Commentary Magazine


Topic: Erdogan

Is Turkey Playing a Double Game on Syria?

Many diplomats—up to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—have cited Turkey’s cooperation on Syria as evidence of the strong Turkish-American partnership. What the Turkish government often says—and what Turkish officials do, however, are often very different things.

Word has come from Turkey that a Turkish intelligence agent was instrumental in returning to Syria—by force—Hussein Harmush, a Syrian colonel who fled to Turkey after refusing to fire on Syrian civilians and became the first high-level Syrian officer to declare publicly his opposition to the Assad regime. The Turkish agent removed Harmush from the refugee camp and handed him over to Syrian officials. Harmush was subsequently executed by the Syrian regime.

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Many diplomats—up to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—have cited Turkey’s cooperation on Syria as evidence of the strong Turkish-American partnership. What the Turkish government often says—and what Turkish officials do, however, are often very different things.

Word has come from Turkey that a Turkish intelligence agent was instrumental in returning to Syria—by force—Hussein Harmush, a Syrian colonel who fled to Turkey after refusing to fire on Syrian civilians and became the first high-level Syrian officer to declare publicly his opposition to the Assad regime. The Turkish agent removed Harmush from the refugee camp and handed him over to Syrian officials. Harmush was subsequently executed by the Syrian regime.

The Turkish intelligence official is being probed by the Turkish government but, as in Iran, Turkey has often dismissed actions as rogue in order to maintain plausible deniability for its actions. The fact remains that Prime Minister Erdoğan once embraced Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad as a close friend, and instructed his subordinates to treat the Syrian regime likewise.

Alas, while the Obama administration continues to embrace Turkey for its promises, it continues to turn a blind eye toward Turkey’s double game or the fact that its positions are based more on opportunism than on any shared vision.

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More Turkish Free Speech Hypocrisy

The Swiss government has started an inquiry into a statement by Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s minister for European Union affairs, in which Bağış stated that the Armenians suffered no genocide. According to a report in the Turkish press, Bağış said, “There is no Armenian genocide. Let them arrest me.” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ commented on the incident, “Can’t a minister of a country express his views speaking in another country? It’s ridiculous.”

While I’m not in favor of laws restricting the speech, no matter how wrong the speaker, Bağış and Bozdağ’s stand is rich considering that Bağış – with the apparent blessing of Namik Tan, the Turkish ambassador in Washington – tried to sue me into silence after I wrote a series of articles criticizing Turkish government policies. Turkish officials believe in free speech for themselves, but seek to censor when speech is used to challenge their ideas.

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The Swiss government has started an inquiry into a statement by Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s minister for European Union affairs, in which Bağış stated that the Armenians suffered no genocide. According to a report in the Turkish press, Bağış said, “There is no Armenian genocide. Let them arrest me.” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ commented on the incident, “Can’t a minister of a country express his views speaking in another country? It’s ridiculous.”

While I’m not in favor of laws restricting the speech, no matter how wrong the speaker, Bağış and Bozdağ’s stand is rich considering that Bağış – with the apparent blessing of Namik Tan, the Turkish ambassador in Washington – tried to sue me into silence after I wrote a series of articles criticizing Turkish government policies. Turkish officials believe in free speech for themselves, but seek to censor when speech is used to challenge their ideas.

The reality today is that, despite Bağış and Tan’s best efforts, the only place Turks or Turkish analysts enjoy free speech is outside of Turkey. Hence, as Jonathan noted yesterday, in order to defend free speech, Kemal Kılıçdaroglu, the chairman of the Republican Peoples Party, the largest secular party in Turkey, took to the pages of The Washington Post rather than a Turkish outlet. As Kılıçdaroglu explained:

Turkey today is a country where people live in fear and are divided politically, economically and socially. Our democracy is regressing in terms of the separation of powers, basic human rights and freedoms and social development and justice. Citizens worry deeply about their future. These points are, sadly, reflected in most major international indexes, such as Human Rights Watch, which rank Turkey quite low in terms of human rights, democracy, freedoms and equality.

Just as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton embarrassed herself by labeling Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad a reformer, President Obama embarrasses himself by calling Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a friend. Should Obama and Clinton embrace Turkey as a model for the Arab Spring, then he is condemning another generation of Arabs to repression.

