privatization of religious values and beliefs that particularly victimized Turkish women, and a deferential mimicry of Europe, especially France, in its construction of a secular polity.

 

            Each of these undertakings over time generated strong forms resistance that could never be fully overcome: minority identities were not extinguished, especially for the large and diverse Kurdish minority, Islamic political orientations did not disappear and kept seeking limited acceptance in public space, and the European model never won the allegiance of the Turkish masses. What did occur in Turkey until the end of the twentieth century was political domination by secular elites relying on the mantle of Kemalist legitimacy, with power bases in the main cities, and total control of the bureaucratic structures of Turkish governance, including a crucial alliance between the civilian secular leadership and the armed forces, which included the increasing private sector interests and market activity of the military. As a left challenge of a Marxist character emerged after World War II, secular control was sustained by a series of military coups to make sure that capitalist ideology was not frontally challenged. The Cold War pushed Turkey to adopt an anti-Communist foreign policy of a distinctly Western direction. In the NATO context Turkey was made responsible for the vital Southern flank of NATO, and seemed to follow without dissent the geopolitical line taken in Washington.

 

            What happened next after the Cold War ended was a growing populist rejection of the societal structures of Kemalist Turkey without mounting any direct and explicit challenge to the legacy. It was merely circumvented and adapted to a new set of conditions and social priorities. The ascent of the AKP in the 2002 elections, a result that was reinforced by larger victories in 2007 and 2011, achieved a sea change in the tone and substance of state/society relations in Turkey. It came about in stages, and may yet be reversed when new elections are held in 2015. There was Kemalist resistance from the outset, fears that Turkey was supposedly on its way to becoming ‘a second Iran.’ When that fear failed to materialize or to erode pro-AKP support there occurred a variety of coup plots that never came to fruition, largely because the neoliberal economy was flourishing, the AKP was cautious and pragmatic in its early years of leadership, the secularist ‘deep state’ remaining a brake on governance by the elected leaders, and the West, especially the United States was eager at the time to show the Islamic world that it could have a positive relationship with a government that did not hide the devout Muslim convictions of its principal leaders.

 

            The dynamics of polarization are such that when electoral prospects of the opposition are perceived to diminish, the opposition, especially if it had earlier controlled the state for a long period, grows angry and impatient with the workings of constitutional democracy even if it had earlier based its own legitimacy to govern upon the outcome of elections. Now in an altered political climate such a displaced opposition explores other ways to regain control of the state, itself now opting for populist forms of protest and democratic accountability that it had earlier ruthlessly suppressed.

 

            In the Turkish case, the opposition tactics along these lines were surprisingly unsuccessful in the first decade of the 21st century, although the avoidance of a coup may have been based on a number of unstable contingencies.  Such frustration over a ten year period, even as accompanied by impressive economic growth statistics and diplomatic prominence, did not lead the old Kemalist forces to acquiesce in the new political order, but only made the opposition enraged. Instead, these intensified frustrations, bringing anti-AKP resentment to a fever pitch, directed especially at its charismatic, populist, impulsive, and provocative Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a man who evokes the strongest passions of love and hate. Erdogan serves as a cynosure of why democracy is at risk from above and below in Turkey. The government has ample grounds to feel threatened by the tactics, extremism, invective, and hostility of the opposition, which does not even bother to hide its contempt for democratic procedures in its quest for a return to the control of governance. In turn, the leadership, especially the sort of highly unpredictable emotional politics practiced by Erdogan, strays itself from democratic procedures partly as an understandable defensive reflex, has grounds to view the opposition as illegitimate, including its most vituperative media critics, which can easily slide into the embrace of a kind of defensive authoritarianism.

 

            The Egyptian descent into the vortex of hyper-polarization has certain resemblances to the Turkish experience, but also significant differences other than the relationship of contending forces to the poles of religion and secularism. In effect, secularism isn’t really a pole in Egypt, but at most one of the constituencies mobilized in the pre-coup period by anti-Morsi forces, many of whom might not have even realized that by opposing being governed by the Muslim Brotherhood, they were opting for the restoration of a brutal regime of the sort that had governed Egypt for three decades under Mubarak, which had seemed to have alienated virtually the whole of the country during the excitement of the January 25th movement in 2011. At that time, the armed forces were seen as standing aside while the people cast off a cruel and corrupt dictatorship that had reduced the Egyptian masses to a condition of subjugation and collective misery. In retrospect, this was an optical illusion created because the armed forces seemed willing to let Mubarak go to avoid having the next leader being his possibly reformist son, but was not at all ready to transform the governing process of the country despite the overwhelming mandate to do just that. It now seems clear that the Egyptian military would struggle against any political developments that threatened control of their budget, regulation of their business activities, and restriction of their discretion to manage the security policies of the Egyptian state (in collaboration with internal police and intelligence forces).

 

            Against this background, including the structural problems generated by Mubarak’s neoliberal approach to development, the Muslim Brotherhood would have been wise to abide by their initial public pledge to not field a candidate for the presidency and to limit their electoral ambitions in parliament and the constitution-forming process. Possibly, sensing their popularity as a transitory opportunity in a fluid situation, and maybe deceptively encouraged by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the MB leadership thought it was entitled to compete for leadership to the full extent of its popularity. Its years of community organizing and welfare services paid off in parliamentary results far in excess of what had been predicted. There seemed to be a mandate to lead the country, but there also seemed to a series of insurmountable challenges that were unlikely to be met whoever gained controlled of the government.

 

            When it became clear that the MB was stronger than expected, and that it would not limit its goals as earlier announced, much of the liberal anti-Mubarak opposition registered a reaction of panic. Reflections on the prospect of living under a MB government induced many Egyptians to swing back to the Mubarak side, leading Ahmed Shafik, a fulool mainstay, to win almost 50% of the vote in the presidential runoff election in June 2012. It was a defeat, but considering the near zero support for the old established order in the heady days of Tahrir Square, this result suggested a dramatic reversal of political mood at least in the main urban centers of Egypt. That near victory of Shafik should have been interpreted as a signal that counter-revolutionary tremors would soon begin to shake the foundations of political stability in Egypt.  Polarization took multiple forms in the ensuing months, with Morsi faltering as a leader partly for failures of his own making, and the opposition stridently insisting that things were out of control, allegedly worse than in the most unpopular Mubarak times. There was also evidence that to mobilize the populace well orchestrated efforts were made to create fuel shortages and price hikes in food prices, impacting negatively on the image of Morsi as someone who could lead post-Mubarak Egypt into better times. The outcome, perhaps exaggerated in the media, was a huge mobilization of anti-Morsi forces that produced the largest public demonstrations in Egyptian history, and set the stage for the July 3rd takeover, with its blank check given to the armed forces to do whatever it wanted to do, including if necessary the elimination of the MB (at least 30% of the populace) from the political scene. What followed was a series of massacres and abuses of state power on a scale that would have shocked the conscience of humanity if it had been reported to the world in an honest and responsible fashion. Instead, what appear to be a series of thinly disguised Crimes Against Humanity of a severe character were swept under the rug of world public opinion, and the new regime received financial and diplomatic support and many diverse wishes for success.

 

            This then is the final point. When a polarized opposition resorts to unlawful means to regain or seize power, the nature of the regional and global response can be critical to its success or failure. There were strong geopolitical incentives for welcoming the Egyptian coup, and thus not complain too much about its bloody aftermath. There are less clear reasons to favor the defeat of the AKP government in Turkey, especially given its role in NATO and the world economy, as well as the absence of a responsible and credible opposition, and yet there are regional and global actors that would greet the fall of the AKP with a smile of satisfaction.

 

            I am arguing that theses instances of polarization amount to a deadly virus that attacks the body politic in countries with weak constitutional traditions, especially if such societies are beset by economic disappointment and significant regional and global hostility due to ideological and political tensions. So far, Turkey has an immune system strong enough to neutralize the virus, while Egypt having virtually no protection against such a virus has succumbed. If there is hope for a brighter Egyptian future, then it will become evident in the months ahead as the Egyptian body politic seeks belatedly to destroy the virus that is threatening the quality of life in the society. For Turkey the future remains clouded in comparable uncertainty, and it may be, that the polarized alienation combined with the mistakes associated with too long a tenure in office will yet lead to the democratic downfall of Erdogan and the AKP.

 

Further Reflections on Istanbul as Global Capital

7 Nov

 

My proposal that we consider the possibility of treating Istanbul as the world capital attracted a broad range of responses. I tried to make clear in my revised text that Istanbul could not hope to have this kind of recognition until Turkey had addressed some serious issues, especially the Kurdish grievances that have induced a massive hunger strike in Turkish jails (with over 600 prisoners now taking part, and more threatening to do so), as well as serious concerns about the human rights implications of the imprisonment of many students and journalists. Several other kinds of objections were also raised. For instance, Istanbul is inappropriate as a choice because it is situated at the interface of colliding tectonic plates that makes it vulnerable to devastating earthquakes. Others respondents contended that if recreational appeal is part of Istanbul’s charm, then why not Las Vegas. It supposedly has a better claim than Istanbul as ‘it has something for everybody.’ My initial very tentative proposal of Istanbul was based on its extraordinary combination of qualifying features, especially its strategic inter-civilization geography, its capacity to be of the West and at the same apart from the West, and its cultural/religious/historical resources that seem unmatched in cumulative effect elsewhere, and give the city a cosmopolitan identity that recalls its days of multi-ethnic Ottoman imperial glory. Additionally, more than elsewhere, the Turkish political leadership has been alive to providing Istanbul with a world class infrastructure as it wishes to take advantage of its unique character.

 

Other objections to the proposal were more substantial, yet unconvincing to me. For instance, some pointed out that Turkey as a country of 80 million Muslims and Istanbul as a city estimated to have 15 million Muslims is not capable of representing the world, and that somehow a great European city would serve the peoples of world less controversially. There is of course an inherent problem arising because any urban space will partake of a particular religious, national, and ethnic identity, but if such a qualification were to be uniformly applied it would mean that there was no city on the planet that could ever serve as the world capital. The idea of having a capital city is a strictly soft power proposal, creating a symbolic meeting place for diverse cultures, religions, and political systems, and is offered as a building block for a global imaginary that befits the imperatives of moral and spiritual globalization. It is my opinion that the Turkish government over the course of the last decade has done better than any other country in relation to cities within its borders in creating at atmosphere of cosmopolitan hospitality and stature for the city of Istanbul.

