Yesterday, on the 46th anniversary of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, I published a brief reflection on the long-term consequences of the war. It appears over at The Monkey Cage.
Steven Cook and Michael Koplow suggest the United States government has held Turkey up as a democratic model even as, they write, “Turkey has essentially become a one-party state.” But prior to the recent protests, have U.S. public statements refrained from noting deficiencies in Turkish democracy? It depends where you look, the White House or the Department of State. U.S. rhetoric has not been uniform.
The White House has chosen to highlight military and economic cooperation, not political reform, in a way very consistent with Cook and Koplow’s piece. With nearby states in the Middle East like Egypt in the midst of political upheaval, Turkey served as convenient model of success. Turkey = Islam + democracy + US ally. What could be a better illustration for the president?
When Prime Minister Erdogan came to the White House on May 16, 2013, President Obama did not raise concerns about illiberal Turkish behavior in either the joint press conference or in an op-ed Obama published that day in the Turkish Daily Sabah. Obama focused on trade and investment, mutual security (NATO, terrorism), and Syria. Reporters did not ask either leader about the state of Turkish democracy.
Four years ago, when Obama traveled to Turkey in April 2009, his language was a little different; he did mention democracy. Obama highlighted a shared U.S.-Turkish commitment to “religious freedom, respectful of rule of law, respectful of freedom.” More importantly, in his speech to the Turkish parliament, Obama carefully asked for continued Turkish progress on reform: “These achievements have created new laws that must be implemented, and a momentum that should be sustained.” He went to great lengths not to single Turkey out, juxtaposing his comments (concerns?) on Turkish democracy with a reminder of how U.S. democracy too is a work in progress: “I say this as the President of a country that not very long ago made it hard for somebody who looks like me to vote, much less be President of the United States.” (The fact that he was speaking in the Turkish parliament might very well have shaped how such comments were delivered!)
They were not earth-shattering words, but he did explicitly mention the need for Turkey to do more work on the issue.
What about State? In late 2011, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took a different tack. In a speech in Washington, DC, hosted by the American-Turkish Council, Clinton focused mostly on economics and mutual security. But she also, gently I thought, raised substantive concerns about democratic reform:
The third point is that Turkey’s ability to realize its full potential depends upon its resolve to strengthen democracy at home and promote peace and stability in the neighborhood. The ongoing constitutional reform process is a valuable opportunity, and I’ve had very productive conversations with President Gul, Prime Minister Erdogan, Foreign Minister Davutoglu, and others about this process, about its inclusivity and transparency that results in a document that deepens respect for human rights for all Turkish citizens, including the right to speak and worship freely. All minority groups need to have their voices heard and their concerns addressed. I was particularly impressed by Prime Minister Erdogan’s statement during Ramadan that property would be returned to religious minority groups, and we also hope to see other positive steps, such as reopening of the Halki Seminary.
A vibrant economy depends upon the free exchange of ideas, the free flow of information, and the rule of law. Strengthening due process, cracking down on corruption, helps any country grow more rapidly, and also protecting a free and independent media, which plays a role that is very important.
She hits a lot of the key points: the constitution, a free media, rule of law, and human rights for all Turkish citizens. She did not juxtapose it with America’s own imperfections and continuing democracy implementation agenda. Fast forward 18 months and I can imagine those kinds of talking points were intentionally left out during Erdogan’s visit.
Department of State reports are even more at odds with Obama’s May 2013 comments. State’s Human Rights Report said many positive things about Turkey but also highlighted a number of shortcomings. The report’s executive summary listed the “most significant human rights problems during the year” including:
- “Deficiencies in effective access to justice”
- “Government interference with freedom of expression”
- “Inadequate protection of vulnerable populations”
The summary continued:
Other significant human rights problems during the year included: Security forces committed unlawful killings. Authorities obstructed demonstrations. Security forces allegedly used excessive force during sometimes violent protests related to the Kurdish issue, students’ rights, and labor and opposition activities. The government obstructed the activities of human rights organizations, particularly in the Southeast. Impunity remained a problem. The government investigated reports of abuse by security forces, but the number of arrests and prosecutions was low, and convictions remained rare, although the number increased from previous years.
