Just as the ink was drying on my last post about US-Turkish relations, the White House announced sanctions against Turkey based on the Global Magnitsky Act, targeting the justice and interior ministers over the continued arrest of Christian pastor Andrew Brunson. Turkey has announced retaliatory measures with some sanctions of its own. It’s rather unprecedented that mutual sanctions have been imposed on fellow NATO allies. The question on many minds is how did it come to this?
There are several symptoms of the low ebb in bilateral relations. They include the presence in the US of the alleged 15 July attempted coup mastermind Fetullah Gulen, the continued detention of Pastor Brunson and other US nationals and consular workers, Turkey’s intention to purchase the Russian S400 SAMs which are incompatible with NATO hardware, and US assistance to the YPG Kurdish militia in Syria against the so-called Islamic State which Turkey says is affiliated to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
However, these are all symptoms rather than the root causes of the problem. In terms of the actual underlying reasons for the downturn in bilateral relations I contend there are 3 main reasons and a related fourth. Let me explain them one by one.
Firstly, the nature of the Turkish state is often misunderstood by both Western and Turkish officials alike. Turkey should be understood as a weak or a fragile state. Turkey has many of the attributes of a weak state. For example, the internal threat in Turkey is greater than the threat posed by its external enemies. Ankara’s two greatest existential concerns are the PKK and the Gulen movement. Sure, both have international branches and are influenced by international affairs, but they are, by and large, internal challenges to both state security and the institutions of state. Turkey also resembles a weak state because for many citizens the primary threat to their personal security is the state itself, the body which is supposed to protect them. This is the case for many Kurds in the Southeast of the country as well as those affected by the recent post 15 July 2016 purges. Let’s not also forget the marginalisation of the remnants of the Gezi movement and progressives in general, all considered fifth columnists by President Erdogan and his government. There are other factors as to why Turkey is a fragile state including the economy which often runs along patrimonial lines and is marred by corruption and nepotism.
The reason why understanding Turkey as a fragile or weak state is important because the US, or any other country for that matter, will have difficulties finding common cause with Turkey over an external enemy. Quite frankly, an international threat will always be less of a concern for Turkey which has to prioritise internal threats, or view international affairs through the lens of domestic security matters. Meanwhile, internal developments in Turkey, if not understood and acknowledged by other countries, leads to anger and recriminations. We saw this take shape after the attempted coup two years ago. Such wounds will be slow to heal.
The second factor is that Turkey does not consider itself part of the western orbit. It doesn’t see itself in the Russian orbit. Nor part of the Iranian axis either. Turkey sees itself as a great power in its own right. Whenever I read news reports about developments in US-Turkish relations and the comments of Turkish officials, I can’t help but think, “does Turkey think it is the superpower in this relationship?” The answer is yes, actually it does. Turkey suffers from delusions of grandeur when it comes to international affairs and finds it difficult to reconcile its self-image of greatness, often emanating from a selective and politicised memory its Ottoman past, with the reality that Turkey is not even a regional hegemon, let alone an international power. Turkey is a medium sized power at best, albeit one with potential if it effectively harnesses its human capacity. Sometimes Turkey needs a shock in order to recalibrate its self-image with reality. This is what happened with Russia after Moscow announced sanctions in 2015 following Turkey’s shooting down a jet hovering over its airspace. Following this wake-up call, relations between Turkey and Russia were soon back on track. Some advice to Ankara, if you live with a lion, don’t pull its tail!
The third factor is increasing authoritarianism in Turkey. Sure, President Donald Trump doesn’t exactly behave like a liberal democratic gentleman and leader of the free world either, but Turkey is on a completely different level when it comes to strongman politics, so much so that nothing of note happens without the blessing of President Erdogan. This gives the US a firm address to point the finger. These latest sanctions are a warning. Washington knows who is really in charge. And if there is any action that harms US interests, President Erdogan cannot blame shift.
