Friday, August 5, 2016

Failed Turkish Coup Casts a Long Shadow

While most of us have been amused, bemused or scared stiff by the antics of the U.S. Presidential campaign, or relaxing in full summer mode and letting the world take care of itself for a while, the recent failed coup in Turkey continues to have major consequences for that country and for Turkey’s relationship with the U.S.

I want to address four major questions about the failed coup.

What was behind it?

Why did it fail?

What are the implications for Turkey?

What are the implications for the United States?

Origins. It may be helpful to begin with a sketch the creation of modern Turkey and the broad political trends of the last twenty years.

The Role of the Military Modern Turkey was born from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in the waning days of World War I. A group of young army officers, led by Mustafa Kemal*, seized power, declared that Turkey a republic, and instituted a sweeping program of reform.

*Mustafa was given the nickname “Ataturk”, meaning “Father of the Turks.” Some of the students in my Middle East classes would be confused early in the semester and try to report on the two important historical figures, Mustafa Kemal and this other guy, Ataturk.

For Kemal and the other Young Turks, the old Ottoman Empire was seen as a backward and stagnant Oriental system. The new Turkey would be a modern European society. A central feature of the founding ideology of modern Turkey (known as “Kemalism”) was secularism. The model was France: religion was strictly a private affair and all public displays of religious practise or symbols were prohibited. For example, both the veil and the headscarf (hijab) were outlawed, Turks were to adopt Turkish instead of Muslim/Arab names, mosques became state property and imams were state employees.

The military played a central role in establishing the new state and reforming society. When Ataturk’s highly authoritarian rule ended with his death and Turkey took the first tentative steps toward a functioning parliamentary democracy, the military retained its unique position in Turkish life. It is the most clearly national institution and continues thinking of itself as the protector of Kemalism and the Turkish national identity.

The military has intervened in Turkish politics at least four times since 1960, twice by forcibly seizing power from civilian governments and twice by making it clear that it would seize power unless the civilian government made drastic changes. In each case power was eventually returned to civilians. None of these episode is remembered fondly. At best, military intervention is regarded as something that may have been an unfortunate necessity at an earlier period in Turkey’s development.

Secularism and Political Islam. A relatively small part of Turkey is in Europe; the majority is across the Bosprous Straits in Asia. A relatively small portion of the Turkish population adheres to the most stringent definition of “secularism” that would completely banish religion form almost all areas of public life. As Turkey has developed socially and economically to become a middle income nation, attitudes toward the role of Islam in society have changed, for both those who could see no role at all and those who hoped for the return of Islam to the center of Turkish life. In the last twenty years, the Justice and Development Party (usually identified by its Turkish abbreviation, AKP) has emerged as the largest party and has provided national leadership since 2003.

The AKP draws on Islam as the inspiration for its emphasis on improving the lives of ordinary Turks and promoting socially conservative values. It has been supportive of a greater role for Islam, including direct support for religious schools and other institutions. At the same time, the AKP has been strongly supportive of Turkey’s free market, liberal capitalist economy and Turkey’s aspirations for membership in the European Union.

The Immediate Context. The government of Recep Erdoğan has lost a great deal of popular support in the past couple of years. Erdoğan has become increasingly autocratic and repressive. There have been 14 major terrorist attacks in Turkey in the past year; the June 28 ISIS assault on Istanbul airport that left 43 people dead was the latest. The government’s attempts to tighten control of the Kurdish areas in the east have been met by a resurgence of militant groups and violence. It has become clear that Turkey will not be admitted to the EU, primarily (many Turks believe) because of anti-Muslim prejudice) but also because the government has become less democratic and respectful of human rights and the rule of law.

Most observers believe that a significant sector of the Turkish officer corps came to believe that a combination of government support for forces undermining secular values, an increasingly autocratic rule, and the government’s inability to defend against terrorist attacks were creating a grave crisis that required the military to act to defend the legacy of Ataturk. A final precipitating factor may have been the imminent military reorganization that threatened the careers of some officers.

An Alternative Narrative. The Erdoğan government has a radically different explanation for the coup attempt. The coup was the result of a plot by Fethullah Gülen, the head of a terrorist organization with tentacles throughout Turkish society. For some officials and government-friendly media sources, the CIA or some other elements of the U.S. government were involved. American officials either knew the coup was coming and did not inform the Erdoğan government or the U.S. was actively involved in supporting the plotters.