 

A quite different objection is associated with Turkish membership in NATO and what that entails in relation to non-defensive military operations such as in Afghanistan ever since 2001, the regime-changing 2011 intervention in Libya, and the interference with the Syrian internal struggle over the course of the last two years. Such Turkish undertakings do seem to cast a shadow over any present undertaking to propose Istanbul as a global capital, and should probably be treated as a serious obstacle. If Turkey seeks to make Istanbul play its potential global role then it would need to rethink its geopolitical ties. Perhaps, there exists a decisive contradiction between such a Western oriented geopolitics and the kind of world identity that a global capital should aspire to achieve. Turkey has been up to now pursuing an equi-distance diplomacy, balancing its Western ties against its post-Cold War independence, as well as promoting a new geopolitics of soft power without relinquishing the residual role of the old geopolitics of hard power. The Arab upheavals since 2011 have seemed to make the transition to a soft power matrix more elusive for Turkey, and thus weaken arguments for Istanbul’s ascension to a status that overlooks its reality of being embedded in Turkish national sovereignty.

 

In summary, Istanbul is marvelously qualified from many perspectives to serve as the capital of the world, but cities cannot avoid being identified with the country in which they are physically located. The Turkish government in the last decade has done many things to enhance the role of Istanbul, but its own persisting problems are part of Istanbul’s reality, and to the extent these difficulties are not overcome it is hard to imagine any proposal of Istanbul as global capital getting very far in world public opinion. In effect, there is a Gordian Knot at the core of world order that ties the fate of the city to that of the nation, and most of the citizenry of particular countries would not have it any other way. To this extent, the modest

proposal of Istanbul as global capital, while tantalizing, does not seem capable of realization without the deterritorialization of the relationship between global cities and sovereign states, and if this ever happens, it will not be anytime soon.

 

This commentary on Istanbul arises from my own romance with the city during the past twenty years, entranced by its beauty, vitality, exotic features, the warmth and tenderness of its people, and the transcendent vision of the Turkishpolitical destiny set forth by its principal leaders. This kind of love affair has persisted despite the horrors of Istanbul’s traffic and the unpleasantness of its unhealthy air.

 

 

Beyond Language: Reflections on the Arakan Tragedy

15 Oct

 

 

            Yesterday I listened to the wife of the Prime Minister, Emine Erdogan, speak about her recent harrowing visit to the Rohingya people in the the federal state of Arakan ( mainly known in the West as Rakhine) who are located in northwestern Myanmar (aka Burma). The Rohingya are a Muslim minority numbering over one million, long victimized locally and nationally in Burma and on several occasions over the years their people have been brutally massacred and their villages burned. She spoke in a deeply moving way about this witnessing of acute human suffering shortly after the most recent bloody episode of communal violence in June of this year. She lamented that such an orgy of violence directed at an ethnic and religious minority by the Buddhist majority is almost totally ignored by most of the world, and is quietly consigned by media outlets to their outermost zones of indifference and irrelevance. She especially appealed to the women present to respond with activist compassion, stressing that women are always the most victimized category in these extreme situations of minority persecution and ethnic cleansing.

 

            The situation of the Rohingya is an archetypal example of acute vulnerability in a state-centric world. In 1982 the territorial government of Burma stripped away the citizen rights of the impoverished Rohingya Muslims who have lived in Arakan for many generations, but are cynically claimed by Rangoon to be unlawful new migrants from bordering Bangladesh who do not belong in Burma and have no right to remain or to burden the state or cause tension by their presence. Bangladesh in turn, itself among the world’s poorest countries, already has 500,000 Rohingya who fled across the Burmese border after earlier attacks on their communities, and has closed its borders to any further crossings by those escaping persecution, displacement, destruction of their homes and villages, and threats to their lives. To deepen this aspect of the tragedy, only 10% of these migrants who fled from Burma have been accepted as ‘refugees’ by the UN High Commission of Refugees, and the great majority of the Rohingya living in Bangladesh for years survive miserably as stateless persons without rights and living generally at or even below subsistence levels.  The Rohingya who continue to exist precariously within Arakan are stateless and unwanted, many are reported to wish openly for their own death. As a group they endure hardships and deprivations in many forms, including denial of health services, educational opportunity, and normal civil rights, while those who have left for the sake of survival, are considered to be comparatively fortunate if they manage to be accepted as ‘refugees’ even if their status as undocumented refugees means the absence of minimal protection, the denial of any realistic opportunity for a life of dignity, and the terrifying uncertainties of being at the continuing mercy of a hostile community and an inhospitable state.

 

            The principal purpose of this educational conference sponsored by Mazlumder, a Turkish NGO with strong Muslim affinities, was to gather experts to report on the situation and urge the audience to take action and thereby mobilize public opinion in support of the Rohingya people. It served to reinforce the high profile diplomatic and aid initiatives undertaken in recent months by the Turkish government to relieve the Rohingya plight. It also called attention to the strange and unacceptable silence of Aung Anh San Suu Kyi, the widely admired democratic political leader in Myanmar, herself long placed under punitive house arrest by the ruling military junta and recipient of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize honoring her heroic resistance to dictatorship in her country. Her voice on behalf of justice for Burmese ethnic and religious minorities, and especially for the Rohingya, would carry great weight among Buddhists in the country and with world public opinion, and might shame the government into taking appropriate action. As it is, the present Burmese leadership and the prevailing tendency in domestic public opinion is to view the conflict as intractable, with preferred solutions being one or another version of ethnic cleansing, a crime against humanity– either forced deportation or the distribution of the Rohingya throughout the country so as to destroy their identity as a coherent people with deep historical roots in  northern Arakan. Outside pressures from Saudi Arabia and the United States might help to rally wider international concern, especially if tied to Burma’s economic goals. Aside from Turkey, governments have been reluctant to put pressure on Rangoon in this period because the Rangoon leadership has softened their dictatorial style of governance and seem to be moving toward the establishment of constitutional democracy in the country.

 

            What struck me while listening to the presentations at the conference was how powerful language can become when its role is to think with the heart. I have always found that women are far less afraid to do this in public spaces than men. We fully secular children of the European Enlightenment are brainwashed from infancy, taught in myriad ways that instrumental reason and logical analysis are the only acceptable ways to think and express serious interpretations of societal reality. Mrs. Erdogan, not only thinks with her heart, but she infuses such thought with an obvious religious consciousness that conveys a spiritual commitment to empathy that neither needs nor relies upon some sort of rational justification.

 

            Such a powerful rendering of suffering reminded me of James Douglass’ use of the realm of the ‘unspeakable’ (in turn inspired by the Catholic mystic author and poet, Thomas Merton) to address those crimes that shock our conscience but can only be diminished in their magnitude by speech. Their essential horror cannot be comprehended by expository language even if it is emotively heightened by an inspirational appeal. Only that blend of thinking with the heart combined the existential validation of direct witnessing can begin to communicate what we know, in the organic sense of knowing, to be the reality. I have discovered in my attempt to address the Palestinian ordeal as honestly as possible that direct contact with the actualities of occupation and the experience of listening closely to those who have been most directly victimized is my only way to approximate the existential reality. For this reason, my exclusion by Israel from visiting Occupied Palestine in my UN role does not affect the rational legal analysis of the violation of Palestinian rights under international law, but it does diminish my capacity as a witness to touch the live tissue of these violations, and erodes my capacity to convey to others a fuller sense of what this means for the lives and wellbeing of those so victimized. Of course, UN reports are edited to drain their emotive content in any event.

 

            I recall also my experience with the world media after a 1968 visit to Hanoi in the midst of the Vietnam War. I had been invited by a European lawyers’ organization to view the bomb damage in North Vietnam at a time when American officials, especially the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, were claiming ‘the most surgical strikes in the history of air warfare.’  I accepted this ‘controversial’ invitation to visit ‘the enemy’ during an ongoing war, although the fighting was somewhat paused at the time, as ‘a realist’ opponent of the war, basically accepting the position of Bernard Fall, George Kennan, and Hans Morgenthau that it was a losing proposition to suppose that the U.S. could achieve what the French colonial occupying power was unable to do and that it was a costly diversion of resources and attention from more important security concerns. My experience in Hanoi transformed my understanding and outlook on the war. It was a result of meeting many of the leaders, including the Prime Minister on several occasions, visiting bombed villages, talking with peasants and ordinary Vietnamese, and most of all, realizing the total vulnerability of the country to the military superiority of the United States with no prospect of retaliation—the concrete and cumulative terror of being on the receiving end of one-sided war that continues for years.  I came away from North Vietnam convinced that ‘the enemy,’ and especially its people, was on the right side of history, and the United States, and the badly corrupted Saigon regime that it propped up, was on the wrong side; above all, I felt the pain of the Vietnamese and was moved by their courage, humanity, and under the dire circumstances, their uncanny faith in humanity and their own collective destiny as a free nation. It produced a sea change in my mindset concerning the Vietnam War, and ever since.

 

            When I left Vietnam, and returned to Paris, I received lots of attention from mainstream media, but total disinterest from these prominent journalists in what was for me the most important outcome of the trip—the realization of what it meant humanly for a peasant society to be on the receiving end of a high tech war machine of a distant superpower whose homeland was completely outside what is now being called ‘the hot battlefield.’ The journalists had no interest in my (re)interpretation of the war, but they were keenly  eager to report on proposals for ending the conflict that had been entrusted to me by Vietnamese leaders to convey to the United States Government upon my return. It turned out that the contour of these proposals was more favorable from Washington’s point of view than what was negotiated four years and many deaths later by Henry Kissinger, who ironically received a Nobel Peace Prize for his questionable efforts. My main reflection relates back to the Arakan meeting. The media is completely deaf to the concerns of the heart, and is only capable of thinking, if at all, with the head. It limits thought to what can be set forth analytically, as if emotion, law, and morality are irrelevant to forming an understanding of public events. What at he time interested the NY Times and CBS correspondents, who were sympathetic and intelligent individuals, was the shaping of a diplomatic bargain that might end the war, whether it was a serious proposal, and whether Washington might be interested. It turned out that Washington was not ready for even such  a favorable compromise, and plodded on for several years, culminating in the unseemly withdrawal in 1975 in the setting of a thinly disguised surrende.  

 

            Poets in the West, caught between a cultural insistence on heeding the voice of reason and their inability to transfer feelings and perceptions into words, vent their frustration with language as the only available vehicle for truth-telling. As T.S. Eliot memorably expressed it in the final section of his great poem East Coker:

 

Trying to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

 

Imagine if the master poet of the English language in the prior century gives voice to such feelings of defeat (paradoxically in one of the great modern poems), how must the rest of us feel! We who are mere journeymen of the written word fault ourselves for inadequacies of depictions and usually lack the temerity to blame the imperfect medium of language for the shortcomings of efforts to communicate that which eludes precise expression.

