Monthly Archives: April 2017
It’s pretty easy for most Americans to pay little attention to Turkey. It seems to be a faraway exotic place that has little effect on their lives. But the truth is otherwise. Turkey has been a partner to the United States and Israel and informed a set of relationships with these two countries that help stabilize that area of the world. But more important than that, Turkey has been a model for Islamic democracy.
Ataturk established modern Turkey as a secular, European, Westernized state. He used the government to establish educational and political policies to shape the nation into a political culture that was close to gaining entry into the European Union. Ataturk literally outlawed many symbols of Islam and tried to relegate it more to the private sphere.
But there was a referendum last week on constitutional changes and Erdogan and his political supporters won a narrow victory. Now the country is about to be shaped in Erdogan’s image rather than Ataturk’s. Erdogan will move Turkey more toward centralized power supported by Islamic parties. None of this bodes well for Turkey. Moreover, and even more dangerously, Turkey is divided. Erdogan won a narrow victory. Just about half the population voted for him and the other half dislikes him intensely. These are the conditions for future contentious political behavior.
It appears that Erdogan knows how to distribute rewards making important constituents happy; a fairly large number of people have benefited from Erdogan’s largess. But these benefits are not merit-based or the result of significant contributions to economic, commercial, or political policies in Turkey. They are the result of payoffs to those who are more supportive of Erdogan and constitutional changes. And now the AKP (Erdogan’s political party) can continue its program of returning to Islamizing the state. Yet, there are some hopeful signs.
Turkey it is now quite diverse demographically, and too big economically to be easily redefined on the basis of one person. And despite Erdogan’s cronies, who always rear their ugly heads from the system of political payoffs, the real economic power in the country is dependent on secular, democratic, pro-Western liberal values. So if Turkey stays Democratic much of its progress will be maintained. But the worisome part is that Erdogan may realize full well that democracy is his primary enemy and therefore become more autocratic.
So why should the average American care about any of this? Well a couple of reasons. First of all the only way we are going to make some stable peace with Islamic nations is through elements, minimum as they need to be, of shared Democratic processes. If Erdogan becomes less democratic then the state becomes more Islamic and increases its distance and alienation from Western states and Israel. Turkey could have been a model for future Islamic democracy. Secondly, the Kurds have been a very supportive culture for the United States and we owe them our best efforts to establish a Kurdish state. This is of course very complex and an intractable issue but moves no closer to some sort of resolution if Turkey retreats into conservatism and religiosity. Third, Turkey demonstrated to the Arab world that some decent relationship with Israel was possible. Given the combustible relationship with our ally Israel, any indicator of stability is welcome.
The strike against the Syrian al-Shayrat Air Base south of Homs is certainly controversial but generally supported around the world. The base was used as a launching pad in a chemical weapons attack that truly does cross a “redline.” As much success as Obama had as president – and he will ultimately be described as a successful president – he did fail to act against the Assad regime and of course was never to be taken seriously again with respect to Syria after his hollow threat about chemical weapons crossing redlines. And even though like much of the world I find Trump dangerous, unstable, lazy, and uninformed I have to give him credit for taking a moral and political stance that was difficult but necessary. Up until now, Assad had been confronted with little more than empty speeches condemning the use of chemical weapons.
One of the goals of foreign policy is to get others to recalculate their cost-benefit ratios. Assad’s calculations were much in his favor because his history told him that nobody was going to do much about his behavior. He used chemical weapons last week because he calculated he could get away with it. But now Assad has to recalculate his position. In an excellent policy report from the Washington Policy Institute, Michael Eisenstadt writes cogently about altering cost-benefit ratios and the variables that factor into Assad’s thinking. You can read it here. Here is one analysis along the way to a decision about whether or not to bomb Syrian airbases and what Assad is likely to do about it.
Historically Assad has shied away from military responses when he concludes that his opposition is aggressive and determined. The Israelis have on more than a couple of occasions struck Syrian targets because their intelligence told them that weapons were being transported to Hezbollah. And although Syria has at times returned fire most of the time they do nothing. And, of course, even though Obama threatened responses after crossing “redlines” the Syrians just ignored it and used chemical weapons anyway. They calculated that Obama would not respond and their actions would reap more benefits than costs. Eisenstadt concludes the following cost-benefit ratio and the decisions that go with them. These conclusions are based on historical occurrences as well as “logical” assumptions.
(1) Assad backs down when confronted with a strong and potentially threatening proponent. (2) If Assad is unsure of how an adversary counts his costs or benefits he will test the waters but then withdraw if things appear threatening. And (3) if Assad sees no major cost to his behavior he will proceed as he wishes. Of course there are other situational and strategic factors involved but the United States is in a position to use force to maximize the likelihood that the other side will recalculate cost-benefit ratios such that they realize predictable consequences. This is the only way ceasefires will be respected and some predictability can be inserted into the decision matrix that characterizes international brinksmanship exchanges.
Go ahead, click on the video and enjoy the music before reading below. Sam Cooke predicted in 1960 an attitude that is gaining momentum.
A diminished expectation of ability or preparation is one under discussed consequence of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency; in short, we now believe anybody can do the job. But this is thoroughly consistent with the recent death of respect for ability or expertise. The February 2017 edition of Foreign Affairs has an article on the loss of respect for expertise and superior levels of knowledge in America. The basic argument, which was well defended, is that Americans have increasingly lost their respect for achievement and the sense that somebody actually knows something more than others and should be listened to. The article can be found here. Moreover, those confronted with their ignorance are fierce in defense of their own opinions.
The article reports an interesting, and depressing, experiment where subjects were asked if the United States should intervene militarily in the Ukraine. Only one in six of the respondents could actually identify the Ukraine on a map and most of them were off by about 1,800 miles. But the real news value of the study was the correlation between the strength of one’s intensity for intervention and how far off they were from being able to identify the location of the Ukraine. In other words, those who are most ignorant about the geographic location of the Ukraine and perhaps thought it was in South America were also the most enthusiastic about military force. In another study Democrats and Republicans were asked whether or not they would support the bombing of the country of Agrabah. About 1/3 of Republicans said they would and 36% of Democrats were opposed. There is no such country as Agrabah.
Again, the issue is not so much that people are ignorant of geography or foreign relations. That’s another issue. The bigger problem is that many people don’t respect established knowledge and are sometimes even proud of rejecting the advice of an actual expert. There is an increasing belief that all information is manipulated and perceptual (note “fake news” or the Trump campaign’s use of “alternative facts”). In this era of post-truth everyone figures that language is unstable so every person’s knowledge or meanings are as good as the next.
There are more than a few reasons for this loss of faith in expertise. The disrespect for experts is one of the more insidious. There is now a segment of the population that takes pleasure in challenging expertise not on the basis of superior knowledge or argument but because they see elites as evil and cannot tolerate being told anything. I grant you that sometimes elites can be insufferable and arrogant but that doesn’t detract from their better knowledge. Journalists, pundits, opinion writers, and professors have lost favor over the decades with the population and are now seen as antagonists rather than sources of reliable information.
It is also true that the world of information is complex and it is easy to feel insecure about one’s control of information. Nobody could be in command of everything and we are all relianton experts and those who know more than we do. One of the skills of the educated – and should be even more emphasized in schools – is the ability to identify reliable sources of information; the ability to judge and evaluate and make educated decisions about the quality of information.
It’s okay if Sam Cooke’s love struck friend “doesn’t know much about history, or biology” as long as somebody does and we as a society recognize that expertise.