As is typical with the State report, the full text of the Turkey section includes a variety of examples. Also typical of coverage of US allies, the criticism is usually embedded in positive statements. For example:
The constitution and law provide citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercised this right in practice through periodic, free, and fair elections based on universal suffrage. However, the government restricted the activities of some political parties and leaders.
That kind of good cop, bad cop statement is similar to comments by Daniel Fried, U.S. Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, on February 27, 2009 in advance of a Secretary Clinton trip to Turkey and elsewhere:
And Turkey itself has been going through a very important evolution at home, moving in a democratic direction, but also with a lot of strains as Turkey addresses issues of its democracy in its – under its secular – its secular system.
(Another annual State report worth considering is on International Religious Freedom. This from May 20, 2013: “Embassy and consulate representatives, as well as visiting U.S. officials, met frequently with government officials and representatives of religious groups to discuss religious freedom,…”)
And even outside the Obama administration, one can see that pros and cons writing. In 2012, the Council on Foreign Relations released a major report on U.S.-Turkish relations. It noted: “Over the course of the past decade, Turkey has simultaneously become more European, more Muslim, more democratic, and more modern.” The report also notes many concerns about the practice of Turkish politics (pp. 20-26). Overall, it takes a middle ground: “On balance, it is clear that though the AKP took dramatic steps in 2003 and 2004 to forge a more open, modern, and pluralist society, questions remain about Turkey’s democratic transition. In some areas, the AKP-led government has used the same nondemocratic tools as its predecessor, making it appear no more liberal than previous Turkish governments.”
What it looks like, then, is a clear difference in past reports and statements from State – which criticize Turkey on democracy issues – versus the White House line as exemplified by the Erdogan visit in May. So when Cook tweets “Nary a word of criticism. It’s always sunny in Istanbul,” perhaps he meant the White House only.
Three broader thoughts:
1. IR 101: Different U.S. agencies may have different perspectives and policies on the same issue.
2. Public statements alone are not policy (and may be at odds with actual policy). Do they have any effect? Why issue them at all? Who does consume such words?
3. If the White House is ignoring illiberalism in Turkey, it looks like Turkey fits as a classic US ally: strategic needs (Syria, Israel, Arab Spring writ large, economics, NATO) trump pressing an ally on liberal reform. So what we may be hearing with changes in Obama’s rhetoric from April 2009 to May 2013 is a changed region in which the White House is even more willing to underplay the question of political openness and reform In Turkey (which, of course, would be ironic because you underplay illiberalism so as to highlight Turkey as…a liberal democratic model).
Opposition wins: (or leaning opposition)
Assad wins: (or leaning Assad)
German intelligence today
Ahmed, anti-Assad activist
(Though I think the article is more back and forth than this list appears.)
Three questions in reaction to Shadi Hamid’s detailed analysis of Morsy and Egypt:
1. “The Brotherhood’s priorities, for now, are rather simple — to survive and get to the next elections.” Won’t that always be the Brotherhood’s priority? In fact, isn’t that the priority of every party in power everywhere?
2. Is Khairat al-Shater a “revolutionary” or “pragmatic”? What does it mean to call him both?
3. How much does it matter what is in the new Egyptian constitution? Would a constitution in Egypt that Islamists liked act as a real constraint on liberals? For the Brotherhood, would it (could it) function as a blueprint for the Islamization of the Egyptian state (and society writ large)?
Dan Byman and Natan Sachs offered many insights about Israel’s alleged attacks on Syria. Three follow-up questions/comments:
1. If Assad’s fortunes decline and he becomes desperate to attack Israel to divert attention from his problems and/or to try to unify Syrians, does it really matter whether Israel has attacked recently? Isn’t Israel already an all-purpose bogeyman given the last 65 years?
2. I think we should be more careful about the context in which we talk about quiet borders. Yes, Israel’s border with Hezbollah has been quiet since 2006 when compared with before. Yes, the Israel-Syria line in the Golan has been quiet. But in the last decade, Israel attacked an Islamic Jihad camp in Syria, bombed Syria’s nuclear facility, and hit weapons 3x (so far) during the civil war. The authors also note “the Assad regime tried to create a crisis by pushing Palestinian refugees living in Syria to return to Israel to divert attention from the crackdown.” Is that quiet?