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Turkey Paying a Price for Betrayal of Israel

I wrote earlier today about the human rights violations that have become routine under the regime of President Obama’s buddy Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In addition to making hypocrites out of his friends in Washington, this also raises important questions about Turkey’s standing to criticize Israel for measures intended to defend their citizens against terrorist attack. Under Erdoğan, Turkey hasn’t merely abandoned its longstanding strategic alliance with Israel; it has also become Hamas’s new chief sponsor.

The president may consider his friend’s embrace of an Islamist terror group to be of no importance, but Turkey’s rogue diplomacy is having a ripple effect on stability in the eastern Mediterranean. As historian Benny Morris points out in an article in The National Interest published last week, Israel isn’t taking Turkey’s betrayal sitting down.

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I wrote earlier today about the human rights violations that have become routine under the regime of President Obama’s buddy Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In addition to making hypocrites out of his friends in Washington, this also raises important questions about Turkey’s standing to criticize Israel for measures intended to defend their citizens against terrorist attack. Under Erdoğan, Turkey hasn’t merely abandoned its longstanding strategic alliance with Israel; it has also become Hamas’s new chief sponsor.

The president may consider his friend’s embrace of an Islamist terror group to be of no importance, but Turkey’s rogue diplomacy is having a ripple effect on stability in the eastern Mediterranean. As historian Benny Morris points out in an article in The National Interest published last week, Israel isn’t taking Turkey’s betrayal sitting down.

In response to the Turkish embrace of Hamas, Israel has reached out to both Greece and Cyprus. Greece was among the most hostile countries in Europe to Israel but has now achieved a better understanding of the Jewish state since the Turks have become its foe. To seal this new understanding, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is planning a visit to Cyprus next month.

Israel has long tried to establish alliances with states on the periphery of the region to balance the solid wall of hate from Arab and Muslim states. As Morris notes, that has led to good relations with newly independent Southern Sudan, a mostly Christian country.

Turkey is locked in a decades-long standoff with the Greeks in Cyprus. But now the Greek Cypriots in Nicosia are seriously considering an Israeli request to station military aircraft on their territory. As Morris writes, the Cypriots, who have faced intimidation from a superior Turkish military, are looking to Israel for help:

The Cypriots are apparently interested in Israeli assistance in monitoring the air space above the gas fields and drilling equipment and in augmenting their (small) navy’s patrols in their economic waters. [Israeli Defense Minister Ehud] Barak has asked the Cypriots to allow Israel to station aircraft in the Papandreu Air Base outside the town of Paphos in western Cyprus. And two months ago, the Israeli and Cypriot air forces held a joint exercise.

Turkey, which once prided itself on trying to be part of Europe, now aspires to a new caliphate. They may have thought its erstwhile ally had nowhere to turn once they were dumped. But by pushing Israel into the arms of Turkey’s Cypriot antagonists, they may have considerably worsened their own strategic situation.

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Obama Embraces Turkish Tyranny

President Obama may have bragged to Fareed Zakaria in TIME last month about his close relations with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan but a better understanding of the sort of leader that the president values via an op-ed in today’s Washington Post. Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu outlined the vast scale of human rights abuses and suppression of dissent that has become routine under Erdoğan with hundreds of journalists, politicians military officers and other dissenters languishing in prison for years without being charged.

While some in Washington excitedly talk of Turkey’s ruling Islamic party being the preferred model for the Muslim world, the reality is that Ankara’s path is one that is headed steadily away from democracy and toward more hostility toward the West and the United States.

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President Obama may have bragged to Fareed Zakaria in TIME last month about his close relations with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan but a better understanding of the sort of leader that the president values via an op-ed in today’s Washington Post. Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu outlined the vast scale of human rights abuses and suppression of dissent that has become routine under Erdoğan with hundreds of journalists, politicians military officers and other dissenters languishing in prison for years without being charged.

While some in Washington excitedly talk of Turkey’s ruling Islamic party being the preferred model for the Muslim world, the reality is that Ankara’s path is one that is headed steadily away from democracy and toward more hostility toward the West and the United States.

As Kılıçdaroğlu makes clear, tyranny is the only word to describe Turkey under Erdoğan and his AKP:

The AKP is systematic and ruthless in its persecution of any opposition to its policies. Authoritarian pressure methods such as heavy tax fines and illegal videotaping and phone tapping are widely used to silence opponents. …

It all boils down to this: In today’s Turkey, when one criticizes the justice system, one is prosecuted. When one appeals to the courts, one is penalized.

Given the fact that the Obama administration is probably less interested in human rights concerns abroad than any American government in generations, it is no surprise that none of this seems to alarm the White House. But it should also put Obama on the spot since he has not only failed to press the Turks on their anti-Israel policy but has become Ankara’s leading cheerleader on the international scene.

