Thursday, December 24, 2009

Stormy days lie ahead

Within the past few days, Iranian soldiers have crossed into Iraqi territory and taken up position at a southern oilfield. The oilfield’s ownership was disputed by Iran before it withdrew during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.
According to some analysts, Iran, with this brief incursion, aims to send a message to the West that it will not bend to Western demands as easily as the West wished to think. Iran does this by displaying how quickly it can escalate tension in the region.
Iran wished to send yet another message as well, according to other sources: a message to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to reconsider his recent intentions of a more secular and independent governing plan. As the timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq draws near, neither America nor the al-Maliki government is in any mood to see the region destabilized. Maybe it is this juncture that urged U.S. civil and military officials to downplay the latest episode.
A few days earlier, I wrote in my last column about some equations of the nearing deadline for the Iran engagement contingency. The escalated air in the region shows that the situation could get more threatening than anticipated. Iran has some strings to pull in the region, and it is showing that it is more than willing to pull those strings at any time.
Ian Lesser, a well-known Turkey expert at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, D.C., analyzed the current predicament from Turkey’s perspective and called this coming “what to do next” era the “Turks’ dilemma.” He shared some of his worries with me over the phone while he was in Lisbon for meetings last week, and said Turkey is getting more uncomfortable with the unpredictability of the Iranian posture.
On the one hand, Turkey has been trying to expand its influence in the region with various policy shifts, and striving to apply a “zero-problems” policy to its relations with its neighbors. On the other, it finds itself within the range of Iran’s long-range missiles, as the latest tests have proved.
Turkey still wants a “strong diplomatic” solution for the crisis, as Iran, along with Russia, provides about 90 percent of Turkey’s energy needs, Lesser argues. And it is apparent that Turkey, with its significant energy and trade ties with Iran, will be one of the biggest losers in the face of the prospect of “crippling sanctions.”
“I am sure that the Prime Minister Erdoğan elaborated these concerns in the Oval Office to Obama,” Lesser added, without confirming that he knew such talks actually took place.
When asked about a possible military confrontation by Israel, Lesser said he doesn’t believe that such an operation would be a solution, as the military operation against Iran would be in an “open account” fashion, meaning a one-time military strike such the one in which Israeli war planes destroyed Syrian nuclear facilities in the past, which would not be sufficient to end the Iranians’ nuclear capability or ambitions. On the contrary, Lesser said, such military operations need to be repeated and may tend to spread to the region with Iran’s proximity wars, implying that such a scenario might bring bigger calamities than the one in Iraq.
Another well-known Turkey and Middle East expert in Washington, D.C., Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, attracted my attention when he said that, from the beginning, the Obama administration had repeatedly extended olive branches to the Iranian regime but received no reciprocity. Cook pointed out that it took about three months for Obama to decide on the Afghan strategy after the commanders of the NATO and U.S. forces submitted their report on the Afghan theater.
On the Afghan question, it was America’s own budgetary and military limitations that strained Obama’s decision-making capability. On the Iranian question, however, the pressures and limitations vary greatly and are multi-dimensional, which will constrain Obama’s decision-making. Therefore, the length and deliberations that the U.S. president went through in the past signal that the coming era of deciding on meaningful actions regarding Iran will prove to be much more difficult and time-consuming than expected.
Cook, in an op-ed article he published in June titled “Why Israel won’t attack Iran,” argued that Israel would not attack Iran anytime soon because the political environment was not ripe at the time. I addressed this issue and asked him if the political environment is ripe for Israel to strike Iran now. He paused first and then told me that today’s political environment is indeed more convenient and that he sees a greater chance for such a confrontation now than when he wrote the article. Since then, the Obama administration has tried the diplomatic options and so far nothing has worked. When the December deadline is over, Cook forecasts, it will be much more difficult to convince Israel to stand still.
When I urged him to make a prediction about the crippling sanctions against Iran and what one should expect from the Turkish administration, if such a tally is to be taken in the U.N. Security Council, Cook surprisingly said that he would expect Turkey to vote against such sanctions because of the increased bilateral ties mentioned above. Cook also conceded that the conditions of such a time and the specifics for such sanctions would present a much different situation than the one we are witnessing today.
Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, administration is, without a doubt, quickly nearing its biggest and most crucial shakedown in the foreign-affairs arena since it came to power. Thus far, the AKP administration has been outperforming many of its predecessors in foreign affairs with its pro-active and seemingly self-confident modality. I hope that the AKP is fully aware of the era it is getting involved in, and I also hope that it has already prepared various policy options for such times, which would most likely to go from bad to worst.
The stormy days that lie ahead of us might demand a leader, and the real leaders tend to emerge only in rare occasions and in times of crises, as history tells us. If this is what the AKP leadership has long asked for, it will likely meet its quest in just a matter of time.

1 Comment    


Guest - B (2009-12-22 14:27:55) :

The governments of both Iraq and Iran have denied this Saudi American propaganda. It is unfortunate that a Hurriyet Daily News columnist repeats it.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Clock is ticking for Iran and Turkey!


How fast are we racing to hit the Iranian wall? Is there any hope of avoiding it? Can a wounded and militarily and economically weak America be willing to strike Iran? Does it even have leverage to impose the “crippling sanctions” that it has been promising for months now?

While America has monumental invasion forces in two different Muslim countries, can it take on another one? Wasn’t President Barack Obama the “one” who was going to withdraw military forces from these foreign countries and start to rebuild America? Was he really making the case for a war against Iran while he was making a speech in Oslo?

How about Turkey? Does the Turkish administration put all the alternative policies in a “deep strategic” box, ready to bring them out in the coming weeks and months under various scenarios? The Kurdish opening has thus far showed how poorly the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is prepared for such a huge challenge domestically. Could the Iranian episode, and Turkey’s dealings with Iran, be another vulnerable point in foreign-policy affairs that the AKP did not pay enough attention to or prepare itself for enough?

For months, we have heard about the “democratic opening” and cheered for it, without even knowing or being able to hear exactly what AKP proposes in this “package.” Cynics about this rapprochement in Turkey, sounded, well, too cynical as they relentlessly pointed out the tactical mistakes and plain offhandedness of the AKP. Nowadays, it looks like they were right from the beginning in light of the latest episodes on the streets and in the Parliament.

Before laying out the conversations I had about the Iran question with three experts, Reva Bhalla, Ian Lesser and Steven A. Cook, I would like to emphasize that the outlook about Iran is fast changing for the worse in the U.S. capital, as well as in the international arena. Officials of the countries that are involved with the Iranian nuclear impasse, directly or indirectly, have been attention-grabbingly quiet about the nearing deadline and crises for some time. But this quietness is being abandoning for sharper statements from both sides as reports leak about Iranian nuclear-weapons programs or the country’s test-firing of long-range missiles.

I asked these questions over the phone first to Reva Bhalla, director of geopolitical analysis at Stratfor, a private geopolitical intelligence company headquartered in Austin, Texas. Bhalla first reminded me of the recent history of the talks with the Iranian administration and President Obama’s promise for “crippling” sanctions if nothing comes out of the talks. Obama has already laid out several deadlines for the Iranians in the past. According to some news that I hear in Washington, D.C., the latest deadline, set for the end of the year, by which to show progress with Iran on diplomatic-engagement issues or move to the next step, might already be extended to the middle of January.

Bhalla also pointed out that Israel, for the last few months, has been extremely careful in its statements about the whole episode related to Iran, not wanting to seem like a spoiler for the engagement process. After all those months of silence, Israel is now waiting to see decisive actions, primarily from the U.S. and the international community, against what they see as an existential threat. Though Israel never considered that the sanctions would bring any results, it would still like do its part by giving enough time to play the diplomatic options. After December, however, Israel will press Obama for meaningful action.

At the same time, we see that the talk about heavy sanctions is gearing up in Washington, amid the House of Representatives having already passed a bill that would sanction foreign companies that sell refined petroleum to Iran or help the country with its own domestic refining capacity. The Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act would do so “by depriving those companies of access to the U.S. market,” Rep. Howard Berman’s office said in a statement.

The latest $536 million fine that smacked Credit Suisse Group for violating U.S. law by doing business with Iran, Bhalla said, has the potential to be spread to other foreign energy firms, insurers, shippers and banks that continue to participate in Iran’s gasoline trade.

