Monday, September 28, 2009

What G-20 Pittsburgh might have started


The Group of 20 meeting in Pittsburgh was watched intensely around world last week. Even this wide recognition of the event tells most of the story. In the past, G-7 or G-8 meetings were not a part of the global excitement. During those G-8 meetings, the rest of the world, including developing countries, glanced at those gatherings and told each other what a snobby bunch those leaders were who got together just to brag about how rich they are and then smoked cigars over their medium-rare steaks.

I wrote the following after a conference in Washington, D.C., in the second week of January 2009, even before President Obama took office: " … Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter [now the director of policy planning for the State Department] pointed out that the G-20 is expected to replace the G-8 to tackle the world’s important challenges. The group already started to work to confront the current global financial crises, and there will likely be other issues to follow, like climate change. … "

After only nine months, the G-20 became the new economic forum for world leaders to work and coordinate better economic policies so that they can offset some of the imbalances in the world economy that everybody seems to be complaining about in recent times. Therefore, these gatherings are not about only a few private clubs of rich nations anymore. With the G-20, which represents 85 percent of the world economy and about 60 percent of its population, is much more relevant to billions of people around world and will have a bigger impact over world affairs. So, when this “relevant” body got together last week, billions watched their own leaders as well as other leaders, and took pride as to how they are shaping the world.

Whether it was only this feeling of belonging to this important club that made the summit successful or whether it was something else is hard to predict, although it was obvious how the Group of 20 countries, from many parts and corners of the world, were able to formalize a “communiqué” that consists of a set of agreements in the form of a very significant message to the world.

For example, the major powers, or the Group of 8, let the discussions start to take some concrete steps to reach greater equality. Ever since my own college years, there have been talks about how the developing nations, especially China, India and Brazil, were lobbying for greater voice over the world economy and that they were not content with the current power distribution in the IMF or in other international economic bodies. And it seems, at last, they are harvesting the fruits of their long rallies, maybe just after lending so many hundreds of billions of funds to the United States.

This newly created international forum will start addressing mainly world's economic issues. Whether other issues will follow will mostly depend on how the new grouping works in the near future. It is very possible that last week's international dynamic shifting, in the future, can be seen as a cornerstone, while the history books will describe the 21st century events.

In this new history, the president of China scolded the American leader because of his protectionist policies. Mark McKinnon, from the DailyBeast, explained Obama's mistaken tariff policy and how his decision angered many American domestic sectors as well as foreign countries. This tariff hypocrisy, McKinnon argues, also conflicts with last April's G-20 summit. When Obama talked during his presidential campaign about how he would re-negotiate NAFTA for the American people's advantage, many found it laughable and did not care much since it seemed like just a populist argument. However, with this decision of adding more tariffs on Chinese tires, Obama might really buckle under the pressure of union workers, as many have suggested in the past.

Not everyone agreed on the success of the meetings, and there were many articles in which one could see the arguments about how toothless the Pittsburg meetings were. If nothing else, the meetings proved that the leaders of the world understand global interdependence. Yes, this newly created international cooperation was embraced because of fear and vulnerability, not because of confidence and strength.

Still, all members agreed that the current economic crisis is leading to much tighter regulations over financial institutions and that the bosses of those institutions must also be restricted over how much they can accumulate over a given period. This was a historic mark. The current economic downturn proved that in this global economy, if some of the biggest economies would not agree to tighten their financial sectors, this would be at the expense of others. For if many of those financial institutions were to move to more relaxed countries, they would do the same damage from there by taking enormous risks, as was the case for some time.

Both sides at the summit, meaning borrowers and lenders, promised to work toward balancing the world economy. On one side, America, as a leading borrower, promised that it would increase its savings rate and reduce its trade imbalance and, of course, will address its huge budget deficit. On the other hand, countries like China, Japan or Germany promised that they would not only try to allure other countries' consumers, but also strive to increase their own consumer spending and do not depend too much on American consumers. And yes, there is no binding resolution to condemn the poor sport countries. Though, with “peer reviews,” each country will submit its own homework to its friends and see how they do. And all will be reviewed by the International Monetary Fund.

The summit was a new paradigm to teach us how globalization has finally arrived. Over a couple of decades, globalization has been making headway and wiring everybody's life with head-spinning communication techniques, free movement of capital, etc. Now, it appears that global equality will be realized in a more democratic way. This could be the beginning of the worldwide government Inc. And happily, Turkey, with its rising importance and big economy, will take part in this new world order.

Friday, September 25, 2009

President Mehmet Ali Talat: I don't think so


Turkish Cyprus President Mehmet Ali Talat was in Washington at the beginning of this week for a number of meetings before going to New York to meet, among others, with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

A week before Talat’s arrival in the United States, Suat Kınıklıoğlu, a member of Parliament and deputy chairman for external affairs for the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and spokesman of the foreign affairs committee of the Turkish Parliament, published a very serious opinion piece titled "It's now or never in Cyprus" on the ongoing Cyprus debate in the British daily Guardian.

