Archive | Turkey RSS feed for this section

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.

 

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.

The Sky Above Turkey

23 Aug

 

[Prefatory Note: An earlier version was published by Middle East Eye on August 10, 2016. It seems so important at this time for the sake of the future of Turkey that the West look at the country and its political circumstances in a far more balanced way than how the situation has been portrayed since the coup. How to explain this imbalance is another matterthat should be explored at some point, but for now is largely put aside.]

 

 

 

 

Much uncertainty remains in Turkey, but there is enough evidence of positive tendencies to raise a tentative banner of hope. Being a witness to the political atmosphere in Turkey that has emerged after the failed coup of July 15th puts me at odds with the secular consensus in the West, which looks up at the sky and sees only dark, ominous clouds of human rights abuse and autocratic leadership. What I have experienced and observed so far is quite different, a sky with much blue in it.

 

There are two opposed, although overlapping, tendencies present that seemed to be responsive to the political priorities that top the post-coup government agenda: sustaining the anti-coup unity by shifting political gears within the AKP leadership circles in the direction of “inclusive democracy” and pragmatism, and with it, a retreat from the polarizing claims of “majoritarian democracy” that greatly intensified after the 2011 national elections and were particularly evident in the clumsy, unacceptable way the Turkish government handled the Gezi Park demonstrations two years later.

The most important concrete embodiment of this post-15 July move toward inclusiveness has been a series of initatives intended to create a common front between the three leading political parties in the country, including the CHP (secular mainstream) and MHP (nationalist rightest) opposition parties. This has been reinforced by several other developments, including a pragmatic approach to foreign policy and a decision by Recip Tayyip Erdoğan to drop the many law suits under a Turkish law that makes it a civil wrong to insult the president.

 

The Ataturk effect

 There is also a reinforcement of these developments with clear evidence of an AKP appreciation of Kemal Ataturk as heroic founder of the country and defender of its political independence and unity, which had been notably absent from the AKP political profile ever since it initially took power in 2002.

 

It was notable that Erdoğan at his dramatic press conference at the Istanbul Airport on the night of the attempted coup spoke below a giant portrait of Ataturk. This gesture was reinforced by the dominance of huge poster pictures of Erdoğan and Ataturk, and no one else, behind the speaker stage at the immense  August 7th Democracy Watch rally, and even more so by a long Ataturk quotation in the course of Erdoğan’s speech, the highlight of the event. This emphasis on Ataturk’s guidance has also been notable in the CHP effort to interpret the defeat of the coup as a great victory of Turkish democracy, as well as a historic moment of national unity and patriotic fervor. It needs to be understood that invoking the image and thought of Ataturk are ways of expressing two realities: most significantly, a reaffirmation of the secularist orientation of the Turkish state accompanied by recognition that Turkey was experiencing a supreme “patriotic moment” that took precedence over all the pre-coup political divisions that had created such toxic polarization prior to July 15th.

 

Learning from mistakes

 Also notable, and a return to an earlier style, has been the generally calm tone and restrained substance of Erdogan’s leadership. In the domestic pro-AKP media, there have been references back to Erdoğan’s then controversial advice to the Egyptian people to insist on a secular foundation for the governing process following the Tahrir uprising that overthrew Mubarak, a position at the time deeply resented by the Muslim Brotherhood as an intrusion on Egyptian internal politics and distrusted or ignored by the secular opposition to Erdoğan in Turkey and abroad.

 

Looking back, Egypt would almost certainly have benefitted greatly if it had followed Erdoğan’s advice, with the ĸimplication that Turkey’s present crisis was brought about by allowing the religiously oriented movement of Fetullah Gülen to penetrate so deeply into the sinews of government.

 

Of course, anti-AKP voices insist, with reason, that Erdoğan failed to adhere to his own guidelines, both by insinuating political Islam into the appointment and policy process of the Turkish state in recent years and also by striking an opportunistic bargain with Gülen forces that years earlier paved the way for this exercise of pernicious religious influence within the Turkish state. Perhaps it is possible to learn from this past while admitting past mistakes (as Erdoğan has done by his extraordinary apology to the nation for past collaboration with and trust in the Gülen movement).

 

‘As many friends as possible’

 Another facet of the present understanding of July 15th is the widespread agreement across the Turkish political spectrum that the US was involved to some degree in relation to the coup. To what degree is a matter of wildly divergent beliefs ranging from active complicity to passive and indirect support. There is even the opinion present in Turkey that the timing of the coup reflected US government nervousness about Ankara’s seeming turn toward Mosow, and at minimum, if the coup had succeeded, Washington it seems would have shed few tears (just as it did after the democratically elected government was overthrown by a coup in 2013).

 

What lends some credibility to such suspicions is that a major foreign policy reset was underway and in motion prior to the coup attempt. It was centered upon diplomatic initiatives seeking to restore positive diplomatic and economic relations with Russia and Israel, and possibly even with Syria, Iran, and Egypt. Prospects for normalisation with Egypt took a turn for the worse as a result of Cairo’s seeming sympathy with the coup attempt, including possible receptivity to an asylum request from Fettulah Gülen.

 

Yet what seems in many respects to be a second coming of Turkey’s pre-Arab Spring approach of “zero problems with neighbours” has been reformulated by the current prime minister, Binali Yıldırım, in a similar formula: “as many friends as possible, and as few enemies.”

This apparent move away from the sort of ideological foreign policy that Turkey has pursued since 2011 may not be pleasing to hardliners in the US and Europe, but it certainly makes sense from the perspective of Turkish national interests, given current national and regional realities.

 

Atmosphere of fear

 Having pointed to some positive responses by the Turkish government to the crisis following the coup attempt, let me mention a few disturbing negative features of the present atmosphere. Erdoğan mobilized mass street support on the night of the failed coup, an initiative that even most of his critics here in Turkey treat as a stroke of political genius that probably turned the tide of battle on the fateful evening of July 15th. Yet some fear that the nightly continuation of populist demonstration that continued for three weeks were leading the country back in the direction of majoritarian democracy and reawakened polarization, and something even worse, if the temporary consensus with the opposition starts to fray.

 

Also extremely worrisome are mass detentions, arrests, dismissals, and suspensions involving many thousands of people, many of whom are viewed as innocent of any incriminating involvement. There are also reliable reports of torture and abuse involving some of those being held, creating a widespread atmosphere of fear and intimidation, making some people even scared to voice their views.

 

Given the fresh memories of the coup attempt, its brutal violence, and the realistic worry that pro-coup elements remain strategically situated in the governing structures of society, great pressure to strengthen internal security exists and should be interpreted with a measure of sympathy, or at least understanding. There is some reason to be guardedly hopeful as many individuals have been cleared and released, and the leadership has repeatedly promised to proceed in accord with the rule of law, including making diligent efforts not to confuse Gülen conspirators with anti-AKP critics. 

 

Populist pressure

 

There is also reason to be concerned about Erdogan’s demagogic appeals that seem designed to mobilize populist pressures on Parliament to restore capital punishment for the intended purpose of prosecuting and punishing Fetullah Gülen. It should be better appreciated in Turkey that any attempted application of capital punishment to Gulen would be unacceptably retroactive, and a violation of the rule of law as universally understood.

 

Among other effects, such a prospect would give the United States a credible legal pretext to deny the pending extradition request, which in turn would create a storm of anti-American resentment in Turkey. It is helpful to do a thought experiment that captures the Turkish political mood. The overwhelming majority of Turks feel what Americans would have felt if after the 9/11 attacks a supposedly friendly government had given safe haven to Osama Bin Laden.

