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!

Monday, November 02, 2009

J Street and strained Turkey-Israel relationship

   The supporters of J Street were eager to discuss some of the moral issues that surrounded the Israel-Palestine conflict during their inaugural conference in Washington, D.C. Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, declared that nobody had authority to determine what policy was right and wrong about Israel, and the moral questions were out there to discuss while viewing the current situation in the region. The J Street crowd clearly believes that the ongoing impasse of the Israeli-Palestine peace process and the possibility of losing hope for the two-state solution will have terrible consequences for Israel. Haim Ramon, one of Israel's most veteran political figures and chairman of the Kadima Council, also pointed out in a speech at the conference that a “one-state solution” was just around the corner, and he didn't articulate how, but argued that "we have to take a unilateral initiative, if necessary, to reach a two-state solution."
In such a one-state scenario, after decades of wars and struggles, with an increasing Arab population, the Jewish people will be either a minority in their “own one-state” and endure the consequences of future elections, or have to resort to an “apartheid” governing system, which will certainly damage its moral standing forever in the world. Therefore, as many speakers in the J Street conference argued, Israel needs to work harder to achieve a two-state solution than Palestine, in reality.
I do believe that the J Street crowd is able to grasp much better some of the warnings that are encircling today's Israel than does Israel's current administration in power. It is true that J Street, itself, apparently has not fully come to terms with its sudden popularity, and still strives to position itself between different policy stances on many issues. Mr. Ben-Ami lauds a broad liberal umbrella for its movement for a wide range of issues while it gears to begin more intense lobbying practices in Washington, D.C., though it seems that the movement has been sliding slowly towards the center. And it is quite alright for such a new organization to navigate through gray policy zones in order to find its real identity and appeal to a broader base of the Jewish-Americans.
Israel, today, has a well-oiled democratic system and enjoys a moderately free press, although according to the latest report by Reporters Without Borders, the Israeli press is in a free fall compared to last year. I often read the harshest opinion pieces regarding Israel's policies in the Israeli press. And in that respect, Israel puts itself in a first-class democratic nations league; but then it falls short of the attributes of the same league while it attempts to utilize its “unbreakable” ties with the United States and behave as a unilateral power in the region. The latest unilateral action, the "Operation Cast Lead," in Gaza has clearly isolated Israel and eroded its moral stance. Yet Israel still has not started its own probe over what exactly happened during the war in order to gain some of its lost credibility.
There have been many opinion pieces in the Israeli press lately that have been arguing about losing the strategic alliance with Turkey that has benefited both countries over decades. However, my Israeli friends seem not to realize the changing dynamics and public opinions in the Middle East, and how Israel is increasingly viewed, so to speak, as a “bad actor” in the region.
I asked about the worsening relationships between Turkey and Israel to Daniel Levy, senior research fellow at New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C. based think-tank. Mr. Levy was a member of the official Israeli delegation to the Taba negotiations with the Palestinians in January 2001, and previously served on the Israeli negotiating team to the "Oslo B" Agreement in 1995. Levy bluntly assessed that, "Israel's ideological and political dimensions continue to undermine the relationship between Israel and Turkey. While Turkey's civil government has been trying to restrain its military's role in civilian affairs, Israel still wants to hold on to the last century's habits to conduct most of the business through the Turkish military or through back channels in Washington with its American friends." With this current outlook, Levy thinks that the more democratic the Middle East becomes, the more problematic the situation will be for Israel in the near future.
When one analyzes Turkey's hardened rhetoric against Israel, amid the latest exclusion of Israel from the "Anatolian Eagle" an annual joint air force exercise, one can see better that Turkey, with its latest policy orientations and better relationship with its neighbors, is less dependent on Israel than vice versa. With the growing backlash against Israel, both in the international arena and in Turkey, knocking Israel down brings nothing but more popularity for the politicians in almost every country.
I have my own concerns over some of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP's, foreign policy assessments and I have sharply voiced those concerns often enough in the past. For example, I still believe that the cozy relationships with Iran, congratulating Ahmadinejad hastily for his very dubious victory after the June elections still lingers as a shameful episode over the Turkish foreign affairs. Though when it comes to the strained Turkish-Israel relationships, the AKP, in light of the Goldstone Report, which has approved overwhelmingly in the U.N. Human Rights Council, seems to be doing merely what the international public opinion suggests without receiving much criticism.
J Street is still a young movement that has yet to clarify and decide which position it will take in many policy issues. However, one thing is clear, and that is that J Street opens up a new venue for the Jewish-Americans to view the Israeli-Arab conflict differently and voice their dissatisfaction more loudly. The current Israeli establishment has to take a harder look at what they say and reconsider these options in light of its worsening image in the region.
And for the Americans' role. Many experts I have talked to in recent weeks have emphasized that it is the American leadership that will bring the parties to the same table for the negotiations. It appears that Obama clearly miscalculated when he openly urged Netanyahu to accept freezing the settlements earlier in this year as a pre-condition for the peace process without having a plan B. Now America seems to be backpedaling and loses a lot of credibility in the Arab world. Israel feels trapped, resorts to old tactics of unbending policies; however it clearly needs help from the outsiders, such as the J Street crowd and the Americans, to extradite itself out of the vicious circle for its own security and peace concerns. Otherwise, the current “isolation and condemnation” process of Israel will come back as a boomerang to haunt all of us and stir the region even more profoundly. The holy scriptures don't have to be proven right, nor the radicals of both sides, which seem to be benefiting from the current impasse, lest diplomacy and good will can be pursued.