The article attracted some attention with its blunt language about the talks regarding the unification of Cyprus. Kınıklıoğlu, in his opinion piece, first argued that the new negotiation process for the island, initiated by the U.N. in 2008, was fully “blessed” by the AKP leadership. He continued to say that 2009 is going to be a-make-it-or-break-it year for Cyprus.

"It should be clear that the current talks are the last chance for a negotiated settlement on the island. The outcome of the ongoing talks, for example, will have a big impact on how Turkey assesses its relations with the EU. Should the talks fail, the side that behaves in an uncompromising manner will bear full responsibility for dividing the island forever,” he said.

The emphasis on the word “forever” is worth paying attention to. Since Mr. Kınıklıoğlu is an important voice within the Turkey’s ruling party, his opinion piece should be taken as the party’s official stand and naturally this stance bears many ramifications for the current process.

Just prior to this opinion piece published in the British daily, on Sept. 10, Döndü Sarıışık of Hürriyet Daily News reported that the first-ever visit by a high-ranking Turkish diplomat to the self-proclaimed Abkhazia Republic has boosted the breakaway republic's hopes of being recognized by Turkey. Sarıışık's report came the same day Venezuela recognized Abkhazia as the third country in the world, after Russia and Nicaruga.

According to an expert in Washington, D.C., who follows Turkish affairs closely, the AKP leadership is in danger of losing the support of Turkish nationalists in north and central Turkey to the Nationalistic Movement Party, or MHP, because of its Kurdish opening. At the same time, the AKP may also be losing some support in the south and the west to the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, as the last local general elections confirmed.

According to this expert, however, the AKP cannot backtrack on the Kurdish opening at this stage, as it might create a backlash within its own party and voter base. The talks are supported by a majority, as well as by Turkey's liberal wing and the European Union's officials, who closely monitor the current talks. Therefore, facing the possibility of losing support on many fronts while moving closer to general elections in 2011, the AKP may feel inclined to turn to the Cyprus issue to regain the support of Turkish nationalists, a segment that was a significant part of the AKP's winning coalition in the last general elections.

For his part, Talat was unwilling to address a possible scenario involving ending the ongoing talks in his conversations in Washington, as Kınıklıoğlu appeared to suggest in his article. Still, Talat said he did not get such an impression while he was communicating with Turkish officials. In contrast, he added, in recent visits to Ankara he was assured by the highest level of Turkish leaders that Turkey's support for the talks would continue.

Talat also eloquently elaborated that Turkish officials are well aware of the fact that with the Turkish side voting “for” the unification of the Island in the 2004 referendum in Cyprus, in contrast to the “no” vote of the Greek side, Turkey has gained an enormous leverage and momentum in the international arena on many fronts at the same time. Turkey, after its courageous supportive role in that peace process and its consequent push for the unification, elevated its standing in the European Union accession talks and was subsequently granted a full membership candidate status. With its rising profile in the international arena and in the region, Turkey found it easy to lobby for membership of the United Nations Security Council and to then get elected for the seat after many decades, primarily because of its relatively relaxed standing with the consensual approach it has taken before and during the Cyprus referendum.

In short, President Talat does not think Turkey would take the risk to forget everything about unification talks if things went not as well as hoped for in 2009. He thinks, Kınıklıoglu's scenario of “now or never” would cause Turkey to lose too much of the terrain gained in recent years through its positive role in the Cyprus issue. Although he did not say it, one of the areas that would surely be affected adversely is Turkey's relationship with the EU.

However, according to recent news reports regarding Turkey's possible recognition of Abkhazia, other reports suggest that Russia will reciprocate by recognizing Northern Cyprus as a separate and independent country. If that were to happen, Russia would be the first one to recognize it after Turkey. Turkey has been improving its relations with neighbors such as Russia, Iran and Syria and if Kınıklıoğlu's warning about the implications of a deadlock in the ongoing talks is serious then Turkey may well be tempted to use such relationships in charting a radical new course in Cyprus.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Why the AKP's leadership may be wrong for today's Turkey


The title of the column may sound irksome especially while discussing the current talks of Kurdish opening. It is hard not to agree with those folks actually, for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is the only prime minister since Turgut Özal who seems to understand the urgency of the Kurdish problem, the problem that has been bleeding too long. One must be ignorant at best not to see it.

One could still be ignorant and continue to play the same old politics, as it had happened since Özal up to now and inflict every kind of pressure to keep this wound frozen. It has proved, however, that inaction is not a politically preferable solution either, since those who showed ignorance of the problems in the Kurdish conundrum have been eliminated or rejected by the voters and erased from the political arena.

Therefore, Erdoğan, by taking this enormous political risk, shows how powerful his political instincts and political caliber are, which the country rarely has ever seen. And he should be credited for his courage to open talks, regardless of what his political thoughts might be. Today, Turkey is a country where politicians who administer the country take political risk by trying to bring some consensus to the table in order to solve the Kurdish issue, but the opposition, those who do not have any risk save adding one more election in their losing streak, at worst, still prefer to play safe and advocate the status quo.

There are not many countries one can imagine where the opposition parties oppose change, and the ruling party works for a change. Amid this equation, the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, distinguishes itself from the opposition parties, and proves it is better than other current alternatives.

