Saturday, 8 December 2012

What Is The End Game?

What does Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu want to do with the West Bank that Israel has occupied since 1967? He pays disingenuous lip service to the internationally-approved goal of a Palestinian state. But all his actions on the ground indicate that he has no intention whatsoever of moving ahead with the so-called two-state solution to cure the open sore of Palestinian/Israeli relations.

For those who don’t recall the pre-1967 situation, the west bank and about half of Jerusalem was controlled by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan until the six-day war in June 1967 when Israel wound up occupying the West Bank and all of Jerusalem. The West Bank, with its 2.6 million Palestinian Arabs, remains under firm Israel control. There is a nominal Palestinian Authority government, but it can take few actions without Israeli permission.

The Palestinian Authority cannot even defend its land from the pervasive encroachment by Israeli settlements. There are now more than 300,000 Israeli ‘settlers’ in the West Bank fanatic in their belief that what they call Judea and Samara are an integral part of Israeli heritage. Just read the polemic that Dani Dayan, a leader of the extremist settlement movement wrote in the New York Times last summer. He insists that the settlers are fully justified in pushing the Palestinians into an ever smaller enclave because Israel won the land in battle. He ignores completely the disastrous economic, political and social implications for Israel of such a move.

Sadly, Netanyahu is also a believer in the settlements. With an election due early next year he feels he cannot afford to appear soft on the settlement issue. He justified the latest move to completely encircle Jerusalem with Jewish settlements as a pay-back to the Palestinians for having the nerve to assert themselves in the United Nations. He is also threatening to cut off any financing for the Palestinian Authority.

It is fair to ask at this point just what his ultimate goal for the West Bank really is. The options are not infinite. He either thinks like Dani Dayan and wants the West Bank incorporated into Israel proper or he agrees to the much debated two-state solution. The only other possible alternative is to muddle along constantly creating new facts on the ground with additional settlements until there is nothing left of Palestine as such. The only problem with that are the 2.6 million Arabs currently living in the West Bank. What precisely does he envisage for them? Absorbing them into Greater Israel could, in the not-too-distant future, spell the end of a democratic Jewish state. Together with 1.6 million Arabs already living in Israel the total Arab population of Greater Israel would be 4.2 million – not far behind the 5.9 million Jewish population.

The West Bank

Given the higher birth rate among the West Bank Arabs they could easily outnumber the Jewish population in a few years, especially if you include the Palestinians in Gaza. Will Israel curtail the democratic rights of its non-Jewish citizens? Will it treat them as second-class citizens condemned to live in what amounts to Arab ghettos with limited voice in government? Will the extreme settlers get their wish and have the Arabs expelled from the West Bank? To where, exactly? Given their own horrible experiences of discrimination in Europe before and during the Holocaust one would think the Jewish population of Israel would be particularly sensitive to these issues.

Netanyahu often relies on the old excuse of protecting Israel’s security. This wears thin on a number of points. One, the West Bank Palestinians have not threatened Israel’s existence. Yes, the intifada was a strong protest. But in itself it was no real military challenge to Israel. Two, the West Bank is not Gaza. The relatively mild Palestinian Authority should never be confused with hard-line Hamas that controls Gaza. The quickest way to spread the influence of Hamas into the West Bank is for Israel to continue with its current policies. Three, Israel faces no, repeat, no serious military threat from any of its immediate neighbours. Israel is by far the strongest military presence in the region. It faces the threat of rocket attacks from Hizbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza, but these are no real challenge to the weight of Israel’s military machine.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu
Netanyahu refuses to accept that his reluctance to deal constructively, or even honestly, with the Palestinians is a major roadblock to regional peace. But does he really believe any Arab government can afford to engage closely with Israel while the Palestinian issue festers? He can’t be that tone deaf. The only possible external influence on Netanyahu is the United States. Relations between him and President Obama are frosty at best after his ill-disguised desire to defeat the president in the recent election. President Obama owes Netanyahu no favors, and it would be encouraging to see a timely, sharpish, reminder that a long-overdue equitable solution to the Palestinian issue is in everyone’s interest – even Israel’s.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Has Ataturk Been Relegated?

Is Atatürk, the once revered founder and very soul of the modern Turkish Republic, being relegated to the status of Uncle Buck, the slightly disreputable distant relative who tends to show up inconveniently at holidays? This may be a bit of an overstatement, but Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) is slowly but steadily eroding the iconic reputation of the man who lifted Turkey out of the chaos of a crumbling, discredited empire, and dragged it into the modern world.
Ataturk: The Father of Modern Turkey
 His name used to be considered synonymous with that of the Turkish Republic. Indeed, the very name Atatürk was bestowed on him by a grateful parliament, thus changing him from simply Mustafa Kemal to the everlasting Father Turk. Every school child had to memorize his famous speeches – especially the one directed to the youth of Turkey. Huge posters of Atatürk adorned many buildings and his picture was in almost every office. Several of his memorable sayings would be emblazoned in neon lights across streets and central squares in every Anatolian town. Every town had its Atatürk Boulevard and/or Atatürk Square. Anyone who dared take his name in vain was quickly and viciously sued by zealous state prosecutors. At the beginning of a new parliament each member had to come forward and swear an oath to continue the principles of Atatürk and his revolution.

