Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Just Who Represents The Entire Country?

A very experienced and highly qualified U.S. State Department officer recently had his appointment as ambassador to Azerbaijan blocked by a couple of senators that are locked into close re-election campaigns. Why? Because the lobby for the Armenian Diaspora in the United States felt that the officer, Mat Bryza, was insufficiently anti-Turkish or pro-Armenian.

You can be forgiven for wondering just what Armenia, Turkey, or Azerbaijan have to do with elections in the United States, or why any group representing any particular nationality should have the right to set American foreign policy. The answer in this vitriolic political season is all about votes. The Armenian Diaspora lobby is particularly loud in California. And, just by pure coincidence, Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer is locked into a close election fight with the Republican challenger Carly Fiorina – the former CEO of Hewlett Packard who was bounced out of that job after a short, controversial reign. Senator Boxer needs every vote she can get and agreed to block Bryza’s appointment in hopes of gaining the California Armenians’ support at the ballot box. It’s doubtful that Senator Boxer could find any of these countries on a map or has more than a hazy notion of what the obscure issues are. But she has a very good grasp of California’s complex electoral mathematics.

The Armenian Diaspora has been trying desperately for years to get the United States to agree that massacres of Armenians during deportations in the Ottoman Empire almost 100 years ago amounted to genocide. In addition, the small land-locked, impoverished nation of Armenia in the middle of the volatile Caucasus region has been arguing and fighting with Azerbaijan since the early 1980s over a barren piece of land called Nagorno-Karabakh. With me so far? In the narrow world of the Diaspora, anyone who is not actively supporting its pet causes, however right or wrong, is deemed an enemy. This is the camp into which the unfortunate Mr. Bryza seems to have fallen

The question is not so much the rights or wrongs of these particular issues, about which people have been arguing and will continue to argue for years to come, but over the impact of these arguments on overall American foreign policy. The United States has critically important relations with both Turkey and Azerbaijan, relations that transcend the concerns of any one, narrow group. The United States needs superior diplomatic representatives in both countries. And yet the narrow self-interest of a single group appears to have hijacked overall American policy and put that representation at risk.

The efforts of smaller groups like the American-Armenians or the Greek-Americans are often dwarfed by the major Israeli-American interest groups like AIPAC, but they are no less distracting to formation of a genuine, national American foreign policy.

Some of these actions, however, are not without humour, however unintentional. Recently a group of Greek-Americans took it upon themselves to attempt to stage an Orthodox religious service at the Haghia Sophia cathedral in Istanbul. Forget that the last Christian service was held in this church in early May 1453. That’s 1453, not even 1953, more than 500 years ago. It became a Moslem place of worship after the Ottoman conquest in 1453. The government of the young Turkish Republic was aggressively secular and determined in the 1930s that this monument should become a museum with no religious services of any kind. And then along come our Greek-Americans trying to turn the clock back a few hundred years. Does one weep or laugh?

The Greek government in Athens and the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul were horrified at this attempt, and hastened to assure the Turks that they had nothing whatsoever to do with it. Fortunately for all concerned this hapless group finally abandoned its efforts just before touching off yet another major controversy in one of the most sensitive parts of the world.

But the effort highlights just how out of touch many of the Diaspora groups are with current conditions in the home country and region. Most of these groups are completely unaware of the subtle, yet meaningful changes in the foreign policy of the country their parents or grandparents left decades ago. Turkey and Greece, for example, have been working hard to overcome ancient hostilities and develop a more rational relationship. Many Greek businessmen are working hard to expand into Turkey and capitalize on that country’s large market. Something like the Haghia Sophia fiasco could have had serious negative consequences for these positive developments. On a more personal scale many locals are bemused and often offended by the patronizing attitude of returning Americans who seem to think that the country remains the impoverished wreck it was when their grandparents left 60 years ago.

Similarly Turkey and Armenia have been trying to find ways to normalize their relationship – to the horror of the Diaspora. The struggling Armenian people need all the help they can get, and a normal relationship with their much larger neighbour would be a good place to start. The economic situation in Armenia is so dire that, even though the border is officially closed, several thousand Armenians have found jobs in Turkey. Instead of helping the positive development of this relationship, elements in the Diaspora are doing all they can to derail it.