However, the leadership of the AKP, while having all those great bonuses, seems to lack the understanding of today’s modern concepts of civil liberties and of those of the coming age. There are many missing elements in their vision that makes this leadership incapable of comprehending some of the basic tenets of civil liberties. Many of them are unable to see and understand what exactly is the meaning of living together under a secular state where religious, cultural, ethnic and political specificities are fully respected, since they did not live in or study such a society to excel the understanding of how such system works in other countries. AKP's leadership might be one of the last of the old generation of politicians who is well capable to deal with his country's economic and political problems, though when it comes to bring comprehensive and contemporary answers to social problems, this leadership has not enough experience to apply.

At the beginning of this column I complimented Erdoğan's courageous attempt to tackle the Kurdish issue, whatever the real reasons of these talks might be. However, for the reasons I mentioned above, it is doubtful that AKP has a vision of solving this historic issue. For example, it is not known whether the potential problems of giving collective rights to the Kurdish people of Turkey have been thoroughly examined, as Soner Cagaptay recently argued in this newspaper. Cagaptay rightly argued that assigning exclusive ethnicity-based group rights to the Kurds might further strengthen and solidify the Kurdish identity, and what is worse, increase the distance between the Kurds and the rest of the country's population. This would challenge the established social and historic proximity between the Kurds and other groups. Cagaptay's arguments have not received deserved credit or reaction as a unique approach that has not been seen much during months long debate over these opening talks. Whether this argument did not attract much attention because of Cagaptay's hard rhetoric toward AKP, or whether it was because the basic premise of the column, which is the rights of all, is too much to ask for the current administration remains to be seen.

The AKP started a road of opening to talk about a very important issue that it may not be capable of pursuing, because of the defect the leadership of the party has in its understanding of the gamut of civil liberties that have come to be known as basic civil rights. Those are the rights that set limits on the government so that its members cannot abuse their power and interfere unduly with the lives of private citizens; that is to say, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, due process of law, the right to privacy and so forth. Once a society is raised in terms of its basic human rights, meaning all groups, not only one group, it is a promise that much of the problem that long persist will go away.

With the latest row over the tax fine on Doğan Media Group, this leadership also once more has proven that they are unable to see the basic premise of the institution of the right to freedom of expression, as well as how a secular government should treat all its people or companies equally, without undue and discriminatory interference.

Erdoğan, when explaining his argument for the tax fine levied upon Doğan Media Group, stated that the press should not think itself above the law. However, Erdoğan fails to explain how it is exactly that the press imagines itself above the law. How can we separate that thin line so that the media can learn not to regard itself above the law, so that it would not do so ever? That could have been a great service for the media, if Erdoğan explained that separation as well.

I know this argument simplifies the problem a little; however, I still believe very much that one of the basic reasons why the leadership of the AKP fails to understand the basic premise of freedom of speech is because many of the top cannot read and listen to how the Western media treats its governments and what kind of criticism the leaders of the modern world have to endure every day to pursue their agendas. Consequently, whatever this leadership seems to know or think about freedom of expression and press usually is in the wrong tone. Yes, I do not believe Erdoğan knows what that thin line is, nor do I think he or many in AKP's top leadership are aware of other countries' examples to make sound judgment over the issue.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Obama doctrine?


After the August recess of the American Congress and eight months into the presidency, Obama has now finally started to make his hard choices. Thursday morning, the Wall Street Journal carried the day with its headline, informing the public that the Obama administration has changed its course on the Eastern Nuclear-Missile Shield. We learned that the previous administration's plans will be changed and will move away from the installation of a missile-defense shield in the Czech Republic and Poland.

After reading this significant strategic “change” in Europe on Thursday morning, I immediately recalled a conversation I had with retired high American military personnel in the first days of the new Obama administration. This retired general then told me and I wrote in these columns on March 17, 2009: "In a couple of private conversations lately, I was told that there is a growing concern among some military leadership that the new administration might consider being soft on Eastern Europe to Russian sway after many years of political and strategic investments to this region, and this leeway is another matter that seems to infuriate many in the field." About six months later, the projections of my column seem to have been proved right.

Obama said in his brief press announcement Thursday morning, "After an extensive process, I have approved the unanimous recommendations of my secretary of defense and my joint chiefs of staff to strengthen America's defenses against ballistic-missile attack." Therefore, one more Bush-era plan has been junked. There are various analyses over this decision. One argument that appears to be heavily favored is the nearing Iranian conundrum, America's need of Russians during this “supposedly” nuclear talks process with Iran.

I say “supposedly,” because the Iranians do not even consider that these talks will be about their nuclear program. Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki handed his country's proposals for new talks to the ambassadors of the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany – and to the Swiss ambassador, who represents U.S. interests. However, in this new five-page document, one cannot see a single reference to the nuclear issue (see a full report in ProPublica magazine). Therefore, the Western negotiators would find themselves lucky to even convince the Iranian side merely to speak on the issue under these circumstances.