Now, under AKP’s steady air-brushing of history, he is in danger of becoming ‘Atatürk who?’. The policy came to a head last month at what was supposed to be a celebration of the founding of the Republic on Oct. 29. AKP officials decreed that supporters of Atatürk could not have a demonstration in front of the old parliament building in Ankara. Thousands defied that ban and were soaked with water cannons from the police for their efforts. Police removed the barricades only after the president of Turkey, Abdullah Gül, intervened.
Police confront pro-Ataturk supporters at Republic Day celebration
 November 10, the day that Atatürk, died in 1938 is another day heavy with symbolism. Traditionally all traffic stops and sirens start to wail at around 10 am when he died in Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul. This year the prime minister, Tayyip Erdoğan, conveniently arranged to be out of the country on a ‘crucial’ visit to the Sultanate of Brunei on November 10. Critics were wondering if Erdoğan was perhaps getting tips on recreating a ‘sultanate’ in Turkey – under his leadership, of course.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan
May 19, the day that Atatürk landed in the Black Sea port of Samsun in 1919 to start the campaign against the Greek invasion, used to be a major celebration where stadiums were filled with marching school children. No more. Various excuses were offered last May as to why this once mandatory celebration has been all but forgotten.

Recently AKP officials have also suggested that the standard parliamentary oath to remain faithful to Atatürk’s revolution should be dropped. No one knows what, if anything, would replace the oath.

And now a ceremonial procession in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir marking the 75th anniversary of Atatürk’s arrival there has been cancelled for ‘security’ reasons. One person commented that if the Turkish army couldn’t defend itself who could?

The trend is obvious, and supporters of Atatürk’s reforms are now derided merely as Kemalists. Those not familiar with Turkey today wonder just why the ruling party is going to such lengths to downgrade a man largely perceived as the saviour of Turkey. The basic reason seems simple enough. It’s payback time. Erdoğan and his more zealous sycophants have never hidden their anger at some of Atatürk’s more memorable reforms, many of which were designed to limit the role of religion and make sure Turkey became and remained a western-oriented secular republic. The AKP deeply resents not only that orientation but also the military, economic and bureaucratic elite that grew up around it. This elite rigidly enforced its interpretation of Atatürk’s reforms and created the hagiography that surrounds the man.

AKP spokesmen would have us believe all this reduction of Atatürk’s place in Turkish society is being done in the name of increasing ‘democracy’, giving voice to a large segment of the population that felt denigrated for decades. It would be nice if Erdoğan had used this opportunity to bring real democracy to Turkey. But unfortunately, the AKP version of democracy seems merely to replace one rigid dogma with another, to assume that winning an election gives the right to ignore any other opinion. Once it was the word according to Atatürk. Now it is the word, the new reality, according to Tayyip Erdoğan. No criticism shall be tolerated. Democracy that anyone outside of Erdoğan’s narrow circle of advisers would recognize as such must wait for another day.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Thank God That's Over

Well, all that sound and fury and money for more than a year and we wind up more or less where we were before the election. Barack Obama is still president. The Democrats tightened their grip on the Senate. And the Republicans retain control of the House. What, if anything, did we learn?
Democrats celebrate victory
First, as I wrote a couple of months ago, the country has changed. The election was about much more than just the economy. And, as many commentators mentioned the morning after the election, if the Republicans don’t grasp this simple point they will continue to be a minority party. It is no longer enough to appeal to angry middle-aged white men. That is a declining demographic that is going to get even smaller if, as expected, the economy picks up in the next couple of years.

Republicans should accept that Mitt Romney only began to tighten the race when he realized this trend and moved decisively to the center away from the rejectionist positions of hard right wing Republicans from the Tea Party. The Republicans need to wake up and realize that the Tea Party has cost them dearly at the polls. The GOP had a good shot at two Senate seats in Missouri and Indiana and lost both of them because of its candidates represented the fantasy world of the Tea Party.

Tea Party theater
As long as the Republican party is controlled by people who believe in the mythical world of ‘small’ government  – except when it comes to their subsidies – and Leave It To Beaver social mores it can continue to be obstructionist in Congress, but its days as an important national political movement are over. Romney is a good man and was not a bad candidate, but he was saddled with a narrow, rigid agenda that ultimately cost him the race. Perhaps even someone like Steve Forbes, publisher of Forbes magazine, who predicted a ‘decisive’ Romney victory the day before the election will have to do a little re-calculation if he wants to be taken seriously.

Second, elections are becoming ridiculously expensive. The presidential and congressional elections this year cost about $6 billion, or $18 for every person in the United States. Compare that to Britain where the 2010 election cost the equivalent of $0.80 per head. Huge Republican Obama-hating donors like Sheldon Adelson ($53 million), Harold Simmons ($24 million) or Bob Perry ($22 million) must wonder how they could waste so much money. You have to wonder how theoretically shrewd investors like that could be happy with a total wipe out. We have not heard how other major ultra-conservative donors like the Koch brothers, who, among other things, sent a letter to their 45,000 employees urging them to vote for Romney, reacted to their defeat.
Sheldon 'How-Did-I-Blow-$53 million' Adelson
When put in perspective of other American spending patterns perhaps the election spending isn’t all that unreasonable. Gillian Tett, in The Financial Times, notes that Americans will spend $7 billion on potato chips this year and dropped $8 billion on Halloween festivities. The United States also spends $6 billion/month in Afghanistan.

