Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Turkey Is Very Hard To Fit Into Anyone's Rigid Mold

Turkey was the subject of two separate talks in London last week. One conference in Whitehall with noted speakers from academia and diplomatic circles covered the usual ‘wither Turkey and the West’ question that has been plaguing Western statesmen for several hundred years. It was interesting to hear the same sort of concerns that must have resonated in the same halls more than 150 years ago when what was left of the Ottoman Empire was regarded as something necessary – but not quite what you would bring into the front parlor.

            “However disagreeable its rulers may be, we cannot afford to let Turkey and the straits fall into the hands of the Russians. We must continue our efforts to bring Turkey onside and not let the Russians grab everything.”
           
           Talks in last week’s conference weren’t much different. “We know that President Tayyip Erdoğan is difficult to deal with and not quite anyone’s idea of a real democrat. But we simply must carry on with some sort of dialogue. We don’t want to wake up one morning and find that the country has jettisoned the West in favour of Putin.

            True enough. But treating Turkey as a distant, dyspeptic relative who shows up uninvited for a long weekend in the Cotswolds obscures the powerful social, political and economic forces driving the country today. It is those forces, not the temporary rule of Tayyip Erdoğan, that will determine the future of Turkey. With all the headlines and outbursts surrounding Erdoğan it is sometimes easy to forget that the country is much, much more complex than the bombast of its leader.

The reality of modern Turkey belies the simplistic, one-dimensional characterization that Erdoğan and many outside observers love. Terms like ally, enemy, religious, secular, democrat, autocrat have absolutely no meaning by themselves. Turkey can, at the same time, be one or all of these things. Trends like rising education levels, the growing middle class, deepening interaction with the global economy, sharp social and political divisions make it impossible to slot Turkey into a rigid mold. Anyone who thinks he begins to understand modern Turkey would be well advised to stop and think again.

            It was the internationally-acclaimed author Elif Şafak who took us beneath the dry diplomatic concerns about Turkey and offered a clear-eyed, sympathetic view of that reality. The talk at one of London’s leading bookstores ostensibly was to discuss her most recent novel, Three Daughters of Eve. The book discusses the lives of three Moslem women – one pious, one hostile to Islam, and one unsure where she stands on religion -- studying at Oxford.

Elif  Şafak
             Şafak also shared her concerns and frustrations that the vibrant intellectual and social life that once dominated big cities like Istanbul and Ankara is becoming stifled under the rigid vision of Erdoğan. Conversations at dinner parties and other gatherings are stilted because people feel extremely nervous about expressing their real thoughts. “Let someone hear you say the wrong thing, and you could wind up in prison” seems to be ruling fear. No one is allowed to have ‘doubts’ any more. To be seen or heard ‘doubting’ Erdoğan’s version of reality is to invite close scrutiny by your neighbors or the authorities. Forget about humor. Jokes or cartoons about Erdoğan are just a one-way ticket to a jail cell.

            She also bemoaned the tendency of Turkey’s current rulers to present the country in simplistic nationalistic, religious and social terms. The Turkey she described, and one I experienced in more than two decades in the country, is not the un-differentiated, homogeneous mass that Erdoğan and his acolytes would have people believe. Turkey is in fact a rich, heterogeneous mixture of people and religion. Yes, most of the people are Moslem, but there are several shades and varieties of Islam within the country. Even the subject of nationality is not straightforward. The question of who, exactly, is a Turk becomes even more complex when you consider the question of the millions of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens.

            While people are proud to call themselves citizens of the Turkish Republic they are equally quick to point out their unique family histories. Some are indeed direct descendants of the Turks who swarmed out of the Altai mountains more than 1,000 years ago. Some of these families proudly claim direct links to the non-Ottoman tribes that controlled different parts of Anatolia. Others claim their heritage from the far-flung regions of the Ottoman Empire: the Balkans, Crete, Yemen, Egypt, mainland Greece. Many of the villages along the Aegean coast that were vacated during the population exchange with Greece in the 1920s were re-populated with Turks driven out of their homes in the Balkans.
 
Modern Turks trace their roots from all over the Ottoman Empire
            Erdoğan also ignores the complex reality of the modern Turkish economy and how much it is intertwined with the global economy. Under his mis-management the economy may be sliding fast, but it remains closely tied to the wider world in critical areas like finance and trade – including trade in those very basic raw and intermediate materials that keep Turkish factories working.