There is also another interesting event unfolding relating to Dubai’s financial desperation and how and why this crisis could play a crucial part in crippling sanctions against Iran. Abu Dhabi’s growing clout in Dubai presents an attractive geopolitical opportunity to the United States in its struggle against Iran, Bhalla argued. Abu Dhabi often works in league with Saudi Arabia on foreign-policy matters, while the often independent-minded Dubai instead favors Iran – in part because of its contrarian political outlook, but mostly because of the large amounts of cash Dubai can make serving as a transshipment point for Iran’s trade with the world. Many states do not allow trade with Iran, so Dubai serves as a middleman. Roughly three-quarters of Iran’s imports pass through Dubai’s ports.

Indeed, even Swiss firms such as Vitol have set up energy facilities in the United Arab Emirates that are used nearly exclusively for Iranian trade. Dubai, which has its own income sources (primarily in financial services, tourism and real estate) enjoys wide-ranging autonomy, particularly in foreign and economic affairs, and doesn’t want the political strings that come from tapping into the federal coffers from Abu Dhabi. But now that Dubai finds itself in desperate straits, it is in need of Abu Dhabi’s financial help and will undoubtedly be forced to allow Abu Dhabi more control over its activities. As Bhalla points out, getting tighter control over Dubai’s financing, ports and customs systems, for instance, would gut Dubai’s ability to set up an independent economic system, while also granting Abu Dhabi de-facto control over Dubai-Iranian trade.

I also tracked down Ian Lesser while he was in Lisbon this week and had another lengthy conversation on the same topic. A well-known Turkey and transatlantic expert in Washington, D.C., who works as a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund in the capital, Lesser argued that Turkey will not only face pressure from the U.S. and European countries in the near future, but also from Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, which are traditionally adversaries of Iran, when the Iranian sanctions are discussed more intensely, whether in the U.N. Security Council or other venues.

Next: Ian Lesser: “Turks’ dilemma” - Steven A. Cook: “There is a greater chance for Israel to strike militarily now, compared to six months ago.”

Friday, December 18, 2009

Doomsday scenarios for Copenhagen and Kurdish conundrum

The Constitutional Court, the highest court of Turkey, unanimously decided to ban the country's only pro-Kurdish party in Parliament because of its alleged terrorist links. “Democratization must go on” was the title of Cengiz Aktar's last column after this decision while he was eloquently summing up Turkey's adventure with the European Union membership process of the last decade. He suggests that since Turkey kept overlooking the mistakes it made in the last century, such as driving out the non-Muslim populations of Anatolia, it has not tried to draw lessons from them, and we are unsure today if it can deal with the apparent growing tensions between the Kurdish and Turkish segments of the country.
I think Aktar summarizes today's jitters very well. The democratization process, which started in December 1999, when the 15 member states of the EU decided to start official membership talks with Turkey, has now come to a crucial turning point. Around that time many commentators were arguing that this process of democratization might be very depressing for the country. However, myself, like many others, tried to enjoy the moment, instead of spoiling it by thinking how hard the process of open discussions would be for all of us, which we are witnessing today.
Reopening talks with the Kurdish population, giving the cultural and political rights they long deserve and taking the outlawed terror organization the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, or the discontent Kurdish wings into account, sooner or later were going to happen. Therefore, accusing the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, for opening Pandora’s box now, does not sound sincere nor does it help to make anything better. In other words, if the AKP had not tried to put the thorny issues into light now, nobody can be sure that those issues would visit Turkey's agenda at a better time than today.
From day one, I supported the AKP's democratization process, and argued that when the opposition forces were to be considered, AKP is the best alternative for a meaningful rapprochement with the Kurdish segment. However, I also put forward my own concerns over the capability of the AKP's leadership to handle this fragile process, for it seems it lacks the understanding of today’s modern concepts of civil liberties and of those of the coming age, which we have witnessed from its dealings with the freedom of expression to the right to privacy so far.
With these shortcomings of the AKP, a political force that let the genie out of the bottle, Turkey hits an intersection that it can no longer ignore or postpone in order to address some of the underlining reasons of today's tensions. The AKP has a couple of options while moving forward to deal with the Kurdish opening now. It will either try to play the democracy game, as it is played in Western democracies, to raise the whole society in accordance with basic human rights, or it will try to put the genie back in the bottle, which is ultimately a failing option. And this latter doomsday scenario would help to create a huge vicious circle, while the AKP will have to resort to a more nationalistic tone along with more disappointments coming from the EU.
Today, to carry Turkey into the new age as “one country,” democratic maturity is not only being asked from the AKP and the Turkish segment of the society, but the representatives of the Democratic Society Party, or DTP, also need to step up to address the issue more broadly along with millions of Kurdish people. Obama, while getting elected in 2008 as the American president, did not play the race card or the African-Americans’ grievances of the past. As a post-racial president he addressed the whole American nation, for it was the only way to heal some wounds, make real progress and get to where he is now. The representatives of the now-banned DTP have also two alternatives facing them while moving forward. They either will have to recognize some of the undemocratic rules of the Turkish political life and work relentlessly to overcome those rules and address the whole nation with others, or help to close the political channels and leave the matter to the streets to take over. I do not want to believe that Mr. Ahmet Türk, the former head of the recently banned DTP, and other officials of the same party, many of whom are now banned from political life for five years, wish to push this country to the edge of the cliff.
While the heads of governments are getting together in Copenhagen this week to decide the destiny of our earth and show their commitment that they want a better environment for future generations, the political figures of today's Turkey have to get together to display their commitment for “one Turkey.”
The climate experts state that the price of doing nothing in the fight to stop climate change is much higher than the cost of containing it now. Nicholas Stern, chair of Climate Change at the London School of Economics, states that the closing week of the Copenhagen summit must carry a message to voice support for the developing world to stop deforestation and promote new technologies to carry environmentally friendly approaches. Stern adds that the decade ahead of us is a crucial one to turn around high carbon emission, otherwise ongoing living habits that make petroleum-derived hydrocarbons even more expensive and continue to create a hostile environment, which will be unsustainable to live with seeing that the temperatures are expected to rise about 5 degrees before the end of the century. And this dramatic change will bring our world to uncharted territories that have never been seen in the past 30 million years.
Inaction regarding today's Kurdish problem in Turkey will also take the country into uncharted territories of a hostile environment. President Abdullah Gül's invitation for the political leaders to discuss rising tensions would be a good start to curtail the dangerous escalation and create a road map for the coming weeks. Turkey's political leaders must draw lessons from the latest news reports that show clashes between the ordinary people of the two segments of Turkey's society in the streets and start cutting back the “agitation emissions” they have been releasing for sometime. The temperature is rising in Turkey. And the worst part is that Turkey does not have another decade to bring it down.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Erdoğan's Washington visit


Did Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to the Oval Office change any of the dynamics of the U.S.-Turkey relationship? The answer is hardly. Erdoğan's visit was not a historic one, much less a turning point. The average American newspaper reader did not even sense that there was a foreign leader in town.

Though the Turkish news channels devoted hours of live debates to the visit, and tried relentlessly to make sense out of every word and action, there were hardly any references to the visit in the American media. Very few political junkies or high-level foreign-relation analysts in the United States found it interesting to spend time on it.

The visit did not attract much attention in the American media as it seems that the American people have too many problems of their own to handle at this time. They are currently struggling to pay their mortgages and their kids’ school tuitions while funding two wars, one of which hopefully is winding down in Iraq as the other is apparently escalating. The American people also need to hang on to their jobs. With more than 15 million Americans currently unemployed, succeeding in holding onto a job is, in itself, an important achievement in Americans’ daily lives. With all this other exciting stuff going on, the Turkish delegation’s presence in Washington, D.C., did not seem very exotic at this time.

I listened to Erdoğan for hours during this visit, and I was overly disappointed with his speeches. To someone who always tries to make time to listen to different government officials and head of states in the U.S. capital, Erdoğan’s speeches sounded as if they lacked visionary themes and were not equipped with universal ideals at all. As many pointed out, Erdoğan’s tone in these speeches was very much like in those he makes in the party chambers in Ankara. Also, much of the rhetoric was left over from the speeches on his prior visits, with the additions of heavy criticism of Israel and responses to the claims about Turkey’s drifting foreign policies. When he addressed Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, or SAIS, some students who were sitting in the audience did not find the speech interesting enough to stay until the end.