Third, the prime minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, has to do some fast back-peddling. Relations between Obama and Netanyahu were frosty to start with, and only got worse as the Israeli prime minister interfered in American elections and worked so hard to defeat Obama. His efforts failed on two counts. Obama won, and he got almost 70% of the Jewish vote. Now that he has nothing to lose Obama could come down on Netanyahu like a ton of bricks and demand real action on the illegal West Bank settlements and a serious push for Palestinian statehood. Look for him to show the new U.S. attitude by at least abstaining the next time a controversial United Nations vote on Israel comes up.

Fourth, will the Republicans realize that things like Obama’s health care plan are here to stay and that taxes on the super rich are going up? Will they work to make the government work better or will they follow the idiotic Grover Norquist (head of the ill-named lobbying group Americans for Tax Reform) position of rejecting any and all tax increases? The jury is out while they lick their wounds and try to figure out how they could have lost a ‘sure’ thing.

Fifth, we can safely ignore and tune out the outrageous and completely irrelevant talk show people like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Mark Levin and all others like the foolish Donald Trump who now proclaim the end of civilization as we know it. The next time people like Ed Whelan whine about 'a growing mass of citizens seemingly wedded to big government spending' we should ask him about huge defence contractors, farm subsidies or all those companies that pay no U.S. federal income tax. These people are certainly loud, but we should know by now that they have absolute no, repeat no, influence on national elections. So we can simply ignore them and let them play in their ever decreasing play pen with the other children.

Sixth, who will emerge from the Republican wreckage? Will they turn to Republican Hispanic poster-boy Marco Rubio, a GOP senator from Florida? Doubtful. The mayor of a large southern city told me last spring that Republicans are cool on Rubio because he could not even deliver Florida for Romney. He was right. Jeb Bush (who would have to overcome the ‘not-another-Bush’ attitude')? Paul Ryan? Or will a new face emerge with a message that resonates with a wider base? My guess is that the hard-right part of the Republican party will resist any compromise with a “Better Dead Than Red” attitude and would even consider splitting from a mainstream party.
Can Paul Ryan pump some reality into the GOP?
Such Republican hari-kari coupled with an improving economy will only strengthen the Democrats’ hand. The challenge will then be to see if the Democrats will act seriously to repair the country’s finances.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

To Intervene Or Not To Intervene in Syria

A recent lecture in London highlighted the perils of any sort of foreign intervention, military or even humanitarian, in the meat-grinder of current day Syria. With the violence and bloodshed mounting and spilling over into Lebanon, with the flood of refugees pouring into Turkey and Jordan the pressure is increasing to ‘do something.’ But what, exactly? What assistance? To whom should it go? How should it be delivered? And, most important of all, what would be the consequences of any external assistance?

One of the biggest issues dividing the Syrian opposition is this question of external assistance. Is it good, bad, or even necessary? To briefly summarize the current line-up: Russia and Iran are actively supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The opposition, meanwhile, receives overt support from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Other countries like Turkey are supporting the opposition, but so far have stopped short of providing heavy weapons or soldiers.

The United States, for its part, still bears the scars from its lethal aid to the mujahideen fighting the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The U.S. is also concerned about the alleged stockpiles of chemical weapons held by the Syrian regime falling into the hands of jihadist elements that have infiltrated the Syrian opposition forces.
Your new best friends in Syria?
 And then there are people like Dr. Haitham Manna, the Paris-based spokesman for an opposition group called the National Committee for Democratic Change who pleaded with an audience at the London School of Economics to work for a non-violent solution that avoided taking any external assistance. According to Dr. Manna any external assistance would merely distort what started as a non-violent anti-regime protest against the arrest of 15 school children in Dar’a in March 2011. He maintains that such external assistance would merely make the country hostage to people supplying the assistance. He said the original goal of protestors was to create a non-sectarian, democratic Syria, and that it is naïve to think that this could be accomplished merely by changing its political alliances or resorting to violence.
Dr. Haitham Manna
 In an earlier interview with Jadaliyya he said Syria “will become prisoners to international aid and those non-democratic forces in the Gulf States who wish that there will be a fiscal crisis.” He was referring to the support that Qatar and Saudi Arabia have given to the opposition forces in Syria. He also questioned how much would be gained in the long term by swapping Russian support for American support.

This position puts him at squarely odds with other opposition groups, namely the Syrian National Council, that want ‘friendly’ countries to mount a Libyan-style attack and force a military solution to the civil war. The situation is further complicated by sectarian divisions among the regime’s opponents. Some want a bloody Sunni-Alawite confrontation, some want a jihadist Islamic state, others simply want a democratic state controlled by and for Syrians.

Dr. Manna kept stressing the point that Syria is not Libya, and that it has several different ethnic and religious groups. “Any solution that does not include all the different groups in Syria is bound to fail,” he told the largely sceptical audience.

“If we take Arab nationalism too far we marginalize the non-Arabs such as the Kurds and others. If we take Islamic ideology too far then we do away with approximately 40% of the people. We have no right to do any of this,” he said in the Jadaliyya interview.

The tone of the questions from the audience in London indicated that Dr. Manna’s plea for non-violence was falling on rocky ground; that it was too late to wind the clock back to the days of peaceful demonstrations of unarmed civilians.

“What do you expect me to do when someone comes to my home with a gun and threatens me and my family? Meekly give in?” one person asked bitterly. Others pointed out that Dr. Manna is based in Paris and questioned his right to give advice to people fighting for their lives every day.

He bravely responded by noting that his own brother was killed by the regime and poignantly asked the questioners “How has the situation improved since we began fighting?” He has a point, but at this stage not too many people are listening.