Fethullah Gülen is a prominent preacher, cleric and political activist who has headed a political movement in Turkey since the 1970s.  He has espoused a version of Islam that embraces science, dialog with Jews and Christians, and liberal democracy. His movement has created extensive network of private schools to educate the next generation of Turkish leaders who, he hopes, will lead Turkey into a post-secular, Islamic democracy.
Gülen and his movement were allies of Erdoğan and the AKP until 2013 when Erdoğan accused Gülen of instigating an investigation of corruption in the Erdoğan regime. Gülen left Turkey for the U.S. where he has remained the spiritual and political leader of his movement.  Most observers are unpersuaded that he organized or ordered the coup attempt.

Why Did the Coup Fail? There are three critical factors that led to the failure. First, the plotters did not have the support of the majority of military officers, especially those in command of most of the operational units. Secondly, the police and internal security forces did not join, and actively fought, against the coup. And third, when Erdoğan called for citizens to take to the streets to protest and block the coup, large numbers of people in Turkey’s major cities responded. Whatever citizens may have felt about Erdoğan’s government (which is very unpopular) and the state of Turkish society, they felt a military coup that overthrew a freely elected government was worse.

What Are the Implications for Turkey? The government is using its version of the origins of the coup to launch a wave of repression. Several thousand officers and enlisted men have been dishonorably discharged form the military. Several thousand government employees, including judges, have been summarily dismissed. Media critical of the government have been under pressure for some time; that pressure has intensified with hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations and other media outlets closed and many individual journalists have been imprisoned. As of this writing, the crackdown shows little sign of easing.

Both the coup plotters and the government seem all too wiling to suspend or destroy democracy in order to save it.

Equating any criticism of the government with criminal activity and jailing intellectuals, journalists, writers, and religious figures will not destroy Turkey’s lively, diverse, and sophisticated social and intellectual life. But it will force some to emigrate and become even more critical of the regime from Western Europe or the United States, while others will take their dissent to social media or other informal sources where their voices will mingle with advocates of the destruction of modern Turkey. Paradoxically, the very things the regime is doing to stifle dissent are likely to increase criticism and discontent in ways the government will find it more difficult to monitor and control.

What Are the Implications of the U.S. and the Rest of World?

Turkey has been an outstanding example of how a combination of parliamentary democracy with moderate Islam can create a prosperous, middle income country with a vibrant and sophisticated cultural life. Turkey is a major trading partner of many European countries and there is a significant Turkish community in many EU members, particularly Germany. With a hefty subsidy from the EU, Turkey is housing 2 million Syrian refugees and has dramatically reduced the flow of refugees into Europe.

For a long time Turkey has been a key, if unseen, player in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and other regional disputes. Ankara has been trusted by the West, by Arab states, Iran, and Israel to serve as a quiet go between and honest broker.

Turkey is an important member of NATO and a focal point in the fight against ISIS. The Incirlik air base is the primary staging area for U.S. and NATO air strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and Turkey is an important logistical center for supporting operations in Iraq and Syria.

While overall relations have been cooperative and friendly, there have been some continuing strains in Turkey’s relationship with Europe and the U.S. despite the strong economic, political and military ties. A low level, constant irritation has been the EU’s inaction on Turkey’s application for membership even as smaller and less developed states in southeastern Europe were admitted. Turkey is extremely sensitive about references to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians in Turkey between 1915 and 1919 as genocide. And the Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria are seen very differently in Ankara than Washington. The Kurds have established a de facto state in Norther Iraq and the pesh merga are the most effective fighting force against ISIS. But Turkey sees the Iraqi Kurds as natural allies of the Kurdish population in Eastern Turkey, some of whom have waged a long guerrilla war against the government.

In the immediate aftermath of the coup, the Erdoğan government demanded the extradition of Fethullah Gülen from the United States after formally charging him with treason and terrorism. That demand has been repeated several times and Erdoğan has equated American inaction with complicity in the coup. This is part of his larger complaint that Europe and America are not supporting Turkey the way they have rallied to support other governments who have experienced terrorist attacks.
There is, I think, a real danger that the persistent attempts to blame the coup on Gülen and his followers with U.S. complicity will create a public demand in Turkey for some kind of retaliatory action., such as denial of the use of Incirlik. Erdoğan’s very public resentment of the response of European governments could escalate to disruption of economic ties. At the very least, the demand for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen poses a Hobson’s choice for the Obama administration: risk serous deterioration in the U.S.-Turkey alliance or send a widely admired intellectual and spiritual leader to a certain death sentence.

In the longer run, deeper instability bred by an increasingly unpopular authoritarian regime could have serious consequences for the U.S. and grave consequences for Western Europe.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Should We Stay or Should We Go? The Brexit Question

What’s “BREXIT”

Although it sounds like the latest drug advertised on TV ... ask your doctor about BREXIT ... common side effects include ... Brexit refers to the possibility that the United Kingdom may leave the European Union.  Since “A decision by the United Kingdom, fueled especially by its British citizens, to withdraw from the European Union” is a horridly unwieldy mouthful, the question has long since been simplified as a “Brexit,” this year’s equivalent of 2014's potential Grexit when Greece seemed ready to abandon the euro.