The United States is a large country with a complex, dynamic web of relationships around the world -- relationships that extend far beyond the constricted boundaries of single interest groups. Pride in one’s historical homeland and a desire to maintain cultural links are admirable traits, but it would be useful if members of the more vocal interest groups remember that, ultimately, they are just a single part of a very large American mosaic, and do not represent the entire nation.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

A One-Word Warning

Throughout the Middle East where small, subtle gestures like a slightly a raised eyebrow or tilt of the chin are often enough to set armies in motion, a one-word change in school textbooks is like a loud warning shot.

Such a change recently in Egyptian school books was interpreted by many in Turkey as a direct challenge to Turkey’s plans to play a larger role in the region and the Moslem world in general, an attempt to ‘put Turkey in its place.’ It was a not-so-subtle reminder to the Egyptian masses as well as other Arabs that they should be very cautious about accepting Turkey’s new regional pretensions

Like so many issues in the region, this spat has its origins about 500 years ago. The Ottoman Turkish army under Yavuz Sultan Selim conquered Egypt in 1517. The Ottomans stayed nominally in control of Egypt until the 20th century, even if the Ottoman influence had faded to a very tenuous ‘control’ by the late 19th century.

Previously, the Egyptian school books referred to this period of Ottoman influence as a ‘conquest’. Now, a Turkish news agency reports with great alarm that the Egyptian school books now refer to this period as an ‘occupation’ as if to remind people that the Ottoman Empire was, in fact, a non-Arab empire that dominated the Arab world

This change was greeted with glaring headlines as ‘Shameful’. The tone of the story was how ungrateful the Egyptians were being for referring to the Ottomans as occupiers when, really, all they were doing was protecting the Egyptians and improving their living standards.

In this view of the world it’s really only those nasty English and French – and now the Americans – who have empires complete with colonies and puppets. Somehow, to many people in Turkey, the Ottoman Empire that stretched from the gates of Vienna to the Persian Gulf and on to the shores of Tripoli was more like a social welfare organization. Any of the subject nations or peoples that resisted the beneficence of Ottoman control was seen as a ‘traitor’ and ‘ingrate’.

Many in Turkey are still furious that during World War I, when the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany, much of the Arab world resisted the sultan’s call for jihad and sided with the infidel English to end once and for all the 400 year Ottoman control of their region. These Turks consider that the Arabs ‘stabbed us in the back.’

Until very recently the Turks and the Arabs had what could best be described as a frosty relationship. Every time I travelled from Istanbul to Cairo to visit our office there the Egyptians lost no opportunity to disparage the Ottoman Empire and stress the superiority of modern Egypt over Turkey. In their eyes the Arabs had a culture and civilization going back hundreds of years compared to the ‘Johnny-come-lately’ Turks. More than once I heard even educated Arabs refer to the Turks as ‘jumped-up nomads.’ Even if the centuries of Ottoman control had never happened, Turkey’s former close ties to the United States, Europe, and Israel always made the country somewhat suspect in the eyes of the Arabs. Its secular political system and Western-oriented society even made its Moslem credentials somewhat dubious.

During the past few years Turkey has been trying to mend fences with the Arabs, partly out of spite for what is perceived as Western rejection of Turkish membership in its club, and partly as a genuine effort to build on its growing economic and military power by expanding its regional influence. Turkey has the largest economy south of Vienna, and its businessmen and entrepreneurs are active throughout the Middle East. Many Turks are extremely proud to see that their country has emerged from its junior, very junior, partner status with the West and is now forging new alliances with its Arab and eastern neighbours.

So far its most visible efforts have been with countries like Syria and Iran that many others see as despotic or sponsors of international terrorism. Turkey ignores these complaints and says, disingenuously, that its efforts will help build bridges to bring peace to the region. So far its efforts, particularly its Israel-bashing, seem to have been a great success with the Arab ‘street’, but many governments of the traditional Arab powers are far less enthusiastic about the Turkish efforts.

