September 29, 2016
Democracy, the “Great Debates,” and China
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
29 September 2016
The “Great Debates” between candidates Clinton and Trump encapsulate what is wrong with the US political process. There’s been little substance; it’s all about personalities and sound-bytes and gotcha. Never mind the grand issues of our time and how they should be handled—income inequality, corporate control of media, corporate-dominated electoral funding, global warming, long-term global refugee issues, jobs going overseas in perfect conformity with capitalist principles, wall street corruption, race relations, health care, etc. None of these have easy—or palatable— answers and so the system reverts to entertainment over substance. The Romans got it right way back—it’s all about bread and circuses. We have only the trappings of democracy to pretend that the people are actually deciding anything.
And it’s not new. Just read historical accounts of the savage political campaigns going back to our Founding Fathers down to the vituperative language of today. Sadly, this all may just reflect the human condition, locked in eternal struggles for power since cave men. Might generally makes right; but might today no longer flows from the cave-man’s club. Today it is control of the media, the banks, the political establishment. There will always a political establishment defending its own.
Let’s not forget Winston Churchill’s famous quote that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Corruption and incompetence may still be preferable to assassination or revolution that produce leaders nobody ever voted for.
When I was doing research among Islamists in the Middle East in years past I was struck by one comment about why many Islamists have been coming around to appreciation of some aspects of democracy. Islam has always placed great weight on the religious obligation of the ruler to rule justly, to provide good governance. But what if the ruler doesn’t? Many Islamists have observed that democracy at least enables you to get rid of a ruler whom you don’t want, by due process. That is no small advantage, even if the political wheels of democracy grind slowly.
So what’s different about today, if anything? Two things jump out: money and media.
“Money makes the world go round” and it certainly makes politics spin out of control. Is it not stunning to observe how, without the least trace of irony, the US campaign system treats solicitation of bribes (“fund-raising”) as a legitimate and newsworthy part of electoral competition? It’s basically about who can fetch the highest price in the influence market. Mark Twain, who got a lot of things right, commented that the US “had the best Congress money can buy.”
Now, only the naive would believe that influence-peddling is something new in the world. But to publicly champion the competition in which a candidate sells him/herself is really rather incredible. Recipients of contributions may claim they can remain independent-minded, but only a fool believes that when we receive a significant sum of money from a donor we are not influenced by that “gift.”
As for the media, of course it is not a public service. It is a line of business, whose owners also seek to mold public perceptions. (How many people are trying to kill off PBS?) Even the “paper of record,” the New York Times, routinely demonstrates striking bias: suppression of political candidates or voices who dare stray from mainstream establishment analysis. (How often do you ever seen the name of Noam Chomsky in the New York Times on any topic? Or find balance in its reporting on Russia, Israel, or China? Can we ignore the fact that mainstream media is bought and owned by an alarmingly small circle of wealthy who set general guidelines?
But what is really different these days is the pervasive reach of the media. One hundred and fifty years ago how many people ever heard the Lincoln-Douglas debates? How many people ever read newspapers? What other sources of information existed apart from the town-crier? Or a campaigner coming through town once-in-a-life-time on the back of a train in a whistle-stop campaign?
The transformation of politics into our modern infotainment is an invention of US political culture. And that invention is in the process of bringing the US down. Why? Because the issues that really matter are not discussed—because they are complex, can’t be reduced to sound-bytes, and nobody dares answer them honestly. Because image matters more than content.
And today this circus now occupies roughly half of any presidential term. US politics are now almost in perpetual election mode.
The circus atmosphere bids up extremist postures by candidates. Okay, candidates might not really quite mean what they say on the campaign trail; they might not really do what they claim they will (or will not) do. But the fact remains that the level of discussion is coarsened and dumbed-down. Incendiary sound-bytes linger in the political air long after they have been uttered, infusing greater demagogy to political process, especially in Congress, for the rest of the political cycle. And the establishment’s gameplay—what even President Obama recently referred to as “the Washington playbook”—is perpetuated.
Canadians complained when their last national election campaign was extended by loser prime minister Stephen Harper to run for eleven weeks. And Canadian politics are boring. Politics are not part of the entertainment scene. Maybe boring is good. It suggests things are more or less working.
The US, with the most advanced mass culture and mass info-technology in the world, has created this baleful system that is in the process of making the US ungovernable, its policies increasingly ineffective, its citizens angry, its foreign policies incoherent.
But, as with many American firsts, has the US now created a democratic model that may come to be emulated in the rest of the world? Hints of it can now be seen in Canada and the UK, maybe on the Continent.
So what is the way out? Reform of the US order would seem extremely difficult given its entrenched nature backed by so many powerful special interests.
Yet as the US democratic order becomes increasingly dysfunctional, we already see revolts taking place. But revolts the world over historically often lead to greater autocracy, dictatorship or even revolution from the left or right. We know well the resulting horrors that can emerge from that. But people will always demand stability, protection, fixes for problems that are ever more complex to answer.
Wise men have of course grappled with this problem for centuries. The US Founding Fathers tended to believe that day-to-day democracy should be insulated from the volatile passions of the people through more indirect government; the “wiser heads” of the Senate were supposed to balance the popular impulses as represented in the House. Presidents were elected “indirectly” through ostensibly “wiser” electoral colleges. All those arrangements, for what they were worth, broke down; such indirect elections are probably unachievable today.
Now let’s look at the other end of the spectrum. It’s interesting that China today is actually quietly touting to the rest of the world its own evolving system. Of course we recoil from the terrible catastrophes of Chinese regimes over most of the past century. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that China has been concerned with principles of good governance going back some three thousand years, including Confucian principles of the responsibility of “cultivated” or educated people to govern wisely; that was probably as good as it got in that era. More important, the state bureaucracy was selected through massive nation-wide examination systems to choose the most qualified. The system had its good periods and bad, almost on a 300 year cyclical basis—breakdown and restoration.
Today China is creeping back again, this time from the disasters of Chairman Mao towards a semblance of order and rationality in governance. It has implemented a series of often unusually effective policies that are slowly bringing an ever rising percent of the rural and urban poor into the middle class and a slightly freer life.
Now, I don’t want to live in China particularly. But consider the daunting challenges of running this country: one that was left behind in the last century or so, invaded by English and Japanese imperialists, massively misruled under fanatic communists (not all were fanatic) for fifty years, and now presides over a population approaching 1.4 billion people. China’s leaders operate on the razor’s edge: meeting pent-up demand after decades of deprivation, managing the transition of millions of peasants who want to come to the cities, feeding and housing everyone, maintaining industrial production while trying to reverse the terrible environmental damage wrought in earlier decades, to maintain stability, law and order while managing discontent that could turn violent, and to maintain the present ruling party in power to which there is no reasonable alternative as yet. That’s quite a high-wire act.
So if you were running China today, what would you advocate as the best policies and system to adopt? Chances are few of us would simply urge huge new infusions of democracy and rampant capitalism. The delicate balance of this frail recovering system needs to be guided with care. But it is basically working—as opposed to looming alternatives of chaos and poverty.
China today suggests to developing countries that China’s own model of controlled cautious light authoritarian leadership—where leaders are groomed over decades up through the ranks of the party— may be a more reliable system than, say, the bread and circuses of the US. That’s their view.
No one system has all the answers. But it’s worth observing that by now the US probably lies at one extreme of a political spectrum of bread-and-circus “democracy.” Can the system be reformed? Ever more serious questions arise about the present system’s ability to meet the challenge of this century—along multiple lines of measurements.
And, as world gets more complex, there is less room for radical individualism, whistle blowing, and dissent. Vital and complex infrastructural networks grow ever more vulnerable that can bring a state down. The state moves to protect itself. The strengthening of the state against the individual has already shifted heavily since the Global War on Terror and even more so under Obama.
