Wednesday, April 13, 2011

New CHP and shifting sands in Washington

A delegation from Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, was in Washington this week for the first time to present their “New CHP” foreign policy vision to U.S. government officials, Congressional leaders and think tank circles.
The oldest party of the Turkish Republic has come to be known as an anti-U.S. and anti-Western party in recent decades, especially in Washington. And that must be why the head of the delegation, former Ambassador Osman Korutürk, emphasized that the “New CHP” was a calculated and smart move to help give his party a renewed and up-to-date identity. While talking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, on Wednesday morning, Korutürk began his speech by making this break known once more. “We call ourselves the new CHP because we have a wider vision and we are more open than the former CHP on international relations.”
The CHP’s few-decades-late arrival in Washington came at a time that voices of concern about Turkey's democratic standards are becoming more concerted.
The latest rounds of jailed Turkish journalists, the never-ending detentions of suspects of the Ergenekon coup-plot case and last week’s police raids on daily Radikal’s headquarters to confiscate a draft book made significant impact in the both the U.S. media and governmental circles about Turkey’s direction.
Worsening standards of Turkish democracy, including whether Turkey still has the ability to hold "free" and "fair" elections, were top talking points on the agendas of the American parties the delegation met with.
Besides Turkey’s domestic issues, its “zigzagging” Libyan policy (as Korutürk stated how some of the American officials described it), also created another hot current topic for the delegation to lay out its own clear differences from the ruling party in Washington.
How, then, did the delegation of the New CHP perform in such a period when the ruling Justice and Development, or AKP, appears to be a dubious friend of Washington? Has it clearly made an alternative case for a vision that is different from the Davutoğlu doctrine?
Those who expected to hear about a clear break from the Davutoğlu doctrine from the CHP delegation would have been disappointed by listening to Ambassador Korutürk’s very diplomatic language. About Ankara’s relations with Iran and Israel, the most annoying two for Washington, Korutürk’s arguments were “more or less” (as he once himself described it) the same as the AKP’s. Korutürk, several times, had to remind his audiences at various talks that the CHP is determined not to use a foreign relations issue as an election campaign issue.
On Iran, Korutürk praised the friendship with Iran, gave personal accounts about the importance of this friendship and how past Iraq sanctions hurt the Turkish economy the most (the identical arguments of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP). At the saemt time, he also argued in stronger terms that Iran has to come forward and be more transparent about its nuclear ambitions and criticized the AKP for appearing to be a supporter of Iran in the international arena.
On Israel, Korutürk’s difference was his party's willingness and clear intention to have better relations, as in the past – something that we have hardly heard from AKP officials in quite some time.
Korutürk also used carefully calibrated words to treat Turkey’s Libyan policy, a policy that was described by moderator Bülent Alirıza, the Turkey project director at CSIS, as “effectively protecting the Gadhafi regime which is bombing its own people,” a view that is shared by many in Washington, he added.
When I asked Korutürk whether he sees any parallels between the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the Libyan operation, as many AKP top officials do, Korutürk patiently explained the differences between the countries of Iraq and Libya, discrediting the comparison arguments diplomatically, but nevertheless doing it without openly criticizing Turkey’s current national foreign policy on the matter.
The CHP delegation ultimately had a very difficult assignment in its historic visit to Washington. On the one hand it tried to strike a very balanced position that avoided taking direct shots at the AKP’s and Turkey’s current foreign affairs for national unity reasons, but on the other hand, it also had to articulate a convincing set of arguments as a viable alternative to the ruling party.
However, the timing of this difficult task was helpful for the CHP. The governing AKP, once known for its reformist and freedom-oriented posture on the international stage, is now increasingly being identified by its static and autocratic tendencies. And the delegation’s strong emphasis on greater freedoms, gender equality and more respect for human rights during the visit were important testaments for the CHP’s will to replace the AKP’s “past” reformist role.
The delegation neither missed any opportunity to hammer the AKP’s role in terms of Turkey’s retrograding democratic image in Washington, nor did it shy away from conveying publicly the American interlocutors' dismal complaints about the AKP’s performance. In addition, the delegation, while carefully selecting its words publicly, was much more candid during their private meetings with the U.S. officials, according to one participant at those meetings.
For some, Korutürk’s diplomatic line and cautious messages were “very elegant” and had a “manner of responsibility,” as one American observer stated.
I also wanted to check the delegation’s comments about U.S. officials’ high level of dissatisfaction about the AKP government with a distinguished American foreign policy expert who is very close to U.S. governmental powerhouses.
The expert confirmed the delegation’s accounts and added this: “Davutoğlu’s late night calls to the State Department wore many Turkey desk officers thin there over the last months. About every significant turn of events that relate to both countries, Turkey’s repeated objections and ‘new’ conditions were tiresome. When [President Barack] Obama went to Turkey early in his presidency and proposed a ‘model partnership,’ the expectation was that whenever the U.S. would need a favor from Turkey, it could count on it, and whenever Turkey needed a favor, it could count on the U.S. Well, things have not gone quite that way and apparently Ankara’s understanding of that partnership is very different than Washington’s. And after nine years in its governing, there should be a reason for people to still ask about Turkey’s direction.”
Yigal Schleifer, an American journalist based in Washington who follows Turkish affairs closely, explained the reason of the great heed shown in the CHP delegation by officials and Turkey watchers in Washington: “Because there's great interest among those who care about Turkey that there should be a viable political opposition in the country. I think many people were very curious to see if the CHP is starting to move beyond the dead-end politics that characterized the Deniz Baykal years. It's not so much an issue of preferring the CHP over the AKP, but rather based on the perception that the health of Turkish political life depends on there being a truly functional opposition party in the picture, and currently the CHP is the most likely candidate to play that role."
Therefore the delegation’s apparent success was mostly tied to the current environment of Washington in which one can easily find many who are irritated by the AKP’s style and foreign policy conduct.
Now the difficult period starts where the CHP has to articulate its own vision clearly – one that can compete with the Davutoğlu doctrine – while interpreting the past, judging today and picturing the future.
That is where CHP will meet with harder tests to prove it is indeed a viable rival to the current government.
Nevertheless, the delegation should enjoy its hard-earned Washington success, which was a big step for the New CHP and certainly for the future of Turkish democracy.

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Guest - Cautious
2011-04-02 18:26:38
  Washington doesn't view the opposition party as having any substance - no one is going to care about their shifting foreign policy positions.  

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