 

The most shortsighted aspect of the current approach is the evident decision by Erdoğan to stop short of including the pro-Kurdish political party, HDP or People’s Democratic Party, in the national unity approach, and the absence of any show of a willingness to renew a peace process with the Kurdish national movement, including representatives of the PKK. The government contends that this is not possible to do so long as the PKK engages in armed struggle, which proceeds on a daily basis.

 

Given ongoing concerns with the Islamic State (IS) group and spillovers from the Syrian war, the future of Turkey will seem far brighter if the Kurdish dimension can be constructively addressed.

 

 

Concluding Observation

 What remains after this look at present pros and cons is a core reality of uncertainty, yet I believe there is presently enough evidence of positive tendencies, to raise a tentative banner of hope about the Turkish future. Such a banner is also justified as a counter to the banner of despair and rage being waved so vigorously by anti- Erdoğan zealots around the world with much support given by mainstream media and not a few governments in the West who withheld support of the Turkish government in its hour of need and have been reluctant to accept the allegations that the coup was the work of the movement headed by Fetullah Gülen from his informal headquarters in Pennsylvania. It is hardly surprising that Ankara should be looking elsewhere for friends, and even contemplating turning its back on Europe, and conceivably even NATO. It could be that a major geopolitical realignment is underway, or maybe not. If it occurs it will be the most significant change in the geopolitical landscape since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the aftermath of

the Cold War.

Normal
0

false
false
false

EN-US
JA
X-NONE

/* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
{mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;
mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
mso-style-noshow:yes;
mso-style-priority:99;
mso-style-parent:””;
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
mso-para-margin:0in;
mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;
mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
font-size:12.0pt;
font-family:Cambria;
mso-ascii-font-family:Cambria;
mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;
mso-hansi-font-family:Cambria;
mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;}

 

Beyond Jewish Identity: Exceptionalism Revisited

20 Aug

Beyond Jewish Identity: Exceptionalism Revisited

 

The problem with Jewish identity is Jewish identity! By this I mean, the hegemonic forms of Jewish exceptionalism to which most Jews are enthralled, including a provocative insistence on willed disaffiliation in a few rate instances. Such a gesture of anti-exceptional exceptionalism is a kind of personal manifesto, a private declaration to the world of independence of Judaism with respect to both articles of faith and ethno-nationalist markers. It is usually rooted in a deep earlier experience of what it meant to be Jewish that is repudiated later on for personal and, sometimes, political reasons.

 

Of course, this kind of perverse exceptionalism also applies, with even greater stringency, to the genuine anti-Semite who attributes a negative exceptionalism to Jews by of hatred, blame, and paranoia. Zionist zealots often manipulate negative exceptionalism to instill fear among Jews about the intentions of their adversaries. It is also a useful instrument in Zionist hands to brand critics of Israel or supporters of BDS, discrediting their good faith by deliberately alleging hatred of a people while what is at stake is harsh criticism of the practices and policies of a state that inflict massive suffering on a vulnerable people. To be called a ‘self-hating Jew’ as I have been is to turn negative exceptionalism into a double-edged razor sharp weapon.

 

Positive exceptionalism, essentialized for many Jews by a variety of readings of Jews as the people chosen by God, as different and superior. It is sometimes concretized by reference to Israel that pulls above its weight when it comes to military power and technological achievement. There is another kind of positive exceptionalism that regards Jews as chosen by God to engage justly in the world seeking peace, abhorring violence. Michael Lerner, Rebecca Vilkomerson, and Marc H. Ellis exemplify the presence of such angels in our midst.

 

Thinking more personally, I acknowledge the importance of being Jewish as a marker of my identity both for myself and for many others in their chose life journey. What this means substantively is obviously very diverse. It eludes me almost altogether as I am not observant of nor familiar with Jewish rituals or traditions, although I have welcomed exposure to them when the occasion has arisen, and it has, although infrequently as my circle of friends is overwhelmingly non-observant. Subjectively, Judaism has never had a greater resonance for me than the rituals and traditions of other world religions, most of whom I have been exposed to from time to time, and which I studied long ago with a strong academic interest in religion as a structure of belief. I always welcomed opportunities to become more deeply immersed in any world religion whenever they arose. I never felt a particular attachment to the religion conferred upon me by the accident of birth, perhaps because in my case, it was not part of my upbringing and socialization experience as a child growing up in the highly secular surroundings of Manhattan.

 

Living part of each year in Turkey for more than twenty years has led my to think about the secular/religious divide that is very deep in Turkish society, and produces cleavages of understanding and polarizing enmities. I believe religion is deeply relevant to the mass of humanity, and has in recent decades been revived in quite diverse settings. In part, this seems a reaction to the modernist failures of community and identity. These failures are evident in the commodified surroundings we daily inhabit whether we wish to or not.  This defining reality of the lifeworld is heavily influenced by neoliberal capitalism as increasingly disseminated by the ambiguous magic of the digital age.

 

In the Turkish case, perhaps due to my experience of friends and colleagues, I find that the secularists tend to be more judgmental than their Islamist counterparts (who by and large accept the idea that religion and secularism can and should coexist so long as there is mutual respect and equal rights).  I interpret this difference as reflecting the fact that secularists held tightly the keys of power in republican Turkey until the Justice and Development Party (AKP) gained an electoral mandate to govern in 2002, and has been reelected time and again ever since. Had the situation been reversed, it is possible that it would be the secularists who would be more open to coexistence and mutual respect, although their pre-AKP record of governance and societal dominance gives little reason for such confidence as their policy was guided by the strong wish to keep religion in its box.

 

I am undoubtedly influenced by the view that unless ethno-nationalism in all its forms is soon superseded by a surge of commitment to species identity the human condition faces a dismal future. This does not mean abandoning a Jewish or other sub-species identities altogether, but it does emphasize another way of conceiving and layering multiple identities, with an insistence on privileging ‘human identity,’ which would reverse almost all that has gone before.  Such a revolutionary hierarchy inverts the ordering of identities that presently exist that works outward from family and immediate neighborhood, and gives least weight to ‘humanity’ or ‘cosmic consciousness.’

 

Such assessments also reflect spatial and psychological location. The meaning of being Jewish would undoubtedly be more central to my daily experience if I were living in Israel, yet no less or more authentic than an identity shaped by living most of the year in California. This affirmation of equivalence is undoubtedly an anathema to many Jews in and out of Israel, especially to adherents of Zionism in any of its many forms. Zionism above all else, as I understand it, embodies a dialectical interaction between negative and positive variants of Jewish exceptionalism, and takes for granted the hypothesis that Jews are deservedly, and for some, unavoidably exceptional.

 

Separating myself from this kind of involvement does not imply any hostility toward religious and ethnic identities so long as they seek openness to the ecumenical dimensions of human identity. To the extent a preferred identity is closed to religious and ethnic otherness, as in a variety of fundamentalisms (including secular fundamentalism), it has become in the twenty-first century the most widespread means to exhibit a collective death wish on behalf of the species. What I find most empowering is a trans-religious spirituality that draws on the insights and wisdom embedded in all the great religions, including the spirit faiths and nature religions of many native peoples. These religious and spiritual constructions of reality impart a far fuller sense of the awe and mystery of life on planet earth than can be gained by mastering what the Western Enlightenment canonized so powerfully through its amoral embrace of instrumental reason. All that reason leaves out is love, empathy, friendship, beauty, insurgent energies, and the indispensable balances and harmonies of co-evolutionary nature. Such spirituality could become a vital source of liberating energy if the human species manages to seize this bio-political moment that is upon us whether or not we realize it. And this also is a warning that the ethno-nationalist moment that continues to hold the political imagination in captivity has become the king’s highway to species extinction.

 

Instead of Jewish exceptionalism  (or American exceptionalism) the call of this bio-political moment is for species exceptionalism.