Thereupon, to stop Israel from attacking Iran, Obama has no other choice but to secure Russia's support to pressure Iran in the coming days. So far, it remains to be seen whether the Russians really had given any promise to help the Americans. Many experts and former U.S. officials' statements show that there are not many expectations from the Russians so far. As George Friedman of Stratfor Intelligence magazine recently argued, there is almost no reason for Russians to help America to resolve this issue. On the contrary, the more bogged down America is in the Middle East, the wider will be the Eastern Europe sphere for Russia to influence.

On the other hand, foreign leaders appear to care less about Obama's power apparatus. Even the once weak leader of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, who barely had enough majority to assemble his administration a few months back with the partnering of a right-wing politician, Avigdor Lieberman, saw many benefits for himself after getting in a public row with the American president. His approval ratings have soared and he has become more unrepentant day by day. So far, despite the fact that Obama made it clear that he expects Netanyahu to stop the settlements before starting any kind of discussions, Netanyahu has not given up one inch from the former stance. Instead, the Israelis were able to connect the whole Israel-Palestine peace process to the Iranian conundrum and send the ball back to Obama's court. And Obama, much to the surprise of even one of the former Israeli ambassadors to the U.S., first put the deadline to the end of the September, way too quick for any expectations, and then he also promised to the Israelis that he will deliver the sanctions on Iran. Therefore, now the only thing for Israeli politicians to do is to spend some more time and watch how the Iranian nuclear talking episode unfolds rather than making any progress on the peace process.

The Iranians are about to play another episode of never ending nuclear talks, once more, starting on October the first, this time in Turkey. Perhaps Iran, since it has already received “unequivocal” support from the Russians against any kind of sanctions, speaks in a more relaxed tone.

About eight years ago, America, as the most powerful nation in the world, was faulted with the 9/11 attacks, while living in its glorious days of history. And after 9/11, all agreed that the world would not be the same as before. There was a consensus of political commentators around the globe that the super power of the world will not stop until it gets its payback. In addition, there was a perfect team in the White House to execute just that with a Republican group of politicians, blended with hawks, with a touch of American southern culture, who had been sidelined for years and who are proud to be men of their words. Certainly, what happened on that September morning was very grave and anyone who “might” have something to do with this incident, at any cost, "was going to be sent back to the Flintstone age" by this group.

During the last eight years, America went through a vendetta mode. It is to the Americans' credit that they were not only after a payback, the American policy makers, I believe, also genuinely wanted to spread democracy as well, expressed as one of the most important aspects of the Bush doctrine: “the freedom agenda.” It was decided then that not only was there a lesson to be given to those who behaved faulty, but the people in these regions also were going to be introduced to a modern model of society, in other words, democracy, human rights and, if possible, secularism down the road. One only wishes that things could have been that easy.

Now, America is searching for its soul once more with its young president. With the first real policy shift in Eastern Europe, Obama paints the first brush stroke of his emerging doctrine. Though, the real-world Obama presidency just started and it is still too early to know how the results of this move and other actors will test his presidency in coming weeks. The nearing nuclear talks with Iran and afterwards will complete the picture of today's American concessions much better and the pieces of the Obama doctrine will be revealed slowly but surely.

Monday, September 14, 2009



"Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' Vanity asks the question, 'Is it popular?' But, conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?' And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but one must take it because one's conscience tells one that it is right." Martin Luther King, Jr.

The hefty tax fine that was levied on the Doğan Media Group last week prompted this column to be written. According to the news reports, a record $2.5 billion tax fine, on top of $600 million just few months ago, now totals the group’s market value. I thought, in such a matter, the members of the media sector would have given a unified and tough response to this unjustly fine, which was put upon an owner of the media group who has been also rewarded for being the record taxpaying businessman for so many years.

I have been vividly following my old neighborhood at the same time, which is to say the pro-Islamic and conservative press that I was raised with in my childhood to the middle of my college years. How they were going to react to this fine and what they would do to rebuke this unfairness greatly attracted my curiosity. As a religious young boy, I purely believed what I was taught then and what I studied and read extensively later on, which is that the Islamic and religious beliefs in general demand for a conscience of a greater justice. After all, don't the believers leave much unfinished business in this world for judgment day, after death, and relieve themselves from the great sorrows?

I always wanted to believe, maybe because of the environment I grew up in, that the more pious the media would be then the more vocal it would be toward various unjust behaviors and policies. The teachings of the religions I know advise their followers to look for impartiality and stand up against any kind of iniquity. In light of these arguments, I think that the period we are going through is an important turning point and it functions truly as a litmus test for the Turkish press and for everyone to see some real identities. This period will also help to shed more light on what kind of democratic understanding we want to inject and see fit for our society.

In reality, there could be so many sermons over this blustery taxing issue. The preachy columnists whom we know well, who talk about equality, fairness and inner voice on a constant basis, amid great enthusiasm and assurances, could have in this case, given dire warnings to the unjust rulers, just as what their religious thoughts would have advised them to do. They could have said, we are all together in this boat, even if we do not like each other much, and most of the time we disagree with one another.

