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A Warming of US/Turkish Relations?

19 Sep

 

[Prefatory Note: a prior version of this post was published by Al Jazeera Turka; there are continuing concerns in Washington and Ankara about whether and to what degree United States-Turkey relations can be restored; it depends on the behavior of the two governments, and likely will be influenced by the outcome of the American presidential elections.]

 

 

It may seem a bit strange that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Barack Obama had to travel all the way to Hangzhou, China to take a welcome step toward restoring good relations between the two countries. But this is the way with 21st century diplomacy. Leaders meet in groups all over the planet, and were in Hangzhou between September 4 and 6 for the annual G-20 gathering devoted to global economic policy, and some seized the opportunity to conduct bilateral diplomacy. In this vein the most notable achievements of the 2016 G-20 meeting is probably best associated with so-called ‘sideline meetings’ that are not part of the group agenda. What is likely to be longest remembered such occurrence after the political leaders go home is not what was agreed upon about global inequality or stimulating growth but rather the dramatic joint ratification of the Paris Climate Change Agreement by China and the United States, the world’s two biggest emitters of greenhouse gasses.

 

Another feature of modern diplomacy is the importance of tone, nuance, and atmospherics. What Erdoğan and Obama achieved was mainly in this realm of intangible signs of mutual appreciation and understanding. It was undoubtedly pleasing for Erdoğan to hear the American president refer to the events of July 15th as “terrible coup attempt.” And further, when Obama expressed his admiration for the way the Turkish people took to the streets to defend democracy and support the elected government. Such sentiments convey a spirit of solidarity that was noticeably missing throughout the earlier diplomatic discourse. It contrasts, for instance, with what John Kerry, the American Secretary of State, said on July 15th, the night of the failed coup, which seemed indifferent to the fate of Turkey’s democratic government even when violent challenge by the failed putsch. In his statement Kerry called for “stability and peace and continuity within Turkey,” which was correctly heard by the Turkish people and their leaders as, at best, a statement of neutrality as to which side was favored by Washington, and seemed to express the view that as long as there was stability in Turkey and continuity with respect to the West, the United States ‘had no dog in the fight.’

 

When Obama personalized his message by saying “this is the first opportunity that I have had to meet face to face with President Erdoğan” since July 15, and then added, “We’re glad you’re here, safe, and that we are able to continue to work together” it contributed a tone of personal warmth to the reaffirmation of the critical strategic relationship between the two countries. When it came to the issues that have recently caused tensions between Turkey and the United States nothing very concrete transpired, at least in public. Obama talked about unity in fighting against ISIS, while Erdoğan stressed the importance of opposing all terrorist groups. Underneath these vague assertions was the apparently persisting disagreement about how to deal with Kurdish anti-ISIS and anti-Assad political actors, especially the Syrian militia, YPG (Popular Protection Unit) that the US treats as an ally and Turkey views as a Syrian extension of the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party), and as such, regards as a terrorist organization. From what was made public no steps were made by either side to change their approach, but the atmosphere of collaboration at Hangzhou suggests that the two leaders at least listened to each other’s concerns, and were careful to avoid any confrontation.

 

Without doubt the complexity of the Syrian conflict is such that none of the participants have pursued a consistent course of action that avoids contradictions, and this is certainly true of the United States and Turkey. I would expect a tacit understanding of the differing priorities of the two governments to emerge, allowing tensions over Syrian policy to diminish, if not disappear. Turkey and the United States agree on ISIS and support for anti-Assad forces, but also on urgently seeking a prolonged ceasefire as a prelude to some kind of political compromise that ends the conflict. It seems likely that the U.S. will quietly defer to Turkey’s insistence on avoiding a Kurdish de facto state bordering Turkey in northern Syria. This will not be the first time that the United States has opportunistically relied on Kurdish armed militias during a conflict only to withdraw their support at a later stage when greater strategic interests, as here, present themselves. In this regard, American relations with the YPG are likely to deteriorate as those with Ankara improve, especially on joint policy in Syria.

 

The same reliance on atmospherics rather than tangible results was evident in dealing with the equally delicate issue of the extradition of Fethullah Gülen. Obama affirmed the importance of bringing the coup perpetrators to justice and offered full cooperation on the mechanics of the extradition process. For his part, Erdoğan spoke of gathering evidence to establish convincingly the link between the allegations and the event. In Turkey there is virtually no dissent from that part of the official version of the coup attempt that charges Fethullah Gülen with being the mastermind, which underlies a strong consensus that he should be extradited to face criminal charges in a Turkish court. In Europe and the United States where Gülenist influence remains surprisingly strong, skepticism remains as to who should be blamed for the coup, and there is a tendency to doubt the Turkish insistence that it was the work of the Gülen movement, and its mysterious leader who claims spiritual power and supposedly runs the organization with an iron hand. The Hangzhou meeting sidestepped this underlying awkwardness probably to avoid spoiling the efforts of both leaders to reaffirm the relationship and even to imply adherence to common goals in Syria.