The U.S. and Turkish sides, according to well-placed sources in Washington, reiterated their stances on vital issues during the long Oval Office meetings. Therefore, the meetings did not come up with any strategic decisions, nor did they result in an action agenda. According to one source who listened to an Erdoğan speech that was closed to the general public, however, in answering a question, the Turkish prime minister openly advocated Turkey’s possible mediator role between Iran and the West, in spite of recent rebukes from the Iranian side. In this closed meeting, the same source said, Erdoğan almost explicitly argued for and implied Obama’s endorsement for Turkey’s mediation role. However, it is hard to know whether Obama explicitly blessed such a role.

I was especially curious how Erdoğan was viewing the street protests that were taking place in Tehran on the same day that he was visiting Washington. Though the prime minister spent a long time talking about his sincerity, honesty and humanity in the speeches he made, he did not address the part of a question that was related to the student protests and heavy-handed response of the Iranian security forces. After the moderator received one more question about the protests and forwarded it to Erdoğan, the prime minister skipped answering it once again.

Erdoğan’s last event Monday was to speak at the Seta Foundation’s opening night. I went to visit the foundation’s office a week before to learn more about its activities and aims in Washington. I must say, I found it very thrilling to see a Turkish think-tank branch whose mission is “to foster independent thinking.” At the opening, Erdoğan almost repeated the same speech he gave at Johns Hopkins University’s SAIS auditorium, but he was little harsher this time.

After Erdoğan’s speech, four apparently selected, softened and sweetened questions were addressed to the prime minister by Nuh Yılmaz, the director of Seta-DC. I was not expecting my questions to be asked, for they were about relations with Iran and the ongoing protests, but I was definitely expecting a think tank to do a better job during its official opening night, as courageous and open questioning must be the most important traits of a center of thought.

Why did the Turkish ambassador in Washington resign?

According to some sources that were very close to the visiting Turkish entourage as well as the Turkish Embassy in Washington, ambassador Nabi Şensoy’s resignation is mainly a result of the treatment that the Turkish Embassy has received from the Prime Ministry’s offices in Ankara. According to these sources, contrary to the traditions and well-established protocols, the prime minister’s programs and meetings this time around were arranged exclusively by the Prime Ministry in Ankara, with little or no consulting with the embassy. Such a direct exclusion and being left out of such an important event apparently created an unhealthy environment between the top officials in Ankara and at the embassy, an environment that led to Ambassador Şensoy’s resignation.

On the other hand, when I told this story to two different Washington sources, a businessman and an academic who have ties to the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, they both explained to me that the Turkish Embassy has not been very helpful to the AKP’s agenda, whatever that agenda might be, in Washington, and it has not been functioning as the Prime Ministry wished it to. Consequently, Mr. Şensoy, soon to be the former ambassador of Turkey, was taken out of the loop during the run-up to the visit.

3 Comments       PRINTER FRIENDLY
Guest - Mr Goksel Doganay (2009-12-13 16:11:43) :

A great article by Ilhan Tanir. I would like to comment with respect to Iran and its ties with Iran and Turkey. I think it is prudent of Turkey to establish close ties with Iran not because it is an Islamic state but because it is a neighbour of Turkey. Iran I feel is very dynamic and has a lot to offer but on the other hand development is extremely slow and frustrating as it is in Turkey. Iranian's are a smart people but they must stop bickering and get to work. The Spiritual leader should stop acting as if he has divine guidance and actually do his job which is serve his people. I think it is important to be cautious with the street protests in Iran. I do think though the Iranian leadership should treat these people humanely and with respect. These people are citizens of Iran and it is important they air their grievances. If you treat your citizens as if they are your enemies this will create a rift in society which will lead to retardation in economic growth. Also I think Turkey shouldn't be wholehearted with its relationship with Iran. It should maintain a business like relationship rather than an emotional one. Turkey should not blindly follow the words of the Iranian leadership and let them decieve people. Iran has a legitimate right to Nuclear technology but it must be done within International norms and the Iranian leadership should do its utmost to alleviate concerns and not act provocatively. Also I find the attitude of the US government attitude wrong. Unknown to many people, the Iranian leadership in 2003 actually tried to establish relations with the US government, basically it was saying we give up, we want ties. What did the US government do? They totally refused.

Guest - Amoo (2009-12-12 21:42:17) :

Mr. Tanir, as an Iranian-American who is very interested in Iran-Turkey relations, I appreciate your interest in the same subjects. Would you please write express your views about Iran-Turkey affairs in an article? Or if you have done so, please send me an email with links to those articles.

Guest - Dinos Plassaras (2009-12-12 00:36:01) :

I saw the Charlie Rose interview on the Internet: I thought Erdogan did a fine job. The translator's voice does not allow for a full appreciation of the message. Setting aside a certain affinity for ceremony (which the Turkish people consider an affirmation of importance), please be reminded that the best diplomatic accomplishments are low key and are meant to go undetected by the media.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Obama's predicament before meeting with Erdoğan

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, prime minister of Turkey, will visit the Oval Office on Monday, Dec. 7, to have a lengthy talk with U.S. President Barack Obama. While Obama has been very busy deciding the Afghan strategy, trying to figure out a way to contain Iran, struggling to boost the ever-fragile Arab/Israeli peace process and dealing with many other grave domestic issues at the same time, I think the presence of the Turkish entourage in Washington, D.C. still ought to be paid more attention, as today's Turkey, directly or indirectly, plays a role in America's most problematic foreign areas.
Though it must be noted that Obama, not Erdoğan, is not the same popular leader that he was once, who visited Turkey in April. For example, Obama's visit to East and Central Asia a week earlier was widely criticized in the American media. Despite the fact that Obama declared himself as the "first Pacific president" while touring four different countries in the region, his visits, meetings and touring program throughout the eight-day visit attracted an extensive range of criticism. During these visits, we heard many slogans from the American president, such as “breaking the pattern of the past” to “strategic alliances.” At the end of the visit, however, the team Obama has not been able to bring any concrete achievements or breakthroughs back home.
Though it is not like it’s the first time Obama is coming home empty-handed from a foreign visit, Obama so far has not been able to make any breakthroughs on any front in foreign affairs. So the question is, why it is now that the criticisms against his dealings in foreign affairs are piling suddenly?
The reason, I think, that Obama has now started to receive heavy criticism in the international affairs arena is because Obama's extraordinary, multi-ethnical personal story is also wearing out, along with the belief in his magical journey is ending. And this grim outlook displays itself with plummeting job approval ratings, which, according to the latest Gallup polls, are now below the 50s in America. The biggest specialty of Obama, his stump speeches, which were the most visible components of his previous visits, whether in Ankara, Cairo or Ghana, were missing in his Asia visit. In Shanghai, China, Obama held a "town hall" meeting with students, who, according to the New York Times, were carefully vetted and prepped for the event by the Chinese government, and the event was not broadcasted across China, like the previous U.S. presidents' speeches.
After more than a year since Obama was elected, now the people and the pundits alike think that it is about time to ask about the campaign promises that Obama, as a presidential candidate, never shied away from giving. Rapprochement with the Iranian regime, progress on the Israeli/Arab peace process, “resetting the button” with the Russians, and in the domestic politics arena: worsening job market, overhauling the health care sector and many other issues are either progressing very slowly, on hold or stalled. While many voted for Obama because they thought as an outsider – he was only a mere two-year senator when he started campaigning for president – he could change the culture in Washington and crack the nasty Washington politics as a post-partisan and post-racial president, now their hope is also on hold.
It is not that Obama is not capable of doing the things he promised, says Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, the problem is, Friedman adds, "American system is capable of producing only sub-optimal solutions to the problems." America today cannot offer solid solutions to its health care problem, cannot revolutionize the energy technology, or change its financial sectors. America is still going through one of the deepest economic crises of its history that its very own financial sector helped to create, yet, after years of economic recession, the American Congress has not made necessary legislation to fill the gaps. It is not that America has a president who does not have a majority in the Congress or is politically against these ideas of the reform. On the contrary, America has a president who promised to solve these very problems and have a majority in both wings of the American Congress, though still has made little or no headway to pass any legislation after almost a year.
It is only a year after the presidential elections, and it is not unusual to come across TV pundits who talk about the next presidential elections in 2012 and potential candidates. One of those supposedly next presidential candidates, Sarah Palin, John McCain's vice presidential nominee in the 2008 elections, tells fairy tales to the American people, from cutting taxes further to creating new jobs, with no concrete solutions. And according to the same polls, now the gap between the likeablity of Palin and Obama has got smaller ever.
In the international arena, Obama is trying to adjust and land American superpower status to a more of a leading power status in a multi-polar world. There are still many in the press and especially in the opposition, who do not want this reality to sink in and try to stay in a constant denial. Those opposition forces will want America to act and impose orders on other nations, like nothing happened in the last decade. The American people, indeed, should be thankful that they have a president who seems to have clear understanding of the new world order.
This sobriety does not mean America is leaving the world scene and getting into the determent era. This era, is mostly adjusting America's power once more and positioning itself in a way to stay relevant and still influential with regional cooperations and partnerships. In this era, Turkey can be a great partner in the Eastern Europe/Middle East region amid its increasing profile and popularity in the Muslim world. Though, Obama must come up with more tangible offers for the pragmatic Turkish leadership rather than trying to position them to choose between the ideologies of the West and the East.
When it comes to America's domestic politics area, things are much more complicated and grim. America, with a president popular worldwide, with all the support this new president received from the American public for the last year, has not been able to solve one single big problem domestically. And amid the looming mid-elections of 2010, there are very few signs that America can solve its own problems to leap forward bolstered with its traditional innovation spirit. America already tried a unique leadership for the last year, and it did not work. Maybe it is time for the Americans to try a unique citizenship spirit to do things from the bottom to the top.