Instead, the majority of the writers and editorials of this part of Turkish press have chosen silence and consequently, at least so far, have shouldered the powerful. Even in the late Ottoman history, in the 1870s, one of the very few able grand viziers, Ali Pasha, in his last testament to then Sultan Abdulaziz, clearly elaborates on the importance of the freedom of the press. From Dr. Fuat Andic's book (Sadrazam Ali Pasa, Eren Publishing): "The freedom of the media would be dangerous only for those administrations which do not want to correct their faults. … The freedom of press would be a natural ally for an administration that wants to fight with evil and yearns to do good."

Even if there was no justice issue at stake, defenders of democracy must have known that the independence of the media is the most important element of that very democracy, a most evocative hose for the system to breathe in, in order to support the umbrella of democracy, which the society of Turkey can live peacefully under. Without the media having a weapon of that strength, the executive power will bulldoze all freedoms in society. Even if the current executive power is with us, one objective and smart voice would argue, the next one could very well be an “adversary.” Therefore upholding the fairness of the law above all circumstances must be preferable. As the saying goes, if the active power in the rulers' hands is stronger than the fairness of the law, then society can no longer live freely. This is why everybody, especially the ones in the press, would have to yell more loudly now. Not for any specific media group, but for their own and the people that they try to serve.

There are very few instances in one's life in which you do not have to be an intimate part of the discussion to see what is right and who is wrong, or spot the real intention behind the scenes. In Turkey, we come across to this very moment of a rare instance that screams to the conscience to stand up against the grinding injustices in the making. Democrats, liberals, conservatives and the masses who have consciences, openly or behind the curtains, must stand up and declare that they are with democracy and justice, even if anyone in these groups does not like the victim this time.

This is a disappointing and sad column. Even writing this column is painfully annoying. However, I just had to make a note for future generations and tell them where I am.

There is no need for further elaboration. Elaborations and arguing would work for debates that are vague and would be useful when it is hard to see what is right and how it is so. Now the injustice is openly being displayed in a fashion that is hard to match its rareness in history. It is like daylight. It is the freedom of speech! It is what countless of people lost their lives for in history. Not to see it requires a blind man. And those who do not see it must be taken as such from now on – with no mercy.

I have been listening to blues so much these days. And I would like to finish the article with the lyrics of a song called "Chill Out," which was sung amazingly by James Lee Hooker in a duet with Carlos Santana's guitar:

One of these days

Things gonna change

You'll try not baby

After awhile gonna be mine,


Wont be long long

Things gonna change

Friday, September 11, 2009

Obama's final plea


Obama took the stage Wednesday night in the American Congress to address the joint session. If nothing else, a great theatrical play was put in motion to display how the representatives of American people and their president clash over important legislation. As Mike Memoli from pointed out, it is such a rare occasion that a president comes to the Congress to address on a very specific issue; it happened only 17 times, not counting the presidents’ annual State of the Union speeches within the last half century.

On this notable occasion, I was at my good friends’ house to watch the president of the United States address the American people. My hosts have been proud Obama supporters from the beginning, listened to their president attentively addressing Congress. No need to add, millions of other Americans like them, also sat in front of their TVs across the country and listened to this prime-time speech.

Before discussing the substance of the speech and its possible effects, I would like to emphasize a couple of aspects of the speech that bothered me and my hosts. First of all, though the speech was supposed to be purely political, the remarks made beforehand by TV commentators sounded like, as if an important game, like the Super Bowl, was about to be played out, and the commentators were grading the teams. We were learning as if in sporting event, how each team, aka parties and party leaders, have been preparing themselves for this big night, what the advantages and disadvantages were for them to win. Whether Obama was going to “make a shot” and “change the game” remains to be seen, these commentators told us. Since teams are involves, their supporters also become more fanatics in these days in the American political discussions. Neither this new approach to the political events nor the new kind of political hooliganism gives hopes for future of American politics.

Another annoying part was the continuous standing ovations and applauses, which are a mark that especially became the mode of these speeches during the previous administration. As I was told by a great friend, whose wisdom I greatly benefit from almost every day, the standing tumultuous applauses resembled the kinds of speeches that were given during the Soviet times, especially the ones given by Stalin, where the listeners, in this case members of the only party, clap hysterically after almost every single sentence. So, a note to the directors of this play: This image does not relay a pretty image to the outsider; rather, the representatives and “independent” members look like fanatics who must applaud their leaders continuously, taking their cue from the speaker of the House who stood up and applauded every few minutes.

When it comes to the substance of the speech, Obama, knowing full well that if he failed to pass this reform package, his magical journey would be hampered profoundly, pleaded passionately for bipartisanship, maybe for the last time, and acted as if he himself is a bipartisan president in the center, opposing some of the liberal ideas as well as the conservative ones and appealing to "the American character." The character that Obama elaborated on was that of Sen. Kennedy. Kennedy was known for his unconditional support of universal health care, and before passing away recently had written a letter to President Obama urging him to do his utmost to enact meaningful and universal health care. The president allocated more than five minutes to eulogize Kennedy until the end of his powerful oratory and concluded that he was ready to sacrifice as well, if this is what it takes to get a deal.

Obama, by not specifically expounding his own tangible health care reform plan, instead leaving it to the various House committees to write their own versions and failing to explain how exactly he is going to finance this big overhaul, has attracted heavy criticism during Congress’ summer recess. On Wednesday night, he tried to address these criticisms forcefully, even though it was a bit late.