            Given Erdoğan’s overwhelming control of almost all political discourse in Turkey today it is revealing that estimates about the outcome of the referendum giving him total control are as close as they are. But perhaps the very complexities he ignores in his quest for this control could result in his unexpected defeat. Even he is learning that ‘one-size-fits-all’ does not really apply to Turkey.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Who Is Erdoğan Trying To Kid?

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan’s desperation is showing. Faced with the prospect of possibly losing the all-important referendum next month he has incited diplomatic spats with Holland and Germany – each of them home to millions of expatriate Turks.

The proximate cause of his anger – real or feigned – is the refusal of those countries to be drawn into Turkish domestic political fights. Those two countries took the entirely reasonable position that letting Turkish ministers host election rallies in Holland or Germany would amount an unwelcome intrusion of violent Turkish politics into their own more normal political system.

He is in a position to lecture anyone on freedom??
Why, they asked, should they condone Erdoğan’s  undemocratic, repressive version of politics by letting his ministers practice those traits in Germany or Holland? Not an unreasonable question. Furthermore, the Dutch have a critical election this week. Why did Erdoğan even think they would allow any outside intrusion at this point – let alone the rabble rousers from Turkey?

But focusing only on Erdoğan’s obvious insensitivity and hypocrisy is to miss the point. He simply doesn’t care about European criticism of his moves. In fact, he loves it because it feeds the popular domestic narrative of those nasty Europeans with their so-called emphasis on human rights trying to keep Turkey down in the second division. It is important to realize that his complaints about Holland and Germany are nothing but a smokescreen enabling him to push the always-reliable button of Turkish nationalism.

The only thing that matters to him at this point is getting enough votes in the referendum on proposed changes to the Turkish constitution giving him unchecked powers. There are some cautious comments in the Turkish press that this might not be as easy as he had hoped. There is some serious resistance to the idea of ending Turkey’s parliamentary system of government in favor of what amounts to one-man rule. It’s one thing to vote for AKP, it’s quite another to give one man – Tayyip Erdoğan – absolute power. Therefore Erdoğan has to do everything he can to whip up the Turkish booboisie – to steal a term from H.L.Mencken – into such a nationalist fervor that they rush to support their leader.

To that end he has manufactured inflammatory actions like calling Germany and Holland modern day versions of the Nazis, insisted on having his ministers travel to those countries and then get photographed as they are refused entry, yelping about double standards on human rights and freedom of speech, etc., etc. It takes a great deal of energy to do all this with a straight face, especially when so many journalists and opposition politicians are languishing behind bars in Turkey. Again, I cannot emphasize enough that he just doesn’t care about this very, very bad joke or the reality of the situation – assuming he knows it. Very few of his supporters have access to, or ability to understand any of the critical foreign comment. All they hear is his side of the story – blazoned across his in-house newspapers or broadcast loudly on supine TV stations.

Dutch riot police outside the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam
Turkish televisions are now filled with dramatic shots of protests outside the Dutch consulate in Istanbul -- located on the city’s main shopping street – or scuffles in Holland outside the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam. To outsiders, Erdoğan and his puppet ministers look comical and ridiculous as they struggle to climb onto the high road in this intensifying debate about standards of freedom in each country. They should be embarrassed by their pretensions, but they have long since lost the ability to be embarrassed by anything in Turkish politics. If the massive corruption scandals a few years and brutal repression against protesters didn’t cause any embarrassment, then it’s naïve to think that something like a loud argument with a foreign country would cause any embarrassment. Quite the contrary. Remember the old Turkish saying, A Turk Has No Friends But A Turk.


Turkey has sealed off the Dutch embassy for 'security' reasons
Will this tactic be enough to swing the election his way? Difficult to say. Turkish polls are notoriously inaccurate, but various commentators report some unease in the Erdoğan camp about the outcome of the referendum. This unease apparently extends not just to the usual political opposition but also could include some members of the ruling Justice and Development Party itself who like the parliamentary system. Unlike the general elections, this is a straight Yes or No vote where the winner has to get at least 50% of the votes cast. Given the possibility of vote fiddling, many people in the No camp believe they have to get well over 50% to get the outcome they want.


