Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Leak in Review

It's been three days since the Wikileaks diplomatic cables release and it's hard to imagine things going back to the way they were before. How could they now that we know that diplomats say one thing in public and different, much blunter things, in private; that the Arab states, from Egypt to the Gulf, are itching for the United States to take out Iran's nuclear program; that Israeli officials believe Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan "hates" their country; and that the Turkish leader may have eight secret bank accounts in Switzerland (OK, on that count, maybe there is something to these leaks after all).

On the Turkey front, at least, despite the advance hype, there was little earth shattering material in the leaked cables. After taking a look at what was released so far, the Hurriyet Daily News was able to come up with this vapid observation: "U.S. diplomats in Turkey have been deeply interested in the politics of the country, according to United States State Department cables made public by whistleblower site WikiLeaks." As analyst Semih Idiz wrote in the same paper:
The documents now may provide interesting and entertaining reading on Turkey, and may be very upsetting for some people in the government, but they are not of “historic” caliber.

As for the frank and direct language in the cables, this may be something of a novelty for the layman, but the language in the diplomatic dispatches from Turkish embassies abroad – or any embassy for that matter - is probably not much different.

What these leaked cables have done, on the other hand, is confirm what has been talked about or speculated about on the basis of factual information or “educated guessing” among diplomats and diplomatic observers in Ankara for some time.
Still, digging through the Turkey-related cables does yield some illuminating and instructive material. One thing they make clear is the difficulty Washington initially had in understanding Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Former Ambassador Eric Edelman's cables from the AKP's early years, in particular, while getting some things right also seriously misread Erdogan and rely on dubious sources for their information, such as a conspiracy-theory loving pollster who predicts the AKP's imminent demise.

Things seem to improve as time goes by, though. Most recent Ambassador to Ankara James Jeffrey's early 2010 cable about the "new" Turkish foreign policy was sharp, perceptive and more attuned to the nuances of Turkish politics, offering up some very interesting criticisms of Turkey's current foreign policy. From the cable, which is worth reading in full:
Despite their success and relative power, the Turks really can't compete on equal terms with either the US or regional "leaders" (EU in the Balkans, Russia in the Caucasus/Black Sea, Saudis, Egyptians and even Iranians in the ME). With Rolls Royce ambitions but Rover resources, to cut themselves in on the action the Turks have to "cheat" by finding an underdog (this also plays to Erdogan's own worldview), a Siladjcic, Mish'al, or Ahmadinejad, who will be happy to have the Turks take up his cause. The Turks then attempt to ram through revisions to at least the reigning "Western" position to the favor of their guy. Given, again, the questioning of Western policy and motives by much of the Turkish public and the AKP, such an approach provides a relatively low cost and popular tool to demonstrate influence, power, and the "we're back" slogan.
There are also some interesting items dealing with the Turkey-Israel relationship, which give an indication of how Erdogan might be looking at Israel as a political (and possibly strategic) liability and how he is recalibrating Turkey's regional strategic posture vis-a-vis the country. In another cable by Jeffrey, from October of 2009, the ambassador writes about the cancellation of the Anatolian Eagle military exercises after Erdogan barred Israel's participation only "hours" before the exercises were to start. Although Erdogan's action has previously been described as the result of his not wanting to take the domestic political risk of being seen as having played host to the same air force that bombed Gaza only a few months before, Jeffrey provides a different explanation:
With an Israeli strike - across Turkish airspace - against targets in Iran a possibility, Erdogan decided he could not afford the political risk of being accused of training the forces which would carry out such a raid.
In another cable, this one from early 2010, the ambassador lays out some of Turkey's worries about getting involved with Washington's new missile defense plan (which eventually became the one approved at the recent NATO summit in Lisbon). Something similar plays out here:
Erdogan is concerned that Turkey's participation might later give Israel protection from an Iranian counter-strike.
In fact, as the years go by, Iran starts to increasingly dominate the material in the cables leaked so far. Along with the material coming out of the rest of the Middle East, the leaks show how profoundly out of step Turkey is with most of its allies and neighbors regarding the urgency of forcefully dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue and in terms of being concerned about what others see as Tehran's "destabilizing" regional actions. At the same time, they also seem to highlight one of the built-in tensions in the Turkey-Iran relationship, which is Ankara's belief that its engagement with Tehran is moderating the Iranian regime and "isolating" it regionally, something which could eventually lead to tension between the two countries.