During his speech, Obama pointed out that anyone who wanted to keep the health insurance he or she owns can keep it. But he came down heavily on insurance companies, blaming them for much of the waste that is in the current system. He also tried to satisfy the fiscally conservative Democrats, and of course the Republicans, by promising that he would not sign a plan that adds one dime to the budget deficit. This was very important, especially since the head of the Congressional Budget Office projected the opposite just before the August recess and poured a cold shower onto many enthusiasts of the plan.

Obama’s promise was simple at the end: The proposed health care bill is designed to offer basic health insurance to those Americans who cannot afford to obtain it through the market. He added: This is what the “American characteristic” would ask for, this is what late Edward Kennedy tried to achieve for years. He concluded that the "time for bickering and games is over. Now it is time to deliver on health care."

Ideas have corollary effects that dangle on historical conjunctures into which they are compressed. America is having an auspicious time for new ideas. The biggest reason for is that the economic crisis has changed the attitude of the American people with rising unemployment, foreclosed houses or rising costs of the standard of living they are accustomed to. The apparent failure of the free economic and financial market handed affairs over to the government once again and expanded the political paradigm. Since all other modern Western capitalistic democracies have universal health services in one way or another, many argue, bringing a similar system would not mean endangering America’s capitalistic ideology and would not urge Americans to look first to the government to solve other problems in future as well. This is because probably most agree that over the centuries, with collapsing blocs and empires, it has been proven over and over again that the bane of progress has been too much government, and not too little, though to strike the right balance is a difficult mission.

President Obama stated that in these historic times many past presidents have tried to change the health care system, but he added that he is the one who will bring it to an end knowing what is at stake, which means that the final result will not be small, but will have dramatic repercussions on his presidency and his country.

Monday, September 07, 2009

It is Obama show-time, or it is not?


A brutal autumn session opens the curtains. Obama's honeymoon now officially ends with the trembling approval ratings after the congressional August recess. The time for speeches is affirmatively over. No more promises of some vague ideas of hope will work. No more consensus seeking or building will be looked for. Trying to satisfy both sides of the aisle is not possible. In the foreign policy arena, "listening,” not dictating or not threatening, will not get one anywhere. America, in trying to retain its super role in the world affairs, has to do all of the above, if it has not started already.

The crunchy September opened with the health care debate in Washington, D.C., and the Iran show-down in the foreign policy arena. President Obama will give a speech to the Joint Sessions of the U.S. Congress Wednesday, to give it a last chance for the spirit of bipartisanship for health care reform. As one should know, the president of the United States does not talk to the Joint Sessions directly on every occasion. On the contrary, he rarely takes the stage to meet with both Chambers of U.S. Congress. There needs to be some kind of important matter, a very important one for that matter, for a U.S. president to gather together all the members of Congress and speak to them frankly about the lingering vital problem, as if talking through the public podium was not enough. On this occasion, the president will be addressing the U.S. Congress to make sure that there shall not be any excuse for its members not to take the course on that very specific matter, that is the health care reform, that the president laid out to them. If the legislators under the dome of the Capitol, especially the Democrats who currently dominate both houses, do not conform to the president's agenda, there will be consequences for them in coming times, the speech will have told them in essence.

On the other hand, the members of the Congress who oppose this gigantic change of the appreciable part of the American capitalistic system have to decide on this matter once and for all. They have to adjust their behavior now and, if this is really a historic time, it will be remembered by future generations as a start of a new America for better or worse. Will the young, inexperienced and different president do everything in his disposal for the spirit of the American people, who have experienced the exceptionalism for the last century, to continue to play this unique role at any cost? Or does he know that if the American spirit retires from its claim of exceptionalism of the world, will America not be the America as we have known it up to now.

In foreign affairs, the deadline given to Iran till Sept. 24, 2009, to accept negotiations over its nuclear program is getting closer and closer. Iran's supreme leader Khamenei and his imposed president Ahmadinejad seem to have won the first leg of the post election episode, which was not surprising. However, with this unexpected early imposition of deadline on Iran, the Iranian people may not have any other option but to rally behind their leaders against the whole evil world, when the deadline arrives and Iranian leaders don't comply. It is also certain that Beijing and Moscow will look for reasons to soften tougher sanctions on Iran that Obama may try to get the U.N. to impose. In this looming new Iranian episode, any action or inaction of Obama also will reveal his caliber of performance time.

On the economic front, Obama has to come up with some kind of a tangible plan to tell his fellow Americans and other lenders around the globe that he indeed will balance his country's budget. Nowadays, there are so many “end of America” articles and “America is crumbling” documentaries out there that even the average Americans consider this as a top issue, while they cannot even budget their own purse yet. Obama has many solutions for many problems of America, and this specialty and smartness of his is the one of the biggest reasons that brought him to where he is now. However, oddly enough, one issue that he was able to restrain himself from has been writing a recipe for the huge debt which is "now more than Americans are worth – and the gap is growing."