The administration has taken a sanguine attitude about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt while speaking of the Turks as the example they wish the Islamists there to follow. But as troubling as this apathy about the dangers of Islamist rule may be to the regional balance of power with Israel, it is now becoming apparent that the human cost of this decision will also be considerable. The only difference is that it has taken almost a decade for Erdoğan to gain the leverage to suppress his foes. It won’t take that long for the Brotherhood.

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Erdogan’s Goal is to Islamize a Generation

President Obama counts Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as among his favorite leaders, and successive American ambassadors to Turkey—Eric Edelman being the exception—bought the notion that Erdoğan truly sought to liberalize, modernize, and democratize Turkey. Erdoğan has just put to rest the idea this was his goal. Speaking to an assembly from his ruling party, Erdoğan addressed criticism leveled by the main secular opposition party:

“Do you expect the conservative democrat AK Party to raise atheist generations? This may be your business and objective but not ours. We will raise a generation that is conservative and democratic and embraces the values and historical principles of its nation.”

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President Obama counts Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as among his favorite leaders, and successive American ambassadors to Turkey—Eric Edelman being the exception—bought the notion that Erdoğan truly sought to liberalize, modernize, and democratize Turkey. Erdoğan has just put to rest the idea this was his goal. Speaking to an assembly from his ruling party, Erdoğan addressed criticism leveled by the main secular opposition party:

“Do you expect the conservative democrat AK Party to raise atheist generations? This may be your business and objective but not ours. We will raise a generation that is conservative and democratic and embraces the values and historical principles of its nation.”

In other words, Erdoğan’s goal is to indoctrinate a generation into accepting his Islamist interpretations of the role of religion in politics. True, Erdoğan still embraces the rhetoric of democracy but, then again, so did Muammar Qaddafi, Bashar al-Assad, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His record on democracy leaves much to be desired, as his evisceration of free expression in Turkey demonstrates.

Turkey was a model precisely because it developed a liberal, democratic system that was not anti-religion, but which sought to constrain the blurring of religion and politics. Erdoğan has turned that model on its head. The Obama administration—and, frankly, the Bush administration before it—are guilty of tremendous diplomatic malpractice for refusing to recognize the reality behind Erdoğan’s rhetoric.

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Obama’s Favorite Foreign Leader

The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl is a normally sober observer of foreign affairs so it’s a bit disappointing to see him writing today in defense of Turkey’s Islamic government. Diehl’s starting point was to debunk Rick Perry’s comment in last week’s debate in South Carolina in which the Texas governor claimed Turkey was run by “Islamic terrorists” and questioned its continuing presence in NATO. Of course, he’s right that the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not quite the equivalent of Hamas or Hezbollah, but as Michael Rubin noted last week, it has became a major sponsor and enabler of terrorism. While Diehl makes the point that Turkey has been somewhat helpful to the U.S. on Libya and Syria, on the issues of Middle East peace and the threat from the Iranian nukes, it has been a disaster.

Which is why I think the most distressing aspect of Diehl’s defense of Turkey as a reliable American ally is the fact that he says its leader has become one of the few foreign leaders with whom Barack Obama has a strong relationship. Obama has, according to the Post, spent more time speaking on the phone with Erdogan than any other ally. Indeed, in a cover story interview with Time Magazine, Obama told a fawning Fareed Zakaria that Erdoğan was someone with whom he had become friends and forged “bonds of trust.” It speaks volumes about the deplorable state of American foreign policy that Erdogan is someone with whom Obama is most comfortable.

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The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl is a normally sober observer of foreign affairs so it’s a bit disappointing to see him writing today in defense of Turkey’s Islamic government. Diehl’s starting point was to debunk Rick Perry’s comment in last week’s debate in South Carolina in which the Texas governor claimed Turkey was run by “Islamic terrorists” and questioned its continuing presence in NATO. Of course, he’s right that the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not quite the equivalent of Hamas or Hezbollah, but as Michael Rubin noted last week, it has became a major sponsor and enabler of terrorism. While Diehl makes the point that Turkey has been somewhat helpful to the U.S. on Libya and Syria, on the issues of Middle East peace and the threat from the Iranian nukes, it has been a disaster.

