Progressive Foreign Policy In A Post-Trump World

With impeachment filling the air and the 2020 election season starting to rev up, it’s a natural time to start thinking of a post-Donald Trump world. While defeating Trump is no sure thing despite his many scandals, it’s also easy to fall into the “anything is better than Trump” trap. It’s just as imperative that we not merely return to the status quo ante: a world of misguided, albeit somewhat more organized and systemic, policy that set the stage for some of the most disastrous Trump policies.

Trump’s decision to remove U.S. troops from northern Syria and unleash a Turkish invasion is the most recent example of the need to thoroughly overhaul our foreign policy. One aspect that needs attention is the absence of international law in our thinking. In his Netzero Newsletter, journalist Robert Wright points out that the Turks’ flagrant violation of international law, and the Trump administration’s green light for it, has hardly been mentioned among the many criticisms Trump is enduring for his foolish decision. Read more at LobeLog

Tensions Rise Ahead of Trump-Erdogan Meeting

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will shortly meet US President Donald Trump in Washington. The meeting was already going to be an interesting one.

The US-Turkey relationship is complicated, though both countries are members of NATO. Beyond the tension between Turkey and Israel, which complicates matters for Washington, Turkey’s ongoing campaign against any hint of Kurdish self-determination has repeatedly raised issues for the US over the years.

Turkey itself walks a fine line these days. Like the entire region, it is concerned about the ongoing campaign of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) to establish a permanent presence in Iraq and Syria. But for Erdogan’s ruling party, that threat remains secondary to preventing any progress toward an independent Kurdistan.

Recent events add a large dose of drama to the upcoming Trump-Erdogan discussions. Trump’s increasing domestic problems in the wake of his firing of FBI Director James Comey make it more likely that he will want to make a splash in foreign policy of some kind to generate some positive attention. He has surely not forgotten the positive press his strike on a Syrian airbase received across the political spectrum—even though the strike itself had little effect on the Syrian government’s abilities and was taken outside of any larger US strategy.

Trump also decided to arm a Kurdish militia, the YPG, that Turkey sees as a terrorist group affiliated with the major Kurdish separatist party, the PKK. The US classifies the PKK as a terrorist group as well, but not the YPG, a militia that the US has worked with for some time. Though the Obama administration never directly armed the YPG, US arms supplied to allied Arab militias found their way into YPG hands, eliciting little fuss from Washington.

The step of directly arming the YPG was a step too far for Erdogan. He called on the United States to reverse this decision and said that the “fight against terrorism should not be led with another terror organization” and that “we want to know that our allies will side with us and not with terror organizations.” Turkey’s Defense Minister, Fikri Isik, went so far as to label this disagreement a “crisis” between the two countries.

It’s tempting to think that Trump was indulging in a typically impulsive decision. But the president actually approved a proposal from the Pentagon, under the aegis of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, one of the more sober and reliable members of Trump’s senior aides.

Mattis is well aware of the implications of arming the YPG for Turkey. In his capacity as secretary of defense, however, he is charged with finding the most effective ways to fight IS. Although Mattis is certainly not ignorant of the political implications of such decisions, his job description requires that he prioritize operational concerns. It’s supposed to be the president who tempers such decisions with his own judgment and consultations with other senior advisors.

Perhaps a more thoughtful person in the White House with a more active secretary of state might have come to the same decision Trump did. Instead, the current administration made a decision, with apparently minimal consideration, that will likely have only moderate effects on the ground—after all, the US could have simply increased the clandestine flow of arms to the YPG—but sits very poorly with an ally.

Erdogan is sure to bring up this matter in Washington, and he is a man that Trump seems to respect. At the same time, Erdogan is hardly dealing from a position of strength. With Russia backing the Assad regime, which Turkey opposes, he can hardly go too far in threatening the United States. He could, conceivably, retract permission for the US to use Turkish territory to launch attacks on IS forces. But if the US decided to call that bluff, Erdogan would not have many viable options.

Erdogan seems likely to counter the US decision by launching attacks against Kurdish positions in Iraq, something the US does not want him to do. After all, such attacks would complicate matters with the Iraqi government, and the targets include Kurdish allies of the United States. The Turkish government undertook similar actions last month, and Erdogan may decide to expand these activities. Although the United States did not respond beyond disapproving rhetoric, it is fair to wonder whether Turkey’s attack affected the Pentagon’s thinking about arming the YPG.

Another issue Erdogan may pursue with Trump is the extradition of Fethullah Gulen. Gulen is a cleric and one-time ally of Erdogan who now stands accused of being behind much of the domestic opposition to the Turkish president’s rule, including the attempted coup last year. Gulen lives in Pennsylvania and Erdogan has been demanding his extradition for some time, but more forcefully after the failed coup.

Erdogan has hoped that Trump would look more favorably on the extradition request than Barack Obama did. But Trump has not yet indicated how he views the situation with Gulen.