The Middle East peace process, on the other hand, is where Obama has been trying to do everything he can to start some kind of peace process. The cold shower came on Saturday, Sept. 5, when the British Times Online reported that the Israeli side has no plans at all to freeze the much discussed settlements. According to these reports, Israel plans to authorize the construction of hundreds of houses in the occupied West Bank soon. In his answer, the White House spokesman Robert Gibbs stated his regrets over this decision. Gibbs continued to say that "America does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion and urges it to stop," period.

Obama's democratic followers, who never really had hope for bipartisanship at the beginning anyway, now want their president to lead, since it is proved that the Republicans do not want any compromise either for bipartisanship. The leftists do not like to see their president following most of the "War on Terror" policies of the past. Neither are they happy with his continuous funding of the wars with the same secretary of defense of the past, which is akin to the withdrawal timetable for Iraq that was prepared beforehand, or is comparable to the “surge” policy that was first applied in Iraq and is now being applied in Afghanistan by building the U.S. Embassy compound, which is like the one that was built in Baghdad with an annual budget of $1.5 billion. And of course, the country's economy will be operated by the same Fed chief of the past. This list of the “same” items can go on, but the reader will get the idea.

Obama, after two years of campaigning and seven-and-half months of a campaigning mode of a new kind of a presidency, now will be measured by his deeds, with many of the critical matters that he has to deal with in coming months immediately, probably for the first time in his political life. Now Obama has to do some of his much promised “change” agenda, or else he will be abandoned slowly. Yes, the honeymoon is over. I, for one, will follow this show-time very closely, every day and every hour.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Radicals are sucking up the air


One of the biggest campaign promises of Obama was to unite America. In 2004, then Illinois state senator and candidate for the U.S. Senate, Obama had given the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Massachusetts. In his first national speech, he used a slogan that became an important part of his presidential campaign in 2008. Obama was said then, and said throughout the presidential campaign: "There is no liberal America, no conservative America, there is a United States of America; there is no Black America, no White America, no Latino America, there is a United States of America; there is no red America, no blue America, there is a United States of America..." Over the years, this slogan captured many hearts, even those that are made of stone like mine.

Obama saw the painful division in America and stepped up to claim that he has the medicine to heal this deepening wound. The American people were firmly united after the Sept. 11 attacks; then the United States went to war in Afghanistan, with the right reasons and got the initial victory quickly. But something else happened along the way. American foreign policymakers apparently thought, since we won one war already, we may as well take on one more while we are still out there. After starting the Iraq war, things quickly got out of hand; divisiveness came back to America and became even bigger.

Seeing the deepening divisiveness among fellow Americans, Obama did not hesitate to address the issue. Even if there were no dissipating issues like wars and many other socially dividing lines during the Bush administration, the unity slogan would have always worked for a presidential candidate. Still, with his amazing oratory skills, Obama got enough people to believe that he could bring most, if not all of them together and erase the partisan fights that have taken place especially in Washington, D.C.

After seven-and-a-half months of his presidency it is time to analyze whether the partisan divisions are diminishing, or are on the rise in America. One of the easiest ways to see it is to watch the TV news and talk-show programs on the American cable networks. The TV channels, which are mostly designed to satisfy either party's viewers, have become in recent times, amid new host hiring, even sharper in their criticism. In parallel, the voices that try to address those in the middle ground, or the independents, are abandoning the air. Even the news programs that are still affiliated withparty lines, but strive to find some kind of a balanced picture, are now having next hour news-program hosts air or rebuke their much more predisposed views to their "rooters." These programs, instead of bringing different standpoints to the comtemporary events, instruct their supporters what to say and how to oppose the other side's stances and arguments. In these newscasts one hears name calling and intention reading. These supposedly news or talk hours are not trying to get the facts straight or establish harmony anymore. The only goal of these new guys is to get their viewers angrier and meaner.

Especially during this last year, these radical TV and radio hosts are taking over the air time of American broadcasters amid their rising ratings. One of the most famous of these radio hosts, in recent months, openly called for his country's president to fail, and sadly did not get much reaction. Not supporting a politician is one thing, and opposing the ideas and bringing counter arguments is another. However, I should think that the American people would have said that openly wishing for failure of a president of "everybody's" country must be totally out of their league. On the contrary, the radio host who called for failure is topping the radio rating charts, and the other radical TV news program hosts are also seeing their ratings rise beyond their dreams.

The news programs that pitch for the viewers of the opposition party of America today are little more agitated and agonizing than the ones that address the viewers of today's ruling party, I must add. And the opposition voices bellow the division fire even more passionately, while others are seemingly a little more restrained.

What is more perplexing is to try to understand why radicalism or extremism pays more nowadays? Why is it that being a partisan foot soldier or protector of certain groups or movements makes one more popular and gets one the biggest “prize” of top ratings? Why is it that the people who strive to be in the middle, watching out for the flaws of both sides and pointing them out, without any fear, cannot become desirable, and are being marginalized as day goes by?