Moreover, when one mode of attack gets quiet (e.g. fewer border skirmishes), others may heat up. Israel and Syria did not fight in the Golan in the 1980s but they both contributed to a violent mess in Lebanon next door. Hezbollah may not be launching missiles at Israel but it may have poked Israel via drones and allegedly organized an attack that killed Israelis in Bulgaria. Quiet in one aspect or area of the relationship may only be part of the full picture of relations.
3. The authors would like the United States, “to coordinate allied interventions so together they make it more likely that Bashar’s regime will fall and Syria will return to stability.” Does that have to be overt coordination or could it be done in private?
Marc Lynch’s thoughtful post on how Syria has affected the narrative of the Arab “Spring” had me thinking about what might have been in Syria. I hope scholars eventually will work to address these questions – well, the first four anyway:
1) Had the protests stayed largely peaceful in Syria, would Asad be gone by now?
2) Exactly how much did outside aid for armed rebels undermine non-violent mobilization?
3) Did the Libya model cause elements of the Syrian opposition to put too much emphasis on the idea of external intervention and (wrongly) set their strategy with the expectation that such military intervention would come?
4) If/when Asad falls and if he is replaced by a regime that is not ruling over a fragmented country, acting as a brutal dictatorship, or executing ethnic cleansing, will the Arab Spring narrative shift toward a “positive” direction again?
5) Can we say enough times that “These revolutions…will continue to unfold for many years to come”?
I published a (longer) article entitled, “Explaining the Carter administration’s Israeli–Palestinian Solution.” (html or pdf) It will appear in Diplomatic History. I think Carter’s approach laid the groundwork for the entire peace process that followed in the ensuing decades.
“This article challenges critics of the Camp David accords who acknowledge only limited accomplishments or contend the United States was covering for Israeli settlement expansion while seeking to thwart Palestinian self-determination. President Jimmy Carter and his administration sought to create a new pathway toward peace given the unwillingness of Israel’s right-wing government under Menachem Begin to support Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Palestinian statehood. Carter officials saw the U.S. ideas as a middle way that might get the ball rolling and open a door to peace, however partial and however tentative the process might be at the beginning. Their best-case scenario was that the new U.S. approach would start to transform what the parties thought was possible with regard to the Palestinian question.”
I published an article review of two articles that dealt with the 2008-09 battle between Israel and Gaza. The articles are Benjamin S. Lambeth, “Israel’s War in Gaza: A Paradigm of Effective Military Learning and Adaptation,” International Security 37:2 (Fall 2012): 81-118, and Jerome Slater, “Just War Moral Philosophy and the 2008-09 Israeli Campaign in Gaza,” International Security 37:2 (Fall 2012): 44-80.
Whether one agrees with Samer Issawi’s politics or not, I thought his description of his family’s activism was a powerful illustration of what nationalism means at the individual level. Issawi, a Palestinian on a hunger strike in an Israeli jail, wrote
I am not the first member of my family to be jailed on my people’s long march towards freedom. My grandfather, a founding member of the PLO, was sentenced to death by the British Mandate authorities, whose laws are used by Israel to this day to oppress my people; he escaped hours before he was due to be executed. My brother, Fadi, was killed in 1994, aged just 16, by Israeli forces during a demonstration in the West Bank following the Ibrahimi mosque massacre in Hebron. Medhat, another brother, has served 19 years in prison. My other brothers, Firas, Ra’afat and Shadi were each imprisoned for five to 11 years. My sister, Shireen, has been arrested numerous times and has served a year in prison. My brother’s home has been destroyed. My mother’s water and electricity have been cut off. My family, along with the people of my beloved city Jerusalem, are continuously harassed and attacked, but they continue to defend Palestinian rights and prisoners.
The sense of broad family involvement and repeated sacrifice (as expressed primarily through jail time) tells us something about the level of commitment to the Palestinian cause and the belief in the idea of Palestinian peoplehood, self-determination, and nationalism. One can imagine other outs at certain moments such as emigration, political quietism, and a resigned acceptance to one’s fate. Yet none are mentioned here.