 

 

 

Human rights After the Failed Coup in Turkey

14 Aug

Human rights After the Failed Coup in Turkey

 

[Prefatory Note: This article was first published in openGlobalRights, a section of openDemocracy, on August 11, 2016. It appears here as a post in a modified form.]

 

The July 15th failed coup in Turkey is a momentous occurrence, with uncertain implications for the future of the country, and serious reverberations regionally and with respect to relations between Turkey and the United States and Europe. It has already been designated as a new  Turkish national holiday, and the main bridge over the Bosporus has been renamed ‘15th of July.’ Although many commentators rightly point to the risk to the rule of law posed by the sweeping post-coup suspensions, dismissals, and detentions, too few qualify these criticisms with a recognition that the defeat of the coup attempt was a major unambiguous victory for human rights and democracy, undoubtedly saving the country from a revival of past militarily oppressive tutelage and likely massive civil strife that could have easily become one more devastating multi-stakeholder Middle Eastern civil war.

 

 The US and Western government’s criticisms of post-coup excesses would also carry more weight if important political leaders in the West had shown less ambivalence at the time of the attempted coup, and indicate their acceptance of the now well established allegations that the coup was plotted by a cleric given sanctuary in the US and carried out by those affiliated with a secretive cult headed by Fetullah Gülen. For the harshest Turkish critics of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the coup was initially actually portrayed as ‘a counter-coup’ in reaction to the President’s alleged override of the constitutional system through his extra-legal and autocratic assumption of supreme leadership. Such critics often even call the July 15th events ‘a theater coup’ staged by the government to create a favorable political climate to further satisfy Erdoğan’s grandiose ambitions. For supporters of Erdoğan the coup attempt was a confirmation of earlier accusations and anxieties that there existed deeply embedded in the Turkish bureaucracy, including its armed forces and intelligence service, a dangerous parallel political structure that was intent on seizing control of the state without recourse to democratic procedures.

 

Three weeks later, at least within the country, almost all Turkish citizens except those implacably hostile to the AKP government are convinced that it was a genuine military coup attempt by the Gülen movement. Further, there is agreement that its defeat is highly beneficial for the country’s immediate future, and may have created a new set of circumstances in Turkey that could produce a more responsible political atmosphere, including a less polarized political discourse, allowing the opposition parties to play a more useful role in evolving a vibrant democratic political culture.

 

 These potentialities contain extraordinary promise if measured against the poisonous political environment that had existed in Turkey prior to July 15th, with the opposition inalterably opposed  to all aspects of the AKP approach to governance and intensely distrustful of Erdoğan. During the coup attempt the three major opposition parties (including the Kurdish HDP) signed a declaration of unity denouncing the coup attempt and pledging support for democratic procedures, including the rule of law. After this, Erdoğan invited the leaders of the two main opposition parties to the Presidential Mansion (yet unfortunately excluding the HDP) for a meeting to sustain this new spirit of cooperation and also to take an active part in the great national Yenkapı demonstration of August 7th that was attended by several million enthusiastic supporters of the government.

 

This display of unity among politicians in Turkish society is strongly, if cautiously, backed by views prevalent among the citizenry. Despite persisting concerns about  Erdoğan’s leadership, no tears are being shed for the coup plotters. A Turkish consensus exists that July 15th was the sinister work of the Hizmet movement led by Fetulllah Gülen. For years, I had heard a variety of concerns about this movement, operating in secrecy, publicly preaching a doctrine of Islamic moderation while acting with the cultic devotion of political fanatics. It was known that Hizemt was collaborating with and supportive of the AKP until at least 2009 or 2010 after which a widening split occurred, climaxing prior to the coup attempt on December 17, 2013 when the so-called attempted ‘corruption coup’ occurred. The exposure of corruption at high levels of the AKP led to the resignation of four ministers, but did not deeply shake AKP control or greatly diminish public confidence. In many ways July 15th is being interpreted as a violent Gülenist sequel to their failed hopes of December 17th.

 

It’s worth noting that Turkish political culture had passively reacted to prior coups in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997. In 2016, the citizenry with Erdoğan’s decisive and dramatic encouragement massively and courageously opposed the effort to engineer a military takeover of the Turkish state. This popular involvement in the defense of constitutionalism is a momentous shift in favor of participatory democracy (defending the elected leaders) and the rule of law (upholding the constitutional paths to political control). It is an occasion of populist empowerment that has been extended in the following period by nightly mass rallies in every medium sized and large city in Turkey.

 

There is an obvious, and intriguing, comparison with events in Egypt over the course of the last five years. Egypt inspired the Arab World in 2011 by the display of the power of a mobilized people to challenge an autocratic and corrupt government, and overthrow a despised, dictatorial leader. The uprising against the Mubarak regime was actually facilitated by the neutrality of the Egyptian armed forces, and its later pledge to guide the country toward constitutional democracy. However, two years later, a military coup with populist backing occurred to overthrow the elected leadership headed by Mohamed Morsi. At present, Egypt is governed by an autocratic leadership that is even more oppressive than what existed during the three decades of Mubarak’s rule. This disappointing return to Egypt’s authoritarian past did confirm the historical agency of ‘the people’ for better and for worse. This is something new in Middle East politics where prior changes in governance almost always resulted from top down challenges reflected tensions within ruling elites. One important exception was the anti-Shah mass movement of 1978-79 in Iran that gave rise to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

 

In Turkey, it was an expression of Erdoğan’s political genius to have recognized at a moment of national crisis that the vast majority of the Turkish people would stand with and fight for the government rather than support the coup attempt; and they did, of course, occupying  key public sites on the night of July 15th, most notably at the Istanbul Airport., and persisting in many encounters as unarmed martyrs in the face of gunfire from coup supporters.

 

 The signals are now mixed as to what will be the effects of the coup on democracy and human rights in Turkey.  On the one side, is the seeming switch on Erdoğan’s part to a more inclusive style of political leadership that had been noticeably absent in recent years. It would be welcome news indeed if Erdoğan abandons the sort of majoritarian democracy that led to his defiant disregard of opposition concerns rationalized as heeding the AKP electoral mandate. Far less encouraging is the seeming over-reaction to the coup attempt expressed by dismissing as many thousands from educational institutions and continuing interference with a free and critical media, although almost all of this journalistic crackdown has been directed at outlets affiliated with the Gülen movement. Unlike the large dismissals from the armed forces and several branches of government, these attacks on the institutions of a free society, do not seem justifiable poat-coup efforts to purge public institutions of dangerous and subversive elements. However, some appreciation of the context is warranted. The Gülen movement infiltrated and transformed the educational system as a way of gaining credentials for its followers to penetrate private and public sectors in Turkey, establishing over the course of decades powerful networks of subversive influence that subordinated their activities to the hierarchical directives of the sect. They also established a large number of media outlets to disseminate their views.

 

There are external dimensions of the post-coup realities that also complicate the picture, especially the feeling among the Turkish public and politicians that the United States was improperly involved in the coup attempt and, at best, neutral about its defeat. This issue of external solidarity is further being tested by whether the formal request of the Turkish government that Fetulllah Gülen be extradited in accordance with treaty obligations will be honored by the United States, enabling his criminal prosecution, and possibly involving the imposition of the death penalty. Extradition faces formidable technical difficulties. The legal defense of Gülen is sure to include several contentions: that he cannot  receive a fair trial in Turkey;  that Gülen’s activity was ‘political,’ and as such non-extraditable; that evidence of his specific intent in relation to the coup attempt is not present in a legally satisfactory form; and  that efforts to restore the death penalty in Turkey to allow a court to decree his execution  would be retroactive, and thus contrary to due process.