Egypt, for one, has its own problems with Hamas, and could well resent what it sees as Turkish meddling in intra-Arab issues, challenging the pre-eminent position of Egypt in the Arab world. Thus the school book issue could be seen as an indirect warning to Turkey to keep its nose out of Arab affairs. Many of the Arab regimes don’t like the idea of outsiders stirring up their own populations and becoming more popular than the local governments in the process. It’s hard enough to control their own masses without some other country trying to become the defender, spokesman for the oppressed of Gaza.

Turkish leaders are discovering, however, that the country’s higher profile generates mixed reactions at best. Inevitably some other countries will resent this sudden assumption of leadership. And conflicts will arise even with their new best friends the Iranians. Turkish leaders were given an unpleasant surprise when a senior Iranian official recently referred to the Armenian deportations in 1915 as genocide. Definitely a ‘no, no’ as far as the Turks are concerned. Despite furious back-pedalling by the Iranians the suspicion began growing in some Turkish quarters that the Iranians were playing them for fools – using Turkey to blunt the impact of the U.N. sanctions while ignoring every bit of unsolicited advice the Turks give them.

The real measure of Turkey’s success as a key regional player will be in how it manages these inevitable intra-regional conflicts. The policy of ‘zero conflicts’ is nice, but extremely difficult to practice where religious and political passions run high, and where memories are long enough to remember the previous subjugation to Turkish rule. Turkey will be fortunate if the conflict is limited to words in a school book.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Papandreou For The United Nations?

The hot gossip in Athens this summer is that Prime Minister George Papandreou’s long term goal is to parachute out of that job and become the next secretary general of the United Nations. Although born into one of the great political dynasties of Greece (his grandfather and father both served as prime minister) he has always seemed more comfortable on the international stage than dealing with the hand-to-hand combat of domestic Greek politics.

Multi-lingual, good speaker, long experience on the diplomatic circuit, skilled in the spongy language of international organizations, he would be a natural for the job. On top of it he comes with an elegant wife who would shine in New York.

People close to the scene say Papandreou would leave the morass of Greek politics for the rarefied atmosphere of UN Plaza in New York with a huge sigh of relief. Elected last year, his Socialist party soon discovered that the country was bankrupt. After decades of living on borrowed time and borrowed money the music stopped. Greece now faced the real possibility of defaulting on its sovereign debt. Bailed out at the last minute with a multi-billion Euro life-line from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund the government now must implement a massive program of tax increases and budget cuts to stem the tide of red ink. In his spare time Papandreou is supposed to reform the cronyism and featherbedding that has plagued Greek political life since the republic was founded. Needless to say the outraged cries of anguish from his own party, forget the opposition, aren’t making his job any easier. This is how big, bad conservatives are supposed to act, not the people-friendly Socialists.

Faced with an unpopular, almost impossible job at home it is no wonder that the poor man is looking fondly across the ocean and doing a bit of light lobbying. After years of strident anti-Israel, pro-Arab sentiments Greece suddenly invited the Israeli prime minister to Athens. Having a friendly Israeli onside might also possibly help with the US vote.

Another thing in his favour is that it would be a European’s turn to serve as Secretary General. The current Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, is Korean. The previous Secretary General, Kofi Annan, is from Africa. He followed an Egyptian, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who in turn came after a Peruvian, Javier Perez de Cuellar. The last European was the Austrian Kurt Waldheim, later disgraced when his World War II record came to light.

Assuming candidates from large countries like the United States and Russia are automatically ruled out there are not that many available prospects. The prime minister of Luxembourg Jean Claude Junker is skilled in self-promotion and has demonstrated his love for the endless summits, conferences, symposia that go with any high level international job. If you ran a country the size of Rochester, New York you, too, would take every opportunity to prance about on a larger stage just to reaffirm your self-importance. Moreover he has never demonstrated any desire actually to accomplish anything. No threat there. But, he is deeply unloved in Britain, and that would effectively block his candidacy.

A German? Perhaps. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder comes to mind, but he is making so much money on the board of the giant Russian energy company Gazprom that he may think of the job as a demotion. Besides, too many people now regard him merely as a mouthpiece for all things Russian. Very difficult for him to say anything negative about what’s going on in Chechnya.

