Monday, May 19, 2008

Tread Carefully Young Skywalker . . .

Prominent American neoconservative Michael Rubin's recent tirades (see his recent article in The American) against AKP and endorsement of its closure have affirmed that the Washington ideologue does indeed live in a world disconnected from reality. Unfortunately, Rubin's ideological wonderland is not altogether his own and the space of insanity he has carved for himself does not necessarily have walls. American policy toward Iraq and Iran provide ample reason to be concerned that Rubin's land of make believe might actually leak into the thinking of Washington policy makers, and as with American policy toward Iraq and Iran, infect policy makers' capacity for reasoned judgement in light of the facts before them. One of the most terrifying quotes of the last decade appears in Ron Suskind's account of former Secretary of Treasury Paul O'Neill's short-lived career in the Bush White House. Quoting O'Neill:
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
The "reality" created led to the disaster in Iraq and a similar construction is being applied to American policy toward Iran. With Foreign Minister Ali Babacan expected to make a trip to Washington at the end of the month, it does not seem a bad idea to keep track of people like Rubin, lest they weave others into their fanciful creations. In this regard, Şaban Kardaş' gripping column in Today's Zaman provides ample food for thought. Kardaş is responding both to Rubin's piece in the ultra-conservative publications The American (linked above) and his earlier published piece in the National Review Online (see April 18 post). For more on neoconservative antics, simply search the label "Neoconservatives" at the end of this blog post.

Rubin's world

These two stark pictures of Turkey also instruct the outside perceptions of the positions and identities of the parties in Turkish domestic politics. Of particular relevance is how to ascertain the true pro-democracy forces, hence the allies of the West in Turkey. Michael Rubin presents a very grim picture of Turkey. In an essay for National Review Online, Rubin compares Turkey to Iran prior to the Islamic revolution. Having underlined the threat posed by Islamic parties in general and the AK Party in particular, he advises the Bush administration not to "abandon its ideological compatriots for the ephemeral promises of parties that use religion to subvert democracy and seek mob rather than constitutional rule." For Rubin, "Turkey is nearing the cliff" and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should "not push it over the edge" by expressing support for the AK Party. In his contribution to a debate hosted by The American, Rubin responds to the question whether it is the ruling AK Party itself or the lawsuit brought against the AK Party that poses the greatest threat to Turkey's secular and democratic institutions. Rubin views the legal case as an affirmation of democracy and constitutional rule. He finds Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's party in grave violation of the wall of separation between religion and politics, disregard for rule of law, suppression of dissent and a policy of placing his own followers in influential bureaucratic positions. Having noted that "both AKP supporters and Western officials unfamiliar with the AKP's record paint the Court's actions as undemocratic," Rubin assumes a self-declared mission to reveal "the dark side," hence his advice to the Bush administration to reassess its true counterparts in Turkey.

Rubin in 'Wonderland'?

This picture of Turkey, however, differs from the one most analysts and Western politicians believe, as Rubin himself admits. Rubin depicts the actors that are perceived as the pro-democracy forces and most likely allies of the West in Turkey by most international and Turkish observers as the dark side seeking to take country down a dark road. For instance, Mustafa Akyol, another participant of the same The American debate, believes that the closure case amounts to a threat to Turkish democracy. For Akyol, the tension is between the reformed Islamists representing democratic forces in favor of Turkey's cooperation with the West and increasingly inward-looking secularist groups supporting anti-Americanism. Akyol is not alone in this analysis, and many liberal and democratic voices in Turkey share similar views.

This reading of Turkey's balance of forces, diametrically opposed to that of Rubin, is shared by outsiders, too. Given that the whole EU machinery has served as the watchdog over Turkish democracy for years, who is better positioned to comment on the AK Party's democratic credentials than the European Union? EU representatives have thrown their weight behind the AK Party. Olli Rehn, European commissioner for enlargement, maintained that "Turkey's tension is between extreme secularists and Muslim democrats." Rehn elsewhere also underlined his belief that there is no smoking gun indicating any hidden agenda pursued by the AK Party. Joost Lagendijk, co-chairman of the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee, attacked Turkey's secularist social democratic opposition, the Republican People's Party (CHP), for its failure to act as a true socialist and democrat party. Similarly, in a recent Washington Post report, Claire Berlinski captures how the underlying power struggle is concealed by appeals to ideological threats to the constitutional order. Having noted how "the secularists here are if anything more hostile to the West than the AKP" she concludes, "Don't make the mistake of thinking that 'secular' here means 'liberal, democratic and friendly to the West.' That, it decidedly does not."

A world gone wild?