 

Despite the legal difficulties of granting extradition, should it be refused or too long delayed whatever the reasons given, Turkish anger will be intense. In Turkish public opinion harboring Gülen can be understood as roughly equivalent to what Americans would have felt if Turkey had given safe haven to Osama Bin Laden after 9/11; it is helpful to recall that the US felt justified in a regime changing military attack on Afghanistan just because the Kabul government was giving sanctuary to the al-Qaeda leadership and permitting its training facilities to take place. Turkish suspicions are inflamed by the realization that Graham Fuller, former CIA bureau chef in Turkey, together with other CIA former officials, sponsored Gülen’s application for ‘a green card’ legalizing permanent residence in the United States since 1999, reportedly visited Turkey shortly before the coup attempt, and published a pro-Gülen opinion piece strongly defending the movement and Gülen’s probable innocence with respect to the July 15th events. Fuller’s portrayal of Gülen flies in the face of many seemingly reliable insider accounts of how Hizmet movement members plotted, subverted, and were obedient to orders attributed to Gülen.

 

 

As of now, despite all the uncertainties, the failure of the coup attempt should be viewed as one of the few success stories of recent Middle East history. Whether this positive impression will soon be erased by repressive developments inside Turkey is uncertain.  Much depends upon whether post-coup political unity is sustained and deepened, and whether a bold initiative is taken to reach an accommodation with the Kurdish movement that has been violently engaged with the Ankara government in recent months. It seems important for outsiders to be patient and to exhibit sympathy with the efforts of the Turkish government and its leaders to rise to these daunting post-coup challenges without unduly compromising human rights and the rule of law in Turkey. The world accorded the United States the benefit of the doubt after 9/11, and it should do no less for Turkey in the aftermath of July 15th. So far the responses from the United States and Europe have been tepid at best, serving to confirm the widespread feelings here in Turkey that somehow the coup attempt was directly or indirectly related to the belief that Washington could more effectively work with Turkey if the country was led by someone other than Erdoğan. No one has speculated on Washington’s Plan B if extradition is denied spurring Turkey to realign with Russia,, Iran, and possibly China. As of now, before the coup attempt, the Turkish foreign policy reset involved moving toward equi-distance diplomacy toward Russia and Iran, offset in its adverse Western strategic perceptions by moves to normalize relations with Israel.

 

Finally, in this period it is probably wise to separate human rights concerns from an appraisal of Turkish constitutional democracy. It is quite possible that present tendencies toward a more inclusive democracy will continue, and at the same time, denials of human rights are almost certain to persist, and justify scrutiny and vigilance.    

 

Normal
0

false
false
false

EN-US
JA
X-NONE

/* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
{mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;
mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
mso-style-noshow:yes;
mso-style-priority:99;
mso-style-parent:””;
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
mso-para-margin:0in;
mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;
mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
font-size:12.0pt;
font-family:Cambria;
mso-ascii-font-family:Cambria;
mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;
mso-hansi-font-family:Cambria;
mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;}

Context Matters: Turkey After the Failed Coup

2 Aug

 

 

 

 

The legendary American pro-football coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi, famously remarked when asked about his sports philosophy, “Winning isn’t everything. It is the only thing.” In thinking about the Turkish failed coup I paraphrase Lombardi: “Context isn’t everything. It is the only thing.” Without an adequate depiction of context every inflamed political happening is twisted in its presentation to fit the preconceived notions of the commentator opening the way for endless polemics. I am aware that as ‘a commentator’ I am subject to the same standards that I apply to those with whom I disagree. By being attentive to context, at least there is added an important degree of transparency and even self-scrutiny, enabling others to evaluate the line of interpretation put forward.

 

The element of context that I wish to underscore is that of location: distinguishing the interpretation of the events in question by persons mostly inside or mostly outside Turkey. I have been struck in recent days by the extent to which friends, opinion piece writers, journalists, and politicians writing from outside of Turkey are preoccupied with what the Turkish government has done wrong since the coup, especially presenting the post-coup as an atmosphere where Erdoğan is opportunistically pursuing his authoritarian goals under the false banner of enhancing the security of the state.

In contrast, most friends and commentators inside Turkey, including those holding similar critical political views to the outsiders, emphasize the encouraging and generally responsible steps being taken by the government since of July 15th and the widely shared belief, including among strong Erdoğan critics, that this is a time for unity and a shared sense that the defeat of the attempted coup benefitted the whole of Turkish society.

 

Of course, these generalizations are nothing more than strong impressions. It is obvious that there are a wide range of insider and outsider accounts of the failed coup in both groups, including a considerable overlap, but at least from my limited angle of vision there differences worth noticing.

 

Writing from inside the country is one reason why I feel far more sympathetic with the real insiders, and believe that an essential difference is one of context with respect to location. Those outside, influenced especially by the domination of the political discourse by strident anti-Erdoğan, anti-AKP intellectuals and media in Europe and North America, devote almost all of their attention to post-coup abridgements of freedoms, the anti-democratic state of emergency, and to finding signs pointing to the further advancement of Erdoğan’s autocratic agenda by taking advantage of the surge of popular support for the government that is allegedly reinforced by the intimidation of oppositional viewpoints.

 

There is another feature underscoring the relevance of location, which results from greater familiarity with and proximity to the accused culprits, giving real meaning within Turkey to the political truism, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ The wide public acceptance of the allegation that the coup was both genuine and the work of the quasi-religious, secretive, and cultic movement led by Fetullah Gülen has created a willingness to give the benefit of the doubt with respect to most of the steps so far taken by the government. The international media has not reacted in a similar fashion. It has surrounded the attempted coup with a series of question marks. In particular, it has suggested that maybe the coup was undertaken by discontented secular elements in the Turkish armed forces rather than by Gülenist forces or FETÖ (Fetullahist Terror Organization).

 

Those inside, tend to take greater notice of Erdoğan’s apparent return to a pre-2011 more pragmatic and inclusive approach to governance during these two weeks since the coup attempt. During this period Erdoğan has also been leading the effort to eliminate from government and civil society those who actively support FETÖ. The risk of leaving many coup sympathizers in places of influence within the various bureaucracies of government is disturbing to many not otherwise supportive of AK Party (AKP; Justice and Development Party) leadership. It is to be expected that for the country’s elected leaders who were nearly assassinated the issue of purging government of suspects touches directly issues of personal survival. This immediate concern is often confused with longer range efforts to prevent the educational system from nurturing FETÖ loyalists, which helps explain the closing of all military high schools that had been a prime recruiting site for Fetullahists.

 

By and large, Erdoğan’s public demeanor of calmness since the coup attempt has also been reassuring to the general public here in Turkey. It goes along with his welcome decision to drop the numerous pending criminal cases underway to prosecute those accused of violating a Turkish law that prohibits insulting the president. Such charges should never have been initiated in a democratic society that values freedom of expression, but what is worthy of comment is that at a time when Erdoğan is being accused of using the stressed atmosphere as a cover for his autocratic designs, he signals this new willingness not to punish his political adversaries as he is permitted to do under Turkish law. This move has been explicitly welcomed by Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, head of the Peoples Republican Party (CHP), the most prominent among those previously charged. Along a similar line is the rehabilitation of several prominent generals with known strong secular credentials, which seems part of this AKP unity platform to incorporate followers of Kemal Ataturk in the governing process, which if such a trend continues, is a major development.

 

Of course, considering the complexity and uncertainty of the post-coup reality, both insiders and outsiders are, at best, looking through ‘a glass darkly.’ There are many hidden factors, the situation is fluid, and there are appearances that could either vanish in a flash or become suddenly magnified. Aside from the Gülenist threat, the biggest internal problem facing Turkey is posed by the ongoing struggle with the large Kurdish minority, which may turn out to be the decisive test of whether these post-coup gestures of political unity evolve into a new and more hopeful form of political development for the country.