So what is the end-game to the bloody stalemate in Syria? The opposition forces do not seem to have the heavy weapons required to defeat the well-armed forces of the regime, and the regime seems incapable of finishing off the rebels. Some say there is no solution as long as Bashar al-Assad and his ruling clique remain in power or even in the country. Others, like Dr.Manna, insist that any solution ignoring the legitimate fears of the minority Alawite regime and its supporters would be short-lived.

‘Compromise’ is not a frequently used word in the Middle East. But just possibly in this situation a compromise worked out by the Syrian people themselves and supported by the contending external forces may be the only way to keep the country from splitting into bitterly opposed mini-states established on ethnic and religious grounds. Wildly optimistic? Perhaps, but it is difficult to see any other result that doesn’t increase the instability of an already unstable region.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Time To Recognize New Realities

With much of the world’s attention focused on the expanding war in Syria and increasing tensions with Iran it is easy to ignore the serious potential for major problems in an area largely overlooked for the last 30 years – the Sinai Peninsula. The scene of at least four major conflicts between Israel and Egypt from 1948 to 1973 this 61,000 km2 triangle of desert, jagged mountains, glittering tourist resorts and deep biblical significance has once again become a flash point in a region that does not need any more flash points.

The Sinai Peninsula

In a paper published last month by Chatham House (The Royal Institute ofInternational Affairs) Nicolas Pelham, The Economist’s correspondent in Jerusalem, notes that the Sinai used to serve as a buffer ‘cushioning the geopolitical aspirations of Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinians.’ Now, however, he cautions that that buffer has eroded as new players have asserted themselves in the vacuum created by the collapse of the old Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak.

For more than 30 years the Sinai was more or less ruled according to the so-called Camp David Accords signed by President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel in September 1978. Israel agreed to withdraw from the Sinai that it had conquered in 1967, evacuate 4,500 civilians, guarantee freedom of passage between Egypt and Jordan, and return the oil fields in the western Sinai. Egypt agreed to limit its forces in the Sinai, and guarantee freedom of passage for Israeli ships through Suez Canal and the straits of Tiran. The two antagonists opened formal diplomatic relations in 1980.

As Pelham notes, however, “the old accords underpinning regional stability have failed to keep pace with the changing times.” These accords were created when Egyptian and Israeli security forces ruled supreme. Now the emergence of the Hamas government in Gaza, newly assertive indigenous Bedouin tribes, jihadis, and other ‘non-state’ players in the region coupled with the weakened central control of the Egyptian government in Cairo has created a volatile situation filled with conflicting interests just waiting for the right fuse.

These simmering tensions have resulted in repeated attacks on the gas pipeline from Egypt to Jordan and Israel. More serious was the attack in August 2012 on an Egyptian military base in which 16 soldiers were killed. On top of these incidents have been the cross-border raids where militants killed several Israelis. There was also a missile attack on Eilat on the eve of the 2012 Passover holiday. Israel has responded in predictable fashion by moving additional troops into the area and building a high wall along the 240 kilometre border with the Sinai. Tourism in the area was hit by attacks on the Gold Coast of Sharm al-Sheikh. Egypt’s response to the August 2012 attack was to move against the vast tunnel system used to transport goods and weapons into Gaza from Sinai.
The key tourist town of Sharm al-Sheikh
 Local Bedouin tribes in the area have long been frustrated by wide-spread discrimination against them by the Egyptian authorities in everything from employment to land titles. Pelham notes that the rampant development of the ‘Red Sea Riviera’ in the 1990s and 2000s that was protected by a military cordon created a great deal of resentment as local Bedouin were pushed away from the southern coast. Since the fall of Mubarak these tribes have seized the opportunity to create new facts on the ground.

Relations between the Hamas government of Gaza and the Mubarak regime had been marked by mutual suspicion. Egyptian suspicion of Hamas’ anti-regime activities led to frequent closure of the Gaza-Sinai border and arrest of Hamas members accused of helping the militant bombings of the southern Sinai tourist resorts. With the election of the allied Moslem Brotherhood government in Egypt Hamas has attempted to show that it can be a force for regional stability rather than a home for militant Islamist attacks on Egypt as well as Israel. Hamas has pledged not to use Egyptian territory for back-door attacks on Israel and has curtailed the operational freedom it had given to some Islamist groups for actions against Israel.

Part of the elaborate tunnel system between Sinai and Gaza
Many in the United States Congress want to know if the new Egyptian government will continue to honor the Camp David Accords. A much better question is how to bring these accords in line with realities that did not exist in 1978. The time has come for some fresh thinking on how to bring stability to this region before it erupts even more. A good place to start would be Pelham’s suggestions of formally including Hamas in discussions of regional stability, fully integrating the Bedouin into formal structures of Egyptian rule in the Sinai, and formalize the access and trade relations between Gaza, the Sinai and Israel. Bringing these disparate groups inside the tent may be unwieldy and distasteful to many. But maintaining the fiction that they exist only at the margins will only lead to more unrest for all concerned.

Monday, 17 September 2012

The Country Has Changed. Deal With It.

I realize this blog is supposed to be about the Levant. But the American election provides too much material to pass up.

Mitt Romney’s chances of becoming president are disappearing faster than beer at a football game. Republican leaders, if there are any, in Congress are already distancing themselves from their candidate. “Mitt? Mitt who? Never heard of him.” All eyes will be on Mitt’s concession speech to see if he finally realizes his dream is over and whether he has the grace to leave the stage before the hook drags him off.

