Tag Archives: Democracy

Are We Heading Toward Global Autocracy, Ecological Collapse, Political Malaise?

29 Jun

 

 

What follows are preliminary reactions to both the BREXIT vote and the world according to Trump, but also a commentary on the related alienation of large segments of the public that are being badly served by both the established elites and their demagogic adversaries. The failures of neoliberalism, the successes of digitization, the scourge of random violence, and more broadly, the dilemmas posed by late modernity are among the root causes of this global crisis of legitimate governance, which is deepened while being mishandled by unprecedented ecological challenges, extremely irresponsible geopolitical leadership, and a variety of ultra-nationalist backlashes against the encroachments of economic globalization.

 

 

Imagining the World After the Cold War

 

After the end of the Cold War there were various projections that tried to anticipate the likely future of the world in broad interpretative strokes. Three of the most influential conjectures by three prominent American authors received attention in the public sphere: those of Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, and Robert Kaplan.

 

Fukuyama challenged conventional political imagination with his provocative claim that with the collapse of the Soviet version of state socialism and the triumph of capitalist liberalism the world had reached ‘the end of history.’ It was also somewhat dubious that Fukuyama validated his views by reference to the Hegelian contention that history is made by the march and interplay of ideas rather than through the agency of material forces. In this respect history came to a supposedly glorious end because there was no grander possible political vision than that of market-based constitutionalism, epitomized by the American political system. Even the most casual observer of the global scene must have noticed the befogged Western optic through which Fukuyama saw

the world.

 

Huntington, no less provocative or biased, although less comforting for the West, anticipated a ‘the clash of civilizations’ as the sequel to the Cold War, especially stressing the confrontation between the liberal West and the non-West or simply ‘the rest.’ His suggestive emphasis was on blood-soaked fault lines between states, civilizations, and peoples associated with Islam and the Western polities descending from the Enlightenment tradition as it unfolded in Europe, taking root in North America and elsewhere.

 

Kaplan, also punctured the Fukuyama triumphalist tone of geopolitical serenity, by writing of ‘the coming anarchy,’ the breakdown of order at the level of the state. His views were shaped by perceptions of decolonization leading to ungovernable and essentially non-viable political spaces, particularly in Africa where he regarded many of the post-colonial states as incapable of achieving minimum order within territorial space.

 

25 years later it appears that each of these authors saw part of the elephant, but none of the three managed to capture this imposing animal in its majestic totality. Fukuyama was importantly correct in positing market-driven liberalism as the hegemonic ideology of the global future for decades to come, and especially so with respect to the ascendancy of the transnational private sector as shaped by financial flows in a borderless world. The universalization of the liberal international order was devised by and for the West after World War II with the overriding goal of avoiding a return of the Great Depression and retaining as many of the benefits of colonialism as possible in the aftermath of its collapse. This globalizing arrangement of economic and political forces proved robust enough to generate sustained economic growth, as well as to crowd out rivals, thereby making itself into ‘the only game in town.’ That this phase of globalization was grossly uneven in the distribution of benefits and burdens was generally overlooked, as was its predatory character as viewed from the perspective of the economic losers.

 

At the same time, the idea of reaching an endpoint in history even if conceived in Hegelian terms of ideas seemed rather absurd, if not grotesque, to many from its moment of utterance. Given the ideological assault on modernity that has been mounted from the perspective of religion, drawing into question secularism and rationalism, the liberal vision was indeed being challenged from a number of angles. In this regard, transnational terrorism viewed in isolation is a less radical repudiation of Fukuyama’s blueprint for the future than are the various associated challenges to Westphalian territorial sovereignty that have been mounted by Islamic leaders, articulated clearly by both Ayatollah Khomeini and Osama Bin Laden. Both insisted that the territorial sovereignty was not the primary legitimate basis for political community, and indeed put forward less convincing claims to political community than were the organic identities that had been shaped by centries of religious and civilizational traditions and devotional practices.

 

ISIS added its own version of this world order stance in a less reflective modality. Its leaders gave voice to the view that in the Middle East, in particular, armed struggle was undoing the harm done a hundred years earlier. ISIS bluntly repudiated the territorial legacies and authority of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that in 1916 had carved up the Ottoman Empire to satisfy British and French colonial ambitions. Such European hubris had cast the region adrift by creating governance zones that were, at best, artificial political communities that could only be held together by the iron fist of state power, which if removed would lead to chaos. The effect of giving over the fate of the peoples to the mercies of European colonial powers fractured the natural community of Islam and did away with the more ethnically constituted units (or millets) established by the Ottoman Empire. It is hard to be confident about whether the peoples of the region as of 2016, if left free to choose, would prefer the distortions of imposed Westphalian states or opt for boundaries that better reflected the existential sentiments and values of the current national majorities among those living in the region.

 

 

The Unexpected Appeal and Rise of the Reactionary Right

 

Perhaps, more fundamental in its implications for the future, is the shifting ground shaking the foundations of the edifice of ideas and interest upholding neoliberal globalization. That the ground is shaking has been revealed for most crisis deniers by the surge of populist support that allowed Trump to crush a wide field of Republican presidential aspirants with mainstream party credentials. This astonishing outcome has been strongly reinforced by the electrifying vote by Britain in June 2016 to exit the European Union, so-called BREXIT, and what that portends for Britain, the EU, and even the world.

 

We can also throw into the new mix the Sanders Phenomenon, essentially a youth revolt against what the man from Vermont kept calling ‘a rigged system’ good for the 1%, horrible for the other 99%, and especially for the bottom 40-60%. We will not grasp the full meaning of what has occurred for years to come, and surely the November 2016 American presidential election will either be a restorative moment for the established socio-economic order or a death warrant portending that radical, most likely disruptive, change is on its way. Should Hilary Clinton win, especially if she wins decisively as even most of the Republican leadership fear and some even wish for, it will quiet some of the voices on right and left calling for change, but only temporarily, and this is the point as the roots of the crisis are far deeper than this or that election or referendum result.