Friday, December 04, 2009

A cloud of quasi-authoritarianism


Nowadays, Turkey is discovering itself once more by going through a new period, a period coupled with changing dynamics along with various “openings” that have taken place during the past few years. This period gives the people and writers alike enough courage to question some of the dark sides of Turkish history, as well as the powerhouses that have been untouchable throughout the decades.

Turkey is striving to put behind a period of quietness when it comes to some taboo subjects and events. Even Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is not being spared from this new spirit of criticism, and I have always believed, just like Falih Rifki worried in his great book, “Cankaya,” that the worst thing we did to Atatürk was to elevate him to another god.

I am very much in favor of squaring the account with the past. I am against the idea that some events and periods of history should not be discussed. On the contrary, I think our recent history and even the history of Islam must be questioned meticulously, even if it is very hard to find anyone who does the latter.

While many pundits enjoy the fact that they finally, after decades of oppression, are able to openly question the misdeeds of the past, or the current regime and most importantly the actions of the Turkish Army, I just stare at this newly found spirit and tell myself how much progress Turkey has made over the years towards becoming an open society. For I seriously believe that the most significant trait of an open society is to have an environment in which anyone can engage in honest discussions, even if some of them may hurt the national pride. From the tragic events that happened to the Armenian people during World War I to the Turkish wealth tax in 1942, from the violent 1955-1956 street protests to the periodic overthrow of civilian governments by the Turkish military, I am all for getting to the bottom of these controversial episodes.

Just a few years ago, it was surreal to even imagine that any active military officer could be detained, leaving aside getting arrested by civil authorities. Now it seems that the arrest of a military officer is becoming ordinary news. Let me be clear: I do not, at any rate, just get excited when I run into news about an arrest. I do not think every single military arrest or detainment is a sign of a better democracy, in contrast to the opinions of many columnists.

I do, however, think that it is an important development if the arrest of “anyone” is based on substantiated evidence. But I worry that, for example, many of the arrests that are being made in the ongoing "Ergenekon" investigation may not be according to universal justice and prosecution principles. Holding many civilian and military officials alike in custody for years, without being able to bring concrete evidence is very disturbing. Overlooking the distinction between suspicious writings or tapped phone conversations without attested exhibits for a committed crime is too big a mishandling. As mad as some people could be, justice cannot and should not be a way of getting payback for some of the wrongdoings of the past or being on the other side of the discussions.

Turkey's free minds should have enough latitude to ask tough questions to find out the real reasons behind some of the disturbing historic episodes or unfair treatments of different segments of the society that have shaped today's Turkey. Once we reach a level of trust and honesty and once we know that everyone at the table wants to see Turkey on the road to perfection, then we will realize that we are all actually not that far from each other. Turkey has enough personality, history, tolerance and many more elements to succeed in such an endeavor.

One of the cornerstones of any functioning democracy is freedom of the press, and today in Turkey this watchdog is being oppressed in a fashion that has never been seen in recent history, except during the periods of strict military rule. So I ask the question to those who claim that they want nothing but an open and accountable Turkey: Why is it that those sharp-witted intellectuals fall short of questioning today's nightmares or hardly make a passing by commenting about the hurdles that Turkish democracy is facing while they impeccably question Turkey's past.

Intellectuals, who deem to dig into the roots of the past misdeeds, prefer only to show mere “tolerance” for the foreign press for its criticism of the dark clouds that travel over Turkey. Many of those opinion makers assert or imply that they choose to be quiet about today's powerfuls' misbehavior, simply because there is no alternative out there, and that if we do not support this administration, we might just slide back. I think it is this miscalculated view of things that today makes Turkey's democracy failing or fragile. If the consciousness pens keep failing to show their backbones, when they are needed the most, against the most powerful, we are not progressing towards a better working democracy, but are giving way to another authoritarianism to take the baton from the predecessor.

Avowing tenderness for those who have courage to stand up does not mean one does one’s homework, but one only ignores it. Those pundits might still want to act like they are die-hard democrats by displaying mercy to others and “allowing” them to do their homework; actually it just turns them into a sort of chameleon-like democrat, who has no difficulty blending with the color of contemporary powerhouses. These timeserving and score-settling minds, however, could be equipped with sharp-witted and strong historic references, but in a real world, lack the necessary democratic spirit, and seem that they cannot get away from being dragged into the past all over again.

It excites me to see recent open discussions in the Turkish press, for they will give me hope that we are finally finding a way to reckon with the past's ghosts. I feel proud in showing them to our peers in the West. Then, when I see the cloud of quasi-authoritarianism wandering over Turkey's skies, and also those very audacious pundits become mum over these heart-joggling menaces to the Turkish democracy, I restart wondering, whether this whole new chapter that is taking place is just another sign of hitting the forces which are now weak or on the defensive side. Then I become pessimistic again and begin to think, whether this seeming era of enlightenment of free-spirited debate is just another chapter of a mere power struggle. And I find myself losing a lot of sleep over this scenario these days.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Turkey's diplomacy policies could be shifting

Published on SETimes (
Is the orientation of Turkish foreign policy changing? Is Turkey swaying from the West to the East?
By Erol Izmirli for Southeast European Times in Istanbul -- 30/11/09

Although the Turkish government denies any foreign policy change, a shift in its regional priorities has triggered scrutiny -- especially in the Western world.
Washington-based foreign policy expert and Hurriyet Daily News columnist Ilhan Tanir spoke with SETimes correspondent Erol Izmirli on whether the country is changing its diplomatic course.
SETimes: In the ongoing debate on whether Turkey has changed its axis, how would you describe the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) foreign policy?
Ilhan Tanir: First, I think the AKP administration should be [viewed] primarily as a pragmatist administration rather than an ideological one. I would even argue that this is the most pragmatist administration Turkey has ever seen. In terms of this modus regarding foreign relations, the AKP sometimes comes into view as the most liberal and most western [focused] government in Turkey's history.
SETimes: Do you think the motive behind the new policies is to be a regional power or to become the voice of the Muslim world?
photoTurkey is looking for a better relations with the Kurdish population in Turkey. [Getty Images]
Tanir: The biggest reason for these pro-active policies, I believe, is to position Turkey as one of the regional powers like in the other parts of the world. Turkish foreign policy thinkers, [Foreign Minister Ahmet] Davutoglu as a leading actor, apparently believes that Turkey has enough tools in its toolbox to play this role. Its history, growing economy, relatively vast population, geographical location -- with its advantages or complications, religious identity as well as secular past, lead them to think that Turkey is indeed up to this task of being a regional power.
Turkey is trying to unlock its historic impasse with Armenia and is looking for better relations with the Kurds in northern Iraq as well as with the Kurdish population in Turkey. It also supported the reunification talks in Cyprus, especially during the referendum in 2004 ... and it still maintains a persistent approach for full membership of the EU .... Hence, it can be argued that Turkey is trying to advance its profile both in the East and the West.
That being said, I do believe that this strategic deep thinking and multi-dimensional approach incorporates many hazards. If this spirit of self-confidence is mismanaged, some of its consequences may be quite traumatic.
SETimes: Do you think Ankara's self-confidence will cause trouble in its ties with the West?
Tanir: Turkey's relations with its two immediate neighbours have raised many eyebrows in recent times -- with Syria and with Iran. In these two instances, Turkey received and still receives heavy flak from many policymakers and commentators, both in the West and Turkey.
Regarding [its ties] with Syria, the Turkish foreign policy team read the international conjuncture and foresaw that [it] had to compromise its hard stance and policies against Syria.
photoSyrian President Bashar al-Assad (left) and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul. [Getty Images]
On the other hand, Turkey has been trying to apply the same approach in its relations with another problematic neighbour, Iran. Turkey and Iran are the two countries that have been competing for regional influence for centuries ... The recent history with Iran, especially since the Islamic regime came to the helm in Iran about 30 years ago, [resulted in more] tense relations ...
SETimes: The cooling in Turkey's ties with Israel is also noteworthy in regards to the current foreign policy trends. How do you evaluate this?
Tanir: On first impression, Turkey's protest against Israel's approach makes sense. However, when this approach is looked into more closely, one can see that Turkey's political leaders do more than criticise. Turkey applies some sharp arguments in the international diplomatic relations between the two countries, which have had a pretty good recent record.
These arguments have been voiced over and over again, apparently to abridge the relationship with Israel. Turkish leaders [have not] lessened their criticism of Israel since the Davos Summit, while the Israeli side, at least a few times, has extended olive branches. Only recently did Israel's prime minister reject a Turkish mediation role with Syria, [which] officially ended the decades-long strategic alliance.
Is the West losing Turkey?
Tanir: What is the recipe for not losing Turkey? It seems a big concern and the main topic of many discussions in Western circles among policy makers and commentators alike. How can Westerners be confident of Turkey's supporting role when/if such a dramatic moment-of-truth comes? I am afraid that this also depends more on the Western countries, rather than the pragmatist Turkish administration.
The first steps of this Western assertive role can be taken when [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan visits Washington, DC in the beginning of December. During this visit, and in the future, [US President Barak] Obama has to extend some tangible offers. In other words, lay out some pragmatic reasons for Turkey to get closer to the Western alliance, in terms of the Iranian conundrum or in general, if he or the Western world wishes Turkey to side with them.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Can Turkey be lost? (III)