Relatedly, the fourth factor (feel free to email me more) is the reality that times have changed. Turkey’s interests are not the same as those of the US and the West. Turkey also does not identify with the West as much as it used to. This fact is plain and simple and the longer this reality is ignored or swept under the carpet, the more likely these kinds of rifts will happen. It is time for a new paradigm in US-Turkish relations. I propose a transactional relationship based on selective joint interests on an ad hoc basis. After cool heads prevail and this crisis is resolved, surely this is the best way forward to build confidence and trust between both sides and, who knows, soon a lasting partnership that may once again be of a strategic nature. But that’s far into the future.
So, this begs the question, how do the sides get out of this current impasse? Stay tuned, I will offer a few words about that soon.
Once again US-Turkish relations have reached a new low. That phrase “new low” is getting a bit repetitive and overused when describing Turkey’s relations with Europe, the US and the West in general. This in itself tells us a lot.
The current crisis came after President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence both tweeted that Turkey could face harsh sanctions if Ankara does not fully release Pastor Andrew Brunson, who is currently facing trial in Turkey on trumped up (no pun intended) terrorism related charges. Ankara has responded by declaring the threats “unacceptable” and is refusing to bow down to US pressure.
The sanctions that Trump and Pence have in mind are in addition to defence budget legislation which is currently being drafted in Congress and contains clauses pertaining to Turkey’s involvement of the F35 Joint Strike Fighter programme. After the draft legislation is passed by both houses it will need a Presidential sign off. Currently the bill contains a reference to Turkey’s purchase and involvement in the F35 project, calling for Turkey’s participation to be contingent with the release of pastor Brunson and Turkey forgoing its purchase of Russian S400 surface to air missiles.
Added to this impasse is the recent victory of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in June following simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections. The overarching power of President Erdogan, secured after a constitutional referendum last year, is now all but sealed. President Erdogan’s power is so overwhelming that excuses for not releasing Brunson such insisting that Turkish courts are independent, just doesn't fly. Arguably, such excuses never washed anyway - let’s not forget that last year Erdogan offered the US a swap, Brunson for Gulen. This led to the detention of Brunsen to be labelled by some quarters “hostage diplomacy”.
This recent crisis is the latest of many fallings out between the two former allies. Currently at least a dozen US citizens are consular employees are being held in detention. There’s also the issue of US support for Kurdish militias in Syria fighting the so called Islamic State. Ankara claims these militias are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), but the Pentagon sees as an effective indigenous force against Islamic militancy. Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian S400 Surface to air missiles, incompatible with NATO hardware, is an act that obviously strained ties. A purchase and deployment of such equipment risks the leaking of sensitive NATO military data to Russia. Meanwhile, Turkish banks, probably with the blessing of the country’s President, broke US led international sanctions against Iran. Plus, just recently Turkey rebuffed US efforts to enforce sanctions against the Islamic Republic, declaring that Turkey will not follow them. All of these issues alone are serious enough to strain relations for the foreseeable future. Taken together it is inevitable that relations have taken a nosedive.
In fact, relations have dipped so low that it would be foolhardy to expect that they will ever go back to how they were. Elsewhere I have recommended that the strategic component of the West’s relations with Turkey should be reconsidered. I think now more than ever that I am right. The strategy that some analysists and policy makers have recommended to either the US or European governments is continued engagement with Turkey. They believe that western countries should recognise and take steps towards meeting Ankara’s security needs while ensuring Ankara respects their own security concerns. Meanwhile, the argument goes, the sides should work towards greater cooperation in fields outside of the strategic dimension. This may have been sound policy advice a while ago, but quite frankly this method has been tried with Ankara over the past couple of years and is clearly not working.
Instead, it is time for the US and Europe to work towards a transactional relationship with Turkey when it comes to strategic issues. The first thing to do is recognise that the alliance between Turkey and the West is not one of mutual strategic interests, not is it one of shared values. However, there are some fields where western and Turkish interests converge and collaboration should be sought. Issues such as terrorism, aspects of regional security and the future of Syria are areas where there can be some cooperation and serious discussion.