Is everybody but Rubin under an illusion? Are the secular "ideological compatriots" of the West true allies of the United States? Just a reality check on the "plot" and evil forces that Rubin paints makes us cautious of his assessment of the forces of the dark side. Differences of interpretation between Rubin and others aside, the factual information he cites is false at worst and unsubstantiated at best. A few examples are in order. First, whereas no sane person would believe that the AK Party sees democracy as a "one time deal," Rubin maintains that for Erdoğan democracy is "One man, one vote, once." Second, the hit man who "gunned down a justice" was not a follower of Erdoğan, as Rubin claims, but an operative of ultranationalist circles, which are, by the way, anti-American. Only recently, a photo of the perpetrator, Alparslan Aslan, with Veli Küçük, a leading figure of the neo-nationalist gang seeking to destabilize the country, was published in Turkish media. Third, nor did the AK Party undertake the kind of purge of the judiciary Rubin claims it did. Fourth, for Rubin the military's declaration of support for the Constitution in a written statement is not a coup. It might be permissible under normal conditions, but what he ignores is that if it is meant to influence a pending court case, it might very well amount to a coup.

Fifth, Rubin also criticizes Erdoğan's "harassment" of Nihat Genç, Serdar Akınan and Tuncay Özkan, leading neo-nationalist figures. Let alone substantiating his claim, he does not stop to ask if the constant accusations of those figures may fall under "hate crime." What is more worrisome, however, he completely misses the point that these figures foster a paranoid nationalism which is by all means anti-American. Indeed, one of the reasons these people are so much against the AK Party is their belief that the AK Party betrayed the country's interests by submitting to the US yoke. If one is looking for traces of anti-Americanism or "Islamofascism" in Turkey, it will be enough to read one of Akınan's columns in Akşam -- for instance Feb. 27, 2008. Interestingly such arguments escape Rubin's radar despite his self-declared mission to reveal hotbeds of anti-Americanism and Islamofascism.

Rubin misrepresents the position of Turkish actors; commits grave factual mistakes about self-declared ultranationalists and anti-Americans, and then warns the Bush administration against anti-American forces and "false information," by pretending to represent the higher ground of an expert of Turkish politics. Can all this be true?

Rubin against the 'dark side'?

There is ground to question the basic thrust of Rubin's argument. One is left wondering: Who are the evil forces, if there are any? And where is Rubin placed in this game, anyway? Let's draw some analogy from the "Star Wars" trilogies, which may help explain those strange bedfellows. In the original trilogy, Luke Skywalker trains to become a Jedi fighter and joins the struggle against the evil, totalitarian empire. The return of the Jedi and the heroic struggle of the rebels eventually bring down the empire. If this is the setting of Turkish politics, and Rubin is with the Force, we would welcome him as either the Master Yoda or the Young Skywalker who fight for freedom.

An alternative story is presented in the prequel trilogy, though: Darth Sidious, on his way to establishing the authority of the dark side of the Force and emerging as the emperor, skillfully manipulates the republic, and most importantly young Anakin Skywalker, whom he lures to become his next apprentice. Darth Sidious, presenting himself as the upholder of peace and stability, uses his secret separatist army of clones to create turmoil, which serves as the pretext for the suspension of republic. Again, if Rubin is one of the noble members of the Jedi, such as Obi-Wan Kenobi, seeking to uncover the plot and prevent the young Anakin from being lured by Sidious, his quest to save democracy is more than welcome. What if Rubin is one of the characters on the dark side, though? The question then might very well be whether he is the master or the apprentice.

Rubin: master or apprentice?

Either Rubin's remarks are reflective of ignorance and naïveté at best -- Rubin the apprentice -- or a deliberate attempt to misinform and manipulate at worst -- Rubin the master. If it is the former, he either lives in a wonderland which does not correspond to the Turkey most reasonable people know of, or he is being taken for a ride by his Turkish informers. The best one could hope is that someone informs the young Rubin about the dangerous path he is taking. If it is the latter, those neo-nationalists who contemplate rallying behind Rubin better be careful lest they are reduced to his clone army. Clones are destroyed, too, when their date of expiry arrives and a new apprentice emerges.

Science fiction aside, the point I am trying to make here is that in any case, Rubin's claim that he is the one familiar with real Turkey needs to be approached carefully. His credibility to serve as the guru for Washington is questionable. If the current, or for that matter the forthcoming administrations, see Turkey as an important ally and are committed to the survival of Turkey's democracy, they will have to choose carefully their domestic allies in Turkish politics. If American administrations are going to be consulted by self-declared experts such as these and their ideological dogmatism and distorted analyses, the best one could say is "may the Force be with them," lest they fall victim to the spiel of the dark side.

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