 

 

An Establishment Out of Touch

 

What strikes me most forcefully, aside from these unexpected outcomes, is how out of touch liberal, urban elites seem to be with the sharply alienated mood of the populace as a whole. This first struck me while visiting Cairo in the months after the overthrow of Mubarak in early 2011 when Egyptians across a wide spectrum welcomed change, and were naively expecting the political transition to be managed according to the will of the people by the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces. The political analogue to this trust displayed by the leaders of the uprising in the military wing of the former oppressive regime was the widespread expectation that Amr Moussa, Secretary General of the Arab League and once the Foreign Minister under Mubarak e would overwhelm opponents in the promised presidential elections.

 

Many in Cairo voiced their personal doubts about Moussa’s suitability, complaining of his complicity with the prior regime and wondering whether he had a genuine willingness and capability to push through a liberal agenda of national reform and manage an economic program that offered some hope to the poor and marginalized Egyptian masses. What representatives of the Cairo establishment and even its critics didn’t disagree about was the near certainty of a Moussa victory in the scheduled 2012 presidential elections because no other candidate had comparable name recognition or possessed elite credibility. As it turned out Moussa, despite his acceptability to urban elites, ended up with less than 12% of the vote in the first round, disqualifying him from competing in the second and final round of the electoral process that surprisingly pitted an undisguised Murarak loyalist, Ahmed Shafek, against the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi. There has been much commentary on this sequence of developments, but what I want to stress is how out of touch the Cairo policymakers and media were with ‘the people’ of Egypt, especially the poor and those living around the country outside the two urban centers of Cairo and Alexandria.

 

 

Losing it in America

 

The utterly unanticipated success of Trump, Sanders, and BREXIT left those who earn their livings by telling us what to think and what will happen in an apparently shell shocked. Because policy wonks can lose their relevance quickly, and maybe their jobs, if they are honest enough to dwell upon their mistaken judgments, they tend to shift the conversation to what these unexpected developments tell us about the vagaries of mass public opinion. They continue to write with the same old assurance and command over details, articulating anew as (un)knowingly as ever their views about what is to come, earning them invitations to influential talk shows and the like. They have no shame. At this moment the prevailing wonk consensus is that Trump cannot possibly win in the national elections next November, and will probably lead the Republicans to a devastating national defeat leaving the party discredited even among its most faithful followers. This scenario has become the latest American version of the liberal wet dream.

 

What is so far missing, or almost so, from the public discourse is a soul searching assessment of why the underclass anger, why the magnetic appeal of political personalities who are ‘outsiders,’ and why the loopy defensiveness and seeming irrelevance of those who speak softly, wrongly supposing that the voice of reason and moderation will win out. Even now there is little discussion of how best to account for this ‘revolt of the masses,’ why it is happening now and not earlier, as well as what can and should be thought and done.

Sanders alone pointed to the relevance of acute inequality as discrediting the prevailing political order and what the two political parties were offering the American people. He was sensitive to social dislocations caused by this inequality being closely linked to the declining real incomes of the middle classes and the poor. He also recognized that such a downward spiral is further aggravated by a dysfunctionally expensive health system, intolerable burdens of student debt, and a bipartisan willingness to sacrifice the fundamental wellbeing of workers in a deindustrializing America on the altar of free trade. In effect, Sanders was putting before the American people a sharply critical diagnosis of the ills besetting the country together with a laundry list of social democratic correctives.

 

Trump, despite being himself a major economic predator, has enjoyed this surge of fanatical backing due to his diabolical talent for blaming ‘the other’ for the failures being experienced by large disaffected sectors of the American people. From this paranoid standpoint it becomes almost logical to threaten China with a trade war, to bar all Muslims from entering the country, and to build a high wall that keeps illegal Latinos from coming across the Mexican border as well as getting rid as rapidly as possible all those who managed to enter illegally in the past, and to accomplish this massive dispossession through the medium of cruel and indiscriminate deportation. All of this negativity is given a smiling face by the catchy, yet vauous, Trump slogan “to make America great again.” Such a heartwarming slogan makes Trump into a kind of political alchemist transforming the base metals of xenophobic negativity into the glow that will follow from recovering a lost never existing American positive exceptionalism, which if decoded simply promises to restore a social order presided over by white men.

 

 

The Global Landscape

Looking around the world is a disquieting complement to myopic readings of these potentially earth shattering recent developments as happening only in Anglo-American political space. What seems evident is that there are throughout the planet converging trends reflecting some widely shared societal grievances coupled with a mood of disillusionment about the purported achievements and promises of democratic forms of governance. It is difficult to recall that after the Cold War a major aspect of American triumphalism was the confidence that the political embrace of American style democracy (what was then being called ‘market-oriented constitutionalism’) would spread to more and more countries in the world, and that this trend should be welcomed everywhere as an irreversible sign that a higher stage of political evolution had been reached. Bill Clinton liberals were forever talking up ‘enlargement’ (the expanding community of democratic states) while subscribing to the tenuous and vague claims of ‘democratic peace’ (the Kantian idea that democracies do not make war against one another).