An Italian? Former head of the European Union Romano Prodi? If he truly believes his days as a major player in Italian politics are over, he might consider the UN job a nice pre-retirement position.

A Scandinavian? The only problem there is that they take their views on things like human rights a little too far for many in the United States, Russia, and China. They might start asking awkward questions about things like Guantanamo , Uighurs in Western China, or dissidents in Russia. Besides, they’re serious people who do things like set goals and strive to attain them. Serious danger of upsetting the gravy train. Very nice people, but best leave them aside for the moment.

One possible drawback for Papandreou is that Greece is a member of NATO, and that could blemish his claim to neutrality. But now that the Cold War is over and NATO is busy looking for reason to continue in existence that may not be such a problem.

The only real question is whether he can last until Ban Ki-Moon’s term is up in a few years. Greece’s economic problems are not getting any better, and it remains to be seen how successful Papandreou’s reforms will be. How long will the Greek people put up with a degradation of the life-style that they had come to take as their sovereign right?

Pure fantasy? Perhaps. But on paper he really looks like a prime candidate from every point

Monday, 13 September 2010

Organization Wins Every Time

Besides giving the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) a huge boost the referendum results in Turkey prove once again that organization beats ideology every time. In a referendum that became a vote of confidence in the government, the nationwide political organization of AKP simply overwhelmed the opposition.

Many outsiders like the European Union were quick to call this result a ‘victory’ for further democracy in Turkey. Others, like the leader of one of the opposition parties, see the outcome as the beginning of ‘dark days’ for Turkey. Whether or not this referendum actually improves democracy in Turkey or leads to a single part autocracy is a question that will take time to answer. What is clear right now is that AKP is the only political party in Turkey that has demonstrated the ability to create a wide base of support that delivers winning votes time after time. AKP has benefited enormously by portraying itself as the ‘outsider’ to the traditional Turkish political and economic elite and as the standard-bearer for the underclass. It has backed the opposition parties into the uncomfortable position of defending the discredited elite that had dominated Turkish politics for several decades.

Almost 58% of the voters, far above all published polls, approved complicated changes to the constitution that are supposed to improve democracy in the country. Sixty-two of Turkey’s 81 provinces gave a resounding YES to the changes. The NO votes were restricted largely to the West and South coasts of the country while AKP cleaned up in the interior. Istanbul, the largest province with 6.6 million people who voted, approved the changes by almost 55%. As journalist Cengiz Candar noted in a column in the newspaper Radikal on September 8, many of those votes were going to come from the extensive lower income areas of the city. It is in these areas where AKP has been particularly successful in recruiting voters.

These results are almost a repeat of the 2009 local elections and demonstrate clearly that AKP has mastered the arts of domestic politics. Use of computers, updating voter lists, local offices, training sessions for local party leaders, refining the message to appeal to the broad base of Turkish voters rather than focusing on the traditional elite all play key roles in maintaining AKP’s electoral strangle-hold.

The opposition parties simply have not done the nation-wide groundwork required to change anyone's mind. Their main campaign strategy is entirely negative, warning voters of all the alleged bad things that will happen if AKP continues in power. Whatever positive message there may be is buried in the torrent of threats and warnings. What is their plan for the future? Where do they want to take Turkey? How are they going to solve the ticking time-bomb of unemployment? In short, they have failed to create any positive reason to vote for them. Until they come up with a positive message and a nation-wide organization they will continue to be a minority party limited to the coastal regions.

While grandiose claims will be made about the importance of this referendum let us remember that, more than anything, it demonstrates clearly the power of a strong political machine over a fractured and intellectually bankrupt opposition.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Turkish Communications Failures

Turkish Communications Failures

It’s tough enough trying to run a foreign policy that sustains a delicate balancing act between your traditional Western alliances and the perceived need to play a larger regional role in the Middle East. It is doubly hard when you repeatedly shoot yourself in both feet with an inadequate, amateur communications policy.

The positions of the Turkish government on key issues like Iran, Sudan, Hamas, and Israel have created understandable concern in Europe and the United States. Is this member of NATO forsaking its traditional Western alliances in favour of radical Islamic movements?