If Romney does indeed lose Republicans on the fringes will splutter with fury into their bourbons and wonder how those ‘socialists, atheists, tax-loving, non-Americans, French fry lovers’ managed to steal yet another election. The Tea Party fanatics will invoke the spirit of the Alamo and vow to keep fighting to their last tax deduction. Sarah Palin will undoubtedly re-appear and state loudly – she has no volume control – that the results would have been different if she had been the candidate.

Tea Party doing what it does best -- protest
What the Republicans fail to understand is that their recent hard-line, rejectionist policies have consigned them to pretty much a permanent minority status. They have yet to realize that the so-called ‘Golden Era’ of white, low-tax, low-benefit, all-powerful America is over, if it ever existed outside their fantasies in the first place. The world and America have changed since Ozzie and Harriet ruled the airwaves.

In many ways America has already become the personal and corporate welfare state that the Tea Party pretends to hate – until you start talking about removing some of their favourite tax deductions.
Would the Tea Party give up home mortgage interest deductions?
 By a wide margin Americans like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. They don’t like someone talking about reducing or taking those benefits away. States and local communities desperately need federal grants to help their schools and other public services. You’re not going to win votes by threatening to take those away. The federal government is indeed big, and it probably going to get bigger and more intrusive. No Republican, even the sainted Ronald Reagan and certainly neither of the Bushes, has been able to reverse that trend. The Republicans need to understand that the Tea Party actually hurts them. It allows the Democrats to portray the entire party as a group that wants to roll everything back to Calvin Coolidge.

Calvin Coolidge -- the real Republican candidate?
I am reminded of a friend of mine who is an Abraham Lincoln scholar, He was once invited to speak about Lincoln in, of all places, Vicksburg, Mississippi where Union armies won a key battle in 1863. Many people in the audience still thought of Lincoln as the devil incarnate. My friend looked over the audience of sceptical faces and started his address, “We won. You lost. Get over it.” Someone needs to say something similar to the Republicans. “The country has changed. Deal with it.”

Romney thinks the election will turn on the state of the economy. If it were that simple he would be far ahead in the polls. What he fails to realize is that the economy is only one of the several key issues. Yes it’s important, but so is preserving federal benefits. So is immigration. And so is the perception of fairness in taxation. Republicans can talk until they are blue in the face about the fact that the 1% pays a disproportionate share of tax, and that increasing taxes on that group isn’t going to help the budget all that much. Mathematically they’re right. Politically they’re dead wrong. The middle class they’re so fond of doesn’t want to hear about the benefits of tax breaks for the millionaires. The middle class has trouble understanding how an extremely successful company like General Electric can pay no U.S. corporate tax. It’s all legal and I’m sure there is a way to explain how it benefits the country. But not in the heat of an election. Not when you and your wife are working two jobs and have trouble meeting the mortgage.

The Republicans have given the Democrats a free ride on these critical ‘fairness’ issues. Instead of saying how their plans would preserve important benefits by putting the federal budget on a firmer foundation the Democrats can talk about the danger of taking them away. By simplifying the argument they have avoided serious debate on exactly how they will continue to pay for them. The Democrats' themes are very simple and very effective. Vote for me if you want your next Social Security check. Vote for the Republicans if you want to start eating cat food.

The less said about Romney’s foreign policy the better. Other than blustering about how big and powerful America is and how it won’t be pushed around by pygmies any more it’s very hard to discern just what he’s talking about. The neocons he relies on believe military threats will solve everything. They lament that America is trying to work with Russia and China, hasn’t bombed Damascus or nuked the ignorant radicals who storm our embassies, or basically that it is not trying to remake the world in the image of the discredited neocons. One hoped the neocons might have the grace to fade away silently after the fiasco of Iraq. No such luck. They’re back in full force as if the serial disasters of their policies never happened.

Again, it’s time to realize the world has changed. For all America’s power, it is now a multi-polar world with competing national interests. Countries like Brazil, India, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia have legitimate interests. America, for all its power, is in no position to impose its will or its idea of a world order. Foreign policy requires careful nuances and nudges, finding common ground, and avoiding conflict for the sake of conflict. It’s a tedious somewhat messy process. But it definitely beats the alternative.

The main question is the attitude of the Republicans after the election. Will they realize that their rejectionist policies really don’t work? Will they stop trying to repeal the New Deal? Will they deal with America the way it is instead of the fantasy that exists in their imagination? If they can do this, if they can find someone who will actually lead the party instead of blindly following the lunatic fringe they just might have a chance in 2016.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

The Amazing Teflon Prime Minister

The domestic social, economic and diplomatic problems may be mounting for Turkey, but so far they seem to have no impact on the Teflon-like popularity of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The once torrid pace of economic growth has slowed dramatically. The growth of the critical construction sector has slowed from 11% in 2011 to 0.4% in the second quarter of 2012. Empty apartments and half-filled shopping centres dot the horizon around most cities. The budget gap has widened, and the government is forced to raise an extra $5.5 billion in taxes – mainly on cars and real estate.
Typical Tower Blocks All Over Turkey
 The foreign policy with its pretensions of regional and global influence has become bogged down in the quagmire of Syria. Prime Minister Erdoğan continues his loud, bellicose rhetoric against the Syrian regime, but is powerless actually to do anything about the bloody war in Syria. He can’t retreat without looking weak and foolish. And he can’t go forward without risking a military confrontation. The highly-touted ‘Zero-Problems’ approach is in shambles as the country is faced with hostile neighbors along its eastern and southern borders. Turkey never had many friends to start with, and now it is even more isolated. By default its best friend has become the United States, a country that many AKP supporters loathe.
Syrian Refugee Camp In Hatay 
 The militant Kurdish separatist group PKK, perhaps supported by the Assad regime in Syrian, is escalating its attacks in Turkey. Once isolated in the remote south eastern part of the country the PKK attacks are moving into large cities like Izmir. The large Alevi minority, a sect distantly related to the ruling Alawites in Syria, is under increasing pressure in Turkey and the government refuses to recognize them as a legitimate branch of Islam.
Alevis Protesting In Turkey
 In short, as the astute columnist Nuray Mert notes, Turkish delusions are ending.

