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.