In this final analysis I will try to shed light on the question of whether the discussions over worries of “losing Turkey” have any merit or not. As I argued in my previous two columns, the Justice and the Development Party, or AKP, most of the time adopts a political strategy that applies a pragmatist modality to achieve its ends. The AKP, when viewed as a pure political force, appears to be looking after its constituencies' well-being to increase Turkey’s bilateral ties with the surrounding countries to boost either the economic ends, or prove that Turkey values “zero problems” with its neighbors and therefore is a peaceful country.

Still, I would like to argue, this “what works” paradigm also contains various dangers, as it depends on from what angle one looks at the developments in the region and also considering that the upshot of these dealings are not at all self-evident. In other words, since Turkey likes to play several games at once, so that when things don't go well on one front, it can leap into others. Nonetheless, I argue that, in case of a dramatic turn of events in one of those games, results of such an unusual and sudden change could create circumstances that may leave the Turkish foreign policy makers in awe and shock mode. Consequently, if the AKP's conspicuous navigating style of viewing foreign affairs, at the last account, is not managed diligently and cautiously, it can lead to various unforeseeable inferences and it can push Turkey to align itself more closely with the more ideologically driven axis of a less-democratic world even if the intentions are not flagrantly driven in that direction.

This dramatic scenario is not just limited to the unfolding nuclear talks and debates between the West and the Iranian regime or to a rift between Turkey and the European Union, which might stem from deteriorating EU full membership prospects. In the case of the Iranian conundrum, it appears from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's remarks that mutual treaties with the Iranian leadership and the increasing trade volume between the two countries drives Turkey into such a pragmatic road with Iran, on which making a U-turn becomes more difficult. Turkey has been investing huge political capital in this "friendship,” and a speedy departure from close camaraderie with Ahmadinejad will become more costly in the future.

Yet, the behavior of the policymakers of today's Turkey, regarding their foreign affairs modality, does not necessarily suggest that they are ideologically pushing Turkey to align itself with only one orbit. I also argue forcefully that the AKP's unprincipled or non-anchored orientation toward questions of a great moment leaves, rightly so, its critics striving to figure out what its “real” tendencies or commitments are, and urges them to constantly make cases to prove “one” certain identity. While the alertness over Turkey's assertive role is increasing in the West and the East simultaneously, Turkey also is learning to use and maximize its influence in the areas in its proximity with these unidentifiable approaches. Turkey mostly gets away with this paradoxical affinity, with the absence of an ideological, compressed identity.

We do not have room here to argue that pragmatism as an American school of philosophy whose one of the main doctrines is that "truth is pre-eminently to be tested by the practical consequences of belief." In terms of this philosophical pragmatism, the secular establishment of Turkey comes across as the antipode of the pragmatist governing style. The secular establishment in those decades following the new Turkish Republic since its founding, clinched to the principle of secularism, a distorted one, and of “Westernism,” a very vague one, while viewing the circumstances of the real world surrounding Turkey. And, consequently, these various administrations strove to make a clear break with the Muslim world, by either trying to ignore this vast neighborhood or looked down upon it.

So, if we revisit today's events, I believe the real question is how the Western world can win today's pragmatist Turkey as opposed to why Turkey is leaving the West. Or, how can the Westerners be confident of Turkey's supporting role and make sure that Turkey will go on its democratic escapade to the final destination as a fully accountable, transparent and secular country. I am afraid, answers also depend more on the policies that are made by the Western countries rather than on the Turkish side.

The first steps of this Western assertive role should be to draw up the chair on which Prime Minister Erdoğan will sit when he visits the Oval Office in the beginning of December. In this visit, and in the future, Obama has to extend some tangible offers; in other words, laid out some pragmatic reasons for Turkey to stay unswayed when the moments of great importance to the Western world arrives, such as the Iran question.

Do we see this happening? For example, does the EU seem sensible while addressing Turkey's worries? Sadly, the answer is no. While Sarkozy, the rhapsodic leader of France, or Angela Merkel, the murky leader of Germany, are stubbornly pushing Turkey in the opposite direction, many policymakers in those countries, at the same time, are ironically asking why Turkey is turning its head to the East.

The Turkish political leaders still remember what happened when Turkey sided with American forces during the first Gulf War, which became very costly for Turkey's economic interests. Now, Turkey, intentionally or not, raises its bargaining chip to see palpable undertakings in order to be convinced that it should close ranks with the Western world for any given case. With increased trade relations with Iran, Turkey's pragmatic leaders want to see some real offers on the table, regarding the road map with the EU or some real incentives from the American friends, instead of a mere ideological rhetoric of "with us or against us."

Remember, pragmatism doesn't reject principles or ideologies, but certifies that there can be various principles to pick and choose. And thanks to our common genius philosophical journey, there are enough principles to do just that from the various schools and the religions. Unless Turkey hears principles, which lead to real economic gains or to conciliation with the governing rules that help Turkey to navigate its own interests, guide the region to peaceable interactions with several parties and work toward not only one specific group's interests, any order imposed from the outside will be met with great suspicion.

Turkey's pragmatic outlook will continue, even if the Turkish leaders understand that a nuclear-armed Iran will cause the greatest threat to Turkey in the long run. The Turkish foreign policy makers are just starting to enjoy this game of pragmatism; and pragmatism, in general, tends not to be a search for long-run benefits, and damages it might cause are not at all self-evident in the short run. And this final consequence also works for the pragmatists.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Is Turkey drifting or navigating? (II)

In my previous column, I discussed Turkey’s change of direction from the West to the East. I argued that the openings made by the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, to the East appear to be more pragmatic than ideological.

However, I also argued that when this pragmatist approach is combined with the recently rising self-confidence – or, as some see it, overconfidence – it carries some enormous risks if the existing real resources of the country, such as economic power, diplomatic tools, even the number of the diplomats at the Turkish Foreign Ministry, are overlooked.

In the upcoming third part of the series, I will not stop only at analyzing what is happening, but also prescribe a recipe for the Western world to gain Turkey’s self-willed support, if, as it seems, they are sincerely concerned by the recent developments taking place in Turkey.