June 23 might not be as critical to British history as “1066, the Norman invasion, and all that” although “invasion” by foreigners and the UK’s relationship to the European continent are at stake.  June 23, 2016 is the date on which citizens of the United Kingdom will vote in a referendum on whether to remain in the European Union or to leave. 

(Most of us think of The United Kingdom, Great Britain, and England as synonyms.  But “Great Britain”  refers to the island that is home to the English, the Scots, and the Welsh.  The United Kingdom, the official name of the country, includes Northern Ireland along with the inhabitants of Great Britain.  This is not pedantic hair splitting: polling data suggests that it is the English who are most likely to favor leaving the EU while the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish are more strongly in favor of remaining.  In fact EU membership played a very different role in 2014's vote on Scottish independence when neither side wanted to leave the EU.  The campaign against argued that leaving the UK would mean leaving the EU and the campaign for argued that Scotland could quickly become an EU member in its own right. )

[click here for an overview of the history and major features of the EU.]

The United Kingdom’s relationship to the European Union shows the same ambivalence as its historic relationship to the continent.  The UK has been deeply involved in European history and culture since Roman times but has also seen itself as an island nation close to, but not really part of Europe.

The UK did not join in the movement for a common market and European integration until 1973 and then only with conditions that exempted it from some of the obligations of membership.  The UK has deliberately remained outside the eurozone, refusing to the let the Pound Sterling be shoved off the world stage.

Throughout the evolution of European institutions, there have been critics and doubters, quite certain that the enterprise, especially the goal of increasing unity among the people of Europe, would and should collapse.  Eurosceptics, as they are known, are more prevalent and more vocal in the UK than elsewhere and are well represented in both public opinion and the leadership of the major political parties, especially the ruling Conservatives. 

During David Cameron’s successful bid for reelection as Prime Minister last year, he promised to hold a referendum on EU membership.  This was seen as a shrewd political move at a time when his own Conservative Party was deeply divided over EU membership and allowed him to avoid taking a stand that would alienate either those who want to leave or those who want to stay.  It was also seen as a bargaining tactic, designed to encourage the EU to make significant concessions to the UK, and in fact, Cameron did win some major concessions from the EU last December.  The Prime Minister has subsequently taken a strong pro-EU stand and has actively campaigned for a “remain” vote. 

What Are the Issues?

[for a more thorough analysis with a discussion of the best available data on the claims of both sides, click here.]

Immigration, sovereignty and the economic impact of EU membership dominate the emerging campaign.


Freedom of movement is a central feature of the European Union.  The “leave” campaign stresses the growing number of immigrants from other EU countries that have come to the UK in the past few years, worrying that this will undermine the uniqueness of British identity and the core values of English society.  Concern about immigration has increased in the past year, as hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria, Africa, and elsewhere have entered Europe.  While Germany and Sweden have been the most popular destinations, a significant number of refugees have sought refuge in the UK.  The terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels have heightened suspicion and fear of refugees and there are charges that lax security by EU members means it is extremely difficult for the UK to protect its citizens from Paris or Brussels style attacks. A second type of immigration is also cited by the “leave” campaign:  “Welfare tourism.”  Migrants from other EU members, especially Eastern Europeans, come to the UK and can immediately claim far more generous welfare benefits than they could get at home.  

The “stay” campaign counters that there have not been that many refugees arriving in the UK, in part because of the added expense of air fare or the cost of traveling through the chunnel.  And unlike the porous open borders of the continent, there are relatively few entry points into the UK and it is far easier to prevent undocumented immigrants from entering.   “Stay” advocates point out a  significant number of British citizens have relocated to other EU countries without a lot of hassle.  Because of UK membership, UK citizens could make 44 million trips to Europe in 2014, for both business and pleasure without having to acquire visas or undergo the enry and exit procedures that non-EU members face.  And the “stay” camp argues that the concessions Prime Minister Cameron got form the EU in December include restrictions on immediate eligibility for welfare benefits.

Natonal Sovereignty and Democracy in the EU

The European Union has several levels of governance.  The issues in the referendum are focused on the Council of the European Union, in which the governments of the 28 members adopt laws and policies for the European Union.  It works on a “one country, one vote” basis, with a qualified majority -- 16 countries with at least 65% of the EU’s population.

The “leave” camp argues that this arrangement means that the governmental elites of foreign countries can pass laws that affect daily life in the UK over the objections of the democratically elected government of the UK.  This often, they argue, means intrusive and burdensome regulations on businesses.