Which is why I think the most distressing aspect of Diehl’s defense of Turkey as a reliable American ally is the fact that he says its leader has become one of the few foreign leaders with whom Barack Obama has a strong relationship. Obama has, according to the Post, spent more time speaking on the phone with Erdogan than any other ally. Indeed, in a cover story interview with Time Magazine, Obama told a fawning Fareed Zakaria that Erdoğan was someone with whom he had become friends and forged “bonds of trust.” It speaks volumes about the deplorable state of American foreign policy that Erdogan is someone with whom Obama is most comfortable.

Diehl’s main point is that Islamists are the “new normal” in the Arab and Islamic worlds.  That may be true, but his optimism that groups like the Islamic parties that now control Egypt’s new parliament will turn out to be more like Turkey than Hamas or Iran seems not only naive but also underestimates the extent to which Erdogan has opposed American interests and values.

Under the tutelage of Obama’s buddy, Turkish democracy is in a free fall with journalists and opponents of the ruling party being jailed. Abroad, Turkey has not only abandoned its long standing alliance with fellow American friend Israel but has become the leading supporter of the Hamas terrorist group on the international stage. Just as bad is Erdoğan’s refusal to support the West on isolating Iran, providing Tehran with a reliable outlet for trade just at the time when the Europeans are out ahead of the U.S. on toughening sanctions.

Any president who considered the alliance with Israel or the need to stop Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons as among our nation’s top foreign policy priorities would regard Erdoğan as being, at best, a thorn in America’s side and, at worst, a genuine threat to our interests as well as our democratic values. But not Barack Obama.

Obama has been open about his contempt and dislike for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli is a prickly customer, and it may be that Erdoğan is easier to like on a personal basis. But anyone wondering why relations with the Jewish state have become so tenuous in the last three years need only understand this is a White House where an Islamic quasi-authoritarian who backs Hamas is the president’s pal and the prime minister of Israel is his bête noire.

Turkey may not be (as Rick Perry stated), run by a terrorist, but it is a nation that has been transformed under Erdoğan from a faithful ally to a source of genuine concern on both the home and foreign fronts. If that is Barack Obama’s idea of a true friend, then what does that say about his vision of America or the world?

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Turkey: Worry

The patterns of the Cold War era — which was also the era of independence for much of Europe’s colonial empire — are beginning to recur in greater numbers. In one of the least desirable of those patterns, constitutional “democratization” in the emerging post-colonial nations made it easier for new strongmen to establish autocratic rule. Understandably, the West cheered on developing-world voters when they approved constitutional changes that broke the power of legacy autocrats. Too often, however, the old autocrats were merely replaced by new ones, who had used constitutional change not to empower the people but to vanquish their own rivals.

Turkey, where voters approved significant changes to the constitution this weekend, was never a colony. We can hope the post-colonial dynamic won’t play out there — but concern is amply justified. The revisions in question, proposed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), target the two elements of the national government that have most steadfastly sought to enforce Turkey’s Kemalist tradition of secularism: the military and the courts. AKP has pressed an overtly Islamist agenda since its formation from the older Islamist Virtue Party in 2002. But up to now, AKP has been stymied by the stature of the military general staff and the secularist tradition of the courts.

The new reforms approved by the voters remove those checks. One will allow Prime Minister Erdogan to try in civil court the military-coup plotters who seized control of the government in 1980, when Turkey was beset by internal violence. This power will prevent the military from serving as a check on radicalized political majorities. In a change much like FDR’s court-stacking proposal of 1937, another constitutional revision expands the nation’s constitutional court from 11 to 17 judges and provides that the prime minister will appoint 14 of them, with the legislature choosing the other three.

Erdogan has more sweeping changes in mind for the Turkish constitution, but those will wait until after next year’s national election. Although his popularity has been slipping steadily since 2005, observers of the constitutional referendum now award him the advantage in the 2011 contest. The U.S. and EU are expressing gratification at Turkey’s democratizing measures, but their effect will be to eliminate key checks on what Erdogan and AKP can do with a legislative majority.

Erdogan’s record is disturbing. Turkish and Western journalists are alarmed by his regular practice of threatening the media. Committed secularists in the courts and universities have found themselves slapped with trumped-up civil charges. AKP tried to lift the constitutional ban on wearing the Islamic veil in universities in 2008, but was stopped by the courts; secularists fear that with unchecked power, Islamists will proceed to mandating the veil for women.

Erdogan’s record in regional policy is equally disquieting: arming Syria, buddying up to Iran, buying weapons and nuclear plants from Russia, berating Israel and effectively supporting the erratic flotilla campaign against the Gaza blockade. This is a prime minister who proclaims in official press interviews that Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs “were not and never will be Jewish sites, but Islamic sites.” His priorities and ideological temperance are more than questionable.