I’m not suggesting that China is the model to be emulated. But we better note how it represents one rational vision of functioning governance of the future—under difficult circumstances—at one end of the spectrum. The US lies at the other. Is there anything that might lie somewhere between these two highly diverse systems of governance?
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com
September 14, 2016
What is Eurasianism?
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
13 September 2016
You might recall the term “Eurasia” from high school geography classes. The term isn’t used much any more in political discussions in the West, but it should be. That is where the most serious geopolitical action is going to be taking place in the world as we move deeper into the 21st century. The US, focused so intently on “containment” of Russia, ISIS, and China will be missing the bigger Eurasian strategic picture.
Eurasia is the greatest landmass of the world, embracing Europe and all of Asia—some of the oldest and greatest centers of human civilization.
So what is Eurasianism? It has meant different things at different periods. A century ago, the Kissingers of the time spun theories about a deep and inevitable strategic clash between sea-borne power (UK/US) and continental/land-based powers (Germany, Russia.) “Eurasia” then meant mostly Europe and western Russia. Indeed, what need was there to talk then about Asia itself? Most of Asia was underdeveloped and lay under the control of the British Empire (India, China) or the French (Indo-China) and had no independent will. Japan was the only real “Asian power”—that ironically developed its own imperial designs, mimicking the West, and thus came to clash with American imperial power in the Pacific.
Today of course all that is different. Eurasia increasingly means “Asia” in which the “Euro” part figures modestly. Furthermore, China has now become the center of Eurasia as the world’s largest economy. Not surprisingly, China (like the Muslim world) projects a decidedly “anti-imperial” bent based on what it sees as its humiliation at the hands of the West (and Japan) during its two-hundred year eclipse—during one of its dynastic down-cycles. But China is very much back now into a classic “up-cycle” mode of power and influence again and is determined to project its weight and influence. India too now is now a rapidly developing power with regional reach. And Japan, while quiescent, still represents formidable economic power, perhaps to be augmented by greater military regional reach.
The significance of the term “Eurasian” has changed a good deal, but it still suggests strategic rivalry. At a time when the US formally declares its intent to militarily dominate the world (“full spectrum dominance” was the official Pentagon doctrine in 2000) the concept of Eurasianism is responding with vigor. And not just in China, but in its new significance for countries like Russia, Iran, even Turkey. It suggests a sense of the eclipse of dominant western power in the face of new Asian power.
It’s not all just about military and money. It’s also cultural. Russian culture has for two centuries maintained a lively debate about whether Russia belongs to the West, or embodies a distinctly Eurasian (yevraziiskaya) culture that is separate from the West. Eurasianists represent a significant force within Russian strategic and military thinking (although Putin, interestingly, does not fully embrace this world-view.)
The idea is a vague but culturally important one; it grapples with Russian identity. It speaks of a Slavic culture but with deep Eurasian roots even in an old Turkic and Tatar past. Remember that historically it is the modern West that torched Russia twice: witness the invasions of Napoleon and Hitler up to the gates of Moscow. Nato today probes ever more deeply all around the Russian periphery. The Eurasianists are suspicious of, if not hostile to, the West as a permanent threat to “Holy Mother Russia.” “Eurasianism” will always lurk just beneath the surface in the Russian strategic world-view.
That is what Russia’s new Eurasian Economic Union is all about, a goal to at least economically unite Belarus, the Central Asian states and others into a greater Eurasian economic whole. (Oil-rich Kazakstan was actually the author of the concept; it will seek to maintain ties with the West; but look at it its place on a world map to see where Kazakstan’s real long-term options lie. Russia may not now be the best economic star to tie one’s future to, but it is just one of many Eurasian vehicles out there and they are not mutually exclusive. Options bring greater security.
China is moving in stunningly ambitious directions in creating the new Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (that 57 states have signed onto including most European states, Canada and Australia—but conspicuously without Japan so far, or the US.) This creates a new Eurasian-focused central banking instrument with strong Chinese influence. China is also projecting massive new transportation networks (the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road —“One Belt One Road”) across Eurasia to China linking China to Europe, the Middle East, Central and South Asia, and the Far East by rail, road, and sea. China’s “Eurasian strategy” is already a burgeoning reality. Yes, suspicions and rivalries exist between Russia and China and India and Japan. But the strong economic and developmental thrust of these proposals differ markedly from the American more “security” focused organization with its worrisome military implications.
Not only has Washington fought these Chinese and Eurasian initiatives unsuccessfully, but it is US policies in particular—that identify both Russia and China as the presumptive enemy—that
have helped bring Russia and China together on many issues, linked now by shared distrust of US global military ambitions.
Japan, incidentally, before World War II had its own doctrine of “Eurasianism” —an effort to identify with and stir up Asian peoples and territories against western colonial domination; this strategy could have been quite effective had it not been accompanied by Japan’s own brutal military invasions of East Asian countries, destroying the credibility of the Japanese “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.” Today Japan hasn’t moved its location; it will still have to deal with the reality of Chinese power in the East. And what Japanese leader would seriously pursue a long range policy of hostility to China in support of a US Pacific strategy that is inherently designed to bottle up China? Especially when China and Japan are huge mutual trading and investment partners?
Iran is keenly interested in balancing against geopolitical pressures from the US and seeks membership in these Russian and Chinese economic development institutions. Iran is a natural “Eurasian “ and “Silk Road” power.
Turkey has gotten into the Eurasian game, again. Going back to the early days of Erdogan’s AK Party foreign policy— in the vision of then foreign minister Davutoglu—Turkey was no longer limited to being a western power, but also proclaimed its geopolitical interests (nearly a hundred years after the fall of the Ottoman Empire) in the Middle East, and indeed, Eurasia. (After all, the Turks originally come from Eurasia, having migrated west from Lake Baikal a thousand years ago.) That means serious ties with Russia, combined with deep ethnic, cultural and historical ties with Central Asia, and with China. Turkey (like Iran and Pakistan) seeks to be part of these Russian and Chinese networks. And, among some Turkish nationalist politicians and military officers (including many secular Kemalists) there is strong “Eurasianist” leaning to expand Turkey’s geopolitical options to explore strategic and cultural ties with Eurasia. It also reflects an expression of distrust of western and US efforts to dominate the region.
For Turkey this is not an either/or issue. It can seek to be part of Europe (including Nato) but will not relinquish the broad geostrategic alternative options to the East, with its ever greater economic clout, and roads and rails to link it.
In short, the new Eurasianism is no longer about nineteenth century land and sea power. It is an acknowledgment that the era of western (and especially US) global dominance is over. Washington can no longer command (or afford) a longer-term bid to dominate Eurasia. In economic terms no state in the region, including Turkey, would be foolish enough to turn its back on this rising “Eurasian” potential that also offers strategic balance and economic options.
There are, of course, huge fault-lines across Eurasia—ethnic, economic, strategic, and some degree of rivalry. But the more Washington attempts to contain or throttle Eurasianism as a genuine rising force, the greater will be the determination of states to become part of this rising Eurasian world, even while not rejecting the West.
All countries like to have alternatives. They don’t like to lie beholden to a single global power that tries to call the shots. America’s narrative of what the global order is all about is no longer accepted globally. Furthermore it is no longer realistic. It would seem short-sighted for Washington to continue focus upon expanding military alliances while most of the rest of the world is looking to greater prosperity and rising regional clout. (China’s military expenditures are about one quarter of US spending.)
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com
August 25, 2016
Burkas, Burkinis, Veils and Women’s Rights
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
25 August 2016
Symbolism matters. Especially when it comes to other people’s cultures. Most recently we see the old/new issue about Muslim women’s dress, especially now grabbing headlines in France where “Islamic beachwear” or the “burkini” (burka-bikini), has been banned in several Riviera beach towns. France of course leads the world in its militantly secular posture on cultural and civic affairs. As well as the symbol of the bikini itself. (Topless—I won’t even go there.)