Turkey’s relations with its two immediate neighbors, Syria and Iran, have raised many eyebrows in recent years. In these two instances, Turkey has received and still receives heavy flak from many policymakers and commentators, both in the West and in Turkey. Regarding Syria, I believe that the Turkish foreign policy team read the international conjuncture quite well a few years ago and foresaw that the United States, badly damaged and weakened in the region, would have to compromise its hard stance and policies against Syria, to say the least, and try to make a distinction between Syria and Iran. One of the most pressing reasons for this softened approach was, undoubtedly, to make sure that once American troops start pulling out of Iraq, Syria would play a constructive role in that country’s stability.

Recently, in Washington, D.C., I was present during the interviews that were conducted with the three former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey, Morton Abramowitz, Marc Grossman and Ross Wilson, on the daily news program “Stüdyo Washington,” in which I also took part. All three praised Turkey’s warm relations with Syria, and implied that these improved relations could be used for peace in the region. Contrary to just a couple of years ago, many in the U.S. capital and other Western countries have also come to view Turkey’s better relations with Syria as a way to help achieve a normalization process in Syria and soften its rogue regime slowly amid various bilateral openings and economic incentives. Finally, this relationship is also being viewed as a possible tool to further break Syria’s ties with Iran to stop causing various conflicts in the region. Turkey, as a next-door neighbor of both countries, got into the game early and employed its presence well, both for its own sake as well as for peace in the region.

On the other hand, Turkey has been trying to apply the same “zero problems” approach in its relations with another problematic neighbor, namely Iran. Turkey and Iran are the two countries that have been competing for regional influence for centuries, even before the United States of America was born. The recent history with Iran, especially since the Islamic regime took the helm about 30 years ago, has caused more of a strained relation, compared to the relatively better relations between the secular Turkish Republic and the Shah regime since the 1920s.

The Turkish foreign team predicts that the same warm international climate that occurred with Syria will at some point crop up with respect to Iran as well. In light of this assumption, Turkey has been heavily investing in Iran in terms of both political and economic capital. According to a Turkish expert who has close ties with the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Turkish diplomats genuinely believe that they can also engineer a crack in the ice between Iran and the West, and finally play a problem-solver role.

For the sake of a much better relationship with Iran, Turkey went as far as congratulating Ahmadinejad’s rigged victory as early as possible in the post-election period, along with various other country leaders who do not have a very good reputation in the international arena. This seemingly unalloyed extension of the Turkish congratulations to Iran’s Islamic regime not only gave a terrible message to the Iranian people and the international community, it also created questions over the understanding of democracy that Turkish leaders believe in, especially in light of many statements that were made by Turkish officials during this episode.

Did this early-bird celebration of Ahmadinejad create a climate for Turkey to get more economic contracts? Possibly, yes. China also uses its good relationship with Iran to take a big chunk of the Iranian pie and thanks the Western world for staying away. However, does not Turkey like to emphasize its distinction in terms of democratic credentials from the company of such countries as China, Russia and Venezuela?

I wrote right after Turkey’s official approach to the street protests in Iran that Turkey’s calculations to preserve its self-interest must be respected in the international arena; however, values and notions exist that reflect a country’s stand within the international community. In other words, once the human factor is weighed, modern states tend to restrain themselves in many ways. Turkey did not bother to do so. And I am not sure if Turkey has any moral credibility while endorsing the Goldstone Report in the U.N. Human Rights Council to condemn Israel for what it did during the Gaza War, then turning around and opposing the international reports that claim that similar crimes against humanity indeed did happen in Sudan.

All in all, in light of this pragmatist approach, Turkey’s relations with Iran and its ever-increasing economic ties, while the Western companies are being eliminated, underscore once more Turkey’s practical stance, especially when one considers the current global economic downturn is felt heavily in the Turkish economy. How reliable the Iranians are when it comes to keeping their promises for economic contracts in light of breaching many of them in the recent past is another question, however.

Still, as a political force, the AKP wants to make sure that Turkey gains as much economic leverage in the region. And according to the news reports, lifting the visa requirements with Syria has already proven very profitable, especially for the populations of the Turkish cities near the Syrian border, which are traditionally not well-to-do.

What does this picture tell us? Does the AKP have a pure fetishistic-pragmatic foreign-affairs team that targets nothing but “what works”? No. I do not believe that the AKP is a purely pragmatic administration (can any administration be?), nor does it have a purely ideological identity. As a matter of fact, ideology is, I believe, an unavoidable factor that plays an important role when one views some of the foreign policies of the AKP. Presumably, one can see how this ideological identity plays an important role when one views the recent strained relations with Israel.

In the next installment: what the West has to do to make sure Turkey is not lost.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Is Turkey drifting away or navigating its way? (I)

   Since the Justice and the Development Party, or AKP, came to power in 2002, there have been many articles and discussions that questioned AKP's “real” intentions, and whether some of AKP's foreign policies should be taken as signs of Turkey leaving the Western alliance.
The AKP establishment, if I may call it this way, has strongly opposed such scenarios and has given many instances to prove that AKP aims to make Turkey a strong part of the western world and if EU, concomitantly with ever-stronger ties with the eastern and the Muslim world. And if one takes a closer look into this paradigm and hotly debated question, one finds plenty of arguments to support both sides.
Therefore, when this unavoidable question was posed to me last week, I felt obliged to delve into the underlying cogency or reasoning of the AKP leadership, and I found it useful to enter into the discussion in light of this underlying assumption, that I believe what drives the AKP leadership to view and conduct its foreign policy. That underlying assumption is the pragmatist modality of the AKP foreign policy makers, which suggests that of 'what works' policies are the main driving force for this leadership in order to be able to navigate in this difficult geographical set up in which Turkey is situated. I hope that I will able to analyze this difficult question diligently and in an impartial fashion, as it gets increasingly harder to find such objective analyses of this question nowadays.
 First, I think the AKP administration, as said in the previous paragraph, should be taken primarily as a pragmatist administration, rather than an ideological one. I would even argue that this is the most pragmatist administration Turkey has ever seen. In terms of this pragmatic modus regarding foreign relations, the AKP sometimes comes into view as the most liberal and most Western government in Turkey's history and sometimes the most conservative and pro-Islamic. Though one must confess, AKP is most successful, while it plays its pro-Islamic role, which suits it much better and appears to be genuine, because of the electors it addresses and also because of the ideologies that the many leaders of AKP have been fed and raised into.
 It is true that today the administration in Turkey aims to capitalize the Turkish Republic's Ottoman links, and while doing that they never needed to hide this sentiment. If one wishes to emphasize one of these identities more than the others, and would like to call this administration a newborn Ottomanist, or neo-Ottomanist, I think this could be possible as well, even though as far as I know and hear, Mr. Ahmet Davutoğlu, himself, never used the term neo-Ottomanism.
Albeit we have witnessed in the recent history that the same AKP administration utilized Turkey's secular identity in many instances as well, when it sees it fit. However, it is possible to view that the AKP administration likes to emphasize Turkey's secular identity more while it engages with the Western world and the religious, historic and democratic identity more while it engages with the Muslim countries. This pattern is also another glimpse of its pragmatism.
 I can elaborate on this argument with pure speculation to make my point clear. And it is not a product of an outrageous imagination to think that when the leaders of the AKP visit another Muslim country or are visited by one of them, behind closed doors they quite possibly would emphasize and refer to the common religious identity, let's say, against the Western hegemony, to further the relations. At the same time, again as a pure conjecture, it is not so far off the chart to think that the same Turkish political leaders, when they engage with a Western leader, would turn to Turkey's secular identity and emphasize how different Turkey is from those backward countries in the region in following a progressive path, whatever that path may be.
 However, one matter is established and for that there is no need for any speculation, and that is that today's Turkey strives to calculate its moves and likes to play a pro-active, pre-emptive role while charming the immediate neighbors in a wide variety of foreign affairs. This makes the AKP administration very unique and different from past administrations.
The biggest reason for these pro-active policies, I believe, is to level Turkey as one of those regional powers like in the other parts of the world. Turkish foreign policy thinkers including Davutoğlu, the Turkish Foreign Minister, as a leading actor, apparently believes that Turkey has enough tools in its toolbox to play this role. Its history, growing economy, relatively vast population, geographical location with its advantages or complications, religious identity as well as secular one, lead them to think that Turkey is indeed up to the task of being a regional power.
Turkey is trying to unlock its historic impasse with Armenia and looking for better relations with the Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq as well as the Kurdish population within Turkey. It also supported the reunification talks in Cyprus, especially during the referendum in 2004, contrary to the state establishment views; and it still maintains a persistent approach for full membership of the EU by appointing a minister for the accession talks, even though the appointment came very late. Hence, it can be argued that Turkey is trying to advance its profile both in the East and the West. Turkey with ever-improving relations with the Balkan countries, contrary to arguments that it only engages with the Muslim world, even though the Muslim world visits are more apparent and have brought tangible results so far, tries to engineer "East and West together" paradigm to reclaim a regional power status it once held in the Ottoman times. And I think the AKP administration should be credited with these intense engagement policies. In light of these developments, it is safe to say that Turkey now has a self-confident and outward looking administration, rather than an inward looking traditional one, whether one likes many parts of this approach or not.
 That being said, I do believe that this strategic deep thinking and multi-dimensional approach incorporates many hazards. And sometimes having too much self or miscalculated confidence would disillusion this team about the country's real power and with that it carries enormous risks. And if this self-confidence spirit is mismanaged, some of its consequences may be quite traumatic.
Next: Analyzing AKP's foreign policy re-orientation in light of the relationship with Syria, Iran and Israel.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Abbas is set to destabilize