 

            Earlier in the same poem Eliot writes some lines that makes me wonder if I have not crossed a line in the sands of time, and should long ago have taken refuge in silent vigil:

 

…..Do not let me hear

Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly    

Paradoxes of Turkish Pride

10 Sep

 

I have been struck by the strange firmament of Turkish pride. In one respect, the nationalist and patriotic fervor of Turkish holidays confirms the enduring success of Kemal Ataturk’s great nation-building project after World War I. Huge Turkish flags are more prominently displayed than in any country I know, and Turkey has earned  dubious notoriety for its criminal code provision that punishes insults to Turkishness, potentially including even imprisonment. Such a law has been used in a manner that encroaches upon freedom of expression, targeting even such cultural icons as Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafik, and undoubtedly intimidating thousands of others who hesitate to make any assertion that might be interpreted as offensive by the Turkish custodians of national pride. Even many of those who reject the idea of criminalizing anti-Turkish comments were still angered by Pamuk’s interview in which he acknowledged the 1915 genocide against the Armenian community, first because it was contained in an interview conducted in Switzerland and, secondly, because he added the annoying aside “and only I will say this.” Instead of examining the substance of his indictment, the focus was on Pamuk’s supposed anti-Turkishness. Shafik faced a similar storm of criticism when she published the Bastard of Istanbul, which also in a fictionalized context essentially accepts the Armenian narrative of the tragic events that occurred almost a hundred years ago. Neither Pamuk nor Shaifk were convicted, but prosecution was bad enough. My point here is to take note of the extreme sensitivity that Turkey continues to feel whenever critical commentary is regarded as a taint on national pride and collective memory.

 

At the same time, as with most countries, but perhaps with an added intensity, Turkey celebrates its athletic exploits. Recently it welcomed home its medal winning woman runners with great fanfare after the London Olympics as if they had made epic contributions to the wellbeing of the country, and it seems they had. And on that day sometime in the near future when Turkish football ascends the heights of a World Cup final, national fervor will certainly become hysterical. This is to be welcomed as an expression of national joy over the most loved sporting event in the world.

 

And yet, on different planes of discourse there is a strange national reluctance among Turks to enjoy certain achievements of their citizens, even a widespread tendency to belittle them. Over the years in the course of countless conversations about the Turkish Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk I have encountered such a tendency among Turkish intellectuals intent on downgrading his stature as a world class literary master: “he knows how to appeal to foreigners,” “he is very good at promoting his work overseas,” “he benefits from his translators,” “he is derivative,” “there are many better Turkish writers,” “his fame rests on a heavily funded PR campaign,” “his use of the Turkish language is undistinguished.” Less intellectually minded Turkish detractors, and there are many, complain that Pamuk is personally unreliable and selfish, that he is a womanizer, that his books are unreadable, or at best, that his imagination only works when he is fictionalizing historical themes or contents himself with being “the biographer of the city of Isranbul.” What he should not do, according to his Turkish critics, is attempt to interpret the contemporary Turkish reality as he did so persuasively in Snow.

 

I would not suggest that all of these criticisms are unfounded, but what I would say is that their tenor exhibits an unaccustomed Turkish lack of generosity and balance. As an admirer of Pamuk, along with many friends with stronger literary credentials than mine outside of Turkey, I can report that Pamuk’s best books, and there are several candidates, have a vivid resonance for readers that rests on deserved literary acclaim, and cannot be explained away as a triumph of self-promotion. Pamuk has a great gift for breathing life and its mysteries into a variety of persons, places, situations, and uses the metaphor of ‘the detective’ or ‘the traveler’ with great skill in constructing his captivating plots. Why don’t Turks take great pride in Pamuk’s recognition by the Nobel Prize Committee? Would many Turks diminish a sporting team victory by examining the allegedly compromised private lives of its star athletes?

 

This brings me to a more controversial set of considerations bearing on Turkish foreign policy, which I view as an extraordinary series of successes, coupled with some disappointments, and several understandable missteps. Such an assessment is far from the perceptions common among Turkish critics of the AKP leadership, and deprives Turkish society as a whole of the satisfaction of being justly proud of what their government has achieved at a time that has been exceedingly difficult for almost every other country in the world. Turkey emerged from the shadowland of its role as junior alliance member of NATO during the Cold War era and non-presence in the Arab world to become the most admired country in the region, especially during 2011 in the aftermath of the early successes of the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. On the basis of my visits to the region over the course of the past two years, this admiration rested on three principal sources: deep respect for the diplomatic skill, dedication to conflict resolution, and the great energy and intelligence of the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu; the adoption of an equi-distance diplomacy that allowed Turkey to be critical of Israel and supportive of the Palestinian struggle without alienating the United States and Europe; and most important of all, establishing a flourishing economy that was supported by the more deprived segments of Turkish society, while creating a political leadership that was sensitive to Islamic values without abandoning the core principles of secular government, that is, the emergence of a so-called ‘Turkish Model’ that is contrasted throughout the region with the negativity associated with the ‘Iran Model.’

 

I would have thought and hoped that however critical a Turkish citizen would be of some domestic policies of the AKP there would be uniform applause for this formidable array of foreign policy achievements. Much critical attention in the Turkish media has been directed at ‘zero problems with neighbors,” especially in light of the debacle in Syria and the upsurge of violence in relation to the Kurdish minority, and it is true that the doctrine from the outset undoubtedly expressed more a hope than a guideline. At the time it was enunciated, there was no Arab Spring, no Mavi Marmara, no uprising against Qaddafi or Assad, but these unanticipated circumstances required, and produced, a major restatement. Davutoglu made clear that the real commitment of zero problems was in relation to the people and not necessarily to the government, and more specifically, the regimes in Tripoli and Damascus lost their legitimacy when they committed Crimes Against Humanity in relation to their own citizens.

 

Similarly, Turkey sought to mediate the conflict between Israel and Syria centered on the Golan Heights, lending great energy to the endeavor, but once Israel attacked Gaza at the end of 2008, it was clearly not possible to proceed further toward a resolution of the conflict. Turkey tried a number of other bold initiatives that ended in disappointment, but seemed as though they should have succeeded ithe values of peace and justice were genuinely shared and not just proclaimed. One was the effort to bring Hamas in from the cold, be accepted as a normal political actor, and shift the Isreal/Palestine conflict from sites of violent struggle to diplomatic arenas. After all, in 2006 Hamas had been encouraged by the West to compete in Gaza elections, but they were not supposed to win, and as a result an unlawful blockade has been imposed since 2007 on the people of Gaza and the Israeli insistence upon treating Hamas as ‘a terrorist organization’ has blocked a political solution. Similarly, in 2010 a brave attempt by Ankara, in collaboration with Brazil, was made to dampen the pre-war flames that surrounded Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, but the United States and Israel were intent on confronting Iran by way of coercive diplomacy in the form of escalating sanctions and unlawful threats of a military attack. The disappointment here reflected the impact of mainstream geopolitics on relations with Iran, but it only highlighted the constructive nature of the Turkish effort to produce a shift in tactics and vision in the direction of soft power diplomacy.

 

The discourse in Turkey takes no account of the radically changed regional circumstances or the boldness of peacemaking experiments that deserved to succeed. Instead, the failures are dwelled upon to establish that Davutoglu is out of touch, that he does not comprehend the true nature of world politics or the conditions prevailing in the Middle East. Mainly, such conversations shift to a barrage of criticisms directed at the AKP and Erdogan: “they have lost touch,” “they have become too powerful,” “the government imprisons its opposition and silences its critics,” “Erdogan is planning to run an authoritarian state,” “the government is bending to the will of Washington,” “despite its promises it has failed to solve the Kurdish problem.” To varying degrees these criticisms are justified, although exaggerated, given the overall reality of state/society relations in Turkey.

 

My surprise is the unwillingness of many Turkish friends to separate these appropriate concerns from an appreciation of the extraordinary rise in Turkish stature as a political actor, not only regionally, but globally. Turkey is now an important middle power at the United Nations. It provides a diplomatic venue for many international events that used to be held in Europe. Its courageous Somalia initiative has given Turkey a post-colonial identity in Africa that no other non-African government has been able to achieve.  It is my belief that Turkey more than any other country in the 21st century has increased its relevance to the conduct of regional and global politics, and this is something that all Turks can be proud of in a world of 195 or so sovereign states!

 

Waving the national flag is fine, yet finer still, is taking justifiable pride in what has been accomplished by those who act on behalf of one’s country.

Ten Years of AKP Leadership in Turkey

25 Aug

Nothing better epitomizes the great political changes in Turkey over the course of the last decade than a seemingly minor media item reporting that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine Erdogan attended a private iftar dinner (the ritual meal breaking the Ramadan fast each evening) by the invitation of the current Turkish Chief of Staff, General Necdet Özel, at his official residence. It was only a few years earlier that the military leadership came hair trigger close to pulling off a coup to get rid of the AKP leadership. Of course, such a military intrusion on Turkish political life would have been nothing new. Turkey experienced a series of coups during its republican life that started in 1923.

The most recent example of interference by the military with the elected leadership in Turkey took place in 1997 when Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan sheepishly left office under pressure amounting to an ultamatum, outlawed his political party, and accepted a withdrawal from political activity for a period of five years in what amounted to a bloodless coup prompted by his alleged Islamic agenda. Unlike the prior coups of 1960, 1971, and 1980 when the military seized power for a period of time, the 1997 bloodless coup was followed by allowing politicians to form a new civilian government. Really, looking back on the period shortly after the AKP came to power in 2002 the big surprise is that a coup did not occur. We still await informed commentary that explains why. For the present, those that value the civilianization of governance can take comfort in the receding prospect of a future military takeover of Turkish political life, and this iftar social occasion is a strong symbolic expression of a far healthier civil-military relationship than existed in the past.

Improving Turkish Civil Military Relations

Somewhat less dramatic, but not less relevant as a sign of this dramatic turn, is the remembrance that shortly after the AKP initially gained control of the government in 2002, it was much publicized that the wives of the elected leaders were not welcome because they wore headscarves at the major social gathering of top military officers at its annual Victory Day Military Ball held at the end of summer in Ankara with much fanfare. A similar issue arose a few years later when ardent Kemalists insisted that Abdullah Gul should not be allowed to serve as Turkey’s president because his wife’s headscarf supposedly signaled to the world that he did not represent the Turkish secular community in the European manner associated with the founder of the republic, Kemal Atatürk.

Recent court testimony by the former Turkish Chief of Staff, Hilmi Özkök,  confirms what many had long suspected, that there existed plans in 2003-2004 supported by many high ranking military officers to overrule the will of the Turkish electorate by removing the AKP from its position of governmental leadership and impose martial law. Such grim recollections of just a few years ago should help us appreciate the significance of this recent iftar dinner between the Erdogans and Özels as a strong expression of accommodation between military institutions and the political leaders in Turkey. Such an event helps us understand just how much things have changed, and for the better, with respect to civil-military relations.