However, this should not be mistaken for a strategic alliance and therefore the west should limit Turkish involvement in projects such as the Joint Strike Fighter and NATO operations until a time when relations improve and warrant an upgrade. However, when it comes to trade, businesses and corporations on both sides should be encouraged to invest, buy and sell until their hearts are content. The same goes for cultural diplomacy. And who knows, maybe they will be the harbinger for strategic convergence at a later date.
Although this state of affairs may seem disappointing, this is the nature of international relations. Alliance form and alliances collapse. A period of transactionalism and trade may be the step back that both sides need before relations become warm again because soon Turkey will discover that the US and the West make better bedfellows that Russia, Iran or China.
There are many embattled democracies in the world today, but How Democracy Die is primarily a book about America. It is a warning to Americans to never be complacent about their democracy, regardless of how robust and dynamic the oldest democratic constitution in the world may appear to be; the foundations of even the strongest of constitutions shake when an autocratic demagogue is committed to smashing the liberal democratic order.
In this book, Harvard professors Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky examine international examples to illustrate how autocrats use legal means to kill democracy. Professor Ziblatt is a historian of Europe from the nineteenth century to the present day and Professor Levitsky focuses on Latin America and the developing world. You can’t get more qualified than that to write a book about how democracies die.
With the exception of its snowy neighbour to the north and its transatlantic Anglo sidekick, many who live outside of the US reside in countries where democracy has either died and been reborn, or is experiencing a difficult process of democratization. Others are witnessing the death of their own democracy in front of their very eyes. It is therefore imperative that Americans, regardless of their level of education, political views or social status, pay heed to the political histories of other nations in order to prevent the misfortune of others to be repeated in America. This is especially true while Donald Trump sits in the Oval Office. Sure, he was elected fair and square, but there are facets of his character and policies that raise alarm bells.
Borrowing and updating the work of Juan Linz, Ziblatt and Levitsky highlight four key indicators of authoritarianism. They are 1) rejection or weak commitment to the democratic rules of the game, 2) denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, 3) toleration of encouragement of violence, 4) readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents including the media. Note that Trump falls into each of these four categories.
In recent times the death of a democracy is less likely to occur through a military coup or by a violent revolution. It’s not that there aren’t any good old-fashioned military coups anymore (Thailand, Ecuador), but it is increasingly the case that demagogues obtain power through the ballot box, and once there slowly but surely push democratic norms to the point of collapse in a bid to solidify power. Often this achieved by eroding the checks and balances needed in a healthy democracy through the combination of nullifying the legislative power of parliament, filling the judiciary with sycophantic or co-opted judges, attacking the critical media and delegitimising political opponents. Such has happened in Venezuela, Turkey, Peru, Argentina, Russia, and Hungary to name but a few. Then there is, of course, the examples of Germany and Italy earlier in the century. In the case of the United States, Ziblatt and Levitsky argue that over time America’s democratic fail safes have been eroded including party gatekeeping, institutional forbearance, self-restraint and mutual toleration. This has led to the situation of today. A US president who has no qualms about railing against the free press and calling for his political opponent to be locked up.
It is often said that history is doomed to repeat itself. Perhaps that’s true for those who choose to ignore the past. This is why a book like this is so important. Americans can no longer afford to be complacent.
The debate surrounding the decision of US Present Donald J. Trump’s to nix the Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has been a real eye opener. It seems that some politicians and commentators have lost their moral compasses.
After Trump’s decision, Federica Mogherini, the foreign minister of the EU, stated that “We are determined to keep this deal in place”. Meanwhile, it was reported that Bruno Le Maire, France’s finance minister, commented that the Iran deal highlights the need to defend European economic sovereignty, even putting forward the idea of creating a statute to offset US sanctions on European firms doing business in Iran. Meanwhile, The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall, contends that Britain should join other European nations to impose diplomatic and economic sanctions on the US – make Trump pay for sabotaging the Iran deal, he argues.