The Middle East Institute held its annual conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. last week. Many world-renowned scholars, current and former government officials and retired military and intelligence officers participated in the conference. The climate in the conference was grim, and one heard the word “despair” more than “hope,” and “collapse” more than “collaboration” in the conference. This pessimistic outlook was obvious during the last panel of the two-day conference as well, titled "Arab-Israel Peace and the Domestic Political Obstacles."

One discussant in this last was Khalil Shikaki, a Brandeis University professor and the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survery Research in Ramallah, which has conducted more than 100 polls among Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since 1993. He chose to weigh in on the recent announcement of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, not to run for reelection in 2010. After months of frustration, apparently Abbas feels that he is in an impossible position to move forward for a comprehensive peace settlement.

Obama, after his grandiose speech in Cairo, lifting the hopes of the Arab world for a few months by his bold pronouncement to prove that he indeed is serious to deliver and change the perception of his country in the region, he has now come back to square one in recent weeks. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to backpedal in her visit to the region from the only condition the American administration put forward, which was freezing the settlements.

In such a desperate mode, maybe the most upbeat statement in the conference came from Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New American Foundation and veteran Israeli peace negotiator, who said that the Obama administration, at least getting involved with the Arab-Israel peace process in their first year, not the seventh or the eighth, still would have time to correct the course or their mistakes. Levy was right on in pointing out Obama's early start; however, one needs to really dig deep to find hopeful signs about what Obama’s team has done so far in order to bring some hope for the future.

Shikaki, an expert who follows the region very closely and regularly takes Palestinian people's pulse with his polling center, first gave a quick brief about what Abbas has done for the last five years. According to Shikaki, Abbas delivered an unprecedented security for Israel with an effective stability in the West Bank. Abbas has been able to do this by restructuring the Palestinian institutions with much better service than has ever been seen for the past 16 years. He said that 60 percent of Palestinians were now feeling safer, up from 25 percent a few years ago.

Shikaki added that in the West Bank, for the first time in history, the chain of command has been effectively established in security ranks, and security forces have come strictly under civilian authority. In addition, many Palestinian armed leaders or warlords have lost their authority to freely attack Israel and thereby causing retaliation by the Israeli forces. The justice system is also repaired, and for the first time again, the Palestinians have come to trust their justice system now, even though there is yet much more to be done. The corruption, once an infamous twin word for the Fatah, also has decreased rapidly.

Regarding the relationship with Hamas, Shikaki also argued that Abbas cracked down on the Fatah as well as the Hamas militants, and most of the armed Hamas militants have been put in jail, although the political wing of Hamas has been left untouched, he added, not because of Israel, but for the sake of Palestine's democracy. And the harsh treatment for Hamas was not done because the Israelis wanted it, but because 95 percent of the Fatah delegates, in a recent Fatah conference, identified Hamas as a coup-prone and violent movement.

Abbas also repaired the badly damaged U.S.-Palestine ties, which are back to where they were in the 1990s during the Clinton years. And in light of this better relationship with the United States, now most of the Palestinians consider America's role in the peace process as favorable. And Shikaki reveals that only last year Israel's former prime minister Olmert and Abbas held secret talks, and got closer than ever to a peace deal, including the exchange of maps concerning the final borders of a Palestinian state. However, with the new elections in Israel, the Netanyahu administration did not even care about these secret talks.

Abbas reformed the Fatah, Shikaki concluded, made a great transition and change in the political life of Palestine; but for what Abbas asks himself now. He realizes, after delivering many promises that many thought were undeliverable, nobody is out there to move the peace process forward. After long years of hard work, the West Bank is now a safe place, both for its people and also for Israel. Instead, Abbas felt that he was being let down, and that all he did was to make Israel happy, with nothing in return.

Therefore, in recent times, the security that is provided for Israel, Shikaki argues, is perceived by the Palestinians as a collaboration with the invading forces. Good relations with America also seem to be very costly, as Abbas took heavy flak from many of his supporters with his initial rejection of the GoldStone Report in the United Nations Human Council, under the pressure from American diplomats. Right after U.S. Secretary of State Clinton praised Netanyahu's move as “unprecedented.”
So Abbas decides, since nothing is working, the only way forward is to destabilize the region, or give it a shock therapy. Shikaki predicts that this shock therapy will have different episodes, ups and downs. For example, Abbas will start shutting down the information channels with the outside world; he will not see a reporter, will not give an interview or make statements. Then after the announcement of the resignation, the real resignation will come as well, together with the rest of his Cabinet.

The shock therapy might be the final way to put the peace talks on the right track, Shikaki believes. Maybe someone will try to put the peace track right back, once it is understood that the situation is serious. If not, Abbas will quit, with everyone else in the Palestinian Authority and that will cause the crash of the system.

According to the polls among the people of Palestine, Shikaki declares that two-thirds of the Palestinians now think that they tried every possible way for the peace process, but failed. Therefore, the time is now to visit violence, because they think this option could be the only helpful way for moving forward.

We will see how Shikaki's predictions will turn out, and if anyone will take the signals seriously, before such chaos hits the region.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Fort Hood shooting and the role of Muslim clerics


On Thursday afternoon, when the American people were getting ready to finish one more day before the end of the working week, a horrible event hit the news.

An Army major had opened fire at the Fort Hood military base in Texas, killing a dozen fellow Army soldiers, and injuring tens more. As the hours passed, it became clear that it was in fact a Muslim officer, a doctor named Nidal Malik Hasan, who was the sole suspect, probably acting as a lone wolf in this tragic event.

America is a country that is currently undergoing two wars, once-in-a-lifetime economic crisis and deep political and social divisiveness. Hundreds of thousands of American men and women are in the armed forces to serve their country, including “20,000 Muslims serving with honor in the U.S. military,” according to the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veteran Affairs Council in a 2008 article. While the Fort Hood tragedy is felt on so many levels, the victims and their families and friends come to mind first.

The young men and women who are at the base to serve their country, most of them probably just starting their lives, are surely crushed by what happened in a place they assumed safe, unlike the war theaters into which they are about to be deployed.

American society, collectively, is also hit hard by this event, as are average Muslims-Americans – and especially the ones in the U.S. military. Many fear that this horrific episode will be a factor in marginalizing average Muslim-American soldiers, even though the actions were committed by a single, angry individual.

Whether this incident will cause these Muslim-American soldiers to be screened intensively and viewed as a potential threat, or for them to feel that way for any reason, remains to be seen. So far though, the mainstream American media and the country’s political and military leaders are being very cautious and suggesting calm.

U.S. Army Chief of Staff George Casey told CNN on Sunday that he is deeply worried “that the speculation could cause something that we don’t want to see happen” and added “as great a tragedy as this was, it would be a shame if our diversity became a casualty as well.”

It seems that America’s opinion-makers as well as its military and political leadership know what is at stake and understand that Muslim society is an important part of American society now, and that the only way to continue with this harmony is to marginalize hate-mongers rather than the victims.

It is a well-known fact that there have been other attacks by military personnel in recent years and that they were caused, according to the experts, by the longer and more frequent deployments and the increased numbers of soldiers experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. This is another face of the wars that Americans are trying to deal with.

“Many troops are under great psychological strain and are not receiving the treatment they need,” says Paul Rieckhoff, the founder and head of Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America.

However, I am not here only to praise the calmness and maturity that Americans have shown so far. And I will not argue that it appears it was a mistaken assignment by the Pentagon to deploy Dr. Hasan to Afghanistan, in light of his many conversations and possible Internet postings that have come to light. According to those unearthed pieces of information, and interviews with people who had contact with this man, Dr. Hasan had been going through an internal debate over the U.S. Army’s role in two different Muslim countries.