There’s something surreal, in fact, about his NATO allies approving the new constitutional changes because they are “democratic.” Form over substance has been the calling card of the destabilizing, ideological autocrat throughout the 90 years since World War I; it’s past time for complacent Western liberals to figure that out.

The patterns of the Cold War era — which was also the era of independence for much of Europe’s colonial empire — are beginning to recur in greater numbers. In one of the least desirable of those patterns, constitutional “democratization” in the emerging post-colonial nations made it easier for new strongmen to establish autocratic rule. Understandably, the West cheered on developing-world voters when they approved constitutional changes that broke the power of legacy autocrats. Too often, however, the old autocrats were merely replaced by new ones, who had used constitutional change not to empower the people but to vanquish their own rivals.

Turkey, where voters approved significant changes to the constitution this weekend, was never a colony. We can hope the post-colonial dynamic won’t play out there — but concern is amply justified. The revisions in question, proposed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), target the two elements of the national government that have most steadfastly sought to enforce Turkey’s Kemalist tradition of secularism: the military and the courts. AKP has pressed an overtly Islamist agenda since its formation from the older Islamist Virtue Party in 2002. But up to now, AKP has been stymied by the stature of the military general staff and the secularist tradition of the courts.

The new reforms approved by the voters remove those checks. One will allow Prime Minister Erdogan to try in civil court the military-coup plotters who seized control of the government in 1980, when Turkey was beset by internal violence. This power will prevent the military from serving as a check on radicalized political majorities. In a change much like FDR’s court-stacking proposal of 1937, another constitutional revision expands the nation’s constitutional court from 11 to 17 judges and provides that the prime minister will appoint 14 of them, with the legislature choosing the other three.

Erdogan has more sweeping changes in mind for the Turkish constitution, but those will wait until after next year’s national election. Although his popularity has been slipping steadily since 2005, observers of the constitutional referendum now award him the advantage in the 2011 contest. The U.S. and EU are expressing gratification at Turkey’s democratizing measures, but their effect will be to eliminate key checks on what Erdogan and AKP can do with a legislative majority.

Erdogan’s record is disturbing. Turkish and Western journalists are alarmed by his regular practice of threatening the media. Committed secularists in the courts and universities have found themselves slapped with trumped-up civil charges. AKP tried to lift the constitutional ban on wearing the Islamic veil in universities in 2008, but was stopped by the courts; secularists fear that with unchecked power, Islamists will proceed to mandating the veil for women.

Erdogan’s record in regional policy is equally disquieting: arming Syria, buddying up to Iran, buying weapons and nuclear plants from Russia, berating Israel and effectively supporting the erratic flotilla campaign against the Gaza blockade. This is a prime minister who proclaims in official press interviews that Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs “were not and never will be Jewish sites, but Islamic sites.” His priorities and ideological temperance are more than questionable.

There’s something surreal, in fact, about his NATO allies approving the new constitutional changes because they are “democratic.” Form over substance has been the calling card of the destabilizing, ideological autocrat throughout the 90 years since World War I; it’s past time for complacent Western liberals to figure that out.

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Turkey Needs More Democracy

There have been a number of articles, such as this one in the Wall Street Journal by Rob Pollock, trenchantly dissecting the decline of Turkey. This once stalwart ally of America and Israel now supports the sort of rabid anti-Israel, pro-Hamas sentiment displayed by the Gaza flotilla. This is indeed an alarming trend, not only for what it says about the future of Israeli-Turkish relations (which, sadly, seem to be beyond salvation at the moment), but also for what it says about the prospects for democracy in the Middle East.

Israel aside, Turkey has been the most durable democracy in the region, although its freedom has always been tempered by occasional military interventions (sometimes called “soft coups”) to safeguard the secularist legacy of Ataturk. In recent years, the military has pulled back from politics and allowed the ascension of the Islamist AK Party led by Prime Minister Erdogan. There were mutterings about military intervention in 2007, when Erdogan chose a fellow AK party member, Abdullah Gul, to fill the largely ceremonial post of president, but nothing happened. Turkey is today arguably the freest it has been with a popular prime minister ruling based on a solid majority. Freedom House notes: “The July 2007 elections were widely judged to have been free and fair, with reports of more open debate on traditionally sensitive issues.”