There are at least two ways of looking at this: one from the perspective of much of the Muslim world, the other from the perspective of western countries. The main difference here is this: westerners or others have of course right to express personal opinions on this issue, but have no authority overseas to decide on the issues that essentially affect Muslim women and local practices in the Muslim world. (Unless we are talking about gross violations of human rights which this is not.) It is Muslim men and women who have to decide for themselves what norms they seek on social dress codes for their own countries and cultures. In the Muslim world there is no unanimity, and furthermore the issue is evolving with time.
Let’s be clear—I’m talking about here the wearing of full face and body covering (burka), not about women’s modest Islamic dress such as the hijab—more like a nun’s habit—that covers the hair but not the face.
I happen to personally believe that women’s place in society is basically held back by the wearing of the full body and face covering (burka). That is indisputably the case in the West, but even in the East as well. But that is just my personal opinion. Some women, even some feminists, disagree. They make the case—which is hard to refute—that the state should get out of the business of telling women what they should wear (or do with their bodies.) As for men, few states seriously dictate what they should wear. In Kemalist Turkey women were banned from public jobs or access to university for wearing the hijab or head-scarf. Yet in Iran, women were not allowed in public unless they wore a hijab—they didn’t have to wear a burka. In both Iran and Turkey women are highly active in nearly all walks of life. So from a perspective of freedom, women should have the right to wear what they want. (Although it is often what the husband or family wants that prevails.)
In the West (or outside the Muslim world) the issue becomes more complicated. Citizens in the West can and do express their views on social norms or even vote on such matters in their own country. Western societies can make it more difficult, or easier, for Muslims to integrate into western societies through their public attitudes. I daresay a majority of westerners are probably fine with Muslim women wearing hijabs—we see them all over the place now—but are discomfited by a faceless woman in a burka. It seems like it represents the ultimate negation of personality (even if it is not intended to be.) It severely hinders social interaction and ultimately, social integration—certainly in the West, and in the job market.
There is also the case made by some (neoconservative writer Daniel Pipes, for example) who argues that there is a security issue here as well—that there are documented cases in his native Philadelphia of armed criminals masquerading in burkas to conceal their identity. Such cases exist, but I think are far overrated; the worst terrorist acts in the West have not involved such burka disguises. For that matter a hoodie serves as a pretty good disguise itself. In Canada recently a woman refused to remove her veil in a citizenship swearing-in ceremony on grounds of personal modesty. Yet it turned out the she was probably more interested in making a bold public statement about her rights in Canada (since she had readily removed the veil earlier for purposes of a photo ID for her citizenship certificate.) So my guess is that security issues around burkas deserve less consideration in the West. That said, any time personal identification is required in the West—banks, airport security, law procedures, driving—the burka must be put aside (in my view as a citizen).
Muslims can certainly make the case that they have a right to exercise their traditions and customs while living in the West—and let’s be clear that there is no remote consensus among Muslims in the West on what those customs should be—they are also the ones seeking to come to western countries and take up residence and citizenship. It is not unreasonable for western governments to ask that they conform to some common western norms if they wish to be granted the privilege of entry and citizenship. It is the price of admission—they are not compelled to seek permanent entry if they find the social milieu uncomfortable.
Above all, it’s important not to get too worked up over all of this. In the grand sweep of history it is just a passing moment, but of course for us living now, it is our passing moment. Still, time and society have a way of progressing. Immigrant societies like Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand, most of Latin America, have watched waves of immigrants from all over the world arrive with their own unique customs and ultimately grow more integrated, even assimilated, almost invariably to the enrichment of the receiving society. And there just aren’t that many cases of residents wearing burkas in the West.
The burka issue is a hot button right now because it is emotionally linked to other hot issues—refugees, immigration, Middle East turmoil, terrorism, and national identities— issues that figure prominently in the headlines today. But in the longer run human beings are all integrating, homogenizing, slowly but inexorably, so that one hundred years from now the standard facial appearance of western citizens will be different than it is today—much less “”European.” And by then that will have become our ho-hum norm.
In the meantime, let the burkini-wearing conservative Muslim woman and the topless French female, regard at each other as they both frolic in the waves at St. Tropez. (The burkini actually does reveal the face.) Their societies will eventually work this out hopefully without governments having to weigh in with their cultural rule books. And yes, of course their are anti-Muslim prejudices involved in many cases. And the power relationships among the parties are not equal either. They never are.
But still, I doubt the burka has much of a future in the West. I can’t speak for the rest.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com
August 17, 2016
Erdogan in Russia—No Turning Point
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
17 August 2016
Barely more than a few weeks after the failed coup in Turkey, President Erdogan surprised the world by turning up for a meeting in Saint Petersburg with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Many observers in the West view the event darkly, as a sign that perhaps Erdogan is now making a strategic about-face to embrace Russia. This meeting, while coming fast on the heels of the coup, does not really represent a great surprise and should not be viewed as some sinister new departure in Turkey’s strategic posture.
It’s important to remember that the foreign policy introduced in 2003 by Erdogan’s party, the AKP, already represented a major new departure in Turkey’s foreign policy orientation. Erdogan’s foreign policy guru, and later foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, proclaimed a new policy of “zero problems” with neighbors. Suddenly, and for the first time in the history of modern Turkey, Ankara decided to dramatically reverse its previously bad relations over fifty years with virtually all of its neighbors, and declared a desire to reach accommodation and resolve long-standing tensions with states where cold relations had previously existed. The new vision opened a huge new chapter for Turkey in international relations.
Washington of course was not pleased with these shifts since they entailed Turkey’s improving ties with countries whom Washington had sought to weaken and isolate: Iran, Russia, Iraq, Syria, China, Hamas, and Hizballah, whose influence the US sought to constrict. Turkey further determined that US policies in the region were failing, unproductive, unrealistic, dangerous, and against the interests of Turkey—and perhaps of the region as a whole as Washington plunged into war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and military incursions into Pakistan and Somalia. In my view as well Turkish assessments of US strategic errors and miscalculations were not far off the mark. Ankara famously denied the US military the right to invade Iraq from Turkish soil at the last minute in 2003.
Thus a decade ago we had already heard much discussion in the US press about whether Turkey had “gone off the reservation,” or had ceased to be a reliable ally of the US. Indeed Ankara was no longer a “reliable ally.” Historically that had meant that Ankara would follow the US lead in Middle East policy. No longer. Ankara had truly set out on an independent path in keeping with its perceptions of its own interests, and they generally ran counter to what Washington wanted. That particularly included burgeoning strategic and economic ties with Russia.
Indeed, Turkey no longer considered itself to be uniquely a “western power” but also a Middle Eastern one, and went on to declare its historical, cultural, economic, and strategic interests in the Caucasus, Eurasia, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and even newly expanding interests into Latin America. These initiatives were accompanied at the time by an expansion of the Gülenist network of schools and commercial ties in all these areas as well, with the full blessing of the Turkish foreign ministry as representing a new source of Turkish soft power. At that time overall Turkish relations with Washington were cool and Erdogan was disliked.
But Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” had represented a fresh and productive policy as Turkey became the number sixteen developing nation in the world with spreading interests; in 2013 Turkish airlines served more countries than any other airline in the world. It entered the process of globalization and its economy boomed. But Turkish foreign policy successes were to bite the dust with the onset of the Arab Spring, a phenomenon which no one foresaw, and which no country handled well, including Washington or Ankara. Erdogan, long a mentor to Asad in Damascus, soon became obsessed with overthrowing him—the signal foreign policy error Turkey committed. Turkish involvement in the Syrian conflict led eventually to the unravelling of its good ties with virtually every neighbor, undoing the foreign policy gains of a decade.