 

Shortly before the meeting in China, Obama made a constructive statement in a CNN interview: “What we want to do is indicate to them [Turkey] the degree to which we support the Turkish people, but like any good friend we want to give them honest feedback if we think the steps they’re taking were going to be contrary to their long-term interests and our partnership.” What is notable here is Obama’s careful phrasing that avoids condemning the Turkish government for its post-coup attempt efforts to find elements throughout the government and society that were directly or indirectly complicit in the events of July 15. Again this kind of statement contrasts with the many shrill and decontextualized international condemnations of Turkish security measures without any appreciation of the subversive nature of the persisting threat faced by the government. Obama’s statement reaches for higher ground in the ways that Washington conveys concerns about human rights and democracy to Ankara, and although still somewhat patronizing (making it hard to imagine Turkey giving friendly advice to Washinton), it seems fully consistent with the geopolitically conditioned friendship between the two governments. Of course, if Turkey has similarly lectured the United States after the 9/11 attacks about torture or the detention of Muslims it would have been met with anger, but this merely reminds us that international relations is not conducted between equals.

 

In the end, we are left asking whether the spirit of Hangzhou restores the constructive side of the US/Turkish relationship in a lasting manner, seemingly so vital for the future of the region, or whether this is a flash in the pan soon to be forgotten. The fact that Obama’s term is about to end is of concern in this respect, but there is some confidence that Obama’s approach represents a US Government consensus that will endure. What will clarify this prospect, above all, will be the approach taken by the winner of the American presidential elections this November. Also important, the manner that the two governments handle their substantive differences (on Syria, extradition, and likely Russia and Iran), and whether Erdoğan is able to sustain the inclusive approach (unfortunately excluding Kurdish participation) that he has so far mainly taken in Turkish domestic politics after July 15.

 

Undoubtedly, although these issues are all quite explosive, the one that poses the most danger to the future of relations between Turkey and the United States, involves how the extradition request will be handled with respect Fethullah Gülen in the months ahead. A Turkish journalist, Ogüz Kaan Salıcı captured the prevailing mood in Turkey by calling attention to a comment by a member of the Turkish Parliament—“there are only two things 90% of Turks agree upon: That there is a god and that FETO (Fethullah Terrorist Organization) was behind the coup.” If as seems quite likely, the extradition request will be denied in the United States for respectable legal reasons, the Turkish leadership and the public are bound to view the legalistic explanations as political evasions. If this interaction occurs, it will take a diplomatic miracle to avoid a collapse in the long cooperative relationship between the two countries. Their shared interests and long history of close collaboration will be put to one side, at least temporarily. Some wounds are just too deep.

 

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The Uses and Abuses of Uncertainty: The Case of Turkey

9 Sep

 

 

Webs of Uncertainty

 

One of the paradoxes of the digital age with its real time awareness is the degree to which information overloads clouds our imagination with cheaply achieved and false clarity, which in political contexts is often the Mad Men work of selective interpretation or deliberate manipulation. There are two types of uncertainty that complicate our perceptions of reality. There is, first of all, the ontological problems associated with a variety of uncertainties embedded in the unresolvable complexities of our experience in such ways that we make important decisions in the face of serious doubts. And secondly, there are often predispositional problems associated with the sources we choose to rely upon, the intrusion of our opinions, and under the influence of the worldview we adopt that biases understanding, sometimes intentionally, but usually, unwittingly.

 

A fundamental aspect of the human condition, philosophized brilliantly by Jacques Derrida, is a pervasive good faith uncertainty and undecidability that confusingly overlaps with the almost continuous need to act in the lifeworld, and then, despite this, assume responsibility for whatever decisions are taken. In effect, this makes the human condition ‘impossible’ because of this rooted unintelligibility of our experience, depriving the most momentous decisions of our daily life of any firm foundation in decidable fact. This realization is so deeply unsettling as to make its denial a sign of normalcy. Most of us arrange our lives so that this liminal uncertainty can be overlooked most of the time.

 

What is equally disturbing is the degree to which the technicians of public order are shaping our collective future from behind such a dark veil. Of course, this has long been true, but in the past the wider social consequences of disastrous choices tended to be relatively local and the leaders depended on special powers. Now leaders are expected to be ‘certain,’ as well as ‘objective,’ which means the job description includes a willingness to wear a mask of certainty that covers a face that is lined with tensions caused by acute doubt. Such expectations produce dishonesty in the political arena, but like our effort to minimize private uncertainty, many politicians are opportunistically able to treat the uncertain as certain, and by so doing, we drift as a species toward the abyss.

