Tuesday, 31 January 2017

America's Unseemly Retreat

That sound you’re hearing is one Americans don’t hear very often. It’s the sound of a panicked full scale retreat. Fearful of the wide world, convinced of his own narrow prejudices, disdainful of anything like facts Trump has chosen to pull up the drawbridge and cower behind walls rather than continue 70 years of strong American global presence. Far from being a beacon for the rest of the world, America under Trump is turning into a stagnant pond. The Statue of Liberty must be blushing.

So much for welcoming the poor and meek
Since World War II America has provided a blanket of economic and military stability for much of the world. Yes, there have been serious lapses like Vietnam or Iraq, but there are very few who can doubt the huge role that the United States has – up to now – played. Now Trump wants to change all that. According to him, the world is filled with deadbeats and cheats who have been getting a free ride under the American security umbrella and who have undermined the American economy with cheap imports.

American troops helping defend NATO ally Estonia. Just another deadbeat?
Does he have any idea that these years of bi-partisan American leadership were essentially an exercise in enlightened self-interest? Doubtful. Absent from his fact-free rants is any serious analysis of who or what will fill the vacuum created by the American withdrawal. What malignant forces will this retreat let loose? Not for him any serious analysis of trade. Does he even understand or care that American companies are the undisputed winners – not losers -- in globalization? Does he even understand that the real profit for a company like Apple is in the design and engineering done in California, not the manufacturing done in China? Why should American companies be forced to retain low profit, low value-added plants in the United States? There is nothing Trump can do to change the economic realities of the modern world.

But these are mere details, and we all know Trump has no time for details. I am not even sure that he realizes just how much he mimics the isolationist, anti-Semitic rants of the earlier ‘American Firsters’ led by Father Charles Edward Coughlin in the 1930s. Coughlin’s radio broadcasts were hugely popular as he excoriated Jews and praised Hitler and Mussolini in the run-up to World War II. In theory that war taught Americans the harsh consequences of isolationism. But obviously, Trump never bothered absorbing that lesson. Substitute Moslems for Jews and you have Trump of 2017.

Now the White House hyperventilates in the presence of foreigners in general and goes weak in the knees at the mere sight of Moslems. What’s worse, Trump and his acolytes simply don’t care. As he told TheWall Street Journal when asked if the U.S. should encourage political stability and economic growth in Mexico he replied, “I don’t care about Mexico. Honestly, I really don’t care about Mexico.”  If this is how he regards America’s southern neighbour with a population of almost 130 million and with close economic and political ties to the U.S. just think how he regards America’s role in the larger world.

Trump’s minions proudly proclaim his immigrant policy a ‘great success’. The only success of this mindless policy is to give groups like ISIS unparalleled free recruitment advertising. ‘See, I told you they hate you. Join up now and fight back!’ The problems American forces face in the Middle East have just been multiplied several times. So much for countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Gulf states, or even Egypt. Very tough for them to show much support for America under these conditions.

They just got a powerful new recruiting tool -- for free
Even in today’s multi-polar world the leadership role of the United States as the strongest economic and military power is undeniable. I remember a conversation with a senior Jordanian official not long ago when someone at the dinner table made a mild joke about America. The official scowled, turned to me and said “America is not something we joke about. It’s too important.”

            Trump’s arrogant disdain for international affairs and America’s role in the world may play well in certain parts of the country. But it could backfire badly with Republicans in Congress who are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the antics of the Republican president. Even the arch-conservative Charles Krauthammer is apalled at what he calls 'Trump's foreign policy revolution.' A friend of mine put it very well when he said that Trump is a like a spoiled 7-year-old brat who has been given an Abrams tank for Christmas and is proceeding to destroy the neighbourhood. Trump, who mocks the traditional Republican party, may try to circumvent Congress as much as he can and substitute his famous Tweets for policy. His ego is such that he could even break with the traditional Republican party and form a separate entity in his own image.

            Those cheering Trump’s latest moves against immigrants should remember a poem by German Pastor Martin Niemöller about the Nazi horrors of World War II.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Could Turkey Make Northern Cyprus Its 82nd Province?

Negotiations to end the decades-long partition of the critically-located Mediterranean island of Cyprus are set to enter a new and theoretically critical stage this week in Geneva. There have been many ‘final stages’ since the island was divided between Turks and Greeks following the intervention of the Turkish military in 1974. But there are great hopes, at least by international negotiators, that this ‘final stage’ just might work.

Much has happened since 1974, including the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus – the Greek part of the island – joining the European Union. The northern, Turkish part of the island, remains internationally isolated, recognized only by Turkey. The Turkish part of the island survives on hundreds of millions of dollars of subsidies from Turkey. The Greek part of the island has recovered from its financial meltdown and is buoyed by the promise of natural gas in its territorial waters.