 

Later George W. Bush neocons more belligerently pushed ‘democracy promotion,’ being impatient or distrustful of leaving the future to the workings of internal political dynamics and the flow of history. They held the geopolitically convenient, yet totally ahistorical, belief that military intervention would be popularly received as a liberating gift even by peoples newly freed from the shackles of European colonialism. In 2003, this commitment to coercing a democratic future was put into practice in Iraq, failing miserably and in an incredibly costly manner. Again what should be a cause for reflection is the misperception of the historical circumstances by the American establishment. This belief is abetted by the accompanying false assumption that if democracy is formally established, ex-colonial societies will docilely accept a prolonged foreign occupation of their country while continuing to endure high levels of chronic unemployment and mass poverty, a situation inflamed by national elites wallowing in luxury, having often gained their wealth by rapacious levels of corruption, rewards for serving the foreign occupiers and associated representatives of global capital.

 

 

‘It’s the System, Stupid’

 

If democratization seemed the wave of the global future as seen from the perspective of the 1990s there are now different horizons of expectation that darkly dominate the political imagination with a blending of fear, rage, and despair. What has so far emerged is a series of drastic political moves in a diverse group of countries that is cumulatively leading national governing processes in inward-looking authoritarian directions. Each national narrative can offer its own plausible explanation of such developments by focusing on the particularities of the national situation without paying much attention to external factors.

 

Yet the fact that such diverse countries share this experience of diminishing democracy and increasing authoritarianism suggests that wider systemic factors are at play. To some extent, this disturbing set of developments is disguised in the constitutional societies of the West where these trends are being validated by popular forces, that is, in full accord with the discipline and legitimacy of what might be understood as procedural democracy, that is, free and fair elections as supplemented by rivalry between political parties, a seemingly free press, referenda, legislation, judicial action, and executive initiatives that appears respectful of the constraints of the rule of law. These authoritarian outcomes should be interpreted mainly as failures of substantive democracy as obscured by the persistence of procedural democracy. This reality is beginning to be perceived by large portions of the population, especially those struggling with poverty, joblessness, and declining standards of living, although it is not articulated by reference to the substantive shortcomings of contemporary democracy. What makes this context so confusing is this tension within democracy between its procedural and substantive dimensions.

 

These substantive democratic failures of equity and performance are not generally experienced by those leading comfortable lives even if unlike earlier generations, expectations about the future at all levels of society are far less hopeful than during the last decades of the 20th century. Gone are the days when it was widely believed that children would almost certainly fare better than their parents. Those who are experiencing this sharp downturn in expectations are just now awakening to insist upon answers, and the easiest place to find them is through scapegoating. In this regard, the influx of foreign cheap labor is believed, and not always inaccurately, to exert downward pressures on wages and cause disquieting increases in the local crime rate. It also tempts many to regard the present challenges to homeland security as the work of ‘Islamic radicalism,’ while the widening gap between rich and poor is depicted as a mixture of corruption and free trade that pushes jobs out of the country to foreign labor markets with low wages, weak or no unions,lax safety and environmental regulations, and bribery as a way of life.

 

Although this shift from democratization to autocratization is being mainly experienced as a national phenomenon or as a series of distinct national dramas, the systemic aspects are crucial. An essential part of the socio-economic mixture of causes is the replacement of human labor by machine labor, a process that is accelerating via automation, and likely to increase at a geometrical pace for many years to come. As a result, a new source of chronic unemployment affecting all classes is occurring. Another aggravating feature results from migration flows escaping from war torn regions or from ecological collapse brought about by climate change. Further, the rise and manipulation of transnational terrorism and counterterrorism gives priority to the security agenda, lending support to a vast expansion of state police powers at the expense of societal autonomy and personal freedom.

 

What such developments portend is the presence of large numbers of desperate people within most national spaces who are blocked in their search for a decent life, are made to feel unnecessary and unwanted or treated, and are regarded as a burdensome democratic surplus by the established order. All that most of these persons want is social change and a recovery of their sense of societal worth, creating a frightening vulnerability to the siren calls of demagogues. Such a pattern is already visible on the global stage, although it tends to be blurred by relying on this still dominant optic of state-by-state developments that suppresses the reality of systemic pressures, and diverts attention from the kind of radical political therapy that is needed.

 

Current global trends exhibit two equally devastating approaches, which are in some settings combined. The most prevalent tendency is to mandate the state to impose order at any cost involving increasing levels of coercion, reinforced by intrusive surveillance, seeking its own legitimacy by claiming fear-mongering alarmism and through scapegoating of immigrants, Muslims, and all outsiders, those ethnically and religiously ‘other.’ A complementary tendency is associated with the demagogic arousal of populist masses that also mandate the state to carry out similar kinds of order-maintaining policies. In effect, the somewhat more cosmopolitan middle is being squeezed between the elites seeking to withstand anti-establishment politics and the aroused masses eager to smash the established order. Both sources of anti-democratic pressure favor closing borders, building walls, and deporting those whose very existence assaults nativist conceptions of the nation.

 

As previously assessed, procedural democracy is not currently much of an obstacle in the face of various populist embraces of proto-fascist political appeals that is offering aspiring demagogues a field day. The advocacy of extremist, simplistic, and violent solutions to complex problems is on the rise, and yet we should know that the present agenda of concerns cannot be effectively addressed until a structural analysis is acted upon and the neoliberal underpinning of the status quo is significantly adjusted. A correct political diagnosis would emphasize the alienating shortcomings of substantive democracy given the degree to which neoliberal capitalism is seen as responsible for accentuating inequality, corruption, and downward standards of living for the majority leaving many without adequate material security as it relates to employment, shelter, health, and education.

 

Overall as the world confronts such challenges as climate change, diminishing biodiversity, and nuclear weaponry that are cumulatively threatening humanity with catastrophe, this emergent reality of global autocracy may be the worst news of all.

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Israel’s Shimon Peres Reacts to the Turkish Elections

10 Jun

 

Newspapers reported on June 9th that former Israeli president Shimon Peres (2007-2014) was pleased by the outcome in Turkey. He is quoted as saying “I am happy about what happened in Turkey – Erdoğan wanted to turn Turkey into Iran, and there is no room for two Iran’s in the Middle East.”