The only certain thing is more sharp election maneuvring by the Erdoğan camp between now and the referendum on April 16. Will  this be a sign of desperation, or just politics as usual? Very difficult to say.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

A New American Bumper Sticker: 'Pence In 2017'

Most of our trips back to the United States involve long discussions with friends and family about activities of one’s children and grandchildren, what one does – or does not do – during retirement, travel plans and the amazing places – Siberia, New Zealand mountains, Antarctica, etc. – where they have been. “If we don’t do this now, when in God’s name will we do it?” seems to be a common refrain among the 70-year-olds. This time was different. It didn’t take 30 seconds for the conversation to turn to the one topic riveting America – the incredible spectacle of Donald Trump in the White House.

Granted, our travels were through the Bluest of Blue areas of New York and New England. But every conversation quickly became a series of “Have you heard the latest?” tales of stupefying behaviour by Trump and his close circle. Even perfect strangers get into the act. As our bus rattled down 5th Avenue in New York past the Trump Towers the elderly couple sitting behind us started muttering about the ‘embarrassment’ in the White House. “Can you believe that clown,” they exclaimed in loud tones to no one in particular. “Whatever happened to the dignity of the Office of the President?”
 
Does he have a clue what he is doing?
One old friend who has been active in fund raising for senior Republicans at the national and state level could only shake his head in dismay. “Wanting a change from the Big Government trend of Democratic administrations is one thing. But the sheer incompetence and nonsense coming out of the White House are quite another. These guys have no idea what they are doing.” He took another healthy slug of wine before reiterating the familiar litany of juvenile behaviour – daily Tweets replacing policy making, indefensible claims of illegal voters or Obama wiretapping, fixation with inauguration crowds, the travel ban fiasco, and many others. “His school yard antics are destroying whatever legislative agenda he may have had,” he said.

Another said there were two possible approaches. “Look,” he said, “the guy is the president of the United States. And we have to help him succeed for all our sakes. Just hold our noses and try to help.”

But, he hastened to add, no one in the Trump circle seems open to such help. “The better option,” he admitted, “is to have Trump realize he is in way over his head and leave office as soon as possible for a return to television and real estate. To this end, I have prepared a lot of Pence in ’17 bumper stickers.”

Politics aside, what struck us the most about the entire Northeast region was the sheer vitality, the obvious prosperity, the focus on the future. Tradition is what you had for breakfast.

New York and Boston have had their ups-and-downs, and I have lived through some pretty depressing economic times in both cities. At one time, I remember that a taxi medallion cost more than a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. The head of the Off Track Betting operation took out large billboards claiming investors had better odds at the race track than on the stock exchange. He wasn’t wrong. Now, signs of an economic boom – from construction activity, crowded museums and restaurants, bursting show rooms – are everywhere. Despite the general frustration and sheer embarrassment with Trump, the people we met were generally optimistic about the economy.

I grew up in northern New England and spent several years in and around cities like Boston and Providence at a time when traditional industries like textiles, shoe manufacturing, or small highly skilled machine shops were leaving for cheaper labour in southern states. We used to call it the Revenge of the Confederacy. All that remained were the massive, empty shells of factories and warehouses. To add insult to injury even the Navy pulled out of several locations.
 
An empty mill from 1960s New England
Now, I scarcely recognize places. Construction programs throughout the region underpin an economy already buoyed by high value-added elements like education, health care, finance, and high tech. A once run-down section of Cambridge has been turned into a global research center feeding on the talent from universities like Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A short walk along any of the streets in Cambridge or Boston reveals the utter foolishness of Trump’s fear of immigration. We couldn’t count the number of languages we heard just ambling among the buildings and laboratories. He may not like it, but cutting down on immigration would be like cutting off the blood flow to America’s brain.

Despite the hustle-and-bustle of big cities, visitors can still find charming traditional New England towns desperately trying to slow down the remorseless clock of progress by rebelling against certain aspects of modern life. For example, cell phone reception in these towns is spotty at best because locals don’t like the intrusion of cell towers. In Woodstock, Vermont, visitors from the U.K. will feel right at home in a wonderful B&B run by a British couple who offer a breakfast designed for homesick guests – complete with Marmite, the ‘full Monty’, or a bacon ‘butty’.  
 