For Israelis who continue to believe that Palestinians are not a people worthy of self-determination or that Jordan may serve as the Palestinian state, Issawi’s statement provides a very inconvenient set of facts. Many Palestinians sure do think they are a people and seem determined to stand by that claim.
I am not suggesting this tells us everything we need to know about the likely outcome. Self-determination can be frustrated for a long time, perhaps indefinitely. But it does suggest to me that certain arguments just won’t have much traction. Pretending that we can go back to a time before Palestinian nationalism, or before Zionism for that matter, was a powerful ideology is pure fantasy.
On a long drive in Jordan, a Jordanian of Palestinian descent – let’s call him Amr – shared his grand theory of Middle East politics. His perspective would make Vali Nasr proud because for Amr, the basic divide in the Middle East is the Sunni-Shia divide (though with an American-Zionist twist).
On a personal level, Amr, a pious Sunni, expressed only disgust for Shiites, deriding them as false Muslims. Yet Christians and Jews were okay.
In the region, he lamented the rise of Shiism and, in particular, the rise of Iran, the heart of the Shiite world. Iran, already in control of Iraq, is seeking control of other Arab states as well, such as Bahrain and Yemen.
The pivotal Sunni-Shia moment was the hanging of Saddam Hussein on December 30, 2006. Saddam was not hanged on just any day but rather at the start of Iraqi Sunnis celebrating Eid al-Adha (the Feast of the Sacrifice), a major Islamic holiday. In Amr’s eyes, this was done as an intentional slight to Sunnis and to demonstrate a marked shift of power in Iraq, from Saddam’s (Sunni) rule to the post-2003 (Shia) regime.
Saddam’s last words were especially important: “Down with the traitors, the Americans, the spies and the Persians.” Not only were his executioners merely agents of neighboring Shia Iran, but by pairing “Americans” and “Persians” he also asserted that Iran was acting in concert with the United States.
Yes, while it might sound odd to American ears, Amr argued in the course of the discussion that Iran was working with the United States. After all, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq handed the country to Iran.
An Iran-US-Hezbollah-Israel alliance against the Sunni world.
When Sunni Iraq had a nuclear program, Israel bombed it in 1981. The United States invaded in 2003 to end Iraq’s alleged nuclear pursuits. Yet with Shia Iran, Israel and the United States have taken no military action despite years of complaining about Iranian nuclear research.
The United States was perfectly willing to intervene militarily in Libya against Muammar Qaddafi, a Sunni. But despite intense pressure, Washington has held back on the question of intervening in Syria where the regime is dominated by Alawites, a Shia offshoot. Israel, too, seems to favor the maintenance of the Asad regime.
In Egypt, the United States abandoned a Sunni, President Hosni Mubarak, and has accepted the rule of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. While one might think the Muslim Brotherhood is a Sunni organization, Amr sees it as under the control of Iran. That explains Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s visit to Egypt and the general warming of ties between Egypt and Iran after decades of tension. When Morsi and Shafiq were in the presidential run-off (2012), Washington and especially then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, made sure that Shafiq lost.
In Lebanon, why has Israel not killed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader? The Israeli Mossad can hit leaders all over the world but cannot find a leader right next door? The answer must be that Israel and Hezbollah are cooperating.
Amr’s story, interesting in its own right, reminds us that political theories need not be un-done by inconvenient facts. Perhaps because of our human tendency to fit information to our pre-existing worldview, contrary information gets ignored, manipulated, re-defined in a way that does not challenge our core approach. So the fact that Israel and Hezbollah fought a war in 2006; that Israel attacked a Syrian nuclear site in 2007; or that the vitriol between Iran and Israel/US is regular and heated matters little for Amr’s grand theory.
Somehow I think that even if Israel or the United States bombed Iranian nuclear facilities tomorrow, Amr would find a way of accounting for that seeming anomaly without altering his basic theory.
The story also helps make clear the difficulty for the United States in the region. In general today, the United States is excoriated both for what is seen as too much involvement (e.g. Iraq 2003+) or too little (e.g. Syria today). Washington has been so involved for so long that any action or non-action is interpreted in a nefarious manner. With stories like this one, I don’t imagine the challenge of U.S. foreign policy will change anytime soon.