And yet those free and fair elections have produced a government that is increasingly anti-Israel and anti-American — a government that often sounds indistinguishable from dictatorships such as Iran and Syria. This would seem to offer one more piece of evidence to those — ranging from many Israelis to American Realpolitikers and Middle East despots — who believe that the Middle East is simply not ready for democracy and that if you allow elections, the result will be to entrench Hamas, Hezbollah, and their fellow travelers.

For my part, I am not ready to give up on promoting democracy, especially in countries such as Iran and Syria, where it is hard to imagine that any alternative government could possibly be worse than the status quo. In the case of Iran, there is actually a good deal of reason to believe that a democratically elected government would be considerably more moderate and liberal than the incumbent regime, although it may decide to keep Iran’s nuclear weapons program going.

What about countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which are reasonably friendly toward the U.S. under their current rulers — and in the case of Egypt and Jordan, have even made peace with Israel? Does the Turkish precedent (and the troubled results of elections in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories) suggest a go-slow attitude toward electoral reform? It certainly suggests that elections are by no means a panacea and that unelected rulers may in fact be more friendly to the West than those who could win a popular mandate. But that doesn’t mean that an unpopular status quo can be sustained forever. Sooner or later, for example, an ailing and elderly Hosni Mubarak will pass from the scene, and it is by no means clear that his son will be able to follow him.

The trick from the American standpoint is to promote gradual liberalization without risking a takeover by extremist groups such as Hamas, which would be interested in “one vote, one man, one time.” Democracy, as we know, involves more than voting; it must have checks and balances provided by an independent press corps, judiciary, and political opposition. Turkey has been deficient in all these regards, which helps to explain why, despite its regular elections, it is rated as only “partly free” by Freedom House.

Many of the limitations on popular democracy were imposed by the secularist military, but the AK Party has made use of state power to its own benefit. For instance, it has pursued massive legal cases based on dubious evidence against dozens of secularists who are accused of plotting to undermine the government. Then there are continuing restrictions on press freedom. Freedom House notes:

A 2006 antiterrorism law reintroduced jail sentences for journalists, and Article 301 of the 2004 revised penal code allows journalists and others to be prosecuted for discussing subjects such as the division of Cyprus and the 1915 mass killings of Armenians by Turks, which many consider to have been genocide. People have been charged under the same article for crimes such as insulting the armed services and denigrating “Turkishness”; very few have been convicted, but the trials are time-consuming and expensive. An April 2008 amendment changed Article 301’s language to prohibit insulting “the Turkish nation,” with a maximum sentence of two instead of three years, but cases continue to be brought under that and other clauses. For example, in 2009 a journalist who wrote an article denouncing what he said was the unlawful imprisonment of his father, also a journalist, was himself sentenced to 14 months in prison….

Nearly all media organizations are owned by giant holding companies with interests in other sectors, contributing to self-censorship. In 2009, the Dogan holding company, which owns many media outlets, was ordered to pay crippling fines for tax evasion in what was widely described as a politicized case stemming from Dogan’s criticism of AK and its members. The internet is subject to the same censorship policies that apply to other media, and a 2007 law allows the state to block access to websites deemed to insult Ataturk or whose content includes criminal activities. This law has been used to block access to the video-sharing website YouTube since 2008, as well as several other websites in 2009.

Turkey has suffered not only from such restrictions but also from the fact that the secularist opposition has been in disarray. The Republican People’s Party, founded by Ataturk, has just chosen a new leader to replace its longtime head, who had to step down after the appearance of an Internet sex video in which he apparently played a starring role.

The opposition has its work cut out for it. As one prominent Turkish columnist has noted, while AK did well initially, “since 2007 its reign has been tainted by repressive tactics against the secular media, an effort to control the judiciary, excessive use of wiretapping by law enforcement, and a legal jihad against members of the armed forces in ‘coup’ investigations where the lines between fact and fiction often seem blurry.” And now tainted as well by anti-Israeli and anti-American animus.

While Turkey’s experience should not lead to a dismissal of democratization in the Middle East, it should remind us that democracy, especially when partial and limited, is no cure-all for a country’s ills. We should also keep in mind, however, in the case of Turkey as well as other countries, that the best cure for democracy’s ills may well be more democracy.

There have been a number of articles, such as this one in the Wall Street Journal by Rob Pollock, trenchantly dissecting the decline of Turkey. This once stalwart ally of America and Israel now supports the sort of rabid anti-Israel, pro-Hamas sentiment displayed by the Gaza flotilla. This is indeed an alarming trend, not only for what it says about the future of Israeli-Turkish relations (which, sadly, seem to be beyond salvation at the moment), but also for what it says about the prospects for democracy in the Middle East.