So looking at the present situation we need to see it in the perspective of the events of the last decade. Turkey is not “drifting away from Washington” as such—it had long since already done so. It is not now suddenly cozying up to Russia—it had already long done so. It was only the toxic character of the Syrian mess that had also severely damaged Turkish relations with Moscow, culminating in the Turkish shutdown of a Russian fighter aircraft on the Syrian-Turkish border. That is now being righted.
Following the failed putsch attempt against him on 15 July of this year, Erdogan has indeed found little warmth or support from the West. Indeed, there has long been little love for him in the West, even though all countries appropriately condemned the coup attempt as an unwelcome blow to the Turkish democratic order. Whatever sympathy Erdogan might have won even then was largely weakened by his subsequent sweeping purges in the military, the judiciary, police, educational and financial system against any and all potential opposition to Erdogan from any quarter—not just Gülen, now reaching well over 60,000 people cashiered or arrested.
Erdogan is thus somewhat isolated in the West where he is viewed as mercurial, erratic, and seeking authoritarian powers at home. But his efforts to restore his ties damaged ties with Russia and the East does not represent a bold new break or a slap to the West, so much as a return to his original foreign policies of a decade ago. Indeed he is now moving to again mend the damage to nearly all Ankara’s foreign ties so heavily damaged during Ankara’s Syrian adventure. This is not surprising, and from Erdogan’s point of view, eminently sensible. He seeks to shore up his basis of foreign support to the maximum degree on all fronts. But he is also highly unlikely to abandon NATO since it represents his key institutionalized relationship with the West.
After the disastrous state of Turkish-Russian relations over the past year or so, they had nowhere to go but up. Turkish ties with Russia are not unnatural, especially after the breakup of the Soviet Union, centering on energy, trade and tourism. Russia is of major importance to Ankara. The two share many common interests from the Balkans, across the Middle East to the Caucasus and Central Asia. They may be partial rivals in the region, but stability benefits both.
Thus these developments do not represent a genuine new setback to the US in the region— unless one views America’s number one interest in the region to be the exclusion of Russian influence at all cost. That is really old think—and quite unrealistic.
July 22, 2016
Islamists at War in Turkey
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
20 July 2016
Last week witnessed what may be the last act of an unfolding struggle between two major Islamic movements in Turkey. Turkish president and leader of the AKP party Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused exiled Islamic leader Fethullah Gülen of plotting the failed coup against the government. Immediately thereafter Erdogan has unleashed massive Stalin-style purges and arrests across the country of anyone suspected of any connection with Gülen, or indeed of anyone of any ideology who opposes Erdogan.
First of all, when we talk about Islamic leaders in Turkey, we’re talking about a very different scene than in most of the rest of the Muslim world. In Turkey it’s basically about a struggle among Islamic moderates. Neither Erdogan nor Gülen call for any kind of Islamic State, or Shari’a law, or Caliphate, or jihad against the West. They both operate fairly comfortably within a primarily secular state structure established a century ago by the country’s modernizing secularist founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. We’re not really talking about Islam or theology but power and influence. (And politics in Turkey has always been a fairly rough game, even within a basically democratic order.)
But there are important differences between the two groups. Erdogan runs a political party, Gülen operates a civil movement called Hizmet (Service). Erdogan comes out of a more traditional Sunni Turkish Islamist movement; Gülen comes out of an a-political, more Sufi, mystical and social tradition. Gülen is interested in slow, deep social change including secular higher education; Erdogan as a party leader is first and foremost interested in preserving his party’s power that operates in a populist manner trying to raise the general welfare.
But looking at the dramatically failed coup attempt against Erdogan last week, I believe it is unlikely that Gülen was the mastermind behind it. Of course in the absence of evidence so far no one can speak with certainty. Gulen’s social movement probably has well over a million followers or sympathizers who are not under centralized control. With the arrests of tens of thousands this week and the use of torture already evident, there is no telling what kind of “confessions” will be generated. Erdogan demands the US extradite Gülen (resident in the US) to Turkey, but Washington does not usually extradite political figures unless the evidence is highly persuasive in a US court.
More importantly, Erdogan’s sensational and sweeping charges against Gülen seem to fly in the face of most logic. Consider the following:
-Erdogan had already largely crushed Hizmet before the coup. Erdogan was enraged in 2013 at the publication—by Gülen followers— of police wiretap evidence of widespread corruption within Erdogan’s own circles. He undertook a massive and ongoing purge against Hizmet’s members, activists, supporters, officials, financial institutions, television stations, newspapers, educational and social institutions. He conducted widespread purges within the police and judiciary. Hizmet institutions were devastated. Its members knew their base had been crippled and understood the need to regroup as a movement, perhaps working more closely with liberal and even secular forces to maintain democracy, to protect against a return of military power, and to prevent Erdogan’s widening abuses of authority.
-Gülen has always supported the concept of the importance and dignity of the state, in the best Ottoman tradition. He has supported the state against earlier Islamist movements that raised Islam over the state. He even felt compelled to support the military takeover of the state in 1980 in order to preserve the state in the face of left-wing right-wing guerrilla warfare raging in the streets. Basically, however, he supports democracy over military rule as the surest guarantee for the freedom of Hizmet to exist and conduct its social mission.
Gülen immediately denounced last week’s coup as well. Was he merely dissembling? Unlikely, since it is consistent with Gülen’s discomfort with military rule over long years. Furthermore, Hizmet has never been involved in terrorist activities at any time so support for violence in this case is extremely unlikely. The charge that Hizmet is a “terrrorist organization” is absurd to anyone with the least knowledge of the movement which emphasizes peace and dialog.
-Gülen arguably lacked even the capability to organize a serious coup in an army that over decades has rigorously weeded Hizmet followers out—indeed any officers showing any religious beliefs. Turkish intelligence has also been all over the movement for years, amassing massive dossiers. Why would Gülen choose to attempt a coup, contrary to all his views, and at a time of maximum weakness vis-a-vis Erdogan?
-The coup leaders called themselves “Peace at Home Council.” Peace at Home (yurtta sulh) is part of a famous slogan of Atatürk, not associated with Gülen.
-It beggars the imagination to believe that the now tens of thousand of purged and arrestees in all walks of life—police, army, judiciary, universities, banks, schools, media— are all terrorist enemies of the state. Clearly Erdogan is seizing the occasion to eliminate any and all opposition to his plans to create a new super-powerful presidency for himself. Erdogan will find many even within his own party who are dismayed at his reach for total power—but are cowed into silence. Once objective journalists now watch their words.
(Full disclosure: It is on public record that I wrote a letter as a private citizen in connection with Gülen’s US green card application in 2006 stating that I did not believe that Gülen constituted a security threat to the US. This came shortly after I had finished a book (The Future of Political Islam) that involved extensive travel and interviews with Islamists around the world. In that context I found Hizmet to be remarkably moderate, tolerant, non-violent, open to dialog, a strong proponent of education as the means to empower Muslims in a globalizing future, and a social rather than political movement. But in the years of Bush’s Global War on Terrorism many neoconservatives in Washington were agitating to deport Gülen—among many hundreds of other Muslim clerics—as a security risk to the US. I found the charge baseless. Indeed, I still believe that HIzmet as a movement represents one of the most encouraging faces of contemporary Islam in the world. I wanted the FBI to at least be aware of my considered personal opinion as they considered his case. Since then enemies of Gülen and many conspiratorial-minded Turks decided to connect the dots: the fact that I was a CIA official (I had retired from CIA 18 years before), and that I had spoken out in defense of Gülen, constituted clear “proof” that that Gülen is a CIA agent.)
Gülen’s own movement is hardly without its faults. Gülen is an old-school figure, 75 years old, reclusive, often not in touch with daily aspects of the organization. HIzmet has not been a transparent organization—hence viewed as “shadowy.” But in past decades when membership in Hizmet (or any Islamic movement in Turkey) constituted grounds for possible prosecution in Turkey, its members kept a low profile, often hiding their affiliation. That changed after the AKP came to power in 2002. Many members of Hizmet then became free to seek positions in government (if qualified). In particular they sought jobs in the police and judiciary, to a large measure to ensure that police powers would never be wielded against them (or the AKP) again as in the past. The tide has now turned and the full powers of Erdogan-controlled police are being used against Hizmet members. Sadly the police have regularly been a political football in Turkish politics over the years.