 

It is worth recalling that the downward spiral in relations between Turkey and Israel started in a real way when Erdoğan attacked Israel and Peres personally for defending Israel’s massive attack on Gaza at the 2009 World Economic Forum in the course of a panel in which both he and Peres were members. Erdoğan responded to Peres’ contention that Hamas was responsible for violence against Israeli civilians. His words were undiplomatically blunt: “Mr. Peres, you are a senior citizen and you speak in a loud tone. I feel that your raised voice is due to the guilt you feel. But be sure that my voice will not be raised as yours is. When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill. I know very well how you struck and killed innocent children on the beaches.” So piercing the haze that separates these polite evasions of such international events from the cruel realities under discussion was a welcome rarity: on this occasion Erdoğan was confronting the naked face of power with a truth that needed to be heard. After

interference from the chair, Erdoğan strode off the stage announcing that he was through forever with the World Economic Forum, not for allowing Peres to speak, but for the attempting to stifle a response.

 

The deterioration in Turkish/Israeli relations climaxed the following year when Israeli commandos boarded the Turkish passenger ship, Mavi Marmara, the lead vessel among six in a freedom flotilla containing peace activists bringing humanitarian supplies to Gaza and seeking to break the Israeli blockade. The incident on May 31, 2010 resulted in the death of nine Turkish nationals, and created an enduring rupture in the political relations between the two countries that continues despite efforts by the American president, Barack Obama, to encourage normalization. Turkey is prepared to compromise on the issues raised by the Mavi Marmara attack, but to its credit will not accept normalization until Israel lifts its blockade of Gaza and ceases its use of massive force against the totally vulnerable Gazan civilian population.

 

Erdoğan’s departure from diplomatic protocol at the World Economic Forum illustrated his impulsive tendency to vent his feeling in public places without the usual filters of self-censorship that is second nature for most politicians. Of course, assessing such outbursts generally depends on the context and on whether what is being said so forthrightly has merit or not. Erdoğan’s public venting in relation to policies that were sensitive for secular Turks became particularly frequent, intensifying polarization, especially after the AKP’s one-sided victory in the 2011 general election after which the Turkish leader did seem to embrace a more majoritarian view of democracy (acting on the mandate of the majority of voters), and abandoning the pragmatism of his earlier posture based on an acceptance of republican democracy (that is, respect for minority values and views, checks and balances on the exercise of state power).

 

Reverting to the recent Peres assertion, it is certainly inflammatory and deeply misleading to link Turkey under the AKP with Iran, and to contend that Erdoğan’s hidden project is to convert Turkey into a second Iran. This is both false and insulting, as if Turkey is incapable of self-determination according to the declared will of its own public and elected leaders. There exists no credible evidence that Turkey has in any way endorsed the defining feature of the Islamic Republic of Iran, namely, a theocratic mode of governance.

 

Peres also essentializes Iran, refusing to acknowledge its recent evolution as a result of Hassan Rouhani’s election as president in 2013 and Iran’s forthcoming nuclear diplomacy that went the extra mile in search of a formula that would normalize its regional and global relations, which if accepted by the West and put into practiced, will almost certainly be viewed as a major contribution to regional and world peace. Peres speaks as if Iran is the hermetically sealed embodiment of political evil rather than a country that has struggled to overcome its autocratic past under the Shah, and managed to be stable during this period of exceptional regional turmoil with its theocracy displaying a willingness to indulge a limited democracy despite threats and provocations from the United States and Israel. There is much to criticize in Iran, but for such criticism to be responsible, it should be responsive to actualities, especially in the Middle East where there are such scant grounds for stability, let alone justice.

 

In important respects, the outcome of the Turkish elections is far better interpreted as a Kurdish HDP victory rather than an Erdoğan AKP defeat. Time will tell whether the Kurds will be constructive and creative in this phase of their political engagement within Turkey and in relation to Kurdish political developments in neighboring countries. It will also determine whether Erdoğan is statesmanlike and creative in shaping the political future of the country, taking to heart the electoral message that any shift to a presidential system is not now in the interests of the country.

Turkish Elections: It’s Not Just Erdoğan!

9 Jun

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The Turkish general election on June 7th ended more or less as the polls predicted. The only small surprise was that the Kurdish Party (HDP) ended with 13% of the vote rather than either falling just below or above the 10% threshold needed for parliamentary participation. By clearing the 10% hurdle, the HDP denies the winner, Erdoğan Justice and Development Party (AKP), the majority required to form a new government. This means either a coalition, currently deemed unlikely and even undesirable, or a minority government with a new set of general elections scheduled in coming months.

 

The spinning of the Turkish election results in the West is rather malicious. It seems designed to generate two kinds of reactions: first, that the outcome was a personal defeat for Erdoğan and the AKP; and secondly, that now Turkey faces a period of instability and uncertainty, an atmosphere supposedly confirmed by a drop in the Turkish stock market and currency value. Such assessments, although not totally wrong, are misleading in dangerous and possibly self-fulfilling ways if taken by the Turkish opposition and the world as the real meaning of what took place. It is disturbingly reminiscent of the effort of the opposition in Egypt to discredit the Morsi presidency as soon as he was elected in mid-2012, generating a crisis of legitimacy despite his electoral victory, setting the stage for a populist revolt and the Sisi-led coup a year later. This undermining of electoral results is one of the most dangerous games being played by certain elements in the United States and the Middle East, and could lead the way to yet another regional disaster.