This is not only in the television business, but also in journalism and religion and the like that this very tradition is becoming more popular. The ones that oppose the preconceived ideas are having much harder times. The trend I see in America and in American politics, which I spend hours everyday studying, watching and writing, is also being seen in Turkey, which I spend hours reading, hearing and talking about. I cannot watch Turkish news hours as often I would like to, but I come across threats and posts more often on different social networking sites, in which many call at the outset a rejection of any kind of opening or compromise to other segments of Turkey's population. Some of them are my friends from a distance now, whom in the past I had never seen in them such burning, temperamental, chauvinistic characteristics in the past. I hear some of the Turkish party leaders who were making much sense only a couple of years ago, now using the most degrading slams while describing intellectuals or policymakers with whom they disagree. And I ask myself, have these people been always radical, or are they contaminated by a worldwide trend?

Radicalism is on the rise both in America and in Turkey. And the communication means flare up of this infection despicably with its rating hunger. On the other hand, for masses, instead of reaching out for information and checking it freely with other sources in this information age, the comfort zones once more became a preferable place to hide in and fatten. Is this just a trend that will find its way out soon or something that will linger longer?

If this is not a cyclical illness and is not about to hit its bottom and disappear, I guess I will be jobless sometime in the future!

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

It is not good or evil, maybe just different


America has been debating hysterically over health care reform, and for outsiders this does not make too much sense.

Many of them cannot understand why the government of America, the most powerful and the wealthiest country in the world, cannot take care of its people, especially since all other Western countries have some kind of public health service.

There are very few Turkish reporters in the United States who try to analyze this biggest issue of American domestic politics. It needs to be understood that health care reform has been on and off the agenda for almost a century and lacks black and white logic as we are so used to viewing different fights in Turkey. One of those Turkish reporters recently commented that the health care is Obama's war against all the evil forces in America. According to that, Obama's health war is not only against the lobbies (the lobbies that lobby for the current health system to go on as it is), this war is also against unawareness and snide opinions. And Obama takes all the political risks to do things that he believes in. Therefore, the suggestion is to foreign political circles that they also need to take note of his political courage.

I must say this is rather one-dimensional reporting; and moreover it does not reflect the real picture. It would take a few more articles to correct such reporting on this fight. Lectures must start from history, that is from the founding fathers' philosophical ideas of America and then maybe one can come to understand today's fight. This kind of reporting also contains factual mistakes, for it claims that most Americans are cynical about this overhaul, therefore Obama is not trying to make this change for political gain, or maybe he is against populism!

Actually, when Obama started to talk about this big change earlier this year, polls showed a great majority in favor of such fundamental change. And it is a very populist agenda, contrary to the claims, as one of the biggest campaign promises of Obama was in fact this reform.

I tend to read about the history of a country that I try to write about. The dynamics of the current health care debate are not only about the economy, nor that Obama is a nicer guy than his opponents and predecessors and the other party is so corrupt amid backdoor deals with the lobbying devils. It is also not only Republicans who stand against this reform these reports must have told, in today's American congress, in both houses, the Democrats have the majority to pass this legislation (For more info on health care discussions, please see my earlier articles). With some research, it can be also seen that the leaders of the Democrat party in the Congress, not Republicans, who chair various committees receive the biggest donations from various health sectors and lobbies for some time.

However, these reports do not explain, if this change is simply so great, why millions of Americans cannot make up their minds and remain confused. The reason for this big divide and confusion, it needs to be noted, is that in today's America there is also a fight between ideas that go as far back as the times of the founding fathers.

As Irving Kristol explains in the book "In Honor of the Bicentennial of the United States," (American Brands, Inc., 1975), "The American Revolution has not promised what the French Revolution did: to abolish of poverty." The leaders of the American Revolution established that every man should be able to pursue his or her own happiness and wealth, whatever happiness means. And as we have witnessed during the last century, this very credo of the American economic and social freedom brought an economic growth to these people, not the philosophy of some sort of promise of everyone’s happiness or a redistribution of income.

The real war in this fight in America today is whether the Americans want to stick with the principles of the founding fathers, although it seems that America today is in a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, or change an appreciable part of the very system that has served them pretty well so far. Yes, Americans are not sure whether they should lean toward expanding the government even further, which is the very idea that they have opposed for centuries but has been on the rise for sometime.

As the prominent political economist professor Warren Nutter argues in the same book: "The documents of the [American] Revolution protested against too much government, against the dead hand of paternalism and arbitrary power. Liberty to our Founders meant freedom from government"

Many Americans think that their forefathers might not have intended such a change for America. There is no need to add that politics is involved in this fight, the Republican grassroots used falsified arguments many times and provoked the elderly. But who can blame them? After all, does not 'organizing' also goes back to the beginning of America?

I just try to analyze the current fight with its historical contents and contemporary truths, a fight in which some of our reporter already seems to have picked his bad guys and his good guys. I am not sure if this is out of habit. At any rate, American politics are a little more intricate and complex than that, I am afraid. At least the majority of American people do not think that there are bad people who want to exploit others versus pure good people who want to change a bad system.

I also would like to think that people can have a different stand over a given issue, with their own genuine references and reasons. It feels much better to think that people can be just different, but still good. I would humbly recommend those who report on the American affairs for their Turkish readers should try to reflect American political and domestic fights with this discretion.