We can interpret this event in at least two ways. First, indicating a more relaxed attitude on the part of the military toward Turkish women who wear a headscarf in conformity to Islamic tradition.  Although this sign of nomalization is a definite move in the right direction, Turkey has a long way to go before it eliminates the many forms of discrimination against headscarf women that continue to restrict their life and work options in unacceptable ways from the perspective of religious freedom and human rights. Secondly, and crucially, these developments show that the armed forces seems finally to have reconciled itself to the popularity and competence of AKP leadership. This is significant as it conveys the willingness to accept a reduced role for the military in a revamped Turkish constitutional system, as well as exhibiting a trust in the sincerity of AKP pledges of adherence to secular principles that include respect for the autonomy of the military. This latter achievement is quite remarkable, a tribute to the skill with which the Erdogan in particular has handled the civilianization of the Turkish governing process, and for which he is given surprisingly little credit by the international media, and almost none by the Turkish media. Such an outcome was almost inconceivable ten years ago, but today it is taken so for granted as to be hardly worthy of notice.

In 2000 Eric Rouleau, Le Monde’s influential lead writer on the Middle East and France’s former distinguished ambassador to Turkey (1988-1992), writing in Foreign Affairs, emphasized the extent to which “this system [of republican Turkey], which places the military at the very heart of political life” poses by far the biggest obstacle to Turkish entry into the European Union. Indeed, Rouleau and other Turkish experts believed that the Turkish deep state consisting of its security apparatus, including the intelligence organizations, was far too imbued with Kemalist ideology to sit idly by while the secular elites that ran the country since the founding of the republic were displaced by the conservative societal forces that provided the core support to the AKP. And not only were the Kemalist elites displaced, but their capacity to pull the strings of power from behind closed doors was ended by a series of bureaucratic reforms that have made the National Security Council in Ankara a part of the civilian structure of government, and not a hidden

and unaccountable and ultimate source of policymaking.

Continuing Political Polarization Within Turkey

At the same time, despite these accomplishments of the AKP, the displaced ‘secularists’ are no happier with Erdogan leadership than they were a decade ago. (It needs to be understood, although the available language makes it difficult to express an important attribute of Turkish politics: the AKP orientation and policy guidance has itself also been avowedly and consistently secularist in character, although the leaders are privately devout Muslims who steadfastly maintain their religious practices of prayer and fasting, as well as foregoing alcohol, but their political stance on these issues is not very different than that of their opponents. Indeed, quite unexpectedly, Erdogan in visiting Cairo after the 2011 Tahrir uprising urged the Egyptians to opt for secularism rather than Islamism.) Those that identify with the opposition to the AKP, and that includes most of the TV and print media, can never find a positive word to say about the domestic and foreign policy of the AKP, although the line of attack has drastically shifted its ground. A decade ago the fiercest attack focused on fears and allegations that the AKP was a stalking horse for anti-secularism. The AKP was accused of having ‘a secret agenda’ centered on an Islamic takeover of the governing process, with grim imaginings of ‘a second Iran’ administered strictly in accordance with sharia. The current unwavering critical line of attack, in contrast, is obsessed with the unsubstantiated belief that Erdogan dreams of being the new sultan of Turkey, dragging the country back toward the dark ages of authoritarian rule. It is odd that the same opposition that would have welcomed a coup against the elected leadership a decade ago now seems so preoccupied with a fear that the far milder AKP is incubating an anti-democratic project designed to weaken Turkish constitutional democracy and end the civil rights of the citizenry.

There are certainly some valid complaints associated with Erdogan’s tendencies to express his strong, and sometimes insensitive, personal opinions on socially controversial topics ranging from abortion to the advocacy of three children families. He needlessly made an offhand remark recently that seemed an insult directed at Alevi religious practices. As well, there are journalists, students, political activists, non-AKP mayors in fairly large numbers being held in Turkish prisons without being charged with crimes and for activities that should be treated as normal in a healthy democracy. It is difficult to evaluate this disturbing trend, partly because there are strong rumors that the AKP is not in firm control of parts of the bureaucracy including the police, and thus these repressive developments are not entirely of its making, although this line of explanation is possibly expressive of the political situation it does not relieve the AKP from ultimate responsibility.

And there are also many allegations that Erdogan is laying the groundwork to become president in a revised constitutional framework that would give the position much greater powers than it now possesses to the distress of opposition forces, which merges with the allegation that he is a closet authoritarian leader. In my judgment, on the basis of available evidence, Erdogan is opinionated and uninhibited in expressing controversial views on the spur of the moment, but not seeking to enthrone himself as head of a newly authoritarian Turkey.

This persisting polarization in Turkey extends to other domains of policy, perhaps most justifiably in relation to the unresolved Kurdish issues, which have violently resurfaced after some relatively quiet years. It is reasonable to fault the AKP for promising to resolve the conflict when it was reelected, and then failing to offer the full range of inducements likely to make such a positive outcome happen. It is difficult to interpret accurately the renewal of PKK violence, and the degree to which it is viewed by many segments of Turkish elite opinion as removing all hope of a negotiated solution to this conflict that has long been such a drain on Turkey’s energies, resources, and reputation. The ferocity of this latest stage of this 30 year struggle is not easily explained. To some degree it is a spillover of growing regional tensions with the countries surrounding Turkey, and particularly with the Kurdish movements in these countries, especially Iraq and Syria. There is also the strong possibility that elements of the Kurdish resistance see the fluidity of the regional situation as a second window of opportunity to achieve national self-determination. The first window having been slammed shut in the early republican years by the strong nation-building ideology associated with Kemalist governance of the country.

Also serious is some deserved criticism of Turkey’s Syrian policy that charges the government with an imprudent and amateurish shift from one extreme to the other. First, an ill-advised embrace of Assad’s dictatorial regime a few years ago followed by a supposedly premature and questionable alignment with anti-regime Syrian rebel forces without knowing their true character. Ahmet Davutoglu’s positive initiatives in Damascus were early on hailed as the centerpiece of ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ an approach that his harshest critics now find totally discredited given the deterioration of relations, not only with Syria, but with Iran and Iraq. Again such criticism seems greatly overstated by an opposition that seizes on any failure of governing policy without considering either its positive sides or offering more sensible alternatives. Whatever the leadership in Ankara during the last two years, the changing and unanticipated regional circumstances would require the foreign policy establishment to push hard on a reset button. Mr. Davutoglu has done his best all along to offer a rationale for the changed tone and substance of Turkish foreign policy, especially in relation to Syria, which I find generally convincing, although the coordination of policy toward Syria with Washington seems questionable.

In the larger picture, there were few advance warnings that the Arab Spring would erupt, and produce the uprisings throughout the region that have taken place in the last 20 months. Prior to this tumult the Arab world seemed ultra-stable, with authoritarian regimes having been in place for several decades, and little indication that domestic challenges would emerge in the near future. In these conditions, it seemed sensible to have positive relations with neighbors and throughout the Arab world based on a mixture of practical and principled considerations. There were attractive economic opportunities to expand Turkish trade, investment, and cultural influence; as well, it was reasonable to suppose that Turkish efforts at conflict mediation could open political space for modest moves toward democracy and the protection of human rights might be an appropriate context within which to practice ‘constructive engagement.’

Foreign Policy Achievements

It should also be pointed out that from the outset of his public service the Turkish Foreign Minister has been tireless in his efforts to resolve conflicts within an expanding zone of activity and influence. There were constructive and well organized attempts to mediate the long festering conflict between Israel and Syria with respect to the Golan Heights, encouragement of a reconciliation process in former Yugoslavia that did achieve a diplomatic breakthrough in relations between Serbia and Bosnia; he made a notable effort to bringing conflicting powers in the Caucasus together; bravest of all, was the sensible effort to bring Hamas into the political arena so as to give some chance to a negotiated end to the Israel/Palestine conflict; and boldest of all, in concert with Brazil, was a temporarily successful effort in 2010 to persuade Iran to enter an agreement to store outside its borders enriched uranium that could be used to fabricate nuclear weapons. These were all laudable objectives, and creative uses of the diplomacy of soft power, and to the extent successful, extremely helpful in reducing regional tensions, and raising hopes for peace. Even when unsuccessful, such attempts bold and responsible efforts to find ways to improve the political atmosphere, and to find better diplomatic options than permanent antagonism, or worse, threats or uses force to resolve conflicts and enhance security.

These various initiatives helped Turkey become a major player in the region and beyond, a government that almost alone in the world was constructing a foreign policy that was neither a continuation of Cold War deference to Washington nor the adoption of an alienated anti-Western posture. Turkey continued its role in NATO, persisted with its attempts to satisfy the many demands of the EU accession process, and even participated militarily, in my view unwisely, in the failed NATO War in Afghanistan.  Fairly considered, the Davutoglu approach yielded extraordinary results, and even where it faltered, was consistent in exploring every plausible path to a more peaceful and just Middle East, Balkans, and Central Asia, as well as reaching into Africa, Latin America, and Asia, making Turkey for the first time in its history a truly global political presence. His statesmanship was widely heralded throughout the world, and quickly made him one of the most admired foreign policy architects in the world. In 2010 he was ranked 7th in the listing of the 100 most influential persons in the world in all fields (including business, culture, politics) that is compiled periodically by Foreign Policy, an leading journal of opinion in the United States. Turkey had raised its diplomatic stature throughout the world without resorting to the usual realist tactics of beefing up its military capabilities or throwing its weight around. It s increasing global reach has included opening many embassies in countries where it had been previously unrepresented. This raised stature was acknowledged in many quarters, especially throughout the Middle East where Erdogan was hailed as the world’s most popular leader, but also at the UN where Turkey played an expanding role, and was overwhelmingly elected to term membership on the Security Council.

It should also be appreciated that Turkey has displayed a principled commitment to international law and morality on key regional issues, especially in relation to the Israel/Palestine conflict. The Syrian mediation efforts were abandoned only after Israel’s all out attack on Gaza at the end of 2008, which also led to Erdogan’s famous rebuke of the Israeli President at the Davos World Economic Forum. This refusal to ignore Israel’s defiance of international law undoubtedly contributed to the later confrontation following Israel’s commando attack on the Mavi Marmara flotilla of peace ships in international waters on May 31, 2010 that were carrying humanitarian assistance to the unlawfully blockaded civilian population of Gaza. Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish nationals in the incident, which caused a partial rupture of relations between the two countries that has not yet been overcome, although Turkey has adopted a most moderate position given the unprovoked and unlawful assault on its ship and passengers, seeking only an apology and compensation for the families.

There were other special Turkish international initiatives, none more spectacular than the major effort to engage with Somalia at a time when the rest of the world turned its back on an African country being written off as the worst example of ‘a failed state.’ Not only did Turkey offer material assistance in relation to reconstructing the infrastructure of governance. It also more impressively ventured where angels feared to tread: organizing a high profile courageous visit by the Turkish prime minister with his wife and other notables to Mogadishu at a time when the security situation in the Somalia capital was known to be extremely dangerous for any visitors. Such a show of solidarity to a struggling African nation was unprecedented in Turkish diplomacy, and has been followed up by Ankara with a continuing and successful engagement with a range of projects to improve the economic and humanitarian situation in this troubled country. In a similar spirit of outreach, Turkey hosted a UN summit on behalf of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in May 2011, and formally accepted leadership responsibility within the UN to organize assistance to this group of states, considered the most impoverished in the world.