 

I believe what is most important about the Turkish elections is their affirmation of the growing strength and poise of Turkish democracy. If ever there existed a temptation to manipulate the vote so as to keep the HDP below the 10% margin, it was in this election as it would have enabled the AKP to have the majority in the Turkish Grand National Assembly so as to form a new government on its own and later have the parliament mandate a referendum on the shift to a presidential system in which the governing party would be quite sure to prevail. The fact that enough voters, especially among young and progressive Turkish citizens voted for the HDP, exhibited a healthy resistance to the perceived efforts to consolidate power further in Ankara, especially in the person of Erdoğan.

 

When the Conservatives in Britain won 36% of the vote to 30% for Labour the media called it a landslide, and a decisive vindication of Tory policies. In Turkey, although slipping 6% points (and losing 2.5 million votes compared to 2011), the AKP still prevailed in the election by more than 15%, winning 41.8% of the popular vote, with its closest competitor being the old Ataturk party, the CHP, winning only 25%. It might be well to recall that in 2002 the AKP formed the government although winning only 34% of the overall vote, gathering its majority because 45% of the total ballots were cast for parties that fell below 10% , resulting in their transfer mainly to the AKP.

 

The fact that HDP will now have 79 members in Parliament despite being an overtly Kurdish party is a further healthy development that might make a long overdue reconciliation more attainable. Also notable was the election of 97 women to parliarment along with four Christians, the first Roma ever, and a member of the Yazidi community. Such increased diversification refutes in a very vivid manner the contention that the AKP leadership was gradually turning Turkey into an Islamic republic, a so-called ‘second Iran.’

 

What is so striking about the world media reactions is their failure to note these encouraging developments, or to take balanced account of the dignified acceptance of the public will exhibited by the existing Turkish leadership. The AKP Chairman and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, said simply “This nation’s decision is the best decision,” indicating respect for the outcome. So far, as well, Erdoğan has in no way challenged the vote that was certainly, in part, a defeat for his insistence that the ‘New Turkey’ would be more successful if it shifted to a presidential system. He has not lived up to the Putinesque persona that his detractors have long insisted upon.

 

The other failure of world perception has to do with some attention to some other contextual explanations for some decline in AKP popularity. In the background, is the fact of holding the reins of government in Turkey ever since their surprise victory in 2002, reaffirmed with increasing margins in 2007 and 2011 general elections. It is always a sign of a healthy democracy when a portion of the voters indicate their belief that ‘it time for a change.’ There is truth in the adage that ‘power corrupts,’ and a shift of leadership to a responsible opposition can be a revitalizing development for a country. Unfortunately, a persisting weakness in the Turkish political firmament is the absence of a credible alternative to the AKP. The opposition parties lack leaders of suitable stature or any kind of alternative program that commands widespread support. In this sense, I would suppose that there would have been a larger defection from the AKP in this election if a viable alternative did exist. Why there is no such alternative is something that constructive critics of the AKP should be devoting their attention to rather than giving their energies over to incessant and mean-spirited attacks.

 

There are additional explanations of some loss of voter support by the AKP. Above all, the weakening of the economy, with growth falling to 3% of GNP, or possibly a bit lower, and unemployment rising to 11%. Such a decline in economic performance is a product of many factors, but it certainly disappointed the expectations of many Turks struggling to get along on a day-to-day basis. Also, important is the deep cleavage that developed with the Hizmet Movement led by Fetullah Gulen, whose followers supposedly shifted votes in this election to the CHP and MHP. And finally, the lingering bad taste associated with the government’s excessive use of force in response to the Gezi Park demonstrations of 2013 apparently led many on the left and among the young to vote for the HDP, and may have given this Kurdish party the support it needed to qualify for parliamentary representation and thereby change the political climate in the country.

 

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There are also understandable dissatisfactions in Turkey about Ankara’s Syria policy, which has resulted in both a huge influx of refugees, numbering about 1.5 million, and controversial tactics in lending some support to extremist anti-Assad forces. It is always easy to second-guess what to do in situations of a severe humanitarian/political crisis, and no governmental actor has emerged with a positive reputation in this post-Arab Spring period. Although the Turkish government seems to have made miscalculations, especially underestimating the strength and resilience of the Assad regime, it has more than most regional or global actors pursued a principled position throughout. It has supported democratizing movements, and opposed efforts to restore authoritarianism or to use governmental violence against peaceful demonstrators as in Syria and Egypt.

 

The election results are very new. What will ensue is not yet at all clear. It is a moment for all sides to show leadership and composure, and most of all, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu. Erdoğan, in particular, has been given a rare opportunity to turn electoral defeat into political victory. All he has to do is make a statesmanlike speech, acknowledging the setback for his vision of Turkey’s future but displaying his respect and admiration for the democratic process, and his commitment to maintaining Turkish political stability and working toward economic revival. It would be an opportunity for Erdoğan to put to rest among all except his most ardent enemies, the contention that he is an aspiring autocrat in the Putin mold. In the immediate aftermath of the elections, Erdoğan has so far taken the high road, but without making his response fully evident. At least, he does not lament defeat, but rather acknowledges the will of the electorate expressed by a vote in which 84% of eligible voters took part, and calls on all parties to evaluate the results “healthily and realistically,” adding that “the esteem of our nation is above all else.” Instead of berating the opposition, Erdoğan praised the turnout as exhibiting “the precious nation’s determination for democracy and for reflecting its will at the ballot box.” There was no bombast or recriminations that has sometimes in the past marred Erdoğan’s performance as a leader. It is too early to be sure that this benign mood will persist, but these early signs are hopeful.

 

 

For Davutoğlu the opportunity presented to him is more complex, but still very present. It is his moment to show firm leadership and demonstrate his dedication to a smoothe transition in the interest of the whole country. Without distancing himself from Erdoğan, Davutoğlu can demonstrate that he is quite capable of leading the country, and sensitive to the benefits of parliamentary democracy. Davutoğlu could emerge as a co-leader with Erdoğan that would not only restore confidence in AKP’s competence and underlying commitment to secular democracy, but would show to the Middle East that non-autocratic rule true to a nation’s history and character is possible. Of course, it is also a moment to move forward with the Kurdish peace and reconciliation process and to improve the human rights record of the government, especially showing a greater capacity to respect criticism from the media and political dissenters.