Wow, that must have been some great deal to advocate that Europe side not with the US, but an autocratic regime which hates the very ideals that Europe stands for (remember when Italy was obliged to cover naked statues so not to offend the visiting so-called moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani), an Islamic theocracy that has terrifying resemblances to the dystopian society envisaged in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
First things first, the deal itself was poor. Bret Stephens of the New York Times put it best when he wrote that if the JCPOA was so great then why did leaders from France, Germany and the UK, as well as some of its other supporters, feel the need to accept that it needed fixing? Fix it, not nix it, they begged of Trump. Surely, if it was such a good deal, it wouldn’t need any fixing?
In reality, there was much that needed to be mended, so much so that the repair work would have left the deal unrecognizable. Where to start, the sunset clause allowing the Islamic Republic to be a nuclear weapon threshold state within 13 years? And then there’s the fact that the deal ignores Tehran’s ballistic missile programme, the exclusion of which was a grave error because if Iran were to acquire a nuclear weapon, it would have to be compatible with its ballistic projectiles. And what about the inspections themselves? Far from unfettered access on demand, if the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) want access to secret military areas, they can’t just barge it. They would need approval from a committee of which Iran is a member! Moreover, the Israeli seizure of Iranian nuclear documents confirmed the suspicions of the US and the IAEA that Iran had indeed been working on a nuclear weapons programme, which although frozen, was still not disclosed to the IAEA and therefore contrary to the spirit of the JCPOA and perhaps even the letter of the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).
It was under President Obama that the JCPOA was signed. Obama twice failed the people of Iran, proud inheritors of an ancient civilization whose erudition and study of their poets such as Saadi and Hafez makes me wish that people in the West would do the same for Shakespeare, Melville, and Cervantes. The first Obama let down was in 2009. As Iranians took to the streets to demand that their votes count in what become known as the Green Movement, Obama’s silence was deafening. Later, Obama did well to spearhead international sanctions which crippled the Iranian economy. Make no mistake, in 2013 the sanctions brought the Mullahs to their knees. However, Obama and the P5 +1 abandoned the prospect of regime change in order to make this terrible nuclear deal. Not only did this hand a lifeline to the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards (the real powers in Iran), but it allowed the regime to continue its support with boots on the ground for Bashar al-Assad, the butcher of Damascus, who deliberately tortures, murders and massacres his own people, sometimes with the additional sadistic twist of chemical nerve agents.
Europe needs to be more honest about its Iran policy. The reality is there are billions of euros at stake with companies such as Airbus, Total, British-Dutch Shell, Peugeot, Renault, and Siemens standing to lose out with the nixing of the Iran deal. It just all goes to show that the lofty foreign policy ideals of the EU are nothing more than a bunch of words. To hell with the Iranian people, many critics of the deal are effectively saying, as long as European companies make a profit. Shame.
Last Monday, I had to make a difficult television viewing decision, either catch up on Homeland season 7 or watch Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu make a live appearance to make revelations about Iran’s nuclear programme? I chose the latter.
Bibi, as Netanyahu is known in Israel, is ever the showman. While delivering a Ted Talk style presentation, he announced to viewers that Israeli intelligence operatives managed to seize tens of thousands of top-secret Iranian documents from a previously unknown nuclear archive located in an unassuming neighbourhood in Tehran (wow!). A sprinkle of these documents was shown in Bibi’s presentation which the Israeli prime minister claimed was evidence that Iran’s top officials, from supreme leader to president and foreign minister, had lied to the international community when they insisted that Iran was not seeking a nuclear bomb.