 

I believe insiders are also more aware of some troubling features that seem of less consequence to the West and the Turkish diaspora—that is, the popular mobilization that are nightly filling the city squares since the night of the coup attempt and will continue until August 7th. At first this show of wildly enthusiastic support for the nation and government, undoubtedly not anticipated by the coup leaders, is correctly regarded by Turkish public opinion as having played a major role in turning the tide of battle on the night of 15th. However, the daily continuation of these populist displays could tempt political leaders to engage in demagogic politics. If such an atmosphere persists it would likely lead to the abandonment of the tentative depolarizing steps taken to soften the religious/secular divide.

 

So far, an impressive dimension of the internal context is being established by the long dominant opposition party, CHP (Republican People’s Party), leading the way, with the backing of Erdoğan, toward exhibiting a post-coup consensus that contrasts with the toxic polarization that has characterized Turkish politics ever since the AKP prevailed in the 2002 elections. The Chair of the CHP, Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu commented in this spirit, saying his party’s “biggest wish’ was the continuation of this atmosphere of “reconciliation”: “Today an atmosphere of reconciliation and mutual listening has emerged in politics. My biggest wish is for the maintenance of this atmosphere. My second biggest wish is for the enlargement of a common ground.” Whether this mood lasts or not, such a statement is quite extraordinary against the background of unrelenting opposition by the CHP to every previous step taken by the Erdoğan led government over the course of many years. Erdoğan also deserves credit for fully joining this effort with symbolic and substantive steps, including inviting the CHP and the more rightest MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) to the presidential palace for joint discussions on future policy. The picture is not entirely encouraging as the Kurdish party, HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), although joining with the CHP and MHP in denouncing the coup attempt before the outcome of the struggle for control of the Turkish state was clearly known, did not receive an invitation to attend the meeting in his residence. Such an omission could be more innocently interpreted as an effort to find common ground among the three main political parties on how to address the Kurdish challenge given this altered set of national priorities, and this could be more effectively done with the HDP representative absent.

 

This fragile collaborative tendency does not imply a willingness of the opposition to accept Erdoğan’s approach or even the absence of sharp policy disagreements with respect to such coup related issues as disputes about the application of due process to those accused of Gülenist complicity and affiliations or AKP-led encouragement of the restoration of capital punishment. There are serious criticisms being made of the way some journalists who wrote for Gülenist media have been arrested, mistreated, and charged. Also there are a variety of protests objecting to the dismissals of large number of academicians, dismissed from their jobs in ways likely to harm their career and impose material hardship. These developments are unacceptable and should be opposed, but criticism to be persuasive within the country needs to be contextualized by reference to the intense anxieties raised by the attempted coup and a preoccupation with how to guard against a second attempt.

 

It is helpful for these critics to recall reliance on torture of suspects and detention of Muslims in the United States after 9/11, the establishment of the notorious Guantanamo detention center to imprison Al Qaeda suspects many of whom turned out to be innocent, and the shocking Abu Ghraib prison abuses. These unfortunate developments occurred in reaction to an extremely threatening national experience by the world’s most admired and militarily strongest constitutional democracy. As these events unfolded after the Al Qaeda attacks of September 11, the United States was rarely censured by the international media for these encroachments on human rights, but was mainly treated as having endured provocations on such a scale as to justify a temporary suspension of judgment until months later when spectacular abuse became known to the public.

 

This temporary mellowing of domestic politics in Turkey reflects a provisional, substantively significant, inter-party consensus. This is an unexpected reaction to the coup attempt is a reflection of the overall acceptance of the official Ankara version of the July 15th events. Accusing Gülenists is now widely accepted and obsessively discussed across the political spectrum within the country, including the particularly the sinister role played by those called ‘putschists’ in mounting their violent challenge to governance by a fairly elected leadership. This violence included the killing of unarmed Turkish civilians and the bombing of the Turkish Parliament building. Prior Turkish coups had been deftly executed and were relatively bloodless so far as the general population was concerned, despite being harshly vindictive toward displaced leaders and their supporters during the post-coup aftermath. As in 1960 when the elected prime minister, Adnan Menderes was publically hanged, and large numbers imprisoned, dismissed from their jobs, and executed. Or in 1980 when university faculties were purged, numerous journalists imprisoned, and thousands lost public sector jobs. Despite these excesses the international outcry in reaction to past Turkish coups was muted, even sympathetic, due to the geopolitical and ideological context. Since the post-coup targets of repression were concentrated on the secular left it was in keeping with Cold War priorities championed by the US Government. In effect, geopolical context matters as much as or more than the location of the observer. In this regard, it is instructive to compare the cascade of post-July 15 criticism and scrutiny that has been directed at Turkey with the soft international landing given to the 2013 Sisi coup in Egypt, which was not even called a coup by Washington, despite its seizure of power from elected leaders, exceptionally bloody aftermath. In Egypt as was the case for Turkey in 1980 there were several strong political reasons to welcome the results and forego complaints.

 

 

In relation to Turkey, despite the complex challenge directed at the Erdoğan leadership after the failed coup, Europeans and American public figures have been quick to express their criticisms and admonitions in isolation from their Turkish post-coup context. Federica Mogherini, the current EU official responsible for foreign policy, condescendingly urging restraint upon the Turkish government, insisting that Turkey be held responsible if it exceeds ‘proportionate’ post-coup responses, whatever that might mean. Did the EU issue any cautionary response when France declared a state of emergency after the Paris attacks of November 13, 2015 and extended it in response to the mid-July truck massacre in Nice? This posture of moral tutelage directed at Turkey is definitely an expression of a colonialist mentality that continues to bias Euro-American thinking about Turkish political realities.

 

There are a variety of well intentioned civil society petitions being circulated abroad, warnings issued, including calls for the suspension of EU accession negotiations. Some in the West have even urged the suspension of Turkey from NATO membership in view of alleged human rights infringements during the post-coup period. Some responses in the West are so wildly exaggerated as to be suspect. Consider the outburst by Tom Brake, the foreign affairs spokesperson of the Liberal Democrat Party in the UK. Brake argued that the wave of arrests in Turkey “should send shivers down the spine of any person who believes in a free and open society.” “Erdoğan’s ongoing purge of newspapers, academics, teachers and judges has nothing to do with Turkey’s security and everything to do with blocking opposition to his increasingly authoritarian rule.” Again it is helpful to wonder why the much worse crackdown after the Egyptian coup of three years ago received so little critical attention and the Turkish reaction to a truly frightening challenge to the political system has been so harshly judged.

 

It is no doubt useful and constructive in this period to express cautionary concerns about controversial initiatives taken by the Turkish government, and specifically, Erdoğan, in this post-coup period, while at the same time showing sensitivity to the urgent necessity for the government to restore security for the public and to rebuild confidence in relation to the armed forces, intelligence, judiciary, the police. Such a nuanced viewpoint is admirably contextualed by Mustafa Akyol, among others. In a column published in the Hürriet Daily News, July 30-31, 2016 Akyol couples an appropriate tone of sensitivity to the need for action against those suspected of potentially harmful associations with the Gülen movement with critical comments focused on the extension of punitive action to Gülen sympathizers, including journalists and academics, who pose no plausible threat. Akyol is a credible observer of the present scene partly because he was such a high profile critic of Erdoğan’s leadership. He is an internationally known commentator on Turkish developments who is as a regular contributor to the opinion pages of the New York Times. Akyol incidentally strongly endorses the view that the weight of the evidence supports blaming the coup attempt on the Gülenists, and their leader.