More recently, Mr. Davutoglu together with Ms. Erdogan visited the Muslim Rohingya minority in the western Myanmar state of Rakhine that had been brutally attacked in June by the local Buddhist majority community claiming that the resident Muslims were unwanted illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and should leave the country. Bangladesh officially denied such allegations, insisting that the Rohingya people had been living in Myanmar for centuries. This high level Turkish mission delivered medical aid, displayed empathy that could only be interpreted as a genuine humanitarian gesture far removed from any calculations of national advantage, and above all, conveyed a sense of how important it was for Turkey to do what it can to protect this vulnerable minority in a distant country. Mr. Davutoglu made clear universalist motivations underlay his official visit by also meeting with local Buddhists in a nearby town to express his hope that the two communities could in the future live in peace and mutual respect. This trip to Myanmar is one more example of how Turkey combines a traditional pursuit of national advantage in world affairs with an exemplary citizenship in the wider world community. It is this kind of blend of enlightened nationalism and ethical globalism that gives some hope that challenges to the world community can be addressed in a peaceful and equitable manner.

Surely, Turkey as is the case with any democracy, would benefit from a responsible opposition that calls attention to failings and offers its own alternative policy initiatives, while being ready to give those in authority credit for constructive undertakings and achievements of the government. Unfortunately, the polarized and demoralized opposition in Turkey is strident in its criticism, bereft of the political imagination required to put forward its own policies, and lacking in the sort of balance that is required if its criticisms are to be respected as constructive contributions to the democratic process. It is especially suspect for the most secularized segments of Turkish society to complain about an authoritarian drift in AKP leadership when it was these very social forces that a few years earlier was virtually pleading with the army to step in, and hand power back to them in the most anti-democratic manner imaginable.  Instead of taking justifiable pride in the great Turkish accomplishments of the last decade, the unrestrained hostility of anti-AKP political forces is generating a sterile debate that makes it almost impossible to solve the problems facing the country or to take full advantage of the opportunities that are available to such a vibrant country. It needs to be appreciated that Turkey viewed from outside by most informed observers, especially in the region, remains a shining success story, both economically and politically. Nothing could bring more hope and pride to the region than for the Turkish ascent to be achieved elsewhere, of course, allowing for national variations of culture, history, and resource endowments, but sharing the commitment to build an inclusive democracy in which the military stays in the barracks and the diplomats take pride in resolving and preventing conflicts.

Toward a New Geopolitics?

15 Aug

 

             During the Cold War the main geopolitical optic relied upon by policymakers and diplomats was associated with a bipolar structure of hard power. There were supposedly two superpowers with overwhelming military capabilities compared to all other sovereign states, and each controlled an alliance of subordinate states that staked their survival on global crisis management and territorial containment skills of either the United States or the Soviet Union. This framework was an extreme version of the balance of power system that had sustained global order in the West with mixed results during prior centuries. The Cold War nuclear version of the balance of power was frighteningly vulnerable to accident or miscalculation creating a lingering illusion that the current possession of nuclear weaponry on the part of nine sovereign states is a tolerable and stable situation in global affairs.. This statist framework, evolving from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, was partly based on the juridical idea of the equality of sovereign states while being fully responsive to the geopolitical facts of life that placed stress on the gross inequality of states. This dimension of inequality produced an historical succession of hierarchies in the relations among sovereign states,  quite often taking the form of regional and globe-girdling empires.

 

            The UN from its outset was a constitutional reflection of the Old Geopolitics, with the General Assembly organized according to the logic of sovereign equality while the Security Council incorporated inequality via the veto power conferred upon its five permanent members, who incidentally achieved this status because they were regarded as the main winners in World War II. These state soon justified their status by passing the new litmus test of hard power—that is, becoming the first five countries to acquire and stockpile nuclear weapons. The Old Geopolitics was built around the institutions pratices of warfare: victory on the battlefield, superior weaponry and military capabilities relative to others, levels of industrialization as a prime indicator of war fighting potential.

 

            After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union a few years later, the bipolar construction of world order no longer provided a summary description of world order in hard power currency. Still, the idea and behavioral patterns of the Old Geopolitics persisted, but the new structure of power was redescribed by security specialists as ‘unipolar’ with the organizing authority in the world now concentrated in the government of ‘the sole surviving superpower,’ which Michael Mandelbaum, a respected international relations scholar, glorified as a virtual and benevolent ‘world government.’  It was a romanticized way of acknowledging that America’s hard power dominance of global scope and its projection of hard power to the far corners of the planet, on and under the oceans, and into space, was truly the first world state of global proportions, but it was not a Westphalian state as its boundaries were geopolitically delimited rather than fixed territorially.

 

            When Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait in 1990, a collective response successfully was organized by the United States at the UN, and its character reflected the operating procedures of this post-Cold War situation of unipolarity. At the time this undertaking was rendered feasible by what the American president at the time inappropriately called the ‘New World Order.’ What George H.W. Bush clearly meant by the phrase was the capacity of the UN to act collectively in peace and security situations in accordance with Washington’s wishes, and was no longer gridlocked by the Cold War standoff. But this was not a genuine shift in the direction of collective security, the global rule of law, and an empowered United Nations. It became very clear as the response to the Iraqi aggression unfolded that it was nothing more dramatic than an enactment of a new phase of the Old Geopolitics, that is, interpreting world order priorities and security policy almost exclusively as an expression of the current distribution of hard power capabilities among states. In the 1990s the Old Geopolitics was dominated by the United States, and operationally administered from Washington, continued despite the collapse of colonialism to be West-centric when it comes to the shaping of global security policy. In effect, the Old Geopolitics did not immediately register the momentous historical consequences for world order of the collapse of the colonial order that irreversibly weakened the relative position of the West.

 

 

 

 

THE EMERGENT NEW GEOPOLITICS

 

            A number of developments on the global stage are suggesting that a New Geopolitics is indeed struggling to be born, although unable at this stage to challenge seriously the reign of the Old Geopolitics. The New Geopolitics is premised on the primacy of soft power criteria of influence and status, and is more universalistic and less statist in the composition of actors providing global leadership and influencing policy. The prominence accorded to the BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India, and China is one expression of a shift in the understanding of a more multi-polar structure of world order. The claims of these states to such an acknowledgement of first tier influence is not based on their military capabilites or the potency of their alliance affiliations, but is primarily associated with their economic rise that consists of their astonishing recent record of growing achievements in GNP, trade, investment, and financial settings. Such a trend is also being institutionally recognized in relation to economic globalization and a network of the industrialized leading states, with notable shifts from a Cold War Group of Seven, to an enlarged Group of Eight to accommodate Russia, and finally to the present Group of Twenty to incorporate into the dynamics of global economic policy formation a more globally representative group of states.  

 

            Parallel to this evolution in relations among states has been efforts by private sector actors and civil society representatives to establish their own institutional arenas so as to put forward alternative policy agendas, promote interests and values, and indirectly erode the Westphalian notion that states, and only states, can be fully participating members of world order. The Davos World Economic Forum is one influential expression of a private sector initiative to shape global economic policy in a manner responsive to corporate and banking wish lists. In contrast the World Social Forum, held annually in a city somewhere in the global South, asserts people-oriented visions of a post-Westphalian world order and mounts sharp critiques of capital-oriented globalization.  

 

            A striking example of New Geopolitics was the ad hoc realignment that took center stage in the closing days of the 2009 Copenhagen UN Conference on Climate Change. It was there that the United States sought to circumvent unwieldy and uncongenial procedures involving 193 states by selecting the participants in a hegemonic coalition that consisted of itself, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa. It mission was to put before the conference a proposed consensual agreement to deal with the challenge of global warming. There was widespread resistance to this approach at Copenhagen, especially from the states that felt excluded by this maneuver and resented the clumsy effort to circumvent the agreed procedures that had been relied upon to prepare the negotiating documents for the Copenhagen conference. This statist backlash was centered in that part of the Old Geopolitics associated with the idea of the equality of states as the basis of legitimate multilateral lawmaking in the 21st century.

 

            In effect, this wider community of states, essentially the membership of the UN General Assembly, were unwilling to give their assent to such a geopolitical coalition formed without their authorization and behind their back, despite the fact that for once it was not West-centric. Partly of the objection was to a perception of shifty backroom politics that demeaned the hard work of a UN inclusive statist effort to find global common ground on climate change, and partly it was an unwillingness to go along with the proposed shift in climate change policy from the mandatory emission reductions associated with the Kyoto Protocol to the proposed voluntary system of governmental pledges that was contained in the Copenhagen Accord presented to the Copenhagen Conference by the American president. At the same time, the hierarchical side of the Old Geopolitics was strong enough to avoid a direct repudiation of the Copenhagen Accord, which was presented to the assembled delegates at the last minute as a matter of ‘this or nothing.’ Clearly, these governmental representatives preferred to go home with the Accord, however annoyed they were by its process and content, than to return to their capitals empty handed.

 

            There is much graffiti on the walls of the Old Geopolitics, and it signals a gradual and partial loss of historical control. The successful challenge of the colonial order by various movements of liberation throughout Asia and Africa strongly established a trend in conflict resolution in which the West, although the militarily superior side, was being compelled in the end to accept political defeat. This amounted to a radical reversal of the experience of conflict during the colonial era in which hard power realities shaped, usually with minimal effort, the outcomes of political conflict to the advantage of Europe. This enhancement of soft power stature was reinforced up to the present moment by a series of failed wars undertaken by the United States in particular. From the outcome of the Vietnam War in the mid-1970s to the recent winless withdrawals of the United States from Iraq and Afghanistan it is evident that hard power superiority, even total military dominance, is no longer able to reach desired political outcomes in violent conflicts at acceptable costs. In other words, relying on the staple currency of the Old Geopolitics, military power, seems recently to bring frustration and defeat, not victory as of old. These outcomes discredit and infuriate the geopolitical leaders, but rather than adapt to changed circumstances, these governments struggle to find new battlefield tactics and weaponry to satisfy their traditions strategic ambitions and somehow demonstrate anew that military superiority (rather than law or justice) serves the world as the arbiter of international conflicts. The aged architects of the Old Geopolitics for a variety of reasons are unable to learn from failure, and so the cycle of war and frustration goes on and on with disastrous human results.