U.K. visitors will feel right at home in Woodstock, Vt.

Another unforgettable ‘charm’ of New England is rapid variation in weather. Mark Twain had it right when he said, “If you don’t like the weather in New England wait a few minutes.” Within the space of 24 hours the temperature dropped from a relatively balmy +15˚C to -15˚C – which was actually much colder with a roaring northerly wind. Nice to be reminded that nature pays absolutely no attention to ephemeral things like politics.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Judiciary Issues A Powerful Lesson To Trump

A federal appeals court in the United States just brought down to earth and demonstrated powerfully for all to see the value of such seemingly abstract terms as rule of law or separation of powers. In the process the court also demonstrated why such concepts are the absolute bedrock of any self-respecting democracy, and are feared by all current and wanna-be autocrats.

The particular issue in this case was the noxious and shambolic temporary travel ban that the Trump administration imposed to bar entry into the United States for refugees and citizens of selected countries. Technically, a three-member panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals refused unanimously the Trump administration’s attempt to overturn a lower court’s order temporarily blocking enforcement of the ban.
 
9th Ciruit Court of Appeals
The three-judge panel, including judges appointed by both major political parties, could have issued its ruling in a brief paragraph or two. Instead, it gave the new administration a sharply-worded 29-page lesson in constitutional law and separation of powers.

The opinion relied heavily on rights granted by due process, and shredded the administration’s main argument that the courts had no business reviewing Trump’s executive order temporarily banning refugees and those from seven majority-Moslem countries. This claim was slapped down hard.

“There is no precedent to support this claimed unreviewability, which runs contrary to thefundamental structure of our constitutional democracy.” In other, less august terms, you could say the court told the administration to ‘sit down and read the Constitution before issuing such foolish executive orders.’

Trump's order prompted massive protests across the country
Turkish courts take note. I wonder if President Tayyip Erdoğan read that particular section. Just imagine his reaction if any Turkish court issued a similar ruling that sharply limited his power. I suspect the reaction would be near-nuclear.

The 9th Circuit Court didn’t stop there. It also strongly rebutted the government’s claim of public interest to avoid irreparable injury.

“The Government has pointed to no evidence that any alien from any of the countries named in the Order has perpetrated a terrorist act in the United States. Rather than present evidence to explain the need for the Executive Order, the Government has taken the position that we must not review its decisions at all. We disagree.” Get the point, Mr. Trump?

While not ruling explicitly on claims of religious discrimination, the Appeals Court gave a strong indication of where its sentiments lie. It forcefully reminded the government of the constitutional protection for all religions, and that the constitution “prohibits the Government from impermissibly discriminating among persons based on religion.”

The court also said evidence submitted by the states challenging Trump’s order included his previous statements about implementing a ‘Muslim ban’ as well as evidence they claim suggested that the Executive Order was intended to be that ban. While not the final judgement, these statements are a thinly veiled warning to the government not to even attempt such a ban.

Of particular interest to Turkey in the issue of the extradition request for Fetullah Gulen  is the court’s insistence on the due process rights of everyone in the United States – Green Card holders, legal immigrants, illegal immigrants – the whole lot. The language couldn’t be more clear.

“The procedural protections provided by the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause are not limited to citizens. Rather, they apply to all persons within the United States, including aliens, regardless of whether their presence here is lawful, unlawful, temporary or permanent.”

In other words, even if the Trump administration agreed to Erdoğan’s demands to extradite Gulen, the reclusive cleric has every right to contest that order in court, and if necessary push his case all the way to the Supreme Court. Obama tried to tell this to Erdoğan, but the message obviously didn’t sink in. Instead of building a sound legal case the Turkish government has relied on Trump-style bombast and not-so-subtle threats. The message of this ruling should be that such behaviour will backfire – just as it has done for Trump. Such tactics also didn’t work in Greece where the Supreme Court ruled against extradition for the eight Turkish soldiers who landed in Greece after the abortive coup attempt last summer. Why does Erdoğan think they will work in the United States?