Israel aside, Turkey has been the most durable democracy in the region, although its freedom has always been tempered by occasional military interventions (sometimes called “soft coups”) to safeguard the secularist legacy of Ataturk. In recent years, the military has pulled back from politics and allowed the ascension of the Islamist AK Party led by Prime Minister Erdogan. There were mutterings about military intervention in 2007, when Erdogan chose a fellow AK party member, Abdullah Gul, to fill the largely ceremonial post of president, but nothing happened. Turkey is today arguably the freest it has been with a popular prime minister ruling based on a solid majority. Freedom House notes: “The July 2007 elections were widely judged to have been free and fair, with reports of more open debate on traditionally sensitive issues.”

And yet those free and fair elections have produced a government that is increasingly anti-Israel and anti-American — a government that often sounds indistinguishable from dictatorships such as Iran and Syria. This would seem to offer one more piece of evidence to those — ranging from many Israelis to American Realpolitikers and Middle East despots — who believe that the Middle East is simply not ready for democracy and that if you allow elections, the result will be to entrench Hamas, Hezbollah, and their fellow travelers.

For my part, I am not ready to give up on promoting democracy, especially in countries such as Iran and Syria, where it is hard to imagine that any alternative government could possibly be worse than the status quo. In the case of Iran, there is actually a good deal of reason to believe that a democratically elected government would be considerably more moderate and liberal than the incumbent regime, although it may decide to keep Iran’s nuclear weapons program going.

What about countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which are reasonably friendly toward the U.S. under their current rulers — and in the case of Egypt and Jordan, have even made peace with Israel? Does the Turkish precedent (and the troubled results of elections in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories) suggest a go-slow attitude toward electoral reform? It certainly suggests that elections are by no means a panacea and that unelected rulers may in fact be more friendly to the West than those who could win a popular mandate. But that doesn’t mean that an unpopular status quo can be sustained forever. Sooner or later, for example, an ailing and elderly Hosni Mubarak will pass from the scene, and it is by no means clear that his son will be able to follow him.

The trick from the American standpoint is to promote gradual liberalization without risking a takeover by extremist groups such as Hamas, which would be interested in “one vote, one man, one time.” Democracy, as we know, involves more than voting; it must have checks and balances provided by an independent press corps, judiciary, and political opposition. Turkey has been deficient in all these regards, which helps to explain why, despite its regular elections, it is rated as only “partly free” by Freedom House.

Many of the limitations on popular democracy were imposed by the secularist military, but the AK Party has made use of state power to its own benefit. For instance, it has pursued massive legal cases based on dubious evidence against dozens of secularists who are accused of plotting to undermine the government. Then there are continuing restrictions on press freedom. Freedom House notes:

A 2006 antiterrorism law reintroduced jail sentences for journalists, and Article 301 of the 2004 revised penal code allows journalists and others to be prosecuted for discussing subjects such as the division of Cyprus and the 1915 mass killings of Armenians by Turks, which many consider to have been genocide. People have been charged under the same article for crimes such as insulting the armed services and denigrating “Turkishness”; very few have been convicted, but the trials are time-consuming and expensive. An April 2008 amendment changed Article 301’s language to prohibit insulting “the Turkish nation,” with a maximum sentence of two instead of three years, but cases continue to be brought under that and other clauses. For example, in 2009 a journalist who wrote an article denouncing what he said was the unlawful imprisonment of his father, also a journalist, was himself sentenced to 14 months in prison….

Nearly all media organizations are owned by giant holding companies with interests in other sectors, contributing to self-censorship. In 2009, the Dogan holding company, which owns many media outlets, was ordered to pay crippling fines for tax evasion in what was widely described as a politicized case stemming from Dogan’s criticism of AK and its members. The internet is subject to the same censorship policies that apply to other media, and a 2007 law allows the state to block access to websites deemed to insult Ataturk or whose content includes criminal activities. This law has been used to block access to the video-sharing website YouTube since 2008, as well as several other websites in 2009.

Turkey has suffered not only from such restrictions but also from the fact that the secularist opposition has been in disarray. The Republican People’s Party, founded by Ataturk, has just chosen a new leader to replace its longtime head, who had to step down after the appearance of an Internet sex video in which he apparently played a starring role.