The government’s response was to send a high-level delegation to Washington in an attempt to convince a sceptical Congress and Administration that nothing has changed and that Turkey is still firmly in the Western camp. This short visit was supposed to alleviate all the concerns that had been mounting for months as Turkey continued to act as Iran’s defence attorney, slam Israel repeatedly and loudly, and ignore calls to ostracize Sudan’s leader for the genocide in Darfur.

Whatever the merits or demerits of Turkey’s political positions, the last minute decision to send the delegation demonstrates clearly the country has no idea how to communicate its policies in open, fairly sophisticated, democratic societies. The country spends millions on Washington lobbyists, and yet it still violates just about every communications rule in the book.

1. Don’t Make Friends In The Morning You Need That Afternoon

In other words, effective communications is a long term effort. Responding only at times of crisis is ineffective if no ground work has been laid. Audiences grow tired very quickly of strident sales pitches. Where is the on-going information program and dialogue when there is no particular issue on the table?

2. Get Out In Front

Don’t wait until you get repeatedly slapped in the face before responding. You know what the issues are. Start making your case now. Make your opponents respond; put them on the defensive for once. Don’t let others constantly set the agenda.

3. Leave The Rhetoric Home

Self-righteous rhetoric may play well at party rallies, but it does nothing to convince an educated, sceptical audience. Artful give-and-take plays much, much better.

4. Get Out of Washington

The United States is a big country, and most people have never seen any Turks, let alone an official one. Take your message to the smaller cities and towns. Most schools are cutting programs because of budget problems. Help them out with apolitical information about Turkey and the Near East. Congressmen usually vote the way they think people back home want them to vote. Good relations at the local level could pay off in crucial votes in Washington.

5. Appreciate the Complexity

Successive Turkish governments have failed to appreciate the complexity of setting foreign policy in open democracies. I remember being approached by a Turkish cabinet official asking me if I knew someone in the White House who might help Turkey. He scuttled away when I said I had no contacts at all. He, like so many in the Middle East, still believes that the head of any one country can set any policy he sees fit. They simply do not understand that in mature democracies there are multiple influences on foreign policy: the Administration, Congress, the military, NGOs, think tanks, media, business, and, unfortunately, Diaspora politics of every ethnic group in the country. Each of these groups has to be approached.

6. Use Your Friends

There are many people throughout Europe and the United States that actually like Turkey and would like to help it deliver a coherent, intelligent message. Yet, time and again, these groups are completely ignored. They fall victim to the internal games of senior officials reluctant to use any outside source they do not directly control. The major criterion for accepting any form of help seems to be “Onlar bizden mi?” Are they with us? There is paranoia about using anyone not from the inner circles. Thus, valuable help is turned away, and the amateurs at home continue to determine communications policy.

7. Lighten Up

In an age where international consensus and cooperation is slowly gaining strength the message from Turkey always seems to rely on the same outmoded, defensive, chip-on-the-shoulder virulent nationalism. “We’re Turks. We are always right. Everyone else is wrong and/or anti-Turkish.” I once sat through a diatribe delivered by the Prime Minister to foreign businessmen telling them to convince their governments to support Turkey. The message was simple. “Turkey is correct. Any criticism is unfair or prejudiced.” The reality of the particular issue was less simple, but the Prime Minister did not want to hear any questions or dialogue. He treated the whole evening like a party rally in some small town in the middle of Anatolia. Needless to say the message did not go down well, and there was much laughter later at the bar.

8. Be Credible

Like every country on the earth Turkey has unpleasant issues it must deal with: human rights, the Kurdish policy, the 1915 Armenian deportations, continued aggression against minorities. Most people appreciate that these are complex, fractious issues not given to simple solutions. Simple denial or accusations that all these claims are part of an anti-Turkish are not credible. It is much more credible to admit what can be admitted and move on. Turkey will never get beyond these issues if it continues to cover its ears and pretend none of them happened. Turkey has much to be proud of, and it is a shame to see the government allow these positive developments become overshadowed by issues that it refuses to discuss in a credible fashion.

9. Take Communication Seriously

Don’t put inexperienced party faithful with a marginal grasp of any foreign language on the job. International communications is far more complex than it was 50 years ago. Use talented, experienced people who know how to work the system if you expect decent results.