This trove of information, argued Netanyahu, casts doubt on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which was concluded between Iran, the US, Russia, China and Europe in 2015 under the leadership of Barack Obama, the most fickle president in the history of US foreign policy until the election of Donald Trump, to reduce and monitor Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for the easing of sanctions. In other words, save the Islamic Republic in return for a nuclear deal. President Trump along with a slew of conservative politicians, academics and commentators have termed the agreement a bad deal, a “terrible” deal or the “worst deal ever”. It now looks that they have a point.
Some commentators, eager to save the JCPOA, and by extension Obama’s legacy, insist that there is nothing particularly new in these seized documents. They say that it is all hyperbole, rehashed information and that the deal is still a good one. They add that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was already aware of Iran’s attempt to weaponise its nuclear programme, and the documents are dated before the signing of the 2015 JCPOA. Moreover, the IAEA, as well as Europe and the United States all confirmed that Iran has been in full compliance of the deal and, so far, none of the captured documents seems to have contradicted these assessments. Move along, there’s nothing to see here.
Not so fast. Why such faith in an autocratic regime which has incessantly lied to its people from Ayatollah Khomeini’s hijacking the 1979 revolution with his hidden plan to install a constitution based on his political interpretation of the Shia concept of the velayat-e faqih with himself as supreme leader, to the stealing of the 2009 elections and the perpetual corruption which led many across the country to protest the regime a few months ago? Why is it so hard to believe that the same clerical regime that murders, steals, plunders, executes, tortures and imprisons its own people also lied to the international community and broke agreements, pledges and declarations?
And yes indeed, there is actually something to this cache of documents. Consider the following:
It is true that the IAEA, the CIA and other agencies had their suspicions that Iran was actively seeking to weaponise its nuclear programme and was conducting research into the design and construction of a warhead capable of delivering a nuclear payload, but ceased this project in 2003. But throughout this period and continuously until this very day, Iran’s political leaders denied that there was ever such a programme. However, the IAEA and CIA’s suspicions are now facts. Not only do we now know that Iranian officials had been lying, but they were also negotiating in bad faith, including their declaration before the 2015 agreement that Iran would reveal the full extent of its past nuclear work. The documents show that they have done no such thing.
Furthermore, the existence of this nuclear archive seems to have been unknown to the international community. Iran did not declare its existence to the IAEA either before the 2015 nuclear deal or after. Nor did Iran hand over its research into making a nuclear bomb. Instead it hid it. This in itself is a breach of the spirit of the JCPOA and may even be a violation of Articles II and/or III of the Non Proliferation Treaty. If Iran is indeed in breach of the NPT, then the JCPOA as it currently stands is not worth the paper it’s printed on.
Finally, Bibi’s revelations create the very real suspicion that having negotiated the JCPOA in bad faith, Iran was essentially putting its nuclear weapon programme aside only to come back to it a later. Of course, defenders of the deal have countered that the P5+1 negotiated it with the assumption that Iran was lying, and in the words of President Obama it was based on “unprecedented verification”.
But when negotiating the deal, the international powers did not have such concrete proof that their Iranian interlocutors were brazenly lying. How can anyone now defend the laxity in regulating Iran’s ballistic missile programme or the JCPOA’s ridiculously naïve sunset clause which would allow Iran to enrich again after 15 years? No way Jose!
Although tougher than its critics like to admit, the flaws in the JCPOA are real. Obama did an excellent job in forming and executing a stringent sanctions regime which really crippled the Iranian economy and brought the regime to its knees. But the Obama administration underestimated just how successful it was. In 2012 and 2013 there were rumblings of protests in Iran’s major cities, alleviated with the 2013 election of President Rohani, a regime loyalist disguised as a reformer. While negotiating the deal, Iran was in a situation where it could not afford to be in Syria and Yemen, develop a nuclear programme and placate its restless population angered by corruption, inflation and unemployment. The very future of the regime was at stake. Obama and Kerry could have done better and should have done better
French and German heads of state have tried to convince Trump to fix not nix the deal and make additional supplementary agreements instead. These new documents give him leverage to do just that. He should take it.
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