Being a ultra realistic observer of Turkish politics who has long been labelled as ‘pessimistic,’ I suggested as early as 2007, that AKP rule will end up with a ‘governability crises’ if it insists in its obsession with power. I suggested that the ever increasing vote of the AKP would not ensure political stability since Turkey is a vast country where people with very different convictions and lifestyles find a way to live side by side. The most important aspect of good governance should have been thought of as ensuring pluralism and social peace through democratic conventions. I thought that the AKP’s understanding of ‘democracy as a majority rule’ was very risky for a country such as ours. Nevertheless, I could not foresee things would become so disastrous until very recently. 

Last but not the least, the government’s delusion that it is a global actor and major regional player came to an end with its handling of the Syrian affair. Even before the Arab Spring
 diminished Turkey’s regional role, but it was easier to dismiss. Yet, Turkey’s direct meddling in the Syrian uprising finally reduced its role to that of Qatar and Saudi Arabia on one hand and created clear and potential domestic problems on the other. Despite efforts by the government to cover its failures on two fronts by linking the Syrian crises and the escalation of clashes with the PKK, it has not helped the government overcome its difficulties on both fronts.

And yet support for the ruling party continues strong. A recent poll by Habertürk-Konsensus claimed that if an election were held today the AKP would win 53% of the vote. How can this contradiction of deteriorating conditions in the country and continued strong support for the government be explained?

One friend put it down to the fact that there is no opposition, no alternative. Indeed the so-called main opposition Republican People’s Party has been steadfastly unable to provide a convincing alternative to the increasingly authoritarian rule by Prime Minister Erdoğan.

ColumnistSemih Idiz points to another explanation of AKP’s strength – the continued deep resentment of the Anatolian masses toward the old republican bureaucratic, economic and military elites. Erdoğan continues to ride this wave resentment and portray himself as the standard bearer of the masses against the elites.

Idiz notes that historian Kemal Karpat “has shown that if there is one element the predominantly conservative and religious Anatolian masses have come to despise over the years, it is the elitists who ran the country for decades after the Republic was founded. . .
It was inevitable that this should, in time, feed deep resentments among ordinary Turks. The bottom line here is that support for the AKP continues despite serious social problems because of an almost blind team spirit.
While the elitism of an established order that is waning today has always been reprehensible, it is nevertheless true that some of the key reforms enacted under the Republic made Turkey leap forward in time and modernize itself in a way no Islamic society has achieved to date. 
What we see now, however, is an ongoing process where these gains are being watered down due to historic resentments, and in the name of conservatism, and the “religious generation” that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan 
has openly said he wants to see in Turkey.
One can conclude, therefore, that the AKP is receiving strong support not to take the country forward, but to take it backward due to the resentments that have accumulated over time among the conservative masses.

Prime Minister Erdoğan is the undisputed and un-challenged ruler of Turkey, the most powerful politician since Atatürk himself. It would be refreshing if he used that power to correct the errors of the past rather than simply roll the clock back.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Enough Is Enough

Greece is one of the few countries that has been tried, convicted and sentenced to flaying alive in the court of global public opinion. The once proud Hellenic Republic has become the flashing neon sign for corruption, tax evasion, dysfunctional bureaucratic and judicial systems, and a broken political system that misled its partners and failed to deliver basic economic security to its own citizens. Foreign politicians and pundits have been merciless in their steady drumbeat of criticism, schadenfreude, and bad jokes about Greece.

Unfortunately, other than groveling and saying mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, please dear sir give me more money, Greek leaders have done very little to counter this damning indictment.

Can I get the next loan disbursement, please?
Greek officials at home and abroad act like small woodland animals paralyzed in the glare of the headlights of a huge, rapidly moving truck labeled Troika – European Central Bank, European Union, and the International Monetary Fund.

This litany of unfavorable, condescending media coverage would be merely sad and somewhat humiliating if it didn’t affect real economic decisions from tourism to investments. The charms that make Greece a wonderful tourist destination still exist.

The Reality  .  .   .
The sun, the sea, the unmatchable islands, the mountains, the cultural heritage are still here. But given the sharp drop in tourism this year you would think Greece has suddenly become Elizabeth, New Jersey.

And the current perception of a holiday in Greece
I have spoken with several potential major investors who are very polite until I mention the word ‘Greece’. Any suggestion that Greece does, in fact, have some very interesting investment opportunities is met with words not found in a family newspaper.

The negative impact of this very public global trial seems to be lost on Greek leaders. They don’t seem to understand the broad, global dimension of the damage. Their response so far has been narrowly focused on private meetings with European leaders and bankers. I met with the press officer of a major Greek embassy in Europe and said he must be very busy meeting with the local media to share information about Greece. Absolutely not. If anyone from the media called he ran for cover. I asked how he communicated the daily messages and information he must get from Athens. What messages? What information? There were no messages, no guidelines, nothing from Athens to counter the avalanche of bad press. “Oh,” he said, “They did send me a nice poster of Mykonos once.”