The opposition has its work cut out for it. As one prominent Turkish columnist has noted, while AK did well initially, “since 2007 its reign has been tainted by repressive tactics against the secular media, an effort to control the judiciary, excessive use of wiretapping by law enforcement, and a legal jihad against members of the armed forces in ‘coup’ investigations where the lines between fact and fiction often seem blurry.” And now tainted as well by anti-Israeli and anti-American animus.

While Turkey’s experience should not lead to a dismissal of democratization in the Middle East, it should remind us that democracy, especially when partial and limited, is no cure-all for a country’s ills. We should also keep in mind, however, in the case of Turkey as well as other countries, that the best cure for democracy’s ills may well be more democracy.

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Turning of the Tide?

It seems that the problem was Turkey, not Israel:

IDF forces piloted the Rachel Corrie to the port of Ashdod early Saturday evening after boarding the ship earlier in the day. None were harmed in the military operation as the international activists on the ship cooperated with the boarding party. The activists went as far as lowering a ladder to the soldiers patrol boat to allow them to board, army sources have revealed.

The boarding of the Rachel Corrie containing activists and aid for Gaza was described by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Saturday as a quiet operation. Netanyahu was quick to distinguish between the boat of Irish and Malaysian activists and the Turkish-sponsored Mavi Marmara which was boarded May 31 in an incident that left nine dead and scores wounded.

“The different outcome we saw today underscores the difference between peace activists who we disagree with but respect their right to express their different opinion and flotilla participants [on the Mavi Marmara] who were violent extremist supporters of terrorists,” said Netanyahu.

The Obama team has spent the week perpetuating the notion that it is Israel that needs to be investigated. But the tide seems to be shifting as the facts come out. The Washington Post editors, whose initial reaction was to scold Israel, have changed their tune. They write: “All of the violence occurred aboard the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara, and all of those who were killed were members or volunteers for the Islamic ‘charity’ that owned the ship, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH). The relationship between Mr. Erdogan’s government and the IHH ought to be one focus of any international investigation into the incident.”

And the first Senate candidate I am aware of has taken up the issue and is calling for Obama to stop the straddling. Dan Coats of Indiana, via e-mail, tells me: “President Obama should not qualify U.S. support for Israel and any investigation must be thorough and address the question of terrorist connections of any personnel on or related to the flotilla.” I don’t suspect that Evan Bayh is going to challenge Obama on this — but if Coats was in the Senate, it sounds as though it would be a different story.

If Obama can’t lead, perhaps he can follow public opinion and political pressure. He really has enough political problems these days — does he really want to let his anti-Israel animus put him at odds with lawmakers, candidates, and even the mainstream media? Stay tuned.

It seems that the problem was Turkey, not Israel:

IDF forces piloted the Rachel Corrie to the port of Ashdod early Saturday evening after boarding the ship earlier in the day. None were harmed in the military operation as the international activists on the ship cooperated with the boarding party. The activists went as far as lowering a ladder to the soldiers patrol boat to allow them to board, army sources have revealed.

The boarding of the Rachel Corrie containing activists and aid for Gaza was described by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Saturday as a quiet operation. Netanyahu was quick to distinguish between the boat of Irish and Malaysian activists and the Turkish-sponsored Mavi Marmara which was boarded May 31 in an incident that left nine dead and scores wounded.

“The different outcome we saw today underscores the difference between peace activists who we disagree with but respect their right to express their different opinion and flotilla participants [on the Mavi Marmara] who were violent extremist supporters of terrorists,” said Netanyahu.

The Obama team has spent the week perpetuating the notion that it is Israel that needs to be investigated. But the tide seems to be shifting as the facts come out. The Washington Post editors, whose initial reaction was to scold Israel, have changed their tune. They write: “All of the violence occurred aboard the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara, and all of those who were killed were members or volunteers for the Islamic ‘charity’ that owned the ship, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH). The relationship between Mr. Erdogan’s government and the IHH ought to be one focus of any international investigation into the incident.”

And the first Senate candidate I am aware of has taken up the issue and is calling for Obama to stop the straddling. Dan Coats of Indiana, via e-mail, tells me: “President Obama should not qualify U.S. support for Israel and any investigation must be thorough and address the question of terrorist connections of any personnel on or related to the flotilla.” I don’t suspect that Evan Bayh is going to challenge Obama on this — but if Coats was in the Senate, it sounds as though it would be a different story.

If Obama can’t lead, perhaps he can follow public opinion and political pressure. He really has enough political problems these days — does he really want to let his anti-Israel animus put him at odds with lawmakers, candidates, and even the mainstream media? Stay tuned.

Read Less




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