But in the end this is not just politics. We are talking about a critical issue: what kind of movements will represent Islam’s future? ISIS? Al-Qaeda? The Muslim Brotherhood? As Islamic movements go, I would rank Hizmet high on the list of rational, moderate, socially constructive and open-minded organizations. It is not a “cult”; it sits squarely in mainstream modernizing Islam.
Erdogan’s own AKP had once been a remarkable model. Indeed, if Erdogan had retired from politics in 2011 with all the party’s accomplishments he would certainly go down in history as the greatest prime minister in the history of democratic Turkey. But, as with so many leaders, after a decade in power corruption sets in, leaders lose their touch, grow isolated, even power-hungry. Erdogan is now in the process of destroying virtually everything his party created in the first decade of governance. His sweeping purges and the pall of fear and uncertainty is destroying Turkey itself.
How will it end? Erdogan has beaten Hizmet decisively. But Erdogan is planting the seeds for his own destruction. How and when he will fall remains unclear. Meanwhile on the international scene Turkey is rapidly becoming a pariah. The country itself is now his primary victim.
July 16, 2016
Turkey’s Lose-Lose Coup Situation
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
16 July 2016
The dismaying coup events in Turkey may take some time to be resolved. But one thing is already clear—this attempt at military intervention, however the final scenario plays itself out, is a disastrous lose-lose event for everyone in Turkey.
If the military coup against Erdogan “succeeds,” we will have witnessed the return to the ugly tradition of military intervention involving at least four past coups against legitimately elected governments. Nearly all observers (including myself) believed that the half century of regular military coups were finally over. The governing AK Party had seemingly successfully banished the military at long last back to the barracks, with the grateful support of most of the country. If this coup “succeeds” it plunges Turkey back into the same trap of “tutelary oversight” by the military that had been the ugly hallmark of earlier Turkish governance.
Coups generally leave disastrous legacies in countries that are working towards established democracy. How legitimate can any successor government be, when elected with the assistance of the military that pulled the plug on the last government?
AKP supporters who represent the biggest single political bloc in Turkey right now are appropriately enraged at this blatantly illegal effort to overthrow their legitimately elected government. If those seeking to remove Erdogan are doing so on the basis of his domestic religious policies, it will confirm the belief of the large traditional religious segment of the population that the military and the old guard secularists and “Ataturkists,” as usual, are anti-Islam. At a time when externally supported jihadi Islamist movements like ISIS have wreaked havoc in Turkey through their devastating terrorist acts, the factor of religion in domestic politics will be ratcheted up several notches in an dangerous way.
Erdogan will appear a victim to his party’s large number of followers—even a “martyr” if he is jailed. A jailed Erdogan—a legitimately elected president— will be a dangerous presence to any successor government that will operate under the stigma of serving at the discretion of the military.
Class and ideological lines in Turkey will be intensified and move into the realm of more regular political violence. The unresolved Kurdish struggle is likely to grow more violent as well.
Turkish liberals and secularist Kemalists who had come to loathe Erdogan face the choice of either accepting another coup crippling the democratic order, or supporting Erdogan as a legitimate leader despite their intense dislike of his policies. For many liberals, a coup will be perceived as institutionally worse than Erdogan’s arbitrary, autocratic, willful, erratic and self-serving policies of the past few years.
The military will likely be deeply divided over the issue, also not a healthy as the tradition of military intervention into politics is resuscitated yet again. Some kind of broad civil conflict could well emerge that will require military intervention to keep order.
If Erdogan succeeds in crushing the coup, the outlook is hardly better. The military actors involved will have demonstrated their incompetence and their constitutional unreliability. Their institutional prestige will suffer markedly. Worse, Erdogan’s illiberal and authoritarian tendencies, which had grown increasingly disturbing over the past few years, will be hugely strengthened. He will grow more paranoid and self-obsessed. The events will provide him with far more compelling grounds for further crushing of political opposition. Erdogan had already moved to undercut a free press and an independent judiciary and has been seeking to arrogate to himself new powers of a “super-presidency” via constitutional change. An Erdogan who has survived a coup attempt will be far harsher, vindictive and illiberal and will unleash greater political and judicial powers against political opposition.
Erdogan’s mistakes, failings and the growing corruption of his government have already massively discredited his administration. He has been in the process of discrediting and undermining the long series of remarkable accomplishments of his party’s first decade of rule.
It is imperative that Erdogan be removed from power the same way he came to power—by the ballot box. His increasingly irresponsible administration must be voted down and out of office, putting effective end to his claim to being a successful leader any more.
Removing Erdogan by force protects him from the final repudiation — by the voters. No one knows exactly at what point the majority of voters would have turned against him, but that is the process by which all democracies remove failing politicians whose term of office comes to an end. A coup rescues him from such electoral defeat.
The military, or those elements that attempted the coup, may justify their intervention on the basis of rising disorder in Turkey due to the recent spread of terrorism. Erdogan’s disastrous foreign policies over the past few years, and especially in Syria greatly contributed to the rise of jihadi terrorism in Turkey, largely carried out by non-Turks. (These recent foreign policy failures stand in bold contrast to his inspired and successful foreign policies of his early years.)
The coup plotters could conceivably gain some public support for their actions by claiming the need to maintain order in the country in the wake of devastating foreign-inspired terrorist attacks, rather than simply opposing Erdogan’s domestic policies. But if they justify their actions on the basis of “protecting Turkish secularism” they fall into the same tired Kemalist ideological line that has justified every single Turkish coup in modern history. However much Erdogan has exploited religious in his policies, his other failings are far more serious, and “defense of secularism” provides no credible justification for military action.
Whether the coup “succeeds” or fails, it has already done irreparable damage to Turkey’s political tradition and its political future. It besmirches Turkey’s international standing which had seemingly emerged into the bloc of democratic states that had appeared to put an end to force and military intervention in their domestic politics.
However this coup event comes out, Turkey and Turkish politics have lost badly. Erdogan indeed deserves to be defeated on many grounds. But it must be by the ballot box, not by a military coup.
July 9, 2016
NATO versus the EU?
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
9 July 2016
The NATO summit is over. Most Americans unfailingly believe NATO generously serves EU interests. Yet many Europeans don’t see it that way. They fear that NATO actually undermines a balanced Europe. Is it NATO with the EU? Or NATO versus the EU?
The two organizations were created by different states for differing purposes and with differing goals; indeed, some might say partially incompatible goals.
The EU vision was to bring European peoples, states and countries—at bloody war among themselves for long centuries—to renounce war as a instrument to solve European problems, to find common cause, and to cooperate in a common economic endeavor. It is an exceptional aim—the first time in human history when multiple states have freely yielded up significant elements of national sovereignty in order to partake in a common project.
Yet the US has always felt geopolitical ambivalence towards the EU. Washington in principle applauded the ideal—a unified, peaceful and prosperous continent. But it also understood that the formation of the EU created a new counterweight that could hinder American ability to dominate politics on the European continent. For America, it was NATO that was a far more congenial and useful mechanism than the EU. NATO focused on Washington’s primary agenda—checking the Soviet Union in a global struggle. To the extent that the EU strengthened that goal, fine; but to the extent that the EU weakened European resolve to stand against Russia, it was much less desirable. NATO was American’s creature, the EU was not.