 

Here again, context matters. Turkey is confronted by a situation where it is nearly impossible to distinguish reliably between friends and enemies, and where the failure to do so could in the future make the difference between life and death for individuals and could possibly close down the democratic governing process in Turkey altogether. There remains much concern that a second coup attempt could be soon organized by Gülenist forces responsible for the July 15th attempt who are still believed here to retain their positions within the Turkish governmental machinery. If you are worried along these lines, you are likely to act more vigorously than if you don’t.

 

To invoke a bit of folk wisdom, ‘it doesn’t matter where you look, it’s what you see.” The Turkish post-coup context that I am experiencing makes me generally sympathetic with the efforts of the government and its leadership as part of its security policy to move toward a more inclusive democracy than existed during the last five years. If this development is sustained it will diminish the paralyzing effects of polarization that has prevented Turkey from achieving its political and economic potential nationally and internationally during the last decade or so.

 

It is yet to be seen whether the US Government can absolve itself from a widely suspected involvement with the Gülenists and their plots, and what this will mean for Turkey internally, regionally, and in relation to the European Union and NATO. The visit of the American Chief of Staff, his pledge of American solidarity with the Turkish government, although belated, at least recognizes the importance of correcting the belief here in Turkey that the US was directly or indirectly supportive of the July 15th attempt.

 

All in all, valuing context matters greatly when it comes to assessing Turkish reactions to the failed coup. Considering context is one way of trying to see as ‘the other’ sees. At this post-traumatic moment of political reconstruction Turkey deserves sympathy from the outside while it is seeking to maximize unity on the inside, and as the process proceeds, constructively encourage the leadership to correct some early reflexive moves taken in the name of internal security that could otherwise unjustly damage the life experience of many individuals and do great damage to the international reputation of the country. There exists a crucial challenge posed by the resumption of open warfare in the Kurdish region, and the importance of reviving a peace process that seeks inter-ethnic accommodation. Part of the prescribed contextualization, given Turkish realities, is to avoid premature international appraisals, admit underlying uncertainties, and allow enough imaginative space to enable a hopeful future for Turkey.                                

Is Genocide a Controversial International Crime?

30 Jul

Why ‘Genocide’ is still a Controversial Crime?

 

In this strikingly original, strange, and brilliant book, Philippe Sands raises a haunting question among a tangle of other intriguing issues discussed throughout East-West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity (New York: Knopf, 2016). It is at once a plural biography (with a bit of autobiography thrown in), a jurisprudential fairy tale, and a searing account of the horrifying impact that vicious Nazi policies had on the lives of the author’s family members as well on those of his human rights heroes. The haunting question is this: was it a wise and practical decision to keep the crime of genocide from being part of the international criminal law framework used to assess the individual accountability of surviving Nazi political and military leaders, and then subsequently in dealing with past and present mass atrocities?

 

Reflecting my own interest over the years in the use and misuse of the language of genocide, I found this to be the most provocative and enduring dimension of this multiply fascinating book in which Sands exhibits his versatility as jurist, legal practitioner, investigative journalist, and amateur historian of the Holocaust as it victimized one small region in contemporary Poland that happened to be the birthplace of his grandfather as well as two of the most renowned contributors to the development of international criminal law of the past century. The book’s title is obscure until we readers discover that East-West Street runs the length of the small town in contemporary Poland where these three families originated, and resided, until the momentous events of the 1930s forced them to seek refuge by moving Westwards.

 

East-West Street can be read from many different angles, divided into no less than 158 short chapters besides a prologue that explains how such an unusual literary/intellectual journey got its accidental start with a lecture invitation to the author and an epilogue that attempts to summarize the juridical interplay between the two prime architects of core international crimes (Sir Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin) and the crimes themselves (crimes against humanity and genocide). What creates the dramatic tension in Sands’ treatment of this interplay is the contrast between a jurisprudential logic that focuses on crimes committed against individuals as contrasted with a competing logic that emphasizes crimes against groups. Also at play for Sands are the contrasting personalities and legal approaches of Lauterpacht, the cool, pragmatic, revered professorial insider, and Lemkin, the emotionally driven, obsessive outsider who dedicated his adult life to lobbying governments to support genocide as a crime, and somehow managed to get results.

 

In the background of this titanic struggle of ideas, were the personal stories of the individuals involved, which, in effect, provided the private motivations for such influential public acts. An extraordinary coincidence that Sands puts to excellent literary use arises from the simple fact that both Lauterpacht and Lemkin were connected in their early lives and studies with a small town, variously named, that changed hands eight times between 1914 and 1945, being governed at different times by Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union. Its most durable name during the period covered in the book is Lemberg, although it is today known by its Polish name, Lviv. What strains credibility almost to the breaking point is that Sands’ own grandfather, Leon Bucholz, also was born in Lemberg, and it is around the lives of these three men of the law that Sands weaves a complex narrative structure that is surprisingly readable. Much of the book is devoted, with passionate attention to the minutest detail, to how their personal lives and sensibilities were shaped by their departure from the Lemberg before it fell under Nazi occupation, and by the pain associated with the wrenching reality of losing contact with their families left behind. Only belatedly, years later did they each discover the ghastly experiences of lethal victimization experienced by family members after the Nazis took over what had then been Polish sovereign territory. It was striking that only silence could accord dignity to occurrences that were evidently experienced as unspeakable, paralyzing a sensitive moral imagination.

 

Against such a background it is to be expected that the book examines closely the person and behavior of Hans Frank, one of the 21 Nazis prosecuted at Nuremberg, who served as the cruel and devoted Governor General of Poland during the war years when the country fell under German occupation, and became the most notorious killing field of the Nazi era. It is also highly relevant that the three men whose lives and careers are the focal point of the narrative, given further reality by interspersed family pictures and documents, were Jewish, although none with any pronounced religious commitment. Yet their lives and careers were multiply determined by this Jewish identity, and what this meant during a period of unprecedented mass persecution and extermination. This interest in Frank is reinforced by Sands’ extraordinary collaboration with Franks’ son, Niklas, with whom he visits the Nuremberg courtroom where 68 years earlier a death sentence had been imposed on his father. Not to be content with the involvement of Niklas, Sands’ also persuades Horst, son of Otto von Wächter, who administered for Nazi rulers an area that included Lemberg, and had earlier been a classmate of Lauterpacht in the law school of the local university, to assist in the reconstruction of the events. These intergenerational connections led Sands to write the screenplay and perform in a documentary film, My Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did, which had its 2015 premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, and won recognition and awards.

 

Such an attempt at reliving of these historical events illustrates the contrasting adjustments to the present, with Niklas feeling that his father fully deserved the punishment he received at Nuremberg, while Horst exhibits a morbid pride, remembering his father’s prominence without any sign of shame or even regrets about his father’s role in carrying out the evil policies of the Nazi occupiers. Philippe Sands positions himself both within and without this apocalyptic past, trying to pull the pieces together in a coherent multi-dimensional account without losing contact with his own personal engagement in this overwhelming family tragedy.

 

Putting to one side the intriguing biographical and autobiographical levels of Sands’ construction of these various lives, I wish to concentrate my observations on the legal legacies associated with Lauterpacht and Lemkin,

depicted with such vividness throughout the book, reaching their climax at Nuremberg. As Sands observes, crimes against humanity (CAH) and genocide were both radical and innovative juridical ideas seeking to criminalize Nazi atrocities. CAH focused on protecting the individual against the criminality of any state including one’s own, while genocide was conceived to criminalize the mass killing of identifiably distinct ethnic or religious groups. Lauterpacht more or less invented CAH with the intention of repudiating the impunity that traditionally attached to wrongdoing by a sovereign government against individuals subject to its territorial jurisdiction and thus insulating those who acted on behalf of the state from any kind of personal accountability. CAH mounted a legal challenge directed at unconditional territorial sovereignty and the prevalence of absolute monarchy, which had long dominated the state-centric world order established in Europe by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Such impunity continued to be a feature of nationalist ideology despite the French Revolution and the emergence of democratic constitutionalism. The numerous subsequent efforts to make governments internally accountable for their acts through law and a variety of constitutional procedures, including elections, did not extend to external behavior. What made CAH such a radical step forward was this insistence on some measure of external or international accountability by means of law.