 

Despite the turbulence of the region, the economic troubles of neighbors in the Middle East and Europe, Turkey has enjoyed a period of extraordinary success during these years of AKP governance. The economy tripled in size, the militarized deep state has been dismantled, and overall democracy has been strengthened and diversified in relation to gender and ethnicity. Beyond these national gains, the regional and global standing of Turkey increased dramatically. Perhaps, more than any country, Turkey in this AKP period showed the world that it is possible to pursue an independent line in foreign policy and yet maintain continuity with its most enduring alignments. It is easy to overlook such notable achievements, especially given the polarizing passions of the anti-Erdoğan opposition.

It may also be a time for bringing back the steady hand of Abdullah Gul to the governing process. It would be a further sign of the ability of the AKP to learn from its mistakes, and to provide Turkey with the best possible leadership.

 

In my view, persons of good will throughout the world and in Turkey, should now breathe a sigh of relief, being glad that the AKP plan to establish a presidential Turkey has been put back on the shelf and yet relieved that the AKP was again supported by a significant plurality of Turkish citizens in an impressively free and fair electoral process.

Citizens versus Subjects in a Democratic Society: The American Case

10 May

 

“Have we agreed to so many wars that we can’t

Escape from silence?…”

                        Robert Bly, “Call and Answer”

 

            In my understanding silence is passivity as a way of being. Silence can be much more than the avoidance of speech and utterance, and is most poignantly expressed through evasions of body, heart, and soul. Despite the frustrations and defeats of the period, America was different during the years of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. It was then that alienated gun-wielders assassinated those among us who were sounding the clearest calls for justice and sending messages of hope. In a perverse reaction, Washington’s custodians of our insecurity went to work, and the sad result is this deafening silence!

 

            I have long felt that most American ‘citizens’ increasingly behave as ‘subjects,’ blithely acting as if a love of country is exhibited more by obedience than conscience. In my view the opportunity to be a citizen is a precious reality, a byproduct of past struggles. Genuine citizenship remains possible in the United States, but has become marginal, and is not much in evidence these days. I am identifying the citizen as an ethically sensitive and responsible member of a political community, most significantly of a sovereign state. In contrast, the subject conceives of upright standing in a political community by the willingness to go along with the group and to obey the directives of government and those exercising formal authority.

 

            The moral substance at the core of genuine citizenship only exists if the political structure allows opposition without imposing a severe punishment. If citizenship is possible, then it automatically gives rise to responsibility to act accordingly, that is, by honoring the imperatives of conscience. Unfortunately, considerations of prudence, career, and social propriety make it more attractive these days for most Americans to behave as subjects living within a rigid set of constraints. Citizens are those who not only proclaim the virtues of freedom, but act responsively to the vectors of conscience even if these go against the established public order and prevailing cultural norms.

 

            Thomas Jefferson at the birth of the republic understood that liberty is a process, not an event, which can only flourish if the citizenry as a whole is actively engaged, and above all is vigilant in relation to abuses attributable to the state. Citizenship was better understood in the late 18th century when the struggle against the pretensions of monarchy was vibrant. Today it is irresistibly tempting for ambitious political leaders to encroach upon the liberties of the people by insisting that national ‘unity’ and ‘patriotism’ are practical necessities at times when the country is at war or confronting enemies. And by a convenient Orwellian trope, wartime has become the norm rather than the exception, and peacetime is mainly a memory of ancient times that even the oldest citizen now alive never really experienced. Arguably, the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 ended once and for all the illusions of peace as the normal condition of a democratic society. Even the collapse of the Soviet Union did not restore ‘peace’ except in the misleading senses of the absence of war. This enthronement of war in the permanent collective imagination of the country was vividly re-inscribed by the 9/11 attacks and the Bush response of declaring a global war on terror and terrorists. Bush’s instinctive stroke of political ingenuity was to devise a new kind of war that never needs to end. Obama despite some ritual reassurances to the contrary has not broken faith with the militarist mentality and seems comfortable with treating war as the new normal.

 

           This vulnerability of democracy to the siren song of security has been effectively exploited by power-wielders for decades in the United States. Not only do politicians and militarists sing this song, but also private sector moguls whose primary amoral motivation seems to be the maximization of profits. This weakening of the substance, structures, and spirit of American democracy partly reflected the militarizing impacts of World War II and its Cold War sequel, but also the related extension of the American sphere of direct concern and involvement to all corners of the earth. This unprecedented global force projection coincided with the collapse of European colonialism, the ideological consensus affirming neoliberalism, and the backdrop of a globalizing world in which critical resources, sea lanes, and markets needed to be protected if the world economy was to flourish. This American transformation from being ‘a hemispheric state’ to becoming ‘a global state’ has had an extraordinary impact on national identity, especially giving rise to a self-anointing mission of global leadership that depends on military dominance. Such a mission has also witnessed a promiscuous reliance on ‘American exceptionalism,’ often at the expense of respect for the authority of the United Nations and international law. The claim is that America can set aside rules of behavior at will to meet the challenges confronting the country and the world, but that antagonistic others cannot.