Will the island re-unite or be split completely?
The rough outline of the Plan A solution to the island has been well known for decades. It would involve the Turks giving up some land, compensation for people on both sides who lost property, keeping some sort of local autonomy for the Turks, and ending years of economic and political isolation by joining the southern part of the island in the EU.  Sounds logical – to the outsider. But the deep, underlying distrust and dislike between the two communities have always been major barriers to this settlement.

Furthermore, there is the very sticky issue of ‘guarantors’ – those three countries of Greece, the UK, and Turkey who were supposed to ‘guarantee’ the stability of the island. This guarantor system failed spectacularly in 1974 when the Turkish army landed to protect the Turkish minority – and in the process left several thousand troops on the island who remain to this day. If there is a settlement what happens to this guarantor system? Will the Turkish troops leave the island? Will the Turks accept the security of the European Union instead of the security of their own troops?

Will they actually leave the island?
            However, beyond all these island-based issues there is a real elephant in the room that could scuttle all hopes of a deal. That elephant is the political maneuvering in Turkey to change the governing system of the country to give President Tayyip Erdoğan unfettered, unchallenged, unchecked power. Turkey's prime minister and parliament would be reduced to feeble rubber stamps with this change.

            In order to get the votes he needs in parliament to pass the constitutional changes Erdoğan needs the support of the Nationalist Party – a party who not only hates the Kurds but loathes the very idea of a settlement on Cyprus that includes the reduction or complete withdrawal of Turkish troops from the island. Even with the support of the Nationalist Party the issue is a near run thing. Several members of the Nationalist Party have balked at supporting changes reducing parliament to an afterthought. And there are even reports, nothing more, of ruling party AKP members who don’t like the idea of an all-powerful president.

            Assuming the bill passes parliament, there will be a national referendum to approve or reject the change to a presidential system. While Turkish polls are unreliable at best, a leading poll shows support for the referendum falling short of the required 50% + 1. Failure at the referendum stage would be a disaster for Erdoğan by puncturing his aura of invincibility and denying him the power he so blatantly wants. This he cannot allow.

            Thus, the elephant in the room of the Cyprus negotiations. Erdoğan could easily whip up nationalist sentiment in Turkey (not hard to do) by stonewalling any change in Cyprus. The brilliant Turkish journalist Metin Munir – now reporting from the safety of Cyprus because no paper in Turkey has the nerve to publish his work – says there is a Plan B being actively discussed in Ankara. That plan is simply to annex the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus making it Turkey’s 82nd province if negotiations fail. Such a move may bring international condemnation, but would be immensely popular among the nationalist Turks.

He would sell himself as the great savior of our valiant Cypriot brothers and win the referendum in a landslide. Any opposition would be drowned in cries of national traitors, tools of foreign powers seeking to destroy Turkey. Such a campaign would be ugly but effective.

            International condemnation of such a move would have no impact whatsoever. It would only strengthen the deeply ingrained feeling that a Turk has no friends but a Turk. Erdoğan would loudly point out that the world did nothing to stop Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Therefore, why should he even listen to any criticism? The European Union would howl and scream. But so what? Turkish/EU relations were already at a dead-end. How much worse could they get? Greece would complain bitterly. But Greece is in no position to do very much. What would the United States do? That’s a very good question. No one has a clue at this point about Trump’s foreign policy which so far has been limited to 140-character tweets. Besides, right now most Turks think that America is behind every problem that Turkey is facing. Russia? Who knows? Putin is currently manipulating Erdoğan brilliantly. But will that manipulation extend to allowing dismemberment of Cyprus?

            Threatening Turkey with harsh economic sanctions won’t work. The Turkish people will gladly suffer mere economic hardship to preserve what they see as national honor. And furthermore, Putin will simply move into any vacuum created by Western isolation of Turkey.

            Any possible settlement on Cyprus is going to have to pay as much attention to political fine tuning in Ankara as it does to developments on the island itself.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Turkey Starts 2017 On A Steep Downhill Slide

More terror, more bloodshed, more tears, more hollow official condolences. After all the attacks we have seen in France, Belgium, Germany and especially Turkey these past several months what is left to say? Our reserves of shock and horror have almost run dry. In this age of rigid sectarianism and deep, self-righteous, unyielding social/political divisions we have come to expect these terror attacks as the new normal.