For example, in a cable from late 2009 that describes a somewhat testy meeting between Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Gordon accuses the Turks of not being tough enough on the Iranian. The Turkish FM counters that Ankara is providing an alternative vision for the region and, as a result, the Turks "limit Iranian influence in the region." In another cable, from an early 2010 meeting between the State Department's Nicholas Burns and the Turkish MFA's Feridun Siniroglu, the issue of Syria comes up. In this case the cable reports:
Sinirlioglu contended Turkey's diplomatic efforts are beginning to pull Syria out of Iran's orbit. He said a shared hatred for Saddam had been the original impetus for their unlikely alliance. "Now, their interests are diverging." Once again pitching Israel-Syria proximity talks, Sinirlioglu contended Israel's acceptance of Turkey as a mediator could break Syria free of Tehran's influence and further isolate Iran.
For now, it doesn't seem like it's the leaks themselves that will do any harm to Turkey's relations with some of the countries involved. In the case of the US, the leaked cables won't create bad chemistry -- they only confirm and help us further understand the bad chemistry that existed before the leaks. But the leaks' domestic ramifications in Turkey -- particularly the material charging Erdogan and other AKP members with corruption, something the opposition has already started using against the government -- could ultimately prove damaging to Turkish-US relations.

With general elections coming up, it's likely that Erdogan and the AKP will try to stir up an anti-American backlash to the leaks as a way of diverting attention away from the damaging material inside them. In fact, that might have already started: in a strongly-worded speech he gave today, Erdogan undiplomatically suggested his lawyers might sue some of the American diplomats responsible for writing the leaked cables. “This is the United States’ problem, not ours... Those who have slandered us will be crushed under these claims, will be finished and will disappear,” the HDN reported the Turkish PM as saying at an Ankara municipal ceremony. Other AKP officials, meanwhile, are portraying the leaks as part of an Israeli plot to weaken and corner Turkey.

So much for Wikileaks heralding the arrival of a new day.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Boycott for Mr. Naipaul

What is it about Turks and winners of the Nobel prize for literature? Their own home-grown one, Orhan Pamuk, has more-or-less been hounded out of the country for alleged insults against the nation. And now V.S. Naipaul, the Trinidad-born 2001 winner of the prize, has been forced to cancel a speech he was to make in Turkey because of an uproar over alleged insults he made against Islam.

The story's background, via the Wall Street Journal:
Nobel Prize-winning author Sir V.S. Naipaul has pulled out of a writers' conference in Istanbul that starts Thursday, pressured by religious conservative media in Turkey that objected to statements he has made on Islam.
The move sparked two Turkish authors to pull out of the event, its organizers said Wednesday.
Mr. Naipaul, author of some 30 books, had been due to give the opening speech at the European Parliament of Writers, a literary event organized here to mark Istanbul's status as a European Capital of Culture this year.
For the past week, however, religious conservative Turkish newspapers, including Yeni Safak and Zaman, have been campaigning against the decision to honor Mr. Naipaul, a 78-year-old Trinidadian of Indian origin. While some Turkish authors supported his right to attend the conference, defending him on grounds of free speech, others said they would boycott the event if he attended.
"How can our writers bear to sit by the same table with Naipaul, who has seen Muslims worthy of so many insults?" wrote poet and Zaman columnist Hilmi Yavuz, who initiated the planned boycott last week and described Mr. Naipaul as "an enemy of Islam" and "a colonialist."
Is it me, or is there an ill wind of intolerance blowing through Turkey these days? From television stations being fined for what guests said during debates, to ministers suing columnists for perceived insults and armed gangs attacking art gallery openings, there seems to be a worrying trend developing here.

The great irony regarding the scratched Naipaul visit was that the cantankerous author was actually in Istanbul this past July and not a peep was heard. At that time, he came as a key speaker in something called "Istancool," an arts and culture festival sponsored by Turkish Airlines and the Turkish Ministry of Tourism. Four months later, Istanbul doesn't seem so cool, at least not on the cultural front.