With the fall of the USSR, President George H.W. Bush (not “W”) gave verbal assurances to Russia that the West would not seek to capitalize on the Soviet collapse. With Russia’s astonishing acquiescence to the reunification of Germany the US gave assurances that there would be no NATO expansionism into former Soviet East Bloc states. Needless to say, that promise was violated, and continues to be violated as neoconservative zealots in Washington seek to scoop up every small state on the Russian periphery and enlist them in the anti-Russian NATO cause (including Georgia, or the Ukraine, or Kyrgyzstan, or even Montenegro.)
The peaceful collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1991 also posed a difficult question: what would be the rationale for NATO’s continued existence? All organizations seek to perpetuate their own existence and NATO became almost desperate for a new mission—a new enemy. Washington was loath to yield up its key instrument of control in European politics.
But how much do European geopolitical goals mesh with American ones? This too depends on one’s geopolitical vision of the world. For Europe, war among its members is virtually unthinkable. But Washington and NATO have a vested interest in maintaining a Russian threat as the center piece of EU geopolitics. Today the US, including virtually all of its mainstream media, adopt reflexive anti-Russian positions. In US-sponsored parlance, Putin now represents a “resurgent threat.” Indeed, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs incredibly informs Congress that Russia represents America’s number one existential threat. Aggressive NATO maneuvers at the very doorstep of Russia help make this a self-fulfilling prophesy.
The EU has far less desire for confrontation or gratuitous demonization of Moscow. It sees little benefit and much potential harm in it. Germany in particular, given its history, geopolitical vision, and location, certainly seeks a modus vivendi with Russia. Is such a modus vivendi against US interests?
Many Europeans remain highly ambivalent about whether it is NATO, or the EU, that better represents their own geopolitical concerns. NATO is at heart an American institution, the EU is not. Indeed any real back door influence the US had in the EU came from the ever-loyal UK (which is why Brexit is such a disaster for the US in Europe.) And of course there are a number of small insecure neighbors living next to the Russian bear who will eternally champion US intervention. Life next to any great power is never easy. Herding such states into the US column is an unwise foreign policy strategy.
For Washington, even as the EU’s future falls into question, NATO is seen as the default, near surrogate organization for keeping Europe together in some fashion. It can serve as both an instrument against Russia, or as an arm of US global military outreach under the “multilateral cover” of NATO. Washington is uncomfortable in watching the EU, as an economic and political organization, work closely with Russia. Indeed Germany, given its location, history and power, will be the quintessential European interlocutor with Russia—and thus most likely the major voice of reason and balance in East-West relations. Germany, more than any other European power, will also bear the brunt of any potential hostilities with Russia. That is why the German foreign minister himself made cautionary comments a few weeks ago that NATO’s largest ever military exercises off Poland since 1991 constituted provocative sabre-rattling towards Russia.
In this sense, then, Washington’s geopolitical agenda has in fact served to undermine the EU. Washington strongly urged the immediate inclusion of as many former states of the East Bloc as possible in the EU, seeking to glue them into a hopefully more anti-Russian western “bloc.” But many European leaders had serious and sensible doubts about the appropriateness of EU membership for most of these states—and not on geopolitical grounds. Many lacked any democratic tradition, had disastrous economies, suffered serious corruption, bad governance, and were economic basket cases. To encourage their economic development is one thing; indeed Russia acknowledges that it too can benefit from EU presence around Russia, as long as the EU was seen as an economic project and not a strategic security one.
The upshot of US pressures was that EU membership expanded far too rapidly and prematurely; stringent conditions for admission to the EU were often softened in favor of American geopolitical goals. And now, not surprisingly, many of these states now struggle to meet EU criteria; they import into Europe neo-fascist views, represent a net drain on the EU, and often have little interest in adopting EU social and democratic values. For them war with Russia is actually quite thinkable. Especially after suffering under half a century of disastrous Soviet rule.
The EU, sadly, could still conceivably collapse as a project. If so, it will not be because of Brexit as such. One key reason will be because EU expansion brought too many diverse states into a complex union arrangement. After all, even parts of the early EU “south”—Greece, Portugal or Spain, are still struggling to make it under EU rules. (And indeed, EU rules may need to be rejiggered in the face of lessons-learned.).
The hard question must be posed about whether Washington itself has not been pursuing a highly confrontational and aggressive set of policies against Moscow. In this context there is an important place for an independent European geopolitical, strategic and security policy. Europe, however, approaches these issues very differently from Washington. Russia, as a significant (and bruised) great power, is still trying to find its place in the new post-Soviet geopolitical space. Russia needs to be tightly bound into diplomatic and organizational ties with the EU. Indeed it seeks to be a partner in discussion of common legitimate issues of stability and economics in Eastern Europe. Putin shows signs of great willingness to do so because Russia too can gain economically. Russia is not operating as a spoiler unless the EU adopts a hostile position towards Moscow.
Aggressive military posturing by NATO (“maintaining NATO credibility”) is not the way to go about creating a new European space. Europe is basically quite capable of defending itself given its wealthy economies and technical know-how that even extends to weapons production. Europe does not need to be chivied up by Washington to develop a more “robust posture” towards Russia. It is Europe’s own future and they need to chart it themselves. The US cannot operate as the anxious helicopter parent ready to intervene over European foreign policies.
Now, there is quite legitimate room for serious discussion about what Russia’s policies and intentions are towards Europe. But it must include serious and frank discussion of cause-and-effect in East-West tensions. How much did talk of bringing Ukraine into NATO—taking with it what has for centuries been Russia’s sole warm water port in the Black Sea—spark Putin’s decision not to allow this naval and shipping base of extreme importance from reverting to NATO? How would the US react to threatened loss of its south-eastern ports to a hostile foreign power (or even the Panama Canal)? How much did these unwise policies towards Ukraine, and the western sponsored coup against the elected (but incompetent) government of Ukraine, helped trigger Putin’s response in destabilizing eastern Ukraine? Such issues require honest analysis.Yet such searching and objective analysis of the sources of recent NATO-Russian confrontation is shockingly absent in most “responsible” media in the US, including in the persistently biased New York Times coverage of all things Russian.
How independent does Europe and the EU wish to be? How much is it willing to be dragged into the US global strategic agenda with Washington’ preponderantly military approach to global issues? Remarkably French president Hollande just yesterday remarked upon arriving at the NATO conference, “NATO has no role at all to be saying what Europe’s relations with Russia should be. For France, Russia is not an adversary, not a threat.” It may well be time for the EU to consider again its own independent military force—a project to which the US could contribute, but not control.
Is it not then legitimate to ask: aren’t we really talking about NATO versus the EU in this new strategic era?
June 25, 2016
Brexit- Whistling Past the Graveyard
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
25 June 2016
What an irony that Great Britain should be the one country in the world to deliver what could be the coup de grâce to the modern European order and to a meaningful Atlantic relationship. It is incredible that the population of the UK should have so thoughtlessly lurched into such a breathtakingly regressive, ignorant, narrow-minded and destructive act in our contemporary world. However good the 52% who voted in favor may feel about torpedoing this major experiment in the making of a new European world order, their heads are firmly implanted in the sand (if that is what it is) as to what the realities of contemporary global currents are. These realities come with our modern world. Disliking them will not make them go away.
First, widespread large-scale immigration, both legal and illegal, is going to characterize all the rest of this century at a minimum. Destructive wars (including those launched by the US), civil conflicts, environmental degradation (with some degree of western responsibility involved), disease, health crises, lack of education, corruption, instability, bad governance, and the magnet pull of countries in the world that do work somewhat successfully—all of this will drive the refugee flow predictably year after year. It cannot realistically be physically stopped.
This is, in fact, the number one global security issue: only by taking bloated western military budgets and applying large hunks of it to some alleviation of conditions in the developing world can anybody begin to treat the problem at its source. Forget the beautiful walls, border guards, ramped-up sea patrols, or buying off Turkey to be a holding pen. Leaving EU will not, in the end, make a whit of difference in shielding the UK from these realities as long as the UK is going to be part of this world and compelled to partake in much of our common human agony.