Gulen's legal rights trump political concerns
The Trump administration has not indicated just what it will do – other than issue more harsh Tweets – about this ruling. It could well appeal all the way to Supreme Court where it would face an uncertain result. Regardless of the action of the Supreme Court this ruling is a strong reminder to the Trump administration that, unlike his family business, there are three, equal branches of government and that he cannot implement his favourite policies at the mere stroke of a pen.


Tuesday, 31 January 2017

America's Unseemly Retreat

That sound you’re hearing is one Americans don’t hear very often. It’s the sound of a panicked full scale retreat. Fearful of the wide world, convinced of his own narrow prejudices, disdainful of anything like facts Trump has chosen to pull up the drawbridge and cower behind walls rather than continue 70 years of strong American global presence. Far from being a beacon for the rest of the world, America under Trump is turning into a stagnant pond. The Statue of Liberty must be blushing.

So much for welcoming the poor and meek
Since World War II America has provided a blanket of economic and military stability for much of the world. Yes, there have been serious lapses like Vietnam or Iraq, but there are very few who can doubt the huge role that the United States has – up to now – played. Now Trump wants to change all that. According to him, the world is filled with deadbeats and cheats who have been getting a free ride under the American security umbrella and who have undermined the American economy with cheap imports.

American troops helping defend NATO ally Estonia. Just another deadbeat?
Does he have any idea that these years of bi-partisan American leadership were essentially an exercise in enlightened self-interest? Doubtful. Absent from his fact-free rants is any serious analysis of who or what will fill the vacuum created by the American withdrawal. What malignant forces will this retreat let loose? Not for him any serious analysis of trade. Does he even understand or care that American companies are the undisputed winners – not losers -- in globalization? Does he even understand that the real profit for a company like Apple is in the design and engineering done in California, not the manufacturing done in China? Why should American companies be forced to retain low profit, low value-added plants in the United States? There is nothing Trump can do to change the economic realities of the modern world.

But these are mere details, and we all know Trump has no time for details. I am not even sure that he realizes just how much he mimics the isolationist, anti-Semitic rants of the earlier ‘American Firsters’ led by Father Charles Edward Coughlin in the 1930s. Coughlin’s radio broadcasts were hugely popular as he excoriated Jews and praised Hitler and Mussolini in the run-up to World War II. In theory that war taught Americans the harsh consequences of isolationism. But obviously, Trump never bothered absorbing that lesson. Substitute Moslems for Jews and you have Trump of 2017.

Now the White House hyperventilates in the presence of foreigners in general and goes weak in the knees at the mere sight of Moslems. What’s worse, Trump and his acolytes simply don’t care. As he told TheWall Street Journal when asked if the U.S. should encourage political stability and economic growth in Mexico he replied, “I don’t care about Mexico. Honestly, I really don’t care about Mexico.”  If this is how he regards America’s southern neighbour with a population of almost 130 million and with close economic and political ties to the U.S. just think how he regards America’s role in the larger world.

Trump’s minions proudly proclaim his immigrant policy a ‘great success’. The only success of this mindless policy is to give groups like ISIS unparalleled free recruitment advertising. ‘See, I told you they hate you. Join up now and fight back!’ The problems American forces face in the Middle East have just been multiplied several times. So much for countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Gulf states, or even Egypt. Very tough for them to show much support for America under these conditions.

They just got a powerful new recruiting tool -- for free
Even in today’s multi-polar world the leadership role of the United States as the strongest economic and military power is undeniable. I remember a conversation with a senior Jordanian official not long ago when someone at the dinner table made a mild joke about America. The official scowled, turned to me and said “America is not something we joke about. It’s too important.”

            Trump’s arrogant disdain for international affairs and America’s role in the world may play well in certain parts of the country. But it could backfire badly with Republicans in Congress who are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the antics of the Republican president. Even the arch-conservative Charles Krauthammer is apalled at what he calls 'Trump's foreign policy revolution.' A friend of mine put it very well when he said that Trump is a like a spoiled 7-year-old brat who has been given an Abrams tank for Christmas and is proceeding to destroy the neighbourhood. Trump, who mocks the traditional Republican party, may try to circumvent Congress as much as he can and substitute his famous Tweets for policy. His ego is such that he could even break with the traditional Republican party and form a separate entity in his own image.

            Those cheering Trump’s latest moves against immigrants should remember a poem by German Pastor Martin Niemöller about the Nazi horrors of World War II.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.