 

Lemkin, on his side, invented the crime of genocide, including even the word, almost all by himself. He was guided by the unwavering belief that criminalizing the kind of racialist policies put into practice by Nazi Germany was urgently necessary to save civilization from the recurrence of barbarism. It seems that Lemkin was initially disposed to criminalize such behavior by his shocked reaction to the mass killing in Turkey of Armenians in 1915, and the absence of any punitive international response embedded in international law. He believed fervently that the deadly political virus giving rise to such collective behavior was a distinct form of criminality that should never be conflated with a series of separate criminal acts, however severe, that were directed at individuals.

 

I would have thought that there was every reason to support both forms of criminality in reaction to the Nazi experience, and to a certain extent, so does Sands. The main technical obstacle, only superficially discussed by Sands, to the prosecution of these crimes at Nuremberg was the prohibition against retroactive applications of criminal laws. In fact, the Nuremberg Judgment devoted considerable energy to demonstrate its respect for the prohibition, endorsing CAH only if the acts in question could be connected with the onset of the war in 1939; in other words, from 1933 to 1939, the early years of the Nazi regime, the wrongdoing of those acting on behalf of the German government continued to be internationally shielded by impunity. Subsequently, the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the Nuremberg Principles, ratified now by more than a half century of state practice gives CAH the status of obligatory norms under customary international law, no longer necessarily linked to aggressive war. More than this, these Principles have come to be regarded as ‘peremptory norms’ or simply jus cogens, that cannot be altered by governmental action, and can be changed only through their replacement by another peremptory norm.

 

Genocide has had a somewhat similar intellectual voyage after being sidelined at Nuremberg to Lemkin’s great disappointment. His personal crusade to achieve the inclusion of genocide among the crimes charged against the Nazis failed. Undeterred by this setback, Lemkin’s unwavering perseverance after Nuremberg was soon rewarded. The Genocide Convention came into force in 1950, and as Sands observes, almost instantly genocide became the ‘crime of crimes,’ the most stigmatizing form of criminality whose commission results in a permanent tainting of the national character of a sovereign state found to have been guilty of genocide. There have been various allegations of genocide over the decades, with Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda being among the most notorious instances.

 

Sands situates himself not quite equidistant in relation to these two jurisprudential giants. His own academic life and personal associations disposed him to side with Lauterpacht, celebrating his success in introducing CAH into the fabric of the Nuremberg experience and from there, to become a critical norm in the emergence of international criminal law, and a featured crime embedded in the Rome Statute that creates the legal framework for the International Criminal Court. Sands is unabashedly appreciative, even awed, believinging that Lauterpacht was recognized as “the outstanding legal mind of the twentieth century, and a father of the modern human rights movement.” [loc. 254] Lauterpacht, as an influential Cambridge professor later elected to the International Court of Justice became a member of the British establishment, and was professionally admired for his prodigious output as a scholar that showcased his committed, yet cautious approach to the development of international law. For Lauterpacht this development to be authentic had to arise from the practice of sovereign states. He had a keen appreciation of the limits of what was politically feasible and legally appropriate, and was respectful toward patterns of statecraft, possibly reflecting his exposure while a student to the great Austrian formalist and positivist, Hans Kelsen. In a book built around the organic links between the personal and public, it is hardly surprising that Sands turns out to have been a student at Cambridge and that Eli Lauterpacht, the jurist son of Hersch, was his teacher and a collaborating source of information about his famous father. This contributes one more instance of Sands’ interest in fathers and sons. Unfortunately, for his scheme of things, Lemkin never married and had no sons.

 

The older Lauterpacht was openly skeptical of genocide, viewing it as ‘impractical,’ even an impediment to the realistic development of international law. Sands is never fully clear as to why a crime that seemed to depict the very essence of the Nazi victimization of Jews and others, should have been put aside on grounds of practicality in the lead up to the Nuremberg proceedings. He does mention in passing American and British reluctance to put such a crime into the indictment at Nuremberg was related to the rattle of skeletons in their respective historical closets: the systematic decimation of native Americans and a variety of British colonial practices. According to Sands, “Lauterpacht never embraced the idea of genocide. To the end of his life, he was dismissive, both of the subject, and more politely, of the man who concocted it, even if he recognized the aspirational quality.” [loc.6700] Sands does refer to the problematic aspects of genocide in various places—especially a lawyer’s difficulty of finding strong enough evidence of the appropriate criminal intent to convince a court of law, considering that those engaged in genocide rarely leave a paper trail that satisfies those sitting in judgment and aware that to obtain a guilty verdict in responses to genocide is an indirect punishment of a nation and its people as well as of the individuals charged.

 

In this regard, despite the crime of genocide not being part of the formal proceedings at Nuremberg, Germany has been convicted of ‘genocide’ in the court of public opinion, and Germans whatever their relationship to the Nazi experience seem destined to live perpetually under this dark cloud. As many have observed, and I have experienced, this deep German consciousness of historic guilt explains an excessive deference to the policies of the state of Israel and the related fear that any criticism of Israeli behavior, however justified, will be perceived as anti-Semitism. In this respect, there is a real objection to the formal and informal allegations of genocide because it imposes guilt not only on individuals who acted for the state but on the nation as a whole. There is a related issue, not raised by Sands, of the degree of complicity with Nazism that it is fair to attribute to the German people as a whole, and whether this complicity should cast its shadow over future generations.

 

I have had an interest in the embittered standoff between the Armenian diaspora and Turkey over the redress of historic grievances relating to the tragic events of 2015. To resolve this standoff depends exclusively on the willingness of Turkey to issue a formal acknowledgement that the wrongs endured more than a century ago by the Armenian people constituted genocide. No lesser form of apology by Turkey even if accompanied by initiatives that keep historical memories alive via a museum, educational materials, and commemorative events will overcome this Armenian insistence, supported by many Western governments, that Turkey admit genocide. Sands appears sympathetic with the difficulty posed by this apparent fetishization of genocide, writing, “[i]t was no surprise that an editorial in a leading newspaper, on the occasion of the centenary against Armenians, suggested that the word ‘genocide’ may be unhelpful, because it ‘stirs up national outrage rather than the sort of ruthless examination of the record the country needs.’” [loc. 6618]

 

Questioning the Armenian insistence on genocide has become political incorrect even though the crime was unknown in 1915 when the offending behavior took place and the modern state of Turkey did not then exist as it only came into existence in 1923. Of course, such legalistic considerations will never resolve the controversy as what is deeply at stake is the way historical memories should be inscribed on political consciousness of both victim and perpetrator societies, as well as in authoritative public accounts. It is plausible to admit that what happened a hundred years would have qualified as the crime of genocide if it took place after 1950. The case is further complicated because many Turks continue to subscribe to a historical narrative that claims that the massacres resulted from excessive uses of force in a wartime situation in which Armenians were seen to be a subversive presence siding with the Russian adversaries of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and included occasions on which Turks were also slaughtered. This counter-narrative complicates any acknowledgement by the Turkish government of genocide as it would agitate the volatile ultra-nationalist sentiments that dominate the extreme right in the country.  