 

            It is true that early in the American experience the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine (1823) signaled a national ambition to reign supreme in the Western Hemisphere (except for Canada), which expressed an early refusal by the U.S. Government to confine its definition of national interests to the territorial boundaries associated with being a normal sovereign state. But the strains of extra-territoriality were minimal compared what they became in the 20th century, especially with the onset of World War II. For one thing, the challenge of imposing control was far simpler and cheaper in the era of ‘gunboat diplomacy,’ which enabled a small input of military power to achieve the political objectives of intervention under most circumstances. Since 1945 the mobilization of national resistance around the world has been very effective in raising the costs and risks of intervention, and neutralizing many of the advantages that had made it so easy to translate military superiority into desired political results during the colonial era.

 

            Also relevant for a discussion of the deteriorating quality of democratic life in the United States are expansions of scale and surveillance as byproducts of becoming a global state. To project power globally requires a global network of military bases numbering in the hundreds, a navy that patrols every ocean, missiles that can strike the most distant targets, attack drones that can be programmed to kill anyone anywhere on the planet, and the most extensive information-gathering capability that technology can provide and money can buy. This raises to astronomic levels the investment of energy and resources in sustaining such a global role. Unsurprisingly there are byproducts, including a militarized state at home and the assumption of associated custodial duties related to the protection of the American people against real and imagined enemies and the pursuit of national interests relating to wealth, influence, and prestige. To enhance security in this global setting pushes surveillance toward totalization as the Snowden disclosures began to reveal. It also creates a logic that views domestic opposition with grave suspicion, and leads to finding and destroying ‘the enemy within’ before it gains the leverage to unleash its assault of the established order.

 

            The American global state is different than past empires, which were explicit in projecting their hard power, and insisting upon overt allegiance of those whom they rule. As Rumsfeld succinctly remarked some years ago, “we do not do empire.” What do we do? It is to manage a global state that seeks to meet hostile challenges wherever they emerge, and give a high priority to the maintenance of a trade, investment, and navigational framework that reflects the guiding assumptions of neoliberalism in the networked digital age. And because the most threatening hostile challenges seem currently mounted by non-state actors that have no particular territorial base of operations, the battlefield has been quietly globalized to encompass the economy, the surveillance panopticon, and the counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation sites of intervention and resistance.

 

            What then does American citizenship mean under these altered domestic and global conditions? It should be acknowledged that not all recent developments are negative with respect to the quality of democratic life in America: slavery was overcome, racism diminished, women’s rights strengthened, sexual preferences increasingly respected. Taking these concerns into account has meant that there many avenues that remain open for the expression of conscience in the United States, which entails the non-acceptance of various facets of the status quo: struggles against militarism, surveillance, plutocracy, global warming, poverty, inequality, human insecurity, class warfare, as well as the residues of racism and patriarchy.   Citizens should be selectively active in response to these challenges, while the subject is passive or a regressive champion of the status quo, and at best an advocate of incremental change (as Yeats reminded the world almost a century ago, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The most effective forms of citizen action depend on popular mobilization and the adoption of nonviolent forms of collective action. The subject stands by sullenly, applauding the suppression of dissent and resistance by security forces.

 

            The French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, referred to ‘the democracy to come’ as achieving a far higher degree of social justice than has ever existed in any country. In my view, fulfilling this potentiality would mean the enlargement of the role of the citizen, the decline of the subject, and a much more critical interplay between society and the state, making democracy a participatory process that did not consider itself fulfilled by periodic free elections and functioning representative institutions. Such practices associated with procedural democracy have recently lost most of their charm due to deforming impacts of money, lobbying by special interests, and the virtual disappearance from the political landscape of a progressive option. In effect, the future of American democracy will necessarily now depend on the activity of people of conscience, and the rebirth of a progressive vision that is made attractive across class, race, and geographic lines.

 

            Such a prescription for hope has its own shortcomings and difficulties. Are not the members of the Tea Party composed of those whose conscience leads them to defy the state? Are they not fulfilling the role of citizen, shunning the passivity of the subject? There exists an inevitable clash of values between those who seek a compassionate government that is inclusive as to its nonviolent ethos of hospitality and those who seek an ethnically delimited social order that is xenophobic, exclusivist, and militia-minded in its orientation. In the end such a clash involves sorting out the balance of passions that shape the political culture at a given point in an unfolding national narrative. And this balance may not turn out very well for progressive citizens of conscience, depending on the mix of attitudes and fears that animate the masses at a given historical time.

 

            There is one further consideration bearing on the democracy to come. It must not only be spatially minded about the world, it must also be temporally oriented about past and future. It must learn from the glorious and inglorious episodes of the past, but even more importantly, be alert to the need to live beyond the present, to take responsibility for ensuring that the future is not being diminished in serious and irreversible ways by current policies and practices. Such temporal urgency is currently especially compelling in relation to the environment, the treatment of animals, and above all, the multiple challenges of climate change. Humanity is faced at this juncture with a choice of heeding the scientific consensus on the need to reduce sharply the emission of greenhouse gasses or to live in the false consciousness of pretending that the future can be safely secured by either a technological fix (often described as geo-engineering) or by a guardian god or gods that will not permit an apocalyptic catastrophe to doom the human species. In other words, the conscience of the progressive citizen in our time must not only be globalized in the form of being a ‘world citizen;’ it must also be projected through time, adopting futurist modes of feeling, thinking, and acting,

 

            It is against this background that I have previously suggested an identity shaped through an appreciative reference to ‘the citizen pilgrim,’ that is, to the citizen whose conscience is directed at others without heeding boundaries of space or time, or such contingent features of identity as nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, gender, class. The citizen pilgrim is embarked upon what is essentially a spiritual journey or pilgrimage, seeking an inspirational future that seems neither feasible nor impossible. Such an inspirational dedication also minimizes the imaginative foreclosures of mortality, making the certainty of death a part of life, and accepting this destiny without seeking the comfort of metaphysical fictions, and thus not deeply disconcerted by ‘the dying of the light.’