 

            Reinforcing these developments, and their interpretation, was the earlier impact of nuclear war on the conduct of international relations. Nuclear weaponry, the Omega point in the Old Geopolitics, actually had the paradoxical effect of excluding hard power solutions from political struggles between principal geopolitical rivals, radically modifying the emphasis of grand strategy in the direction of war prevention and deterrence so as to avoid the mutual disaster of nuclear warfare. Even in military conflicts waged in non-Western settings on the geographic periphery of the Old Geopolitics, which constituted the proxy wars between East and West during the Cold War, there was a restraining fear. There were worries that such conflicts as the Korean War and Vietnam War might unintentionally escalate if it was allowed to approach the nuclear threshold. Such concerns interfered with entrenched belligerent habits of the Old Geopolitics that had long been preoccupied with winning wars rather than settling for stalemates and ceasefires. 

 

            As a telling sign of the emergence of the New Geopolitcs as now defining contemporary strategic goals, Brazil is far more interested in acquiring a permanent seat in the Security Council than becoming a member of the nuclear weapons club. Such a shift in great power aspirations has long characterized the global ambitions of the main losers in World War II. Germany and Japan were enabled by their defeat and destruction to learn the lessons of a transformed world setting far better than did the winners. Perhaps it was enforced learning as their post-war policy options were restricted by coercive occupations that installed governments that would not revive their past militarist behavior. At present such rising political actors as Turkey and Indonesia, seem more concerned with gaining recognition by winning diplomatic battles to land prestigious posts in the United Nations System than they do in acquiring the latest weapons systems or embarking on expansionist military adventures. Turkey, in particular, has gained greatly enhanced stature by pioneering what might be called ‘compassionate geopolitics,’ by engaging with Somalia at a time when it was discarded as ‘a failed state’ by the United States. Turkey has stepped in to a chaotic internal situation, and embarking on a major joint state-building venture that seems to have made unexpected and significant gains to date. Turkey has also come in difficult circumstances to the economic and diplomatic rescue of the abused Muslim Arakan minority in distant Myanmar.

 

SOFT POWER AND THE NEW GEOPOLITICS

 

            Two crucial tendencies are evident: soft power achieves the most important gains for a society seeking to accelerate its development and raise its status on the global stage of diplomacy; hard power is increasingly frustrated when tested by determined nationalist forces, even those with seemingly modest military capabilities. These factors are given greater historical weight by several other considerations. The greater complexity associated with globalization has created new political spaces that are being filled in various ways by both civil society representatives and private sector actors.  Such patterns of participation exert strong pressure to move the New Geopolitics toward more peaceful and less war oriented standard operating procedures. The civil society vision of the New Geopolitics inclines strongly in the transformative direction of Global Democracy, making all institutions of governance subject to the imperatives of transparency, accountability, stakeholder participation, rule of law, and attention to the human interest/global justice/climate change diplomacy. A first institutional step toward Global Democracy could involve the establishment of a Global Parliament that would directly represent people, not governments.

 

            In effect, we have two models of the New Geopolitics:

 

                        –Minimal Model envisions the persistence of a state-centric world order that is deWesternized and more inclusive, determining status by  a greater reliance on soft power criteria of status and influence, trending toward nonviolent geopolitics, but at the same time continuing to be dominated by a few state actors and remains responsive to the prescriptions and values of neoliberal globalization;

                        –Maximal Model is dedicated to institutions and practices that rely upon nonviolent geopolitics, establishing by stages Global Democracy, while reorienting Economic Globalization in relation to sustainable development by putting people and earth first, and giving an equitable priority to those most vulnerable and deprived when it comes to the allocation of public resources.

 

            At this point, global politics is in a transitional phase. The Old Geopolitics has certainly not disappeared as is evident from the war dangers that remain in the world’s main conflict zones, but it is also rarely capable of translating its preferences into desired outcomes. At some point, hopefully short of global catastrophe, strategic failure in warfare will produce a turn, even in Washington, toward the New Geopolitics. In the interim the prospects are not encouraging, including perhaps the menacing last hurrah of global militarism, its practices and technological innovations that are rapidly turning the world into a borderless and terrorized war zone. The Old Geopolitics fashioned a dysfunctional set of responses to the 9/11 attacks on the United States. These devastating attacks posed a problem that could not be effectively addressed in the customary manner of the Old Geopolitics, that is, by a reliance on hard power–waging wars against distant countries as if the adversary was a series of territorial sovereign states rather than a non-territorial network of political extremists.  In this regard, the threats posed by such anti-system forces of resistance can only be successfully neutralized if a primary reliance is placed upon soft power methods of response. These methods must include the identification of legitimate grievances that induced recourse to such desperate violent political behavior in the first place. To harden territorial boundaries to protect the homeland against hostile encroachment while engaging in a series of failing and bankrupting wars around the world is an almost certain recipe for authoritarian rule at home and intensifying intensifying insecurity elsewhere.

 

 

THE OLD GEOPOLITICS PERSISTS

 

            In this regard, we live at a perilous historical moment. The Old Geopolitics is relying on hard power regardless of cost or risk, and unable and unwilling to heed experience, while the New Geopolitics is struggling with the torments of infancy and growing pains. The minimal model of the New Geopolitics is itself not yet sufficiently clear about how to reconcile national interests with human interests, and so does little to arrest the drift toward ecological catastrophe, systemic shock by systemic shock. The maximal model of the New Geopolitics has not established deep enough political roots to set forth, much less enact, its agenda of Global Democracy, and thus cannot challenge the Old Geopolitics or shape the New Geopolitics. At this point, we need to encourage the utopian imagination, and begin the hard work of initiating the hard political project of transition to the New Geopolitics.

 

            The aftermath of the Arab Spring illustrates this clash between the old and the new. The rise of the people in country after country in the region reflected an attachment to the ideals and practices of substantive democracy. The unexpected regionalization of this challenge gave a glimpse of a new transformative politics, including distrust of military and police methods of sustaining public order and opposition to Western manipulations to control from without and within. The bloodthirsty backlash of regimes, as in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and to some extent, Egypt, manifested the resilience and cruel harshness of hard power tactics of governance, and their purpose of ensuring the counter-revolutionary restoration of the Old Geopolitics.

 

            Whether the Libyan intervention should be seen primarily as a Western reversion to Old Geopolitics or some kind of amalgam of Old and New, with the Gulf countries and the UN enlisted as partners in liberating a people from cruel tyranny, will remain a matter of controversy and uncertainty for years to come. Similarly, with Syria, whether to consider the external moves for and against the Assad regime in Damascus as expressions of the New Geopolitics or some toxic blend of new and old is difficult to discern given the complexities and unknowns of this ongoing bloody struggle that is a blend of a cynical proxy war and bitter internal struggle for state power. Popular support for the idea of protecting a vulnerable people against the crimes against humanity of a vicious governmental regime can be understood from the perspective of human solidarity, an aspect of the maximal model of the New Geopolitics. In contrast, military intervention by external actors with a variety of suspect strategic motives and the use of interventionary weaponry that is likely to magnify the violence, is clearly in the spirit of the Old Geopolitics.

 

            There are no signs at present that the New Geopolitics in either of its main variants will soon replace the Old Geopolitics, but there is plenty of evidence of a sharpening tension between these two main modes of sustaining security and development in the early 21st century. We can expect a gradual discrediting from within of the main centers of Old Geopolitics, but as such a process gains leverage, it is almost certain to produce the opposite effect—a tightening of control at home, and an intensification of military operations abroad, exactly the pattern being enacted in the United States by successive presidents from both main political parties in response to the 9/11 attacks. And within the domain of the New Geopolitics it is likely that there will be a parallel intensification of tension as the minimalists seek realignment without attending to social and economic inequities, while the maximalists insist on the long march to Global Democracy but lack sufficient transnational mobilizing traction to move their endeavor very far.

 

            The Chinese proverb is correct in its chilling reminder that ‘it is a curse to live in interesting times,’ but given the changing historical experiences with warfare, the growing sense of great ecological hazard, and the strengthening attachment to global justice agendas, maybe just this once, the fascinations of our age will turn out to be ‘a blessing.’

Turkey’s Foreign Policy: Zero Problems with Neighbors Revisited

8 Feb


            Pundits in Europe and North America in recent months have delighted in citing with a literary smirk ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ which has been the centerpiece of Ahmet Davutoglu’s foreign policy agenda since he became Foreign Minister on May 1, 2009. Mr. Davutoglu had previously served as Chief Advisor to both the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister ever since the AKP came to power in 2002, and was known in those years as the ‘architect’ behind the scenes. Critics of the zero problems approach point to the heightened Turkish tensions with Syria and Iraq, the persisting inability of Ankara to overcome the hostile fallout from Mavi Marmara incident with Israel, and even the revived salience of the long unresolved dispute with the Armenian diaspora sparked by a new French law that makes the denial of genocide associated with the 1915 massacres a crime and has led to a dramatic worsening of Turkish-French relations.

 

            Troubles to be sure, but should these be interpreted as ‘failures,’ and more precisely as ‘Turkish failures’? Perhaps, Davutoglu was insufficiently cautious, or alternatively too optimistic, when he articulated the zero problems diplomacy, but was it not at the time an accurate way of signaling a new dawn for Turkey’s approach to neighbors, especially its Arab neighbors, and actually, to the world as a whole. And Davutoglu implemented his lofty vision with a dizzying series of initiatives that opened long locked doors. He also made it clear that the neighborhood was not to be understood in a narrow geographical sense, but rather in as broad a sense as disclosed by cultural and historical affinities and mutual strategic interests. Davutoglu was eager not only to banish lingering bad memories associated with centuries of Ottoman rule over much of the Arab world, as well as to renew connections with countries that shared Turkic and Muslim identities.

 

            It should be recalled that Turkish foreign policy began charting this new course years before Davutoglu became Foreign Minister, and thus was a shift in worldview that was shared with Recip Tayyip Erdogan and Abudllah Gul, the two dominant political leaders during the past decade.  Indeed, both men deserve some of the credit, and a share of the responsibility, for steering the Turkish ship of state into such mainly uncharted waters of diplomatic initiative.

 

            In an important sense, the turning point came in 2003 when the Turkish government, after sending some mixed signals to Washington, finally refused to allow the United States to use its territory to stage an invasion of Iraq. At the time the anti-AKP domestic opposition challenged this unprecedented act of geopolitical insubordination by Ankara as the biggest mistake in the whole of Turkish republican history. In retrospect, this opting out of the invasion of Iraq constituted a transformational moment for Turkey that demonstrated to its neighbors and the world, and even to itself, that Turkey could and would think and act for itself when it comes to foreign policy, that the hierarchical alliances of the Cold War period were over, and that Washington should no longer take Ankara’s collaboration for granted. And yet this move did not mean, as some critics in both Turkey and the United States wrongly claimed, a turn toward Islam and away from the West or its continuing involvement in Western security arrangements. Even during the Iraq War Turkey allowed the Incirlik Air Base to be used by American combat aircraft, including for bombing missions. As recently shown, Turkey still values its NATO ties even to the extent of allowing radar stations to be deployed on its territory that is linked to a missile defense system that seems mainly intended to protect Europe, Israel, and the Gulf from Iran in the immediate future and possibly Russia in the long-term.