 

It is understandable from Armenian perspectives that only an admission of ‘genocide’ is capable of encompassing the magnitude of the wrongs suffered by the Armenian people. There is no other word with comparable stigmatizing power. It was this stigmatizing power that led to Bill Clinton in 1994, while president of the United States, to issue his notorious order that the word ‘genocide’ should not be used by government employees with reference to the massive killing taking place in Rwanda. Clinton evidently feared that the mobilizing effect of labeling these events as genocide would exert unwanted pressure on the United States to intervene to stop the killing.

 

This is the meeting point of the genius of Lemkin, and the worldliness of Lautherpacht, with Sands sensitive to the virtues and limitations of both viewpoints although leaning toward the Lauterpacht approach. Of course, the German guilt is quite different in its essentials from the Turkish reality. A Turkish admission of genocide, should it ever be made, would not be internalized in the manner forced upon Germany by the denazification program implemented by the victors after World War II. It is relevant to realize that Armenian genocide did not emanate from an extremist racialism that was so closely connected with Hitler’s rise to power based on virulent anti-Semitism.

 

In one sense Lemkin has been too successful. In his insistence that what the Nazis were doing to Jews, and other peoples, was a crime against the group, he unwittingly succeeded in elevating genocide above crimes against humanity, and thereby weakened Lauterpacht’s interest in promoting international accountability for crimes without undermining peace among states. There are other concerns. If genocide if read backward into history, as in the Armenian case, it opens a Pandora’s Box that intensifies numerous bitter memories of the past, reopens wounds, and seems to unduly burden present generations with a legacy of criminality that was the work of those no longer alive. What is worse, the Holocaust as the context in which the crime was formalized operates as a standard of comparison, the crime of crimes that lies behind the legal conceptualization, which discourages its acknowledgement by political entities that might be ready to issue an apology but not to suggest that in their national past is an experience that deserves to be treated as comparably reprehensible to what Jews, and not only Jews, suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

 

Given a world of states, maybe Lauterpacht after all adopted the more tenable position. Perhaps the most that can be hoped for is an international criminal law framework that prosecutes, as appropriate, individuals, and leaves the chronicling of group crime to historians, novelists, and filmmakers. Even here there are problems not faced by Lauterpacht or Sands that relate to the hierarchical character of world order that makes any serious application of international criminal law more a creature of geopolitics than an expression of the rule of law or a tenet of global justice.

 

Sands while right to be proud of his own role as revered litigator of international crimes adopts a more questionable position by downplaying the relevance of geopolitics. In a notable passage about the objection to Nuremberg as ‘victors’ justice’ he writes, “[y]es, there was a strong whiff of ‘victor’s [sic] justice,’ [at Nuremberg] but there was no doubting that the case was catalytic, opening the possibility that the leaders of a country could be put on trial before an international court, something that had never happened before. [loc. 288] A whiff! [for those unfamiliar with ‘whiff’ its dictionary definition is this: “a brief passing odor in the air as in ‘a whiff of perfume’ or “a very small trace as in ‘a whiff of self-pity in her remarks’] Looking at the impunity conferred by the Nuremberg framework on the indiscriminate, terror bombing of German cities [recall Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five], not to mention the fire bombing of Tokyo and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the victors’ dimension could not be convincingly marginalized from the overall legal proceedings. It was certainly more consequential than even ‘a strong whiff’! Even the American prosecutor, Robert Jackson, who is portrayed by Sands quite reasonably as the most influential presence at Nuremberg, understood that the moral validity of the decision rendered was precarious, and needed future vindication by being integrated into an international law framework that bound all states, winners and losers, strong and weak. That this never happened deserves commentary that Sands fails to provide.

 

Instead, Sands reminds us that there has been much follow up to Nuremberg that supports his assessment of its catalytic impact. He cites his own extensive experience with both categories of criminality in cases involving Serbia, Croatia, Libya, United States, Rwanda, Argentina, Chile, Israel and Palestine, United Kingdom, Yemen, Iran, Iran, Iran, Iraq, and Syria as if the mere listing proves his point. [loc. 6607] I believe Sands’ impressive legal activism only shifts the focus. True, there has been a robust development of human rights and international criminal law, especially after the end of the Cold War, but this has obscured rather than overcome this fundamental flaw. The integrity of the rule of law as an operative global system, depends crucially on treating equals equally, and this has never happened, nor will it happen without a sea change in world politics. As African countries have been pointing out with plausibility, criminal accountability for both CAH and genocide is limited to weak states and losing sides in wars, and impunity remains for the strong and winners. We will long be waiting for the likes of George W. Bush or Tony Blair being called to account for their role in embarking on a disastrous aggressive war against Iraq in 2003.

 

True, introducing these categories of criminality into the legal vocabulary gave a valuable normative tool to civil society, first effectively utilized by the much maligned Russell Tribunal in the midst of the Vietnam War and more recently by the Iraq War Tribunal of 2005 that addressed crimes associated with the Iraq War. Yet civil society has only public opinion at its disposal, and even here, is hampered by the statist orientation of most media outlets that demean such civil society initiatives as illegitimate intrusions on the public sphere reserved exclusively for governments representing sovereign states. At best, these civil society tribunals that pass judgment on the behavior of geopolitical actors are expressions of a moral consciousness that acts as if these norms of international criminal law should be universally regulative rather than selectively applied.

 

Sands, along with Lauterpacht and Lemkin, share the liberal conviction that law is an autonomous force for the good in human affairs (unless deformed in its application as by the Nazis). Their sense of practicalities appears to be a willingness to overlook geopolitical constraints, and to take what incremental steps are made available by circumstances with the hope and expectation that over time the growth of law and legal institutions will overcome the present arbitrariness of practice. In the meantime, the liberal test of validity is a matter of procedural assurances that trials are fair and that those who are convicted are guilty of heinous acts that deserve to be punished. The related fact that some are too powerful to be accountable is a fact of life that it is best not to think too much about. Along with far more notable public intellectuals (e.g. Russell, Sartre, Chomsky, Edward Said) I dissent from this liberal optimism/opportunism, believing that the conscience of engaged citizens is an indispensable challenge to all political systems, (talking truth to power) rather than limiting constructive contributions by acting within it. At the same time, I would not judge liberal icons, such as Sands and Lauterpacht, who have made a political choice opposite to mine.

 

In the course of this essay I have ignored other significant publications by Sands, most particularly his prior relevant and important book, Lawless World: America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules (2005), a well-reasoned and documented critique of the approach to international law taken by the neoconservative presidency of George W. Bush, especially with respect to the Iraq War, but also in reaction to the 9/11 attacks. Although valuing this contribution to the policy debate that occurred during that period, it is fully consistent with the liberal orientation, which is often to oppose American and British foreign policy undertakings, especially if they happen to be unsuccessful and are peripheral to national or strategic interests, and depend upon unilateral aggressive uses of force not authorized by the UN Security Council. In this vein the recently released massive Chilcot Report evaluating British involvement in the Iraq War follows a parallel liberal line, condemning any decision to go to war except on the basis of adequate advance planning and the buildup of public support, but sidestepping the question of whether it was also mandatory on Britain to comply with international law and the UN Charter. Despite the 2.3 million words of the report there is no where a hint about Blair’s potential personal responsibility if international criminal law were to be properly applied.

 

As expressed at the beginning, despite these differences, I greatly admire the author, and applaud Sands’ dazzling performance. Among other qualities, Sands displays an incredible willingness to go to great lengths to get the details correct. He tracks down addresses, relatives, obscure documents and pictures to piece together a riveting narrative of these three lives, and their families, coping with one of the most extreme collective traumas of all time. As said, this book can and should be widely read from many perspectives, and the psycho-politics of the jurisprudence it imparts is the one that happens to interest me most, but it is only one of several strands in this exceptionally rich tapestry, and each one deserves similar detailed commentary.