Extraditing Gulen might just be the sort of thing Trump, given his attitude toward political opponents from the US media to Hillary Clinton to James Comey, would support. But Gulen has a liberal following in Turkey and elsewhere, and he may just be a convenient scapegoat for Erdogan. Erdogan has made many accusations but without much public evidence to support them. Extraditing Gulen would be widely seen as a grave betrayal of due process. But it is not clear if Trump understands that.

The Trump administration’s silence in the face of Erdogan’s recent harsh criticism of Israel suggests that the two leaders have some desire to achieve positive outcomes at the upcoming meeting. Erdogan has expressed hope for a “new beginning” in relations with Washington, a clear reference to his dissatisfaction with Obama’s policies. But this will be a complicated undertaking. And complicated is not something Trump does well.

The Turkish Defense of Democracy

The Turkish government and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have only themselves to blame for both the widening protests gripping Turkey, and the negative, sometimes distorted, global perception of what they’re doing to their people. The heavy-handed response to what was an isolated demonstration has blown the cork off a pressurized situation in Turkey. The attempted media blackout has only served to magnify global disgust and raised a simplistic view of a very complex dynamic.

The protest that sparked all of the upheaval was a small one. In a sign of the real, underlying issues, the Turkish police reacted to the sit-in at Gezi Park with a large show of force, which prompted expanding and spreading demonstrations. Almost immediately, Turkish activists took to social media, because, miraculously, the protests were completely invisible on most of the major networks in Turkey (as well as, shamefully, some of the international ones). Turkey isn’t Syria, and it’s doubtful that the media blackout — even within the country — was all that effective. You see, Mr. Prime Minister, there is this thing called the internet…

The comparisons to the “Arab Awakening” are somewhat exaggerated, but the dynamic in Turkey is significant for precisely that reason. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are legitimately in power. Erdogan is not a dictator, he has been elected three times in free and fair elections, and he’s won a bigger plurality each time. Erdogan and the AKP have, in the past, pushed reforms forward and managed a very solid economic recovery.

But in the past couple of years, more and more Turks, particularly those among the “other half” of Turkey that didn’t vote for the AKP in the last election, have grown more nervous. Three broad issues — growing authoritarianism from Erdogan, Turkey’s increasingly partisan role as a regional leader and the heightened influence of religion in Turkish law — have been on a rolling boil in recent years and overflowed in the past week. The Gezi Park protest was merely the triggering point.

Turkey has long struggles with serious shortcomings on significant human rights issues. It is to the AKP’s credit that for much of its first two terms in power, it made strides with a number of them. Notably, upon their initial election, the AKP eased some restrictions on the Kurdish language and culture, and capitalized on the existing cease-fire to ease some of the tensions, although they have gradually risen anew ever since. The AKP brought in neo-liberal economic policies, and in this case they have worked to strengthen an economy that was in severe crisis not long ago. On the other hand, the press, never free, has been increasingly harassed recently.

The hugely excessive police response to the Gezi Park demonstration and subsequent protests cannot be disconnected from the arrogant and tone-deaf response to these events from Erdogan himself. Dismissing the protesters as thugs, radicals and “foreigners” served only to display the very root of the problem with Erdogan. After three successful elections, he believes he has a mandate to lead the country where he sees fit, and need not concern himself with the many millions of Turks who see things differently.

The Syrian uprising is another worrisome issue for many in Turkey. No doubt most would agree that Turkey has a legitimate interest in the outcome in Syria, but so do many states. The question is: what should it do in response to that interest? Many Turks are unhappy with their government’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, and many are particularly concerned about what it means for Turkey’s regional policy. The AKP has a lot in common with the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the region, and has been supporting that piece of the Syrian rebel force. Thus, for many Turks, Turkish involvement in Syria has not just been about unseating Bashar al-Assad or protecting Turkey’s border, but advancing a regional agenda that, while certainly less worrisome than other religious ideologies fighting for supremacy in the Arab world, is not well aligned with Turkish values of secularism. This also casts a pall on what many Turks have been pleased to see as Turkey’s enhanced status in the region.

The increasing influence of religion has manifested itself in recent new laws restricting the sale of alcohol and public displays of affection. One of the points of pride for the AKP has been its ability to blend the strong secular tradition in Turkey with the rising influence of Islam in the country, but these laws have rekindled fears about Erdogan, who was imprisoned in his younger days because of his Islamist views.

Ultimately, all of this feeds into concerns about the upcoming presidential election, scheduled for 2014. Erdogan is hoping to amend the constitution to create a strong presidency that would replace the central position of the prime minister. And, of course, he very much hopes to be that president, a position he could hold for the subsequent decade. It is no wonder that so many in Turkey are concerned about Erdogan’s ambitions and willingness to cede power.