The tragic irony of this non-policy is that Greece actually has a story to tell. Obviously there many critical bureaucratic and administrative reforms that remain to be done, but it is time to start giving credit for what has been accomplished. On the foreign trade side, for one, the trade deficit has declined from €33.7 bn in 2009 to €20.8 bn in 2011 as imports dropped 10% while exports jumped 56%. Interestingly, exports to Turkey have almost tripled since 2009, and that country is now Greece’s third largest export market, just behind Italy and Germany. A recent report from Goldman Sachs noted the real drop in Greek labor costs and government expenses. The Goldman report also says that much of this improvement is structural rather than merely a reflection of the deep recession in Greece.

What to do about this? The last thing Greece needs now is a program to fix the image of the country. No amount of polishing will make the antics of the ridiculous political class over the last several decades look reasonable. It’s enough to communicate effectively the reality of Greece, to acknowledge the costly mistakes of the past and to focus now on the real steps taken to repair the damage of those policies.

Greece is rich in talent at home and abroad if it wants to come out of the bunker and start communicating effectively. First, the various public and private groups in Greece need to clarify the message. Exactly what do you want to say? Selecting and training the right people to give this message would also help. While every government minister’s wife may think he looks and sounds like George Clooney, the reality more often is that he comes across on television like Mr.Bean.

No Comment

Be careful who you put in front of the public or on the box. One bad presentation can undo months of work. Mobilize the diaspora. Make better use of the dedicated and talented diplomatic corps. Take advantage of the global presence of Greek business people.

It’s time to end the open season on Greece and change the dialogue. Instead of hammering away at sins of the past and what Greece should do, start to focus on what Greece has accomplished and what it actually can do. Ultimately Greece will make the reforms required to change the economic and administrative structure of the country. They probably will never satisfy those who want to turn Greece into Bavaria-by-the-sea, but that’s not going to happen regardless. Greeks will remain Greeks and will resist being shoved into someone else’s mold.

Changing deeply ingrained perceptions takes time and money, but the cost of doing nothing is much, much greater.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Will Istanbul Get The 2020 Olympic Games?

Istanbul is one of three cities short-listed to host the 2020 Olympic Games. This is the fifth time that Istanbul has bid for the Games, and Prime MinisterTayyip Erdogan is getting a bit desperate. Unfortunately the prime minister did not help his plea for the Games when he complained that Madrid has hosted the games twice and Tokyo has hosted three Games. “This is not a fair approach,” he was quoted as saying. In fact Madrid has never hosted the Games, and Tokyo has hosted the summer Olympics just once, in 1964. Of course he could be confusing Madrid with Barcelona that hosted  the 1992 Games – something that will not go down well in the fiercely proud capital of Catalonia.

In the same story in the Hurriyet Daily News the prime minister also introduced a new issue, religion, into the selection process. “No country with a majority of Muslim population has ever hosted the Olympics. . . People will ask ‘Why? What is missing in these countries?’” he said. True enough, but it’s not altogether clear why that is a relevant point. Also, Qatar proved that nothing is missing in Moslem countries when it bid successfully for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Qatar played on its role as bridge between the Arab world and the West, but religion per se was not a featured part of its presentation.

The prime minister’s ‘chip-on-the- shoulder’ or ‘you-owe-us’ approach might play well in Turkey but it is less clear how it will influence members of the International Olympic Committee. This is deeply unfortunate because in many ways Istanbul would be a superb setting for the Games. Turkish construction companies are among the best in the world, and I have absolutely no doubt that high quality facilities would be built in plenty of time. Even Istanbul’s chaotic traffic would be tamed by draconian measures that people would accept because the Games would be sold as an issue of national pride – a critical point with manyTurkish citizens who harbour deep suspicions that their country is underappreciated. Istanbul offers some of the finest hotels in Europe, and the views are unsurpassed. There would be crash courses in several foreign languages to help the thousands of volunteers speak enough to guide visitors to the right venues. No, the physical aspects of the Games would pose no problems at all. But there are other potential drawbacks.

One of these is political. What will Turkey do about the Republic of Cyprus, for example? Currently the island of Cyprus is divided between the European Union member and internationally recognized – except  by Turkey – Republic of Cyprus in the south and the isolated Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus – recognized only by Turkey -- in the north. No Republic of Cyprus plane or ship is allowed into Turkey. Will Turkey change this policy by 2020? Will Turkey insist that the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, if it continues to exist by that time and not just become the 82nd province of Turkey,  be allowed to send a team?
Divided Island Of Cyprus
 Another key issue is the very infrastructure of Turkish sport. Winning medals is not an overt criterion for selection, but it doesn’t hurt. A story in the Turkish daily Radikal bemoans that thus far in these Games Turkey has not even “entered the Bronze Age.” Turkey sent a team of 114 members with much fanfare, but so far this large delegation has not managed to win a single medal of any colour. This might change with the traditional Turkish sport of wrestling, but more than one week into the London Olympics the rewards for all the show and expense are slim. 
Dejected Turkish Weightlifter
As Radikal points out this is by no means the fault of the athletes themselves who are dedicated and train as hard as anyone. The newspaper faults the officials who put great pressure on the athletes to “win a medal, and win it now!” I wonder if these same officials realize that it takes much more than overbearing officials and willing athletes to win medals. Do they have any idea of the depth of support required to win medals? Financial support, development programs, coaching, fitness training, psychologists, diet, equipment are all key factors in developing successful international sport programs.

