Sunday, October 25, 2009

Turkey's Islamist Regime: Who Will Stop the Reign?

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By Barry Rubin

So I’m talking to a Turk who’s feeling desperate about her country crumbling away from under them, trying to figure some way out. What hope can I offer? What help will the United States give to prevent one of its historically most important allies from going over to the other side?

We run through all the specifics:  takeover of the media or intimidation of newspapers and television stations into shutting up or being shut down; the pressure on the educational system and the granting of equality for theological studies to university degrees; the cozying up to Iran and Syria; women being pressured into wearing Islamist dress to avoid harassment in their neighborhoods; and far more.

Then there’s the growing repression. On this, you can  read Gareth Jenkins, “Between Fact and Fantasy: Turkey’s Ergenekon Investigation,” published by the Johns Hopkins University Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program. But I‘ll summarize it for you:

In the last two years, 142 people have been arrested and thrown into prison on the claim that they are part of the Ergenekon conspiracy to overthrow the government. The indictment covers more than 4000 pages yet never actually defines what this supposed organization is or anything actually done by it.

Jenkins writes:

“The more elusive the concrete evidence for Ergenekon’s existence is, the more desperate the attempts to discover it become. Rather than convincing the investigators that what they are looking for does not exist, this elusiveness appears merely to make the organization more fearsome and powerful in their minds; and further fuel their desperation to uncover and eradicate it.”

Basically, the whole affair is an excuse for the AKP Islamist-oriented government to arrest whoever it wants and intimidate others into knowing that they, too, can be arrested if they become too critical.

As for foreign policy, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gone out of his way to make it clear he stands with Tehran, not Washington, on the nuclear issue. He called Iran’s nuclear program a peaceful one and said that the country has a right to have nuclear weapons. This statement was cheered by Iran’s client, Hizballah, and shocked European Union diplomats who called the Turkish leader clearly pro-Iran.

This is not the Turkey we have known for decades. The dissidents—people who were in the mainstream for many decades and now find themselves marginalized--are desperate to find some way out. The democratic margin is steadily narrowing. Ideally, the opposition parties would forget their differences, unite, make a broad appeal to the nation and stop the slide toward a Turkish version of Islamism.

In fact, though, the Turkish opposition politicians are among the world’s most incompetent. The social democratic party is led by an arrogant buffoon—every time his party loses an election he blames the voters—while the nationalist right is narrow and unimaginative. There is no international lobbying effort against the AKP regime to inform the West what’s going on in Turkey.

The traditional hope is that the army would step in to preserve the secular republic but it has been too weakened (ironically, in large part due to European Union pressure to get it out of politics) and knows it wouldn’t enjoy Western support. The AKP is also popular enough to make the prospect of a coup seem like the road to civil war. And as time goes on, perhaps the army will not be able to depend on its own troops and officers.

What about decisive U.S. action? Now the U.S. government will have to make important decisions on two controversial sales to Turkey: AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopters being sold off by the Marines, and an armed unmanned plane called the MQ¬9 Reaper, used in counterterrorist operations. The Obama Administration will probably approve both sales, presumably without any conditions. Certainly, the argument can be made that the Turkish military should be helped to remain strong, for both strategic and political reasons.

Still, one of the underappreciated aspects of the contemporary world scene is the extent to which there are many people like this Turkish liberal who are feeling deeply concerned or even abandoned by current U.S. policy.

While a lot—too much, actually—of focus has been put on Israel, the same thing can be said to an even greater extent of Central Europeans and Caucasus people (Azerbaijan, Georgia) who , fear being appetizers for the Russian bear, pro-democratic Arabs, freedom-seeking Iranians, desperate Turks, and many others. There are also Arab rulers and regime supporters who wonder if they can depend on America to defend them from Iran.

Even in British, French, and German ruling circles there is more concern than is being generally appreciated. True, they saw President George W. Bush as a cowboy, but now they see Obama as a cowed man.

Then there are those who are neutral or antagonistic who just can’t quite believe what they are seeing. I was told by a good source that a non-government person who works for Obama a lot showed up in Pakistan and gave the Pakistanis a lecture about how they should give up nuclear weapons and everyone in the world also wouldn't have them any more.

Can you imagine how Pakistanis thought of this proposal when they see nuclear weapons as their trump card against India, and don’t necessarily trust Iran or China that much either? Such people either think, the Americans are engaged in some incredible conspiracy or are so naive that it defies belief.

Americans are used to the idea that others may see them as irresponsible, overbearing imperialist bullies. Yet just as powerful a stereotype is that idea of Americans as sweet, well-meaning childlike creatures who are too nice to survive and have no idea what the real world is like.

Few understand that when Graeme Greene wrote a book entitled The Quiet American about why Americans are so often held in contempt it was the latter stereotype, not the former, he presented. The main character an American who is well-intentioned but makes a mess out of things holds the philosophy that the United States encourage underdeveloped countries to pursue a third way, different from capitalism or communism and based on local traditions. He sounds more like Obama than George W. Bush.

When Otto von Bismarck, a consummate political realist, was reported to have said, "There is a providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children, and the United States of America,” the conception of Americans as well-intentioned naive people rather than aggressive bullies is what he, too, had in mind.

So in Turkey there is no way out, except for one possibility: That the AKP returns to being more cautious. Caution has been the basis of its success, portraying itself as a center-right reform party, honest and good at managing the economy. Not going too far and doing even that slowly was a strategy that succeeded in preserving the government’s image. When it won the national elections last year, for the first time achieving a majority, however, the party became emboldened and began to move faster and in a more repressive manner.

Yet without large-scale foreign criticism or pressure (the European Union is giving Turkey the death by a thousand cuts in sabotaging its membership application but none of these conditions or demanded changes focus on the truly dangerous developments), why should the AKP renew its camouflage?

But, of course, not everyone thinks like this. There are experts on Turkey who continue to take the regime at its word. They scoff at everything I’ve written above, insisting that nothing significant is changing. Yet one thing they don’t do: provide specifics. They never refer to the actual events happening inside Turkey, though it is broadly hinted that this is nothing new, that all parties put their own people into jobs. Business as usual.

If Kamal Ataturk were to arise from the dead 70 years after his passing, I don't think he would have much trouble explaining how this was precisely the fate for Turkey he was trying to avoid when establishing the republic. Of course, times change and adjustments are needed.
The problem in this case, however, is that what's going on in Turkey is a systematic, structural shift intended to ensure that the clock can never be turned back.

Advocates of complacency tend to look only or mainly at Turkey’s new foreign policy, which can be attributed to merely balancing relations with different forces. (This is arguably in Turkey’s interest but for a NATO partner to be cooperating closely with Syria, Iran, Hizballah, and Hamas should still be a matter of great concern.)

And as a last resort they simply talk as if the problem is only one of Turkey-Israel relations which can be resolved if Israel is nicer to the Palestinians and uses Ankara as an intermediary with Syria.

The shift away from Israel, however, started well before the Gaza war of last January. While Israeli companies won big Turkish military contracts between 1995 and 2005—going as high as $1 billion a year—the figure for new orders in 2007 and 2008 was only $80 million each. No big contract has been obtained since the current government came to power in Turkey.

With Turkey, as with so many issues, the bell is tolling loudly. And through many Western chief executive mansions and foreign ministries, the officials are hitting the snooze buttons.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal as well as Turkish Studies journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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