 

            By now it is almost forgotten that it was Turkey that encouraged peace talks between Syria and Israel to resolve their conflict that seemed to be headed for success until their abrupt breakdown, a development attributed at the time to the Israeli attacks on Gaza at the end of 2008, but in retrospect better understood as the unwillingness of Israel to give up its 1967 conquest and subsequent occupation of the Golan Heights. Turkey also sought to be a peacemaker further afield in the Balkans and Caucasus, doing the seemingly impossible, bringing Bosnia and Serbia together in a manner that moved these two antagonistic governments on a path leading to normalization and at least a cold peace. Even more ambitiously, in collaboration with Brazil, Turkey used its new stature as an independent regional player in May 2010 to persuade Tehran to accept an arrangement for the storage of a large portion of Iran’s enriched uranium in Turkey, thereby demonstrating the plausibility of a peaceful alternative to the United States/Israel posture of sanctions and warmongering.

 

            To be sure, the earlier sensible effort to have friendly relations with Syria has now badly backfired, but not until the regime in Damascus started the massive shooting of its citizens and refused to meet the demands of its people for far reaching reforms.  Arguably, the same reversal of outlook in Ankara occurred in relation to Libya after Qaddafi threatened to massacre his opposition, leading eventually to extending some Turkish humanitarian support for the UN-backed NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 that shaped the outcome of an ongoing internal struggle for control of the Libyan political future. Also, there is no doubt that the refusal of the European Union to shift its one-sided stance on Cyprus that is punitive toward Turkey has had some serious consequences. It has soured relations with Greece, producing a temporary deterioration that has taken place despite the Turkish show of reasonableness and exhibiting a spirit of compromise in relation to Cyprus. And, together with the recent Islamophobic surge in Europe, this perceived unfairness to Turkey with respect to Cyprus has reinforced the weakening of an earlier Turkish commitment to qualify for membership in the EU. 

 

            Even with Israel, despite the strong sympathies of the Turkish public with the struggle of the Palestinians, the AKP leadership has done its best to restore normalcy to the relationship between the two countries. After all, the May 31, 2010 attack by Israel’s navy in international waters on the Mavi Marmara carrying humanitarian activists and assistance to Gaza and challenging the Israeli blockade was not only a flagrant breach of international law but resulted in the death of nine Turkish passengers. Turkey has demanded an official apology and compensation for the families of the victims, a reasonable set of expectations that was apparently on the verge of acceptance by Tel Aviv, but collapsed at the last hour when challenged by the internal political opposition to Netanyahu led by the super-hawk foreign minister, Avigdor Liebermann, now under government investigation for fraud.

 

            What this brief overview argues is that Turkey has consistently tried to avert recourse to intervention and war in the Middle East and to promote diplomatic approaches that rely to the extent possible on soft power. It has, to be sure, experienced several geopolitical rebuffs, as in relation to its efforts to end the confrontation with Iran, impressively refusing to stay in line behind the bellicose leadership of the United States and Israel. Davutoglu has correctly affirmed Turkey’s resolve to act on the principled basis of its values and convictions, as well as strategic calculations of its interests, in the post-Cold War politics of the region, and not blindly follow directives from Washington. Iran is a striking case where the Turkish approach, although seemingly incapable of stemming the drift toward war being mounted by the West, is both wiser and more likely to achieve the goal of reassuring the world that Tehran means what it says when it insists that it does not intend to acquire nuclear weapons. As in every other foreign policy setting, Davutoglu is exhibiting his belief that in the 21st century persuasion works better than coercion when it comes to achieving political goals without even considering the costs of death, devastation, and displacement.

 

            In sum, the zero problems with neighbors as a touchstone to Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East and the world needs to be understood as an aspiration and strong preference rather than as an invariable and inflexible guide to practice. There are too many contradictions embedded in the political realities of the contemporary world to be slavishly tied to a rigid foreign policy doctrine that is incapable of taking account of context and shifting perceptions and interests. For instance, in Syria and Libya the Turkish government was forced to choose between siding with a regime slaughtering its own people and backing a disorganized opposition in its heroic if clouded efforts to democratize and humanize the governing process.  Of course, there are suspicions that Turkey’s support for the anti-Assad insurgency also reflects a disguised preference for a Sunni opposition that is anchored, if at all, in the Muslim Brotherhood as compared to the secular authoritianism of the Damascus regime. As well, there are speculations that in the ongoing regional struggle for ascendancy Turkey would rather in the end side with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, reinforced by the United States, than Iran and a newly engaged Russia.

 

Zero problems needs to be understood as a preferred framework for addressing the relations between countries, not just governments, and in situations of strife choices must be made. Arguably Turkey went too far when it backed NATO in Libya and the UN Security Council with respect to Syria or not far enough when it failed to show support for the Green Revolution in Iran after the stolen elections of June 2009. These are difficult interpretative choices upon which reasonable persons of good faith can disagree. Whatever the policies pursued in specific situations,  they do not necessarily invalidate the principled positions articulated by Davutoglu since he became Foreign Minister. Davutoglu has repeatedly affirmed these principles as being as important for him as are realist calculations in shaping foreign policy in complex situations. Possibly, if the Green Revolution had shown more persistence and promise or the Iranian regime had engaged in more widespread killing of its people Turkey would have made a ‘Syrian choice.’

 

            Davutoglu on more than one occasion has expressed enthusiastic support for the upheavals grouped together under the banner of ‘the Arab Spring.’ He calls these upheavals great historical transformations that are irreversible, and expressions of a thirst by young people in their respective countries for lives of dignity and democratic freedoms. There is nothing that Turkey has done to thwart these high ideals.

 

            In this respect, I think it is possible to reach an assessment of Turkish foreign policy as of early 2012. It has charted a course of action based to the extent feasible on soft power diplomacy, taking numerous initiatives to resolve its conflicts with neighbors but also to offer its good offices to mediate and unfreeze conflicts between states to which it is not a party. Its credibility has become so great that Istanbul has replaced European capitals as the preferred venue for conflict resolution whether in relation to Afghanistan or even Iran, and despite its much publicized diplomatic differences with Washington. It is notable that despite Western annoyance with Ankara regarding Iran or resulting from the simmering dispute with Israel, the U.S. Government seems to favor Istanbul as the most propitious site for any prospective negotiations with Iran concerning its nuclear program.

 

            At the same time, as the policy reversals with respect to Syria and Libya illustrate, it is not always possible to avoid taking sides in response to internal struggles, although Turkey has delayed doing so to give governments in power the opportunity to establish internal peace. In a globalizing world boundaries are not absolute, and sovereignty must give way if severe violations of human rights are being committed by the regime. Even in such extreme circumstances armed intervention should always be a last resort, and one only undertaken in extreme instances on behalf of known opposition forces and in a manner that has a reasonable prospect of cumulative benefits at acceptable costs for the targeted society. Such conditions almost never exist, and so intervention under present world conditions is rarely if ever, in my judgment, justified, although bloodshed, oppression, and crimes against humanity may generate strong public and governmental support for interventionary diplomacy.

 

            We can only hope that Turkey stays the Dautoglu course, pursuing every opening that enables positive mutual relations among countries and using its diplomatic stature to encourage peaceful conflict resolution wherever possible. Rather than viewing ‘zero problems’ as a failure, it should be a time to reaffirm the creativity of Turkish foreign policy in the course of the last decade that has shown the world the benefits of soft power diplomacy, and a pattern that other governments might learn from while adapting to their own realities. This diplomacy, as supplemented by Turkey’s economic success and political stability, helps us appreciate the deserved popularity of and respect for the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, throughout the region and the world.

Stop Warmongering in the Middle East

20 Jan

 

            The public discussion in the West addressing Iran’s nuclear program has mainly relied on threat diplomacy, articulated most clearly by Israeli officials, but enjoying the strong direct and indirect backing of Washington and leading Gulf states.  Israel has also engaged in covert warfare against Iran in recent years, somewhat supported by the United States, that has inflicted violent deaths on civilians in Iran. Many members of the UN Security Council support escalating sanctions against Iran, and have not blinked when Tel Aviv and Washington talk menacingly about leaving all options on the table, which is ‘diplospeak’ for their readiness to launch a military attack. At last, some signs of sanity are beginning to emerge to slow the march over the cliff. For instance, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, commented harshly on this militarist approach: “I have no doubt that it would pour fuel on a fire which is already smoldering, the hidden smoldering fire of Sunni-Shia confrontation, and beyond that [it would cause] a chain reaction. I don’t know where it would stop.” And a few days ago even the normally hawkish Israeli Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, evidently fearful of international panic and a preemptive response by Tehran, declared that any decision to launch a military attack by Israel is ‘very far off,’ words that can be read in a variety of ways, mostly not genuinely reassuring.

 

            It is not only an American insistence, despite pretending from time to time an interest in a diplomatic solution, that only threats and force are relevant to resolve this long incubating political dispute with Iran, but more tellingly, it is the stubborn refusal by Washington to normalize relations with Iran, openly repudiate the Israeli war drums, and finally accept the verdict of history in Iran adverse to its strategic ambitions. The United States has shown no willingness despite the passage of more than 30 years to accept the outcome of Iran’s popular revolution of 1978-79 that nonviolently overthrew the oppressive regime of the Shah. We need also to remember that the Shah had been returned to power in 1953 thanks to the CIA in a coup against the constitutional and democratically elected government of Mohamed Mossadegh, whose main crime was to nationalize the Iranian oil industry. This prolonged unwillingness of Washington to have normal diplomatic contact with Iran has been a sure recipe for international tension and misunderstanding, especially taking into account this historical background of American intervention in Iran, as well as the thinly disguised interest in recovering access to Iran’s high quality oil fields confirmed by its willingness to go along with Israel’s militarist tactics and diplomacy.

 

            This conflict-oriented mentality is so strong in relation to Iran than when others try their best to smooth diplomatic waters, as Brazil and Turkey did in the May 2010, the United States angrily responds that such countries should mind their own business, which is an arrogant reprimand, considering that Turkey is Iran’s next door neighbor, and has the most to lose if a war results from the unresolved dispute involving Iran’s contested nuclear program. It should be recalled that in 2010 Iran formally agreed with leaders from Brazil and Turkey to store half or more of its then stockpile of low enriched uranium in Turkey, materials that would be needed for further enrichment if Iran was truly determined to possess a nuclear bomb as soon as possible. Instead of welcoming this constructive step back from the precipice Washington castigated the agreement as diversionary, contending that it interfered with the mobilization of support in the Security Council for ratcheting up sanctions intended to coerce Iran into giving up its right to a complete nuclear fuel cycle. Such criticism of Turkey and Brazil for its engagement with peace diplomacy contrasts with its tacit endorsement of Israeli recourse to terrorist tactics in its efforts to destabilize Iran, or possibly to provoke Iran to the point that it retaliates, giving Tel Aviv the pretext it seems to seek to begin open warfare.

