Thursday, December 24, 2009

Stormy days lie ahead

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

1 Comment    


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

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

Monday, December 21, 2009

Clock is ticking for Iran and Turkey!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 18, 2009

Doomsday scenarios for Copenhagen and Kurdish conundrum

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

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Erdoğan's Washington visit


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why did the Turkish ambassador in Washington resign?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Obama's predicament before meeting with Erdoğan

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

Friday, December 04, 2009

A cloud of quasi-authoritarianism


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Turkey's diplomacy policies could be shifting

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

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