 

In modern times, the magnitude of technological capabilities have been continuously generative of unprecedented catastrophic dangers at the unfamiliarly grand scale of the species as well as habitual human threats and pitfalls experienced at various sub-species levels (nation, family, community). The warnings about climate change have raised this issue to a heightened level of global awareness, accompanied by a fatalistic denialism, as well as a set of politicized responses that up to this point fall well below what is required for a reasonable assurance of species sustainability.

 

 

The Turkish Internal Consensus

 

The experience of political rupture is another circumstance that exposes claims of certainty as pompous posturing, but also can bring forth distinctive forms of denialism that pretends that what is rather certain is mired in the swamps of uncertainty, and what is clear beyond a reasonable doubt, is to be treated as uncertain. Behind this manipulation of uncertainty is a political agenda, usually unacknowledged.

 

These reflections have been prompted by the various reactions to the failed July 15th coup attempt in Turkey. Within Turkey there is a strong consensus (estimated at between 80 and 90%) embracing most of the opposition forces in the country, but with exceptions. The consensus includes even many embittered secular opponents of Erdoğan’s leadership, believing that the attempted coup was the work of the Fethullah Gülen movement and that its leader in residence in the United States should be turned over to the Turkish government to face criminal prosecution for involvement in crimes of terror, murder, treason. Above all, the consensus proudly regards the defeat of the coup attempt as a great patriotic moment of mass support for Turkish democracy. The second element in this consensus is that the United States is somehow involved, and hence is almost certain to find an excuse to avoid extradition or deportation, and distract attention by harping on the importance of protecting the human rights of all Turks. The third element is that it is essential that the Turkish government, to restore a sense of security about the future, eliminate from various sectors of society adherents and operatives of the movement led by Fethullah Gülen. The fourth element is that the attempted coup was carried out in a bloody manner, killing and wounding many innocent civilians, and failed only because initiated ahead of schedule and poorly executed: Erdoğan escaped assassination by a mere 15 minutes and was then able to mobilize quickly the citizenry to take over public spaces in a bold, massive, and brave manner unprecedented in the context of coup politics, and indicative of the depth of anti-coup sentiment among the Turkish people and the intense support bestowed on Erdoğan for defeating the attempt with polls showing his post-coup popularity to have surged to 70% or more. I would maintain that this consensus in Turkey should be treated until reliably refuted as a generally authoritative account of the relevant events, while admitting that there are many complications that emerge if we look more deeply into the full implication of each of these four elements.

 

 

 

Erdoğan’s Critics: Governmental and Civil Society

 

 

In opposition to this consensus, the world press and Western governmental reaction basically ignores this consensus, and treats the coup events as if mired in uncertainty, an outlook coupled with antipathy toward Erdoğan and an overall ambivalence toward Turkey as a legitimate member of Western society despite its NATO membership and its support for the struggle against ISIS. I think there are important differences between the reasons underlying these attitudes that motivate overseas secular and Gülen Turks (and their influential friends around the world) and those that explain the somewhat convergent attitudes of Western governments.

 

To consider the prevailing attitudes of overseas Turks, it starts with hostility toward the Erdoğan leadership, contending corruption, authoritarianism, a hidden Islamic agenda, social conservatism, and a murderous war against Kurdish militants associated with the PKK, as well as against the Syrian Kurdish militia (YPG). This is enough to generate antipathy that expresses itself by either ignoring or rejecting the consensus depicted above as dominating public opinion in Turkey. In this sense, the role and effect of the Gülen movement is either downplayed or problematized, and basically treated as either irrelevant or unproven, and criticism is mounted against all efforts of the Turkish government to rid itself and Turkish society of a secretive religious sect that preaches a message of peace and moderation, while acting subversively and violently. As well, the apparent links between Gülen and the CIA are not even considered worthy of mention.

 

When it comes to Western governments the response also revolves around distrust of Erdoğan, claiming that he is a Putinesque autocrat, but seeming to have their deepest concerns because Turkey is an unreliable ally that no longer can be trusted to follow the diktats of Washington. In this regard, Turkey’s recent turn toward Russia and Iran, initiatives that preceded the coup attempt, are viewed by the United States and Europe as geopolitically unwelcome. Already by 2010 Turkey worried Washington by turning strongly against Israel and by trying in collaboration with Brazil to resolve tensions with Iran by working out an agreement to store Iran’s enriched uranium outside the country. Then, of course, there was the tie to Fethullah Gülen and his movement, the dispersion of influential Gülenists around the world that often impacted on public official perceptions, and the mutually reinforcing distinct viewpoints associated with Gülenists and secularists together have created an informal international media counter-consensus to what is believed within Turkey.