After Turkey’s March 30th Local Elections

13 Apr

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Imperiled Polities: Egypt and Turkey—Two Visions of Democracy

25 Jan

 

The Meaning of a 98.1% Vote

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Politics of Polarization and Alienation  

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Varieties of Democracy

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Challenging Democracy in Turkey

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Majoritarian and Republican Democracy Assessed

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  

Syria: U.S. War Making at the Expense of Democracy

31 Aug

 

             The U.S. Government rains drone missiles on civilian human targets anywhere in the world, continues to operate Guantanamo in the face of universal condemnation, whitewashed Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and the torture memos, committed aggression against Iraq and Afghanistan, and invests billions to sustain its unlawful global surveillance capabilities. Still, it has the audacity to lecture the world about ‘norm enforcement’  in the wake of the chemical weapons attack in the Ghouta suburb of Damascus. Someone should remind President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry that credibility with respect to international law begins at home and ends at the United Nations. Sadly, the American government loses out at both ends of this normative spectrum, and the days of Washington being able to deliver pious messages on the importance of international law are over. No one is listening, and that’s a relief, although it does provide material for those teams of writers working up material for the likes of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and the many standups at Comedy Central. Yet, of course, this geopolitical TV series is no laughing matter for the long ordeal of the Syrian people.

 

            There is yet another disturbing dimension of this pre-war pseudo debate about recourse to force in retaliation for an alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad against his own people: should a democracy empower its elected leaders to commit the country to war without at least securing specific legislative authorization? The contrast between the approach of the British and American approach to this issue is illuminating. David Cameron, as Prime Minister, along with his Foreign Secretary, strongly favored joining with the United States in launching a punitive attack against Syria, but arranged a prior Parliamentary debate and vote, and clearly indicated his immediate acceptance of the surprising refusal to win backing for such a policy, a show of Parliamentary independence that had not occurred in the country since the late 18th century. Of course, given polls showing only 11% of British citizens supporting an attack on Syria, Cameron may be privately breathing a deep sigh of relief that the vote came out as it did! Obama should be so lucky! If only his powers as Commander-in-Chief included a tool with which to erase imprudent ‘red lines’!

 

            Compare now the Obama approach: speeches informing the country about why it is important to punish the Assad regime so as to uphold American national security interests and to engender respect for international law and several consultations with Congressional leaders. What is absent from the Obama discourse is the word ‘authorization’ or ‘a decent respect for the opinions’ of humanity, as expressed at home and in the world. In my view, this continuing claim of presidential authority to wage war unilaterally, and absent a UN mandate, is creating a deep crisis of legitimacy not only for the U.S., but for all governments that purport to be democracies but commit to war on the decision of the chief executive, as France and Turkey appear to be doing. It is time to face up to this crisis.

 

            Above all, the foundational idea of American republicanism was to demonstrate that the power to declare and wage war was subject to ‘checks and balances’ and ‘separation of powers,’ and in this crucial respect, was unlike the monarchical powers of English kings in war/peace contexts. This makes the Parliamentary rebuff to Cameron not only a revitalizing move for British democracy, but an ironic commentary on the degree to which American ‘democracy’ has perversely moved in an absolutist direction.

 

            It is true that government lawyers as hired hands can always find legal justifications for desired lines of policy. We can count on White House lawyers do just this at the present time: working into the night at Office of the Legal Counsel to prepare breifing material on the broad scope of the powers of the president as Commander-in-Chief, reinforced by patterns of practice over the course of the last several decades, and rounded out with an interpretation of the War Powers Act that supposedly gives the president 60 days of discretionary war making before any obligation exists to seek approval from Congress. Lawyers might quibble, but democracy will be the loser if procedures for accountability and authorization are not restored with full solemnity. In this respect the law should follow, not lead, and what is at stake is whether the republican ideals of limited government would be better served by the original ideas of making it unconstitutional for a president to commit the country to war without a formal and transparent process of public deliberation in the Congress, which is that part of government charged with reflecting the interests and values of the citizenry. Let the lawyers be damned if they side with the warrior politicians, however ‘war weary’ they claim to be.

 

            It is worth also noticing that the common arguments for presidential authority do not pertain. The United States is not responding to an attack or acting in the face of an imminent threat. There is no time urgency. Beyond this the American public, as is the case with the publics of all other Western democracies, oppose by large majorities acts of war against Syria. What makes this situation worse, still, is the refusal to test diplomacy. By international law norms, reinforced by the UN Charter, a use of force to resolve an international conflict is legally a matter of ‘last resort’ after diplomatic remedies have been exhausted. But here they are not even being tried in good faith, which would involve bringing Iran into the process as a major engaged player, and enlisting Russia’s support rather than exhibiting post-Snowden pique. Obama claims that no one is more war weary than he is, but his behavior toward Syria, Iran, Egypt, and Russia convey the opposite message.

 

            And finally, some urge what be called ‘a humanitarian right of exception,’ namely, that this crime against humanity committed against the Syrian people requires a proportionate response from the perspective of international morality, regardless of the constraints associated with international law. Disregarding ‘the slippery slope’ of moral assessments, this particular response is being presented as directed against the Assad regime, but not motivated by any commitment to end the civil war or to assassinate Assad. There are reasons for viewing Washington’s moralizing reaction to the horrifying chemical attacks of August 21, especially the rush to judgment with respect to attributing responsibility to the Assad regime without awaiting the results of the UN inspection team and the odd timing of a such a major attack just as the inspectors were arriving in Damascus. It is not only habitual skeptics that recall Colin Powell’s presentation of conclusive evidence of Iraq’s possession of WMD to the UN Security Council in the lead up to the unlawful Iraq War. We should by now understand that when a foreign policy imperative exists for the occupant of the White House, factoids replace facts, and moral/legal assessments become matters of bureaucratic and media duty.