Turkey is trying to position Istanbul as a global capital of, among other things, culture. The Naipaul affair is a sign that, at least for now, the internal forces and contradictions that continue to tug at the Turkish sense of self-identity will prevent the city from playing that role. Indeed, as Sameer Rahim, the Daily Telegraph's assistant books editor, wrote in a column about the affair, Naipaul's writing probably has a lot to offer Turkey:
Naipaul, like Turkey, contains unfathomable contradictions. (He does, after all, have a Pakistani wife.) Those Turks who opposed his entry might do well to ignore his provocations and read his powerful novels of inbetweeness.
A very interesting 2005 New York Times profile of Naipaul, meanwhile, sheds more light on his complicated and sometimes problematic approach to Islam, but also shows that the author and the two books about his travels in parts of the Muslim world, which have been the source for some of the criticism leveled against Naipaul, might also have something to say for today's Turkey. From the article:
The books raise but don't necessarily answer deep and vexing questions: Is secularism a precondition of tolerance? Does one necessarily have to abandon one's individual cultural and religious identity to become part of the West? Why do people willingly choose lives that restrict their intellectual freedom?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Cat Fight

In the end, Ankara decided to use the recent NATO summit in Lisbon not as an opportunity to make a De Gaulle-style break with the alliance, but rather as a chance to reaffirm Turkey's commitment to the concept of collective security and to fend off those who were looking for another piece of evidence to prove the alleged Turkish drift eastward.

The Turkish government was able to bring home the goods on the issue it fought hardest on, which was to not name any country (i.e. Iran) as the reason behind the new NATO missile defense shield program that was agreed upon at the summit. On the other hand, as the Wall Street Journal reported, "Most of a series of other demands Turkey had made in the weeks leading up to the meeting were either dropped or, as in the case of a demand for the control center to be located in Turkey, pushed into the future. Turkish President Abdullah Gul didn't press these issues on Friday, say people attending the summit."

Without any drama or showdowns at the summit itself, things got more interesting once it ended. As Burak Bekdil writes in a typically acerbic column in Today's Hurriyet Daily News:
“In France, we call a cat a cat. We all know we are talking about Iran,” President Nicholas Sarkozy said after the NATO summit in Lisbon. Apparently, the French president dislikes verbal contortions surrounding the proposed missile defense architecture. “We, too, call a cat a cat,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan replied in Turkey, while vigorously avoiding calling a cat a cat.

Meanwhile, President Abdullah Gül was proud because Turkey’s efforts to not call a cat a cat had succeeded at the Lisbon summit. Now we have a cat at our east door, but neither we nor our NATO allies would call it a cat. All the same, Mssrs. Sarkozy and Erdoğan claim that they would call a cat a cat.

In September, NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen had also called a cat a cat. The missile shield system, Mr. Rasmussen said, would be against possible attacks from rogue states. It was apparent that his definition of rogue states did not imply Singapore or New Zealand. The secretary general named Iran’s nuclear program as one of the reasons justifying the missile shield. The cat?!
I think the question is not so much Turkey refusing to "call a cat a cat," but rather how it perceives the feline. To some of Ankara's allies (most crucially, the U.S.), the cat is a growling one that often tries to claw those reaching out to stroke it. To Turkey, on the other hand, the cat is a potentially cuddly stray that simply needs to be brought in from the cold (perhaps, as Semih Idiz points out in a recent column, that's why one of the first things Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu did after the summit was call his Iranian counterpart to update him on developments).

