Rubin: U.S. can no longer trust that Turkey partnership bolsters national security

Roxana Pop | Staff PhotographerMichael Rubin, resident scholar for the American Enterprise Institute, opens the Week Eight lecture series Monday in the Amphitheater.
Roxana Pop | Staff Photographer
Michael Rubin, resident scholar for the American Enterprise Institute, opens the Week Eight lecture series Monday in the Amphitheater.

In 2011, police arrested a journalist in Turkey, confiscating his drafts of a manuscript detailing potential Islamist infiltration of Turkish security forces. Though the journalist hadn’t published anything, some of his interview questions had raised alarm, and authorities believed the act warranted an arrest.

Such an arrest is not unique; more journalists are imprisoned in Turkey than in any other country.

“[The journalist] was effectively guilty of thought crimes and what he might publish rather than what he did publish,” said Michael Rubin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.

“It may be almost 2014 in the West,” Rubin said, “but for Turkish journalists, increasingly it seems like 1984.”

Rubin spoke at Monday’s 10:45 a.m. morning lecture on the theme of “Turkey: A Model for the Middle East?” He told the Amphitheater audience