The fanatical Islamic group ISIS has claimed responsibility for the deadly New Year’s attack at an exclusive Istanbul nightclub. Turkish authorities have rounded up several of ‘usual suspects’ without managing to catch the actual gunman. Thousands of extra police were on duty in Istanbul on New Year’s Eve, yet somehow this gunman was able to take a taxi to the nightclub, calmly get out and retrieve his automatic weapon from the trunk of the car, shoot a policeman in front of the nightclub, go in the club, kill more than 30 people, and then escape into the night. His harsh image was caught on CCTV cameras, but now one suspects he is ‘in the wind’ and will never be found.

Gunman firing in the Istanbul nightclub
 This attack has ignited furious debate in Turkey about government incompetence and the consequences of its attacks on the secular lifestyle followed by millions of Turks. They claim the government has been promoting an Islamic agenda while actively suppressing secular reforms instituted by modern Turkey’s founder Kemal Atatürk. Indeed, government-approved sermons delivered in mosques in the Friday before New Year’s included sharp warnings about the illegality and immorality of New Year’s Eve celebrations.

Even Santa Claus was not safe. Long considered by the Islamic press as merely an agent of perfidious Christian and Western values Santa Claus was always on tricky ground in Turkey – despite Turkey being the birthplace of St. Nicholas. This year things got a little out of hand as armed thugs held a gun to the head of someone dressed up as Santa Claus. And no one from the government had anything to say about this incident despite their vacuous claims of tolerance and respect for other religions.  No wonder secularists are worried about the steady erosion of their lifestyle in an increasingly intolerant Turkey.

Even he is not safe in Turkey
In a broader context, the nightclub attack is an another stark symbol of the overall incompetence driving the country straight over the cliff. As a close friend put it, “What do you expect from a government that refuses to recognize the serious economic and social problems staring it in the face. As far as they are concerned this is the best possible of all worlds.”

Forget the incompetence for a minute. The policy U-Turns should leave the ruling AKP-supporters scratching their heads. Then: We hate Israel. Now: We love and need Israel. Then: We hate the evil Assad. He Must go. Now: Assad will play a key role in the reconstruction of Syria. Then: Russia is a real threat. Now: Russia can balance the malignant influence of the hypocritical West and protect Turkey’s real interests.”

By now the economic tail-spin has become apparent to almost everyone – except the one person who counts. Inflation is up, the currency is way down, unemployment is up, investment is down. President Tayyip Erdoğan still maintains that everything is going smoothly, and there is no need for any change. When the Turkish currency was sliding faster than a bob-sled he and his entourage made a very big show out of telling the hapless man-on-the-street to Be Patriotic and sell evil foreign currency. Sadly, a few naïve citizens actually believed him, and are now suffering losses as the Turkish Lira continues its disappearing act. One bank CEO recently told me there would be several large bankruptcies in 2017 as private sector companies find it impossible to repay foreign currency debt taken out when the Turkish currency was much stronger and semi-stable.

On top of the terror attacks a Turkish policeman, a highly-trained policeman, gunned down the Russian ambassador at a photography exhibition in Ankara. Apparently, the gunman waltzed around the metal detectors by showing his police ID. The Turkish government’s only response was to blame the now hated Fetullah Gülen who lives in the United States. So much for background checks for security officials charged with sensitive political protection duty.

Erdoğan can twist and turn and spin anyway he wants. But the empty shopping centers and hotels tell a different story. People are staying home, not going out.  Besides having less and less money to spend, no one wants to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and get caught in yet another terrorist attack.

Does he really understand what's happening around him
The Turkish army is now bogged down in Syria trying to take the small town of al-Bab from ISIS. The army entered Syria ostensibly to fight ISIS, but the real objective is to stop the advance of the Syrian Kurdish fighters along the southern border of Turkey. The president has declared that al-Bab is about to be taken any day. So far, the town remains in ISIS control and Turkish losses are mounting.  

Erdoğan and his flunkies have now resorted to ludicrous claims that the reason for the army’s difficulties in Syria is that the Americans are not giving enough support to Turkey's anti-ISIS fight. What utter and complete nonsense. What are they saying? The huge Turkish army can not defeat a rag-tag bunch of jihadis?? That should be embarrassing. But then, no degree of foolishness seems to embarrass this government. The U.S. and the Kurds have been fighting ISIS for a long time while Turkey only recently decided that ISIS was a real threat. Welcome to the real world. But then, these claims fit a usual pattern. None of the problems confronting Turkey are caused by the incompetence of government officials. Those problems are all caused by ‘outside influences.’

And now Erdoğan wants to change the constitution to give himself unlimited, unchecked power. It seems improbable that anyone would call today’s Turkey enough of a ‘success’ to warrant giving the president unlimited power. But maybe there are enough fervent Erdoğan supporters to give him what he wants despite the wreckage surrounding them. Turkish citizens might want to ask themselves the following question. If Turkey can suffer so much under limited presidential power, how much more will it suffer if the president has unlimited power?