Friday, April 3, 2009

For Turkey - and perhaps NATO - something Rotten in Denmark

NATO may choose a new secretary-general during its two-day summit that starts today in Strasbourg, France. The leading candidate is Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a choice that has been strongly criticized by Turkey, NATO’s only predominantly Muslim member. Although Ankara has yet to say if it would veto the choice of Rasmussen, it has made its concerns about him very clear in recent weeks.

Turkey’s main worry appears to be about the Danish PM’s role in the Muhammad cartoon episode, where he refused to apologize for the actions of the Danish paper that ran the caricatures, citing his support of its freedom of expression, and his refusal to meet after the cartoons’ publication with a group of ambassadors representing Muslim countries. "NATO as a whole should think about their image in the Muslim world," a senior Turkish diplomat told Reuters.

The questions surrounding Rasmussen’s suitability to lead NATO at a time when it is expanding its operations outside of Europe give Turkey a chance to again highlight its role as the west’s bridge to the Islamic World and the Middle East. But the case of the Danish PM also has domestic implications for the Turkish government, which has accused the Danes of ignoring its requests to shut down Roj TV, a Kurdish satellite network broadcasting out of Denmark that Ankara accuses of being a PKK mouthpiece. (Before his now famous Davos outburst, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made headlines when he walked out of a 2005 press conference with Rasmussen in Denmark because of reporter from Roj TV was in the room, leaving the Danish PM to awkwardly field questions on his own.) [For some background on the Roj controversy, take a look at this article of mine from the Christian Science Monitor.]

[UPDATE I -- Maybe it really is more about Roj than than the cartoons. According to a report on Hurriyet's website, during a speech Erdogan gave today in London, the Turkish PM said: 
"How can those who have failed to contribute to peace, contribute to peace in the future? We have doubts...," he told during a speech delivered on "Global Economic Crisis and Turkey" at Chatham House Royal Institute of Foreign Affairs in London, where he attended the G-20 Summit.

He said "NATO is an organization whose duties are to ensure peace," adding his country is absolutely opposed to the 28-nation alliance losing strength.

"But the mouthpiece of the terror organization in my country is broadcasting from Denmark," he said. "How can someone who did not stop this safeguard the peace?" Erdogan added.

"This is my personal opinion: I look at it (his candidacy) negatively," the Turkish prime minister said.]
Still, although Turkey has been the only NATO to publicly express reservations about Rasmussen’s candidacy, it appears that other countries may now be having second thoughts about him. And in a recent column in the Guardian, Stephen Kinzer, formerly the New York Times’ Istanbul bureau chief, makes a strong case for why NATO should not choose the Dane:
Was the publication of these cartoons in Denmark an abuse of press freedom? Was it responsible? Were the cartoons racist? These questions are of the past. Nato need not worry about them. But if Nato decides that the figure most directly associated with this scandal should be its new secretary general, how can it expect to win the public support in Afghanistan and Pakistan that is crucial to the success of its vital mission?

This choice would not be simply tone-deaf. It would do more to alienate Muslims from Nato than almost any other step the alliance could take. What can Nato be thinking? Proceeding with this appointment would suggest that it has lost all contact with reality. Rasmussen's qualifications are not the issue – what matters is the way his appointment would be perceived in the world's most explosive region.
Yavuz Baydar and Sahin Alpay, columnists in Today’s Zaman and two of Turkey’s leading liberal commentators, also give Rasmussen the thumbs down. Baydar:
Turkey's reluctance to give the go-ahead to Rasmussen is entirely understandable. In its perhaps most critical watershed since the end of the Cold War, NATO needs a secretary-general who will take issues further ahead, not cause mental blocks because of what he symbolizes.
But it is not only an issue for Turkey. The other NATO members have to think twice, perhaps more. There are certainly more trustworthy candidates out there.
And Alpay:
To say the least, Rasmussen is not at all a respected European politician among Muslims. He has also opposed the accession of Turkey, the only Muslim-majority member of NATO, to the European Union. His government, again in the name of freedom of expression, has allowed a television station affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), regarded by both the US and the EU as a terrorist organization, to broadcast from Denmark despite Ankara's continued protests.
According to reports from Strasbourg, the Danish PM has officially thrown his hat into the ring. But it may make sense for NATO to listen to some of the critical voices and find another candidate.

[UPDATE II -- Judy Dempsey has a good rundown on NATO's internal divisions and how that is impacting the process of selecting a new leader for the organization.]

1 comment:

Nomad said...

I hope Erdogan realizes that invitations start to dry up when you stomp out too often. I think, personally, Erdogan lacks cleverness and subtlety even when his point is justified. In Europe, such things, handling things in a dignified way, are nearly as important as the principle.