At the end of the day, though, by joining the missile shield agreement, it appears that Ankara is not taking any chances one way or another. In a good analysis of what the Lisbon summit means for Turkey and transtlantic relations, the German Marshall Fund's Ian Lesser points out that:
....the approach to ballistic missile defense architecture, agreed in principle in Lisbon, suits Turkish security interests to a surprising degree. Turkey’s close political and commercial relations with Tehran, and Ankara’s “no” vote on UN Security Council sanctions, contributed to an atmo- sphere of friction with Western partners on Iran policy. Yet, beneath the differences on Iran diplomacy, Turkey shares — or should share — some concerns about Iran’s nuclear and missile programs. In a technical sense, Turkey is the most exposed member of the alliance when it comes to the growing reach of ballistic missile systems deployed or under development in the Middle East. Ankara may wish to keep an open line with Tehran, but the defense of Turkish territory, including key population centers, still matters.
Lesser's analysis paints a fairly positive picture of the post-summit Turkey-NATO/western alliance dynamic, writing:
....the Lisbon experience suggests that some aspects of Turkish foreign policy remain cautious and traditional, and the NATO connection still matters when it comes to working with Ankara.
On the other hand, in his conclusion, Lesser looks ahead, offering this thought:
The dynamics in Lisbon do not reverse recent trends in Turkish strategy, nor are they irrelevant to future prospects. For the United States and Europe, the Lisbon summit underscores the reality that Turkey’s foreign and security policy is increasingly diverse, in character as well as direction.
Clearly, many more opportunities to see who calls a cat a cat await Turkey and NATO down the road.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Sticks and Stones....

The case of Oktay Eksi -- the long-time Hurriyet columnist who resigned this past week in the face of government and "public" pressure -- has been staying with me. The background: in what was to be one of his final columns, Eksi, a fixture in his newspaper's pages for some 40 years, railed against the Prime Minister and other government officials for their plan to build a series of controversial dams in a scenic part of northeastern Turkey. In an intemperate flight of rhetorical (and metaphorical) fancy, the columnist accused Erdogan and the others of being willing to "sell their own mothers."

Following strong criticism from Erdogan and the government and facing angry protesters in front of Hurriyet, Eksi quickly resigned. As Andrew Finkel makes clear in a very good Today's Zaman column (found here), Eksi is a difficult character to defend and it's obvious that many of his colleagues were probably happy to see him and his antiquated take on Turkish politics go.

Still, there's something disturbing about his departure. As Finkel writes: "Mr. Ekşi was in effect forced to resign by a newspaper that is not eager to insult the government at a time when it is trying to wiggle free of a punitive tax bill of some TL 2 billion." Even more disturbing is what has happened since the former columnist's resignation. Not satisfied with only having Eksi's scalp, Erdogan and Energy Minister Taner Yildiz are suing him for "insulting" their honor and reputation. This is the latest in a string of similar cases initiated by Erdogan, who is asking for $71,000 in damages.

Should public officials be suing columnists for their rhetorical missteps? (The European Court of Human Rights says "no.") It would appear that the message that's being sent out in the Eksi case has more to it than simply the defense of honor.

(On a related note, Jennifer Hattam of the TreeHugger blog has a great post up about just what is happening with the dam project that Eksi wrote about and why people are getting so fired up about the government's actions on the issue.)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Criminalizing Protest

Human Rights Watch has an excellent new report out that looks at the troubling use of anti-terror laws to imprison Kurdish protestors and stifle dissent in southeast Turkey.

According to Turkish law, protestors (even non-violent ones) can be accused of being members of a terrorist organization (read, the PKK) if they go to a demonstration that was deemed to have been organized by that organization. That had led to numerous cases of people who have been given fairly severe sentences for basically showing up at a protest. Some of examples covered in HRW's report include the case of an illiterate mother of six who was sentenced to seven years in jail for joining a protest where she held up a banner that said "The approach to peace lies through Ocalan" and that of a university student who was given six years in jail after being filmed flashing a victory sign at the Diyarbakir funeral procession of a slain PKK fighter and then later seen clapping his hands at a protest at his university.

From a release about the report:
....Over the past three years, courts have relied on broadly drafted terrorism laws introduced as provisions of the 2005 Turkish Penal Code, plus case law, to prosecute demonstrators. The courts have ruled that merely being present at a demonstration that the PKK encouraged people to attend amounts to acting under PKK orders. Demonstrators have been punished severely for acts of terrorism even if their offense was making a victory sign, clapping, shouting a PKK slogan, throwing a stone, or burning a tire....

...."When it comes to the Kurdish question, the courts in Turkey are all too quick to label political opposition as terrorism," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "When you close off the space for free speech and association, it has the counterproductive effect of making armed opposition more attractive."
The report can be found here.

(photo: a group of Kurdish women at a 2007 rally in Diyarbakir. By Yigal Schleifer)