 

Iran is being accused of moving toward a ‘breakout’ capability in relation to nuclear weapons, that is, possessing a combination of knowhow and enough properly enriched uranium to produce nuclear bombs within a matter of weeks, or at most months. Tehran has repeatedly denied any intention to become a nuclear weapons state, but has insisted all along that it has the same legal rights under the Nonproliferation Treaty as such other non-nuclear states as Germany and Japan, and this includes the right to have a complete nuclear fuel cycle, which entails enrichment capabilities and does imply a breakout capability. In the background, it should be realized that even the 1968 Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons contains a provision that allows a party to withdraw from the obligations under the treaty if it gives three months notice and ‘decides that extraordinary events..have jeopardized its supreme national interests.’(Article X) Such a provision, in effect, acknowledges the legal right of a country to determine its own security requirements in relation to nuclear weapons, a right that both the United States and Israel in different ways have implicitly exercised for decades with stunning irresponsibility that includes secrecy, a failure to pursue nuclear disarmament that is an obligation of the treaty, and a denial of all forms of international accountability. The real ‘threat’ posed by a hypothetical Iran bomb is to Israel’s regional monopoly over nuclear weapons. As three former Mossad chiefs have stated, even if Iran were to acquire a few nuclear bombs, Israel would still face no significant additional threat to its security or existence, as any attack would be manifestly suicidal, and Iran has shown no such disposition toward recklessness in its foreign policy.

 

            To be objective commentators we must ask ourselves whether Iran’s posture toward its nuclear program is unreasonable under these circumstances. Is not Iran a sovereign state with the same right as other states to uphold its security and political independence when facing threats from its enemies armed with nuclear weapons? When was the last time resorted to force against a hostile neighbor? The surprising answer is over 200 years ago! Can either of Iran’s antagonists claim a comparable record of living within its borders? Why does Iran not have the same right as other states to take full advantage of nuclear technology? And given Israeli hostility, terrorist assaults, and military capabilities that includes sophisticated nuclear warheads, delivery style, and a record of preemptive war making, would it not be reasonable for Iran to seek, and even obtain, a nuclear deterrent? True, the regime in Iran has been oppressive toward its domestic opposition and its president has expressed anti-Israeli views in inflammatory language (although exaggerated in the West), however unlike Israel, without ever threatening or resorting to military action. It should also be appreciated that Iran has consistently denied an intention to develop nuclear weaponry, and claims only an interest in using enriched uranium for medical research and nuclear energy. Even if there are grounds to be somewhat skeptical about such reassurances, given the grounds for suspicion that have been ambiguously and controversially validated by reports from International Atomic Energy Agency, this still does not justify sanctions, much less threats backed up by deployments, war games, projected attack scenarios, and a campaign of terrorist violence.

 

            So far no prominent advocates of confrontation with Iran have been willing to acknowledge the obvious relevance of Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Is not the actuality of nuclear weaponry, not only an Iranian breakout potential but a substantial arsenal of Israeli weaponry secretly acquired (200-300 warheads), continuously upgraded, and coupled with the latest long distance delivery capabilities, the most troublesome threat to regional stability and peace? At minimum, are not Israel’s nuclear weapons stockpile highly relevant both to bring stability and for an appraisal of Iran’s behavior? The United States and Israel behave in the Middle East as if the golden rule of international politics is totally inapplicable, that you can do unto others, what you are unwilling to have them do unto you!

 

            We need, as well, to remember the lessons of recent history bearing on the counter-proliferation tactics relied upon in recent years by the United States. Iraq was attacked in 2003 partly because it did not have any nuclear weapons, while North Korea has been spared such a comparably horrific fate because it possesses a retaliatory capability that would likely be used if attacked, and has the capability to inflict severe harm on neighboring countries. If this experience relating to nuclear weapons is reasonably interpreted it could incline governments that have hostile relations to the West to opt for a nuclear weapons option as necessary step to discourage attacks and interventions. Surely putting such reasoning into practice would not be good for the region, possibly igniting a devastating war, and almost certainly leading to the spread of nuclear weapons to other Middle Eastern countries. Instead of moving to coerce, punish, and frighten Iran in ways that are almost certain to increase the incentives of Iran and others to possess nuclear weaponry, it would seem prudent and in the mutual interest of all to foster a diplomacy of de-escalation, a path that Iran has always signaled its willingness to pursue. And diplomatic alternatives to confrontation and war exist, but require the sort of political imagination that seems totally absent in the capitals of hard power geopolitics.  

 

            It should be obvious to all but the most dogmatic warmongers that the path to peace and greater stability in the region depends on taking two steps long overdue, and if not taken, at least widely debated in public: first, establishing a nuclear free Middle East by a negotiated and monitored agreement that includes all states in the region, including Israel and Iran; secondly, an initiative promoted by the United Nations and backed by a consensus of its leading members to outline a just solution for the Israel/Palestine conflict that is consistent with Palestinian rights under international law, including the Palestinian right of self-determination, which if not accepted by Israel (and endorsed by the Palestinian people) within twelve months would result in the imposition of severe sanctions. Not only would such initiatives promote peace and prosperity for the Middle East, but this turn to diplomacy and law would serve the cause of justice both by putting an end to the warmongering of recent years and to the intolerable denial of rights to the Palestinian people that goes back to at least 1947, and was later intensified by the oppressive occupation of East Jerusalem, West Bank, and Gaza that resulted from the outcome of the 1967 War.

 

            These manifestly beneficial alternatives to sanctions and war is neither selected, nor even considered in the most influential corridors of opinion-making. It is simple to explain why: world order continues to be largely shaped by the rule of power rather than the rule of law, or by recourse to the realm of rights, and no where more so than in the Middle East where the majority of the world’s oil reserves are located, and where an expansionist Israel refuses to make real peace with its neighbors while subjugating the Palestinian people to an unendurable ordeal. Unfortunately, a geopolitical logic prevails in world politics, which means that inequality, hierarchy, and hard power control the thought and action of powerful governments whenever toward strategic interests are at stake. Perhaps, a glance at recent history offers the most convincing demonstration of the validity of this assessment: Western military interventions in Iraq and Libya, as well as the intimidating threats of attacks on Iran, three states in the region with oil and regimes unfriendly to the West. Egypt and Tunisia, the first-born children of the Arab Spring, were undoubtedly politically advantaged by not being major oil producing states, although Egypt is not as lucky as Tunisia because Israel and the United States worry that a more democratic Egyptian government might abandon the 1978 Peace Treaty and show greater solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, and are doing what they can to prevent Cairo from moving in such directions.

 

            Fortunately, there is a growing, although still marginal, recognition that despite all the macho diplomacy of recent years, a military option is not really viable. It would not achieve its objective of destroying Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and it would in all likelihood confirm the opinions among Iranian hawkish factions that only the possession of nuclear weapons will keep their country from facing the catastrophe brought on by a military attack. Beyond this, attacking Iran would almost certainly unleash retaliatory responses, possibly blocking the Straits of Hormuz, which carry 20% of the world’s traded oil, and possibly leading to direct missile strikes directed at Israel and some of the Gulf countries. Given this prospect, there is beginning to be some indication that the West is at last beginning to consider alternatives to hot war in responding to Iran.

 

            But so far this realization is leading not to the peaceful initiatives mentioned earlier, but to a reliance on ‘war’ by other means. The long confrontation with Iran has developed its own momentum that makes any fundamental adjustment seem politically unacceptable to the United States and Israel, a sign of weakness and geopolitical defeat. And so as the prospect of a military attacked is temporarily deferred for reasons of prudence, as Barak confirmed, but in its place is put this intensified and escalating campaign of violent disruption, economic coercion, and outright terrorism. Such an ongoing effort to challenge Iran has produced a series of ugly and dangerous incidents that might at some point in the near future provoke a hostile Iranian reaction, generating a sequence of action and reaction that could plunge the region into a disastrous war and bring on a worldwide economic collapse.

 

            The main features of this disturbing pattern of covert warfare are becoming clear, and are even being endorsed in liberal circles because such a course of action is seen as less harmful to Western interests than an overt military attack, proceeding on the assumptions that are no better alternatives than confrontation in some form.  Israel, with apparent American collaboration, assassinates Iranian nuclear scientists, infects Iranian nuclear centrifuges used to enrich uranium with a disabling Stuxnet virus, and recruits Iranians to join Jundallah, an anti-regime terrorist organization in Iran, to commit acts of violence against civilian targets, such as the 2009 attack on the mosque in Zahedan that killed 25 worshippers and wounded many others. The New York Times in an editorial  (January 13, 2012) describes these tactics dispassionately without ever taking note of their objectionable moral or legal character: “An accelerating covert campaign of assassinations, bombings, cyber attacks and defections—carried out mainly by Israel, according to The Times—is slowing..[Iran’s nuclear] program, but whether that is enough is unclear.” The editorial observes that “a military strike would be a disaster,” yet this respected, supposedly moderate, editorial voice only questions whether such a pattern of covert warfare will get the necessary job done of preventing Iran from possessing a nuclear option sometime in the future.

 

            It should be obvious that if it was Iran that was engaging in similar tactics to disrupt Israeli military planning or to sabotage Israel’s nuclear establishment liberal opinion makers in the West would be screaming their denunciations of Iran’s barbaric lawlessness. Such violations of Israel sovereignty and international law would be certainly regarded by the West as unacceptable forms of provocation that would fully justify a major Israeli military response, and make the outbreak of war seem inevitable and unavoidable.

 

            And when Iran did recently react to the prospect of new international sanctions making its sale of oil far more difficult by threatening to block passage through the Straights of Hormuz, the United States reacted by sending additional naval vessels to the area and warning Tehran that any interference with international shipping would be ‘a red line’ leading to U.S. military action. It should be incredible to appreciate that assassinating nuclear scientists in Iran is okay with the arbiters of international behavior while interfering with the global oil market crosses a war-provoking red line. These self-serving distinctions illustrate the dirty work of geopolitics in the early 21st century.

 

            There are some lonely voices calling for a nuclear free Middle East and a just settlement of the Israeli/Palestine conflict, but even with credentials like long service in the CIA or U.S. State Department, these calls are almost totally absent in the mainstream discourse that controls debate in the United States and Israel. When some peaceful alternatives are entertained at all it is always within the framework of preventing Iran doing what it seems entitled to do from the perspectives of law and prudence. I am afraid that only when and if a yet non-existent Global Occupy Movement turns its attention to geopolitics will the peoples of the Middle East have some reason to hope for a peaceful and promising future for their region.    

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