Therefore this tragic episode brings another crucial point into the spotlight once more: the clash between the literal and strict interpretation of Islam and more modern and consensual interpretations. As we have seen throughout the history of the major religions, the followers of various faiths tend to resort to strict interpretations of their holy scriptures in times of crisis. Religious expert Karen Amstrong and many others have argued that once a religious society feels threatened or under attack, it is likely to find harsher verses in its scripture to apply to its worldview.

So far from the information that has been unveiled, Dr. Hasan was also apparently under the influence of the literalistic school, which claims that many of the Koranic verses should be taken as read, instead of putting them in the context of the conditions under which they were revealed to the Prophet.

Dr. Hasan’s story is still is an interesting one, since he is an American-born and highly educated person who should have been able to have a more multi-dimensional worldview compared to those who are living in countries deprived of the basic needs of modern man and lacking exposure to other cultures. Still, we have seen this before, in the London bombings in 2005, when it became clear that the organizers of those attacks were also home-grown British citizens, rather than exported terrorists.

Therefore, the question is, if a highly educated Army major can become disillusioned by radical interpretations of Islam in a modern society, how it is possible to stop millions more Muslim youngsters around the world from falling into the same trap, since there are plenty of literalistic interpretations of Islam present on the World Wide Web, and reaching them is only a finger stroke away?

American military efforts in Afghanistan are being made to stop ideologically driven Muslim extremists from attacking the American homeland once more. However, it increasingly seems as if there are no boundaries anymore to stop the transmission of those ideas. Consequently, the same American leaders should come to the conclusion that, even if the reasons behind invading Afghanistan sounded right at the time, after eight years, amid new technology and a rapidly changing world, fighting with extreme factions chest-to-chest in other countries does not cut it. It neither brings security to the homeland nor marginalizes extremist ideas.

While cautioning Americans to not draw hasty conclusions about the rage displayed at Fort Hood, U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday pointed out the religious diversity of American military personnel and noted that the U.S. Army contains “Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers.” The majority of Americans seem to agree with their president, and view this tragic outburst as a result of an individual’s madness. So far they have been able to restrain themselves from casting doubt on other Muslim soldiers, if we leave aside the blogs and posts by a minority of American extremists.

Nevertheless, this maturity shown the vast majority of American society will not be sufficient unless Muslim clerics and religious leaders assert their constructive role more often to step up and educate the masses with a modern view of Islam.

If technology can be used for radicalizing people, even ones who live in a modern society, then the same technology must be used to promote more tolerance and consensual approaches. This one is on the Muslim religious leaders.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Obama's magical journey takes a hit


It has been one year since Obama’s campaign concluded with a historic victory.

His rise to presidency, many would agree, was rather messianic, since his campaign owed its magical journey to his dominant personal appeal, beautiful speeches and promises. Millions believed in Obama-power, and not much logic or experience behind his persona was sought. Bipartisanship, engagement with friends and foes alike, and the campaign's buoyant prophetic “change” mantra mesmerized masses.

A year later, three American states held elections Tuesday. Virginia and New Jersey voted for their new governors, New York City for its mayor, and also its representative of the 23rd district. While just a year ago Obama crushed McCain, the GOP presidential candidate, in Virginia and New Jersey with landslide victories, this time, despite Obama's intense involvement, especially in the New Jersey elections, the GOP has reverberated well with the voters taking these states back.

Was this a wake up call to the Democratic Party, pointing out the poor performance of Obama the president, or just a couple of meaningless elections, based on local issues or politics and were decided mostly by the candidates' personal appeals?

Whatever the case may be, Obama's magical journey took a heavy hit when the two governors lost. According to the exit polls on Tuesday, Obama's 10-month performance was not a big factor in votes and voters cast their votes mostly due to their economic fears, looking for a candidate to lower taxes in their districts, create more jobs and go after corruption charges more decisively.

Still, one cannot dismiss the role of Obama's presidency and his first-year performance while analyzing the results of these elections. Obama's top agenda for Democratic Party's domestic "change" policy is the health care overhaul, and after more than half a year of talking and fighting, finally the full House vote on the health care initiative can be held this weekend. Anything can happen both in the House and the Senate, and apparently there are weeks and maybe months before such reform pass the both chambers, if it will.

The Obama administration has already spent much of 2009 making this overhaul possible, while the economy has been bleeding badly and jobs are being lost. On the other hand, there are still many more monumental reforms which need discussion and decisions in Congress, such as the pending climate bill or immigration reform. Especially after last Tuesday's elections in three states, with the energized GOP and withdrawn progressive Blue Dog Democrats, who are representing a pretty conservative democratic constituency, and who have always been open to the influence of the GOP, the future episodes of the Democratic 'change' agenda looks more vulnerable. It is because the appreciable fraction of this conservative constituency has not been happy with many episodes of this reform agenda, disgusted with the government in Washington, DC, which has shown its careless policies over the colossal budget deficit and expanding central government. Therefore, this disappointed populace could be up in the air to grab for the GOP in the midterm elections of 2010.

Obama had answers for those who asked him where the change is that was promised to them. In New Orleans, only a couple of weeks ago, he said the following: ‘Well, why haven’t you solved world hunger yet?’ Why — it’s been nine months. Why?’ You know? I never said it was going to be easy. What did I say during the campaign? I said change is hard. And big change is harder. And after the last nine months, you know I wasn’t kidding.”

This was a sobering message coming from a man, who was riding the very magical wave of extraordinary promises and the atmosphere he helped create, who was now inviting listeners to be realistic and down to earth.

It is definitely true that we should not expect Obama to solve all of America's problems in merely 10 months. But still, when one looks at what he has achieved since he came to office, one does not find many comforting results.

The biggest credit his supporters tend to give Obama is the massive bailout packages said to have saved the economy from catastrophe. According to this school of thought, if the American government had not made those trillions available to the financial institutions, the American economy would have come to a complete halt. On the other hand, many others argued that the fund packages had already been designed and even released initially by the previous administration.

According to one piece of information, Obama's spending has already reached what the Clinton administration spent in two terms in office. This spending spree, by itself, is enough to show what kind of a power the Obama administration gathered, comparing to a decade ago.

On the other hand, the opposition has already started to sing victory songs that were forgotten since the 2004 elections with the latest victories. From now on, we should expect American conservatives to mobilize better and organize more enthusiastically.

This excitement though, doesn't mean the Republican Party is all ready to deliver. On the contrary, today's Republican Party looks like someone on the wrong side of history on almost every issue. Many within the GOP either don't believe that climate change is manmade or urgent enough. The previous Republican president was also careless about the budget deficit and eager to expand executive power. The GOP also has its internal problems between the conservatives and centrists, and which side will win the fight or how much damage the internal fight will cause, remains to be seen.

As argued above, the exit polls last Tuesday clearly declared that the main concern of today's American voters is the economy, not social issues, as the case was during the late 90s and the 2000s up to now. Accordingly, we can bank it on the economic numbers or worries that will shape the mid-term elections of November 2010 dominantly. Therefore, if the stimulus funds start to work more effectively in coming months, and especially before and during the next summer, Obama can be seen as the saviour once again by placing the wrecked economy he inherited from the previous administration on the right tract.

In brief, wars, the Middle East peace process or America's image in the world are all important issues to tackle. However, what the American people care most about is their economic well-being, having secure jobs and safe and sound financial sectors these days and coming months, maybe years. "It's economy, stupid" proverb, once more comes alive this week. This is a very important message that came to light during an off-election year. The young president will take it very seriously, and we will see if he can implement the change.

Guest - Doyle (2009-11-08 13:58:25) :

Nobel Peace Prize is a joke. Yes, the House passed the health reform bill. To me it was the first step in taking away the freedom of the people of the USA. Obama is a talker. He loves to hear himself talk and the way it looks many others like it also. His path is the way to our distruction.

Guest - Kiwi (2009-11-08 07:32:34) :

FYI: the health care bill just passed the house. You cannot expect miracles after what the previous administration left behind. You made no mention of his ability to reach out to other nations, nor his Nobel Peace Prize. Obama is a man of intellect, and strength, and vision: all qualities that the US needs at this juncture.

Guest - kwell (2009-11-07 00:15:10) :

I think Obama still is a very strong president and he has yet to start his journey!