Second, “taking our country back” is an unthinking, lame and simple-minded cliche. Anyone can, and will, utter it. Scotland will likely now “take its country back,” and so will Chechnya and Quebec, maybe Texas and California. Or Quebec and eastern Ukraine, or the Uighurs of China in Xinjiang. Or all the Kurds of the Middle East. The list is literally endless. What is a “country” and who is taking it back? And from whom, and in whose name, and over whose objections? And by what means? Five hundred new nations, anyone?
Third, globalization is a reality. It can’t be stopped. It consists of airlines, and internets, and global banking systems and communications. It is a very mixed bag; it is by no means an absolute good. Apart from its demonstrable benefits for many, globalization also has real downsides; it hurts many, including in the industrial world. And it threatens local cultures and autonomies. But no country can stop the process.
When foreign labor is ever cheaper than western labor, when Asian and other societies are proving just as technically adept as western ones (if not more so), and when robotics are replacing much unskilled and even skilled labor, what will the western workforce do? There are some partial answers to this—increased social services and niche industries among other things. But Brexit will not solve this global problem of globalization. It represents the highest and ultimate form of capitalism if you will.
Fourth, broad voluntary regional political associations are the wave of the future if we are serious about the need to diminish the likelihood of (nuclear) war. The EU demands that its members accept the principle that war among themselves in pursuit of national interests is “unthinkable.” That is a strong but vital word. Europeans well understand the reason why after having run what may be the bloodiest continent in human history in terms of numbers killed in wars. The EU represents the best hope humans have put together so far—in just a limited but important region admittedly—to abolish war. Yes, the UN remains a noble aspiration and a work in progress, but cannot yet boast of consistent accomplishment. To abandon the EU association that has delivered seven decades of peace is retrogressive—maybe even immoral.
Fifth, the EU is not a finished turn-key project, but a work in progress. British are churlish to scuttle this unique human experiment in its relatively early history of developing its political and economic vision. Of course there are things wrong with the EU. Where aren’t there things wrong with large political orders? Is the US a model? Russia? China? The EU’s unelected bureaucracy certainly deserves trimming, rethinking, and reigning in of some of its excesses. But you don’t kill it to solve shortcomings. Political orders are delicate constructs, hard to build, easy to bludgeon. Is the EU incapable of further change and reform that it should be abandoned?
Six, increasing regulation is the order of the future. While legitimately irksome to libertarians and individualists, modern societies are aware that nearly all fields of human endeavor require increasing and detailed regulation: health, hospitals, medicines, food, construction safety, highways, guns, vehicle safety, child care—the list goes on. The list will never get smaller. Most people are demanding more regulation in these fields and not less. All modern societies will increase regulation of everything as the world grows more crowded and social orders more complex and vulnerable. Eat your heart out, international cowboys, but we don’t live on the frontier anymore. You may love to hate Brussels, but fix it, don’t kill it.
These, then, are some of the most obvious features and growing realities of our modern world. We don’t have to like them, but there we have them. They are in the nature of the beast of the modern international order; they are not going away. Growing populations will increase all of them. And British Brexiteers are not going to change any of that one iota. Nor can they truly shield themselves. The UK will, however, become increasingly irrelevant in sharing in the common human undertaking of trying to build better and more rational structures to live together on this fragile planet.
June 14, 2016
The Horror of Orlando
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
14 June 2016
The mind cannot quite take it in—the wantonness of the Orlando events that now rank as the worst murder spree in US history. The longer range repercussions cannot yet be calculated, but if the past is any judge, nearly all of them are likely to bad. How can we possibly bring any kind of rational “explanations” to bear on if? That it was an evil act is utterly clear. But when confronted with such horrific events we want better answers.
In this case, as in so many others, there is no single cause to explain it all—although some will hasten to offer you one-size-fits-all explanations. Indeed, nothing could be more dangerous than to latch onto any single-cause theory to clarify everything. Like most things in life, all-of-the-above factors are at work. Not one or two, but all. Here they some key ones, in no particular order of priority.
-The killer was deeply disturbed, deranged, flawed. This goes almost without saying for anyone capable of such an inhuman act. A gasoline-drenched mind awaiting a spark.
-The killer was Muslim. In the last minutes of his life he claimed for the record that he owed allegiance to ISIS (“Islamic State”). It’s not yet clear if he had been recruited by them—probably not—but he was at least self-recruited—a lone wolf seeking wider connections.
-We cannot avoid mentioning Islam in the context of this massacre—not because Islam is an inspiration for murder, but because some Muslims in the last decades have self-identified with Islam as now representing the out-group, the oppressed. Even some disturbed non-Muslims have converted on that basis. Think how many American Black Muslims converted to Islam as a statement against racism in white American culture. Radical Islam has become today the ideology of preference for some individuals seeking out a “higher cause” by which to justify their frustrations, resentments, fantasies and even savagery.
-There will always be deranged individuals filled with hate, compensating for failure and impotence. They will always seek those higher justifications that can seemingly lend dignity to their own wretched state of mind and acts of rage. If it is not Islam today, it will be something else tomorrow. Anarchist and communist (Marxist-Leninist) killers proclaimed ideology to justify their acts of violence. Weird Buddhist sects in Japanese subways. Or “sacred nationalism” invoked. When religion is added, it only intensifies the psychological brew as it raises the “moral banner” higher.
-Guns kill. The availability of military assault weapons to almost any unstable individual who seeks one unquestionably was key to the record number of deaths in Orlando. A handgun or a knife also kills—but not fifty people in as many seconds. Sadly, similar massacres in the past have left the gun lobby unfazed; it is unlikely it will be any different this time.
-Homophobia is widespread in the US. Christian scripture as well as Islamic law inveigh against it. In traditional Jewish law, male homosexuality called for death. Seventy-seven countries currently ban homosexuality. But while broad elements of US society today have attained a fairly high tolerance for sexual freedom, there still exists a macho popular culture in many parts of the country which regularly puts gays at risk of homophobic attack.
-The Muslim world right now is undergoing intensely traumatic conditions of war, death, civil strife, sectarian witch-hunts, breakdown of social norms, and the destruction of law, order and infrastructure. There have long been many outstanding local problems, but rarely has the extent of regional devastation been of this magnitude. We must acknowledge the huge degree of US responsibility in creating and prolonging many of these conditions abroad. The anguish of the region is now spreading out across much of the globe and leaching back into our own American society. The US cannot kill at leisure abroad and remain untouched at home.
-This exceptionally ugly current environment in the Middle East is churning the religious, ethnic and ideological pot, producing a broad range of extreme or deviant interpretations of Islam relating to identity, community self-preservation and resistance. People especially turn to religious faith in times of desperation. Now, clearly, the Orlando killer experienced none of these conditions first hand. But events in the Middle East, on television non-stop, constitute part of the ambient atmosphere in and around where all Muslims live.
There may be other specific explanatory factors at work here as well. But all of these factors must be acknowledged—we can’t pick and choose our favorite hobby horse. It’s not “all guns,” or “all Muslims” or “all homophobia,” or “all US Middle East policy,” or “all Israeli occupation.” If each person’s pet issue is cherry-picked to “prove” their position without reference to the others, we are just playing at high-school, or Fox, debating.
There are no, repeat no, policy steps—Donald Trump notwithstanding—that can immediately alleviate these conditions in the short term. The domestic and foreign scene have created a deep and volatile mix not readily amenable to any quick fixes.
But some medium term steps that need to be taken? They are pretty much the obverse of the conditions we cited above.
-The US and the West must cease use of military force in the Middle East as the primary tool of foreign policy. US “boots on the ground” everywhere are as much or more of the problem as existing local problems on their own. The presence of western armies abroad feed the “clash of civilization” myth and distract regional people from dealing with issues themselves.
