Tag Archives: Middle East

Turkey on the Brink

One of the big, underrepresented stories going on right now is the crisis in Turkey. As of now, Turkey is the most successful Muslim democracy in the world and the current government, the AKP, has been by far the most successful government Turkey has had in a long time. Yet, somehow, the ruling party may be thrown out of government and banned by the Supreme Court, with the Prime Minister and President, among other, banned from participating in politics for five years.

Very briefly, let’s look at the facts: a pro-West/ pro-EU political party wins 47% of the vote in last year’s elections – an unprecedented number in a country where parties rarely win enough of the vote to rule alone. Since first being elected in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has passed a series of far-reaching legal and political reforms in order to meet EU accession requirements. The list of what the party has done is long: it has eased restrictions on freedom of expression, civilianized the National Security Council, granted the Kurdish minority greater rights, and abolished the death penalty. Not only that, it has helped usher in an impressive period of economic growth. Good for democracy and your pocketbook.

Yet, as soon as tomorrow, Turkey’s Constitutional Court may very well decide to close down the AKP and ban its leading figures, including the current President and Prime Minister, from political participation for five years. The Court’s case is premised largely on the fact that the AKP lifted the country’s longstanding headscarf ban, an action which the majority of Turks supported (Turkish women are not allowed to cover their hair in universities and other government/ public institutions). I’ve always found it interesting – and somewhat bizarre – that women in the U.S. can wear the hijab anywhere they want, while in Turkey it can be grounds for a judicial coup. Former Ambassador to Turkey, Morton Abramowitz, sums it up: “the banning of a ruling party—one that has been in power for over five years, and quite successfully at that—is unprecedented in the modern West.”

The folks at Democracy Arsenal said this would be like the Supreme Court banning the Democratic party and banning Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the party leadership from politics. But in many ways it would be even worse. It would be as if in 2003, less than a year after winning a resounding electoral mandate, the Supreme Court had banned the Republican party and banned George Bush, Dick Cheney, Dennis Hastert, Bill Frist and the entire Cabinet from politics until 2008. It’s never happened before in any sort of modern, stable democracy.

Kicking the AKP out would have terrible consequences, not just for Turkey but for much of the world.

A ban on a party that nearly half of the country supports could spark violence – which Turkey’s secularist generals might then use as a pretext for a direct military intervention. Regardless, senior EU figures have criticized the closure case and warned that banning the AKP could gravely damage Turkey’s candidacy.

Even more troubling is the message it would send to the rest of the Muslim world – no matter how much Islamists moderate, they won’t be accepted as legitimate participants in the democratic process.

In recent years, mainstream Islamist groups throughout the region – including in Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco – have embraced many of the foundational components of democratic life. Yet their moderation has been met with harsh government repression, or more subtle designs to restrict their political participation.

More is at stake than may initially appear. If the AKP – the most moderate, pro-democratic “Islamist” party in the region today – is disbanded, it will strengthen those Islamists who see violence and confrontation as a surer means to influence political power.

During the past year, a number of Islamist leaders we’ve spoken to in Egypt and Jordan have warned that rank-and-file activists are losing faith in the democratic process, and may soon become attracted to more radical approaches. A ban on the AKP would only make it that much harder for moderates to continue making the case that participating in elections is worthwhile.

Condoleeza Rice and the Bush administration has been pretty mute on this, which seems like a bad idea.

Though US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praises the AKP’s democratization agenda, last month she said, “Obviously, we are not going to get involved in … the current controversy in Turkey about the court case.” Yet moments later she opined, “Sometimes when I’m asked what might democracy look like in the Middle East, I think it might look like Turkey.” It’s difficult to tell if she’s referring to the new, democratizing Turkey of the past five years – or the reactionary Turkey where judges and generals flagrantly overrule the people’s will.

President Bush has one last opportunity to reinvigorate the cause of Middle East democracy. By publicly denouncing the closure case, the administration would signal that the US not only supports Turkish democracy against a dangerous internal assault, but that it is also committed to defending all actors willing to abide by democratic principles in a region that desperately needs more of them.

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John McCain, in the New York Times Magazine article on his foreign policy evolution:

McCain is known for being a gut thinker, averse to overarching doctrines or theory. But as we talked, I tried to draw out of him some template for knowing when military intervention made sense — an answer, essentially, to the question that has plagued policy makers confronting international crises for the last 20 years. McCain has said that the invasion of Iraq was justified, even absent the weapons of mass destruction he believed were there, because of Hussein’s affront to basic human values. Why then, I asked McCain, shouldn’t we go into Zimbabwe, where, according to that morning’s paper, allies of the despotic president, Robert Mugabe, were rounding up his political opponents and preparing to subvert the results of the country’s recent national election? How about sending soldiers into Myanmar, formerly Burma, where Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest by a military junta?

“I think in the case of Zimbabwe, it’s because of our history in Africa,” McCain said thoughtfully. “Not so much the United States but the Europeans, the colonialist history in Africa. The government of South Africa has obviously not been effective, to say the least, in trying to affect the situation in Zimbabwe, and one reason is that they don’t want to be tarred with the brush of modern colonialism. So that’s a problem I think we will continue to have on the continent of Africa. If you send in Western military forces, then you risk the backlash from the people, from the legacy that was left in Africa because of the era of colonialism.”

The United States faced a similar obstacle in Myanmar, McCain went on, shaking his head sadly. “First of all, you’d have to gauge the opinion of the people over time, whether you’d be greeted as liberators or as occupiers,” McCain said. “I would be concerned about the possibility that if it were mishandled, we might see an insurgent movement.” He talked a bit about Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he called “one of the great figures of the 20th century,” but then wondered aloud if the American public would support a military intervention.

Really? I know that colonialism in Africa has long gotten more attention than colonialism elsewhere, but does John McCain really not know about the impact of colonialism on other regions of the world, including the Middle East? Does McCain not realize that the current Middle Eastern borders were drawn by the British and the French after World War I? That our actions in Iraq have been “tarred with the brush of modern colonialism” by al-Qaeda and our other enemies in the region? That Burma itself was a part of the British Empire until 1948?

I largely agree with this by Matt Yglesias.

Actually, though, I think McCain’s not alone here. Very few Americans (even American elites) seem to recognize that most of the “pro-American” regimes in the region — all the monarchies, basically — just are colonial regimes set up by the British imperial authorities. Eventually, the United States took over from Britain as the foreign underwriter of those regimes. But to understand U.S. policy in the region and how the U.S. is viewed, you need to understand that Jordan and the G.C.C. aren’t just autocracies, they’re autocratic creations of the British Empire and CENTCOM is seen as the successor to the Colonial Office. Meanwhile, the “anti-American” or “radical” regimes in Syria, Iran, and (formerly) Iraq all have their origins in rebellions against colonial regimes. The Egyptian regime shared those anti-imperialist origins, but eventually switched sides and joined Team America.

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