 

I became personally suspicious of the ties with the CIA initially in 2010 when Fethullah Gülen personally and organizationally sided with Israel in the dispute with Turkey arising from Israeli commando attack on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish passenger vessel that was part of ‘a freedom flotilla’ seeking to break the blockade of Gaza and deliver humanitarian assistance to the entrapped Palestinians. It seemed a peculiar stand to be taken by a movement that purported to be devoted to peace and the spread of Islamic values. Then a couple of years later when invited to meet with some Gülen people in Istanbul my suspicions rose to near certainty. We were shown a short documentary in which James Baker, Madeline Albright, and Bill Clinton, that is, the reigning luminaries of both political parties, made separate appearances in the film to heap praise on Fethullah Gülen and his movement. I have been around long enough to know that this kind of promotional documentary was not an innocent and spontaneous display of enthusiasm for a secretive cult movement led by a mysterious Islamic preacher by the most prominent members of the American political establishment. It could not have happened without a strong government push, and one can only wonder why.

 

I did not believe, at the time, that these signs of governmental engagement was a prelude to a coup, but rather in the nature of a Plan B option in the event that Erdoğan slipped further from favor, and maybe served other purposes as well. There was also the possibility that the Gülen schools all over the world were being used as an effective means to penetrate some societies, such as those in Central Asia, places where American intelligence was weak. It is reported that Graham Fuller, who effectively backed Fethullah Gülen’s controversial request for a green card over the opposition of the State Department and the FBI, believed that such an educational network could be useful in gaining access to and recruits in otherwise closed foreign societies. Fuller had been CIA station chief in Istanbul before his retirement. Fuller claims a purity of intentions, and I have seen no hard evidence to the contrary, but the strong personal connection with Gülen given other confirming circumstantial evidence makes it reasonable to be suspicious.

As with the Turkish critics, the Western governments ignore the context of the coup attempt, and devote most of their attention to the post-coup crackdown on all suspected of any Gülen affiliation. Also, during the coup, diplomatic support for Ankara was not forthcoming, and a wait and see attitude seemed to carry the day. It may be that the West supposed that the coup attempt was the work of discontented Kemalists in the army and elsewhere, and its success would have been welcomed (as with Egypt in 2013). This distancing angered the Turkish government and people, and confirmed for many Turks suspicions about an American involvement as well as its unwillingness to lend support to a popularly elected government.

 

These suspicions are further confirmed by the evident reluctance of the United States to cooperate fully in seeking to grant extradition, which it must be said, does face legal obstacles in the best of circumstances. At the same time, if the U.S. Government wanted to back Turkey in this post-coup attempt atmosphere it could at least put Fethullah Gülen under temporary arrest or consider deporting him. One can only imagine the American reaction if Turkey was seeming to shield a person who was strongly believed by most Americans to be behind a coup attempt or major terrorist incident in the United States. Legalistic excuses would not begin to satisfy the American people in such a situation, and it will not satisfy, much less convince the Turkish people and their leadership given the near certainty, which has been attached to the allegation that Fethullah Gülen masterminded the events of July 15th. It should be recalled that the Russian grant of sanctuary to Edward Snowden was seen in the United States as an unfriendly act that harmed relations between the countries even though the nature of his alleged crime was distinctly ‘political’ in nature, and hence, non-extradictable.

 

An Uncertain Future

 

Among the uncertainties relevant to assessing the situation in Turkey is how the near future unolds. Will the West live with a Turkey that claims the prerogative of a sovereign state to pursue independently its own interests? Will the anti- Erdoğan campaign carry the day in the struggle for the control of world public opinion and shape Western policy toward Turkey? And, of course, will the Turkish government conform formally and in good faith to due process and the rule of law in the course of identifying those who can be reasonably charged with direct and indirect complicity in the coup attempt? (It worth noting that of the 55,000 or so who were originally subject to suspension or detention more than half have been restored to employment or released, according to the Minister of Interior). It is also most important, if Turkey is to regain respect beyond its borders, that it not mingle its legitimate grievances against the Gülen militants, operatives, and financial backers with separate concerns it might have about the opinions and loyalty of pro-Kurdish activists and ardent Kemalists.

 

This unfolding future should gradually tell us which mix of certainties and uncertainties will govern the Turkish internal and international future, and on that may hinge Turkey’s security and overall regional and global orientation, including the future of its relations with the United States, Europe, Russia, Iran, and its own regional neighborhood. Perhaps, underneath the immediacies of the situation, there are deeper forces at work in Turkey and elsewhere that are seeking to find new alignments that befit the realities of the post-Cold War world order. If this possibility were at the core of what is taking place, then it would not be startling to witness Turkey pulling slowly away from NATO, and finding its own path between East and West. At present, this seems unlikely as there remains in Ankara a strong bonding with the West despite these recent strains, but surely international relations have witnessed far stranger realignments over the course of the past century.