-We can ban the sale of assault rifles—to anyone. Gun deaths in the US staggeringly outweigh those in other industrialized countries.
-If US domestic politics cannot permit an even-handed American role in the Arab-Israeli problem —obviously the case—then let other nations do it. It is not America’s role to make Israel safe for expansionist Zionism.
-Work more closely with US Muslim communities in helping spot wayward and troubled youth who might otherwise eventually find their way to zealots advocating murder. This does not mean more FBI stings against sad, vulnerable souls fast-talked into some wacko plot. Muslim communities are the first to pay the highest price for murderous events of this sort. Muslim American communities are deeply motivated to stop them, especially when they are included as security partners. This is already taking place in many communities.
Given the magnitude of the problem today, there is a temptation for the US government itself to monitor and control the rhetoric of preaching in US mosques. But it won’t really work. The issue has already long since been politicized. Is organizing political action against Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands to be treated as “hate speech” and incitation to violence? It certainly will if AIPAC has anything to say about it. Are anti-Russian Chechens to be perceived as nothing more than freedom fighters? American Muslim communities themselves will have to take up the sensitive and complex role of monitoring aberrant speech and behavior in their own mosques and speak out against radical interpretations of Islam in their communities. And foreign preachers may well come under particular scrutiny, posing complex judgment calls.
These are not easy times.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: a novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com
May 24, 2016
Glimmers of a Future in Iraq?
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
22 May 2016
Iraqi politics are in turmoil—nothing new here. Not surprisingly, the post-invasion order is taking a long time to shake down, given the destruction of the old. Entirely new relationships had to be forged under the new, radically changed environment. What Iraq requires above all is the painful creation of a new sense of national identity and unity. That poses demands on both Shi’a and Sunni. Ironically, much of the Shi’ite—and even Sunni— religious establishment seem to be closer to a national vision than politicians who are pursuing narrow party agendas.
The Shi’a have not handled the post-Saddam situation well. As the numerical majority, the Shi’a quickly moved to ensure their electoral dominance over the political order after Saddam and have sidelined the once-ruling Sunnis from a major voice in governance. Worse, Shi’ite militias have behaved harshly against Sunni communities in an effort to reduce Sunni power and even to avenge the past. This very Shi’ite heavy-handedness is one reason why some Iraqi Sunnis have lent support to the “Islamic State” (ISIS, or Da’ish) with its militantly anti-Shi’ite policies.
This anti-Sunni bias of two successive Shi’ite administrations is both unacceptable and damaging to the country. Regrettably, it is also understandable—partially. After centuries-long exclusion from any meaningful role in Sunni-dominated Iraq and suffering oppression at the hands of the Sunni state, the Shi’a seized the moment after the fall of Saddam to ensure that their newly-won power via elections could never again be taken away from them. Their fear was real: large segments of the Sunni population have viewed recent Shi’ite rule in Baghdad—the seat of great Sunni power for long centuries—as somehow something illegitimate, perhaps even transient. Saudi Arabia refused to even recognize the new Iraqi government for six years (even though Riyadh also hated Saddam) because it perceived the new Shi’ite-dominated Iraq as some kind of an artificial creation propped up by Iran.
That view has to change. The Sunnis of the region, and particularly Iraqi Sunnis, are going to have to suck up the new reality and acknowledge that yes, this is a major geopolitical turning point in the traditional sectarian balance of power in the Gulf. But Iraq is still Iraq, and once it stabilizes, it will play a new, albeit more complex role in the region. And to the extent that this new reality becomes accepted in the region, the grounds for Iraqi Shi’a paranoia and the sidelining of Sunnis in governance should diminish.
This is a big thing—we’re talking about the very identity of the new Iraq—historically Sunni in the regional power equation. But now its Shi’ite element is strong. So what is it then that defines an Iraqi—or a Shi’ite? After all, like all human beings, Shi’a possess more identities than simply being Shi’a all day long. When sectarian identity in Iraq has been a matter of life or death, or the denied Shi’a political or economic well-being over long periods, of course the sectarian identity has dominated. As things calm, however, other facets of identity will emerge. Shi’a themselves are diverse. They come from different regions of the country. Some are secular while some are religious, some are conservative, others are liberal or socialist, some are rich, some are poor, some are businessmen, some are laborers. Some favor Iran, some don’t. And personality clashes among them abound.
Sooner or later these multiple diversities should make up the natural stuff of Iraqi domestic politics like anywhere else. Sunni businessmen or bankers or socialists or engineers or farmers can make common cause with their Shi’ite counterparts—out of common interest.. But we are not quite there yet.
Lately some interesting things have been happening. First, their have been strong demands from many Iraqis, and especially within the Shi’ite community itself, for a government of technocrats to replace the often incompetent and corrupt politicians currently in power. Politicians can never be kept out of politics, but a more balanced and competent technocratic government would go a long way towards restoring confidence among many Iraqis, and especially among the Sunnis. And, if Shi’ite politicians think about it, they will want their voices to predominate over a united Iraq, not a partitioned Iraq. So they’ve got to run the country for the benefit of all Iraqis, or there will be no united Iraq to preside over. The country could even split apart.
Second, some key elements of the Shi’ite clergy are often more enlightened that their political counterparts. The impassioned young cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, bane of the US occupation, is back yet again. Often mercurial, he also has a huge loyal following including a militia; his power and reputation rest particularly upon the impeccable clerical and nationalist credentials of his famed clerical father and uncle— both murdered by Saddam. More to the point though, Muqtada has regularly demonstrated streaks of broader Iraqi nationalism even within his sectarian power base. He has spoken for all of Iraq against the US occupation; he believes in a united Iraq and not just a Shi’ite Iraq. Lately he has made remarks critical of Iran, a country that has often offered him refuge in the past and has supported him with funding and weapons. But Muqtada is his own man, and he is making it clear that Iraq, while grateful to Iran for all its help over the years, cannot let Iran run Iraq; Iraq must be independent and sovereign.
This development was in the cards. Indeed, in my book with Rend Rahim Francke (“The Arab Shi’a,” 2001) we underscored, even before Saddam fell, the latent tensions between Iran and Iraq. One country is Arab, the other is Persian; even their Shi’ite cultures demonstrate different colorations. Iraq is historically the center of global Shi’ism, not Iran. Ayatollah ‘Ali al-Sistani in Iraq is the most important Shi’ite cleric in the world who has long spoken in the name of Iraq, not in the name of Shi’ite power. And over the longer run Arab Shi’ia in the Gulf are more likely to look to Arab Iraq for support rather than to Iran. The two countries are destined to be rivals in the Gulf in the future; indeed the outlines of some of that rivalry are beginning to make themselves evident. Interestingly, the once very large Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, for the time being in momentary eclipse, also has a national Iraqi view more than a Sunni one.
What kind of a leadership role in the region will Iraq’s complex new mixed Shi’ite/Sunni character play? It will have to be an Iraqi outlook, and not a sectarian outlook. In the past Sunni-led Iraq played a powerful role in the pan-Arab nationalist movement. Even today Iraqi Shi’a will not cease being Arab. But where will their natural allies in the Arab world lie?
It’s still going to take a while for Iraq to shake down. ISIS alone is a deep source of conflict and instability. Worse, Saudi Arabia’s militant anti-Shi’ite campaign is highly destabilizing across the region. The Kurds are still negotiating their place in a new Iraq while Turkish foreign policies have now grown erratic. Syria is utterly unresolved. All these conflicts raging around Iraq make it hard for any country to settle down to stable politics.
Based on several of these straws in the wind though, Iraq may slowly be coming to acknowledge the lose-lose character of its present sectarian politics. Sadly, many of it political leaders are in it for themselves as much as for sectarian ideology. But the Shi’a’s existential fears may now be slowly ebbing, especially if ISIS is defeated. And Iran itself may realize the need to tread cautiously in Iraq lest they lose major influence in a backlash against them.