Turkey has tried the short cut of getting medal contenders from the athletic equivalent of eBay, but that doesn’t really demonstrate a country’s commitment to sport. It worked with the great weight lifter Naim Suleymanoglu who was a native of Bulgaria who was persuaded to move to Turkey where he won numerous Olympic medals. But it hasn’t been very successful in most other cases.

And then there are the opening ceremonies. Turkey has the vast opportunities to draw on millennia of culture in Anatolia as well as the deep well of artistic talent in the country. 
Opening Ceremonies In London
But one has to wonder if officials would take a lesson from the opening ceremonies in London that demonstrated the difference between patriotism and jingoism, the difference between genuine pride and insecure arrogance, and, most of all, the value of whimsy, of not taking oneself too seriously.

The Queen, James Bond, And The Corgis
Turkey’s hard working athletes deserve a chance in the international spotlight. It would be useful if the officials took real steps to make that happen rather than rely on whinging rhetoric.

Update (11/8/2012): The Turkish team improved in the second week of Olympic competition with a bronze in wrestling, a silver in Tae Kwan Do, a silver in women's boxing, and a very impressive gold and silver in the women's 1500 meter race. Well done, but the question remains as to whether the country's sport infrastructure is developed enough to build on this. Scandal-marred Turkish football does not set a promising example of administrative competence.


Note: Readers of this blog might also be interested in following my posts in the online beyondbrics section of The Financial Times at My posts can be found by entering my name in the search panel.

Friday, 13 July 2012

No News Is Good News

I recently received an excited call from a friend in Athens. “You know, for the first time in I don’t know how long there was no story about Greece, not a word, in The Financial Times!” After a trip to Greece it does indeed seem as if a relative, tenuous calm has settled over the country after a winter and spring fraught with demonstrations, threats of imminent bankruptcy, and elections. Maybe it’s the summer season when the beaches are more attractive than the barricades. Maybe it’s just sheer crisis exhaustion. In any case, the new government may well have won a grace period to get started on the mammoth task of national reconstruction.
The Financial Times - Nothing On Greece Today
In fact, if one looks beneath the static and noise about Greece, the situation shows clear signs of improvement. A recent Goldman Sachs report says “there is evidence that significant structural progress has been made in terms of ‘rebalancing’ Greece.” The report notes that exports continue to grow at double digit rates and labour costs have declined almost 30% relative to core Europe. Unit labour costs have dropped about 16% since the program began in the second quarter of 2010 – close to the program’s requirements. In short, the much discussed internal devaluation is happening. On top of these developments the trade deficit is near zero. The report also notes that despite ‘headwinds’ caused by the prolonged election period and ongoing steep decline in output, ‘budget execution data for the period January – May 2012 suggests that the program is broadly on track.’ The primary budget deficit (not including interest payments) was almost €2 billion less than expected.

None of these developments has yet been reflected in the bond market or, more importantly, in news reports about Greece. The media commentary seems focused on disaster scenarios and the question of when not if Greece leaves the Euro. Potential foreign investors don’t even want to hear the word Greece. One allegedly experienced private equity investor in New York reacted with shock and horror at the thought of capitalizing on low asset values in Greece. “Yeah, prices are low and they’re going to stay low. This is Greece we’re talking about, man. Speak to me when they leave the Euro.” This was from someone who has seldom been further east than Coney Island. While other potential investors are bit more worldly the general attitude is the same. My comments about Greek investments potentially exceeding the gains from Russia since 1998, Turkey since 2002, or the S&P 500 since 2009 fall on deaf ears.

It would help a great deal if Greece could complete even one major privatization – sale of state assets. These are difficult transactions in all countries, but even more so in Greece where there seems to be an in-built fear and deep distrust of anything to do with the private sector – Greek or foreign. There is an abiding belief that only state ownership guarantees equality of service (all bad, but at least bad for everyone) and protection of the interests of the ‘people’. The miserable reality of 80 years of state ownership in the former Soviet Union never seems to dissuade anyone from this viewpoint.

The Greek gaming company OPAP is supposed to privatized
An otherwise extremely intelligent friend reacted with total indignation at the thought of selling even the money losing state companies. What was his real fear? He was convinced the private buyers would fire all the workers and shut the company down. I pointed out that it wouldn’t make much sense to pay billions of Euros for a company only to shut it down. His response? “Huh, just you wait and see.”

The  argument that private owners could possibly run the companies more efficiently, avoid political interference, and make long-overdue investments didn’t impress him either. Finally I asked why he would continue to entrust the country’s economy to the same state bureaucracy that created the mess in the first place.  Ah, he says, the Swedish state is very involved in the economy, and that works fine. I tried gently to remind him that Sweden, where people generally pay taxes and abide by regulations, is not Greece. When I pointed out that Turkey is moving aggressively this year toprivatize large state enterprises like the oil pipeline company, the state tea producer, and the post office he started to hyperventilate and I decided it was time to agree to disagree.

Turkish state tea operations set to be privatized

This deeply ingrained mindset will not change quickly. But, despite this prevailing attitude, changes are in fact being made. But, as I overheard one tourist on the Acropolis looking at the construction cranes around the Parthenon, much remains to be done. “Hon, no wonder these people are in trouble. They been working on this for 2,500 years and they’re still not finished.”

Still working on the Parthenon