For all of these fears and matters of concern, though, it is important to keep in mind that Turkey is not Syria, nor is it Egypt or Libya. Erdogan is an elected leader, and he has gotten a lot of support in those elections. Whether he still has that support today, though, is a matter of some speculation.

At Al-Monitor, Barbara Slavin ascribes a lot of what has happened in Turkey to Erdogan overstaying his welcome in office. There is certainly a lot of truth in that point. It certainly explains the hubris of Erdogan’s reaction to the protests, the excessive force with which the protests were met from the outset and his attempts to marginalize such large swaths of the Turkish population.

But in some ways, Erdogan and the AKP are victims of their own success. Turkey under Erdogan has been praised by many (myself included) for the progress it made in integrating a large Islamist community with an overriding, and overwhelmingly popular, secular government. Turkey was being pointed to as the model for new governments in the Arab Awakening by some (many of whom, it’s fair to note, were in the US and Europe). As a result, Erdogan seems to have become convinced that it’s his economically and socially conservative base, and his party’s inclination toward a greater role for Islam in Turkish law, that should simply have its way because, after all, those with different ideas keep losing.

Hence these protests. Like those seen in recent years all over the world, including the United States, the groups are diffusive and diverse and there is no structured leadership. The demands are the same as well: more justice, more democracy. But the eagerness to label this as a “Turkish Awakening” misses the fact that Turkey, with all its very deep flaws, is a democracy. Erdogan is a legitimately elected leader, and he can still be voted out. Indeed, he may well have destroyed much of his own legitimacy with his reaction to these demonstrations and thereby endangered his own political future.

Turks are defending and trying to expand their democracy. Erdogan may well have become a threat to that democracy, but he has not destroyed it. The protesters want their press to be free, they want minorities to be fairly treated, they want the secularism that the government has been based on for years to endure (even while accommodating the large Islamist movement) and they want to make sure that even if a party wins a large plurality of the vote,  everyone else’s interests won’t become meaningless.

There is more here as well: an objection to the excesses of Erdogan’s neo-liberal policies, even while most Turks understand that the AKP has done a lot of good for the country’s economy. Add to that the continuing march toward democracy from a government that was once a religious empire and later a secular but unstable government that had far too many features of fascism, some of which still remain and are being used by Erdogan (once a victim of that very discrimination); these include the government’s intimidation of the press as well as the misuse of anti-terrorism laws and the harsh discrimination faced by the Kurds, Alevis and many leftists.

Turkey is facing the problems of its past mixed with ongoing growing pains of its very real democracy. The country should be supported, and the goals of the protests need to be recognized as noble ones. The government needs to be rebuked sufficiently to deter it from its violent and anti-democratic course. But Turkey should not be confused with Syria.

The Apology to Turkey and My Analysis of Obama’s Speeches

A reader at LobeLog  asked how I thought Netanyahu’s surprising and long-belated apology to Turkey over the Mavi Marmara killings fit in with my analysis of Obama’s speeches in Jerusalem and Ramallah. I thought my readers here would be interested in my response, so I reprint it below.

I think it fits in perfectly. What Obama set out to do, in my view, was to reset his foreign policy priorities, given not only the pivot to Asia, but also the domestic political

Protesters at Ashdod, Israel one year after the IDF killed eight Turkish and one US civilian aboard the Mavi Marmara

Protesters at Ashdod, Israel one year after the IDF killed eight Turkish and one US civilian aboard the Mavi Marmara

realities that severely limit his options in dealing with Israel (i.e. AIPAC et al). He’s essentially trying to move the conflict out of the way.

It may well be that events, maybe in Syria, possibly even in Egypt or Jordan, will change the status quo by drawing Israel in and that may hamper the move to lessen US involvement in all of this. But for now, Obama will do what he must as dictated by US politics but I think little if anything more, and that was his message to the Israeli public.

To Bibi, I think he handed that perspective as a gift, or more precisely a payoff. Basically, he said I’m not going to push you the negotiating table, but you’re going to pay me back for that by making this issue less of a thorn in my side. I think the rapprochement with Turkey is the centerpiece of that, because while the split between those two US allies has not always been in the news, it is a central concern for US diplomats. This makes matters simpler.

I think Obama was also hoping that Bibi would agree to turn the heat back down on the Iran issue and let Obama take the lead. Such a thing would probably be wise for Israel, even from their point of view, because Obama’s own rhetoric on Iran has hardly been mollifying. But I think that was an area where Bibi was much less forthcoming. He knows his new defense minister prefers the US hit Iran rather than Israel, but also that he very much believes that the US should be pressured to do so–Ya’alon does not seem to share the assessment of his military and intelligence leaders on Iran, which is pretty much identical to the US’. Continue reading

Our Own Worst Enemies: Fear is not a value

In my latest piece for Babylon Times, hosted by Souciant, I examine the implications of Israel’s tattered relationship with Turkey, and the Israeli mindset that is driving it into ever-deeper isolation.