The “remain” camp counters that while it is true that the UK was on the losing side of a vote about 12% of the time over the past five years, most Council decisions are negotiated consensus positions, agreeable to all members and the relatively high rate of UK minority positions reflects the policies of the Conservative party.  And most EU regulations in fact promote the health and safety of consumers, or prevent deceptive and manipulative business practices.

The Europan Union’s long term political goal of greater political integration in Europe has been a major negative for those who want out of the EU who identify far more closely with their national identity than with some transnational community.  Thus one of the major concessions Prime Minister Cameron sought from the EU last December was an agreement that the UK would be exempt from the aspirations for greater European political and cultural integration. 

Follow the Money

There are three big economic issues in contention in the Brexit campaign: the cost of membership, the balance of  trade, and jobs.

Each EU member contributes to the Union’s budget which supports a host of programs, with a significant bias toward assisting the poorer countries and regions in the EU.  The UK receives less money in EU programs than it contributes to the EU budget.  Eurosceptics have long objected to sending UK taxpayer pounds to poorer members (cleverly tabbing Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain as PIGS.)  The image of lazy and spendthrift southerners and East Europeans guzzling at the EU’s public trough is a powerful one.  The “remain” campaign counters that the UK contribution to the EU is less than 1.5% of the annual budget and the UK gets much of that back, plus a host of intangible benefits from membership.

The United Kingdom runs a negative balance of trade with its EU partners and a positive balance of trade with the rest of the world.  That is, the UK imports more from its EU colleagues than it exports to them but exports more to the rest of the world than it imports.  The “leave” camp argues that getting out from under the EU free trade rules wold allow the UK to better control its economic relations with other countries and avoid being taken advantage of by foreign companies and countries.

The “stay” campaign counters by arguing that losing unfettered access to European markets that account for over one third of UK exports would make the trade deficit much worse while not improving trade with the rest of the world.

Closely related to the trade issue is the question of jobs.  The “leave” campaign argues that reducing imports from the EU, freeing businesses from unfair and burdensome regulations, and saving the tax payer pounds that now go to the EU will spark significant economic growth and create new jobs for workers in the UK.  They deny the “remain” claim that leaving the EU would have a major negative effect on jobs tht depend on the UK’s ability to freely export to Europe.

The “stay” argument cuts the other way.  Leaving the EU will dramatically undermine the ability to export to Europe and will cost a significant number of jobs.  Moreover, leaving he EU would make the UK much less attractive to foreign investment, particularly from the United States.  A number of major American corporations have set up subsidiaries or manufacturing facilities in the UK, notably Northern Ireland, because that provides access to European markets. (And tax benefits.)

From This Side of the Atlantic?

Very few Americans are paying attention to a possible Brexit.  We have our own campaign season to amuse us and a host of other things to think about.  The few people who are paying attention tend to be very concerned about the negative consequences.  It is believed that a Brexit would hurt America’s ability to trade with Europe, and render the substantial investments in the UK less valuable.  There are worries that a Brexit could make European economies less stable and exacerbate the challenges facing the eurozone which has not yet fully dealt with the Greek crisis of two years ago. 

American foreign policy has been generally supportive of the evolution of the EU and seen the emergence of a peaceful, democratic and prosperous Europe as a major benefit to the United States.  A Brexit would not mean the end of the EU but it would be seen as a serous blow stability.  Moreover it would complicate international cooperation in some key areas, including efforts to prevent terrorist attacks. 

Will They or Won’t They?

The polling data on the broad outline of supporters of leaving and staying are quite consistent.  In addition to showing differences between British voters and the rest of the UK, they show that the “leave” option is supported more heavily by older voters, those who have the equivalent of a high school diploma or less, and those who work in low paying or uncertain jobs.  Younger, more well educated and more prosperous voters are much more favorable to the “stay” position.

But almost no one seems eager to actually predict the outcome for two reasons.  The first is that everything suggests that opinion is very evenly split and the outcome may depend heavily on which voters actually go to the polls.  The other reason for a reluctance to predict an outcome is a lack of confidence among organizations trying to measure public opinion in the UK.  The shift away from land lines, the growing rate of refusal to participate, and the increasing difficulty in estimating future turnout from past patterns, have all affected polling in the UK and the U.S., making results considerably more difficult to predict.

One group is willing to predict the outcome, and willing to put its money where its mouth is.  It is legal to bet on elections in the UK and London bookies will give you 2-1 odds on the UK staying in the EU.  According the Independent, a prominent London newspaper, “Punters have reportedly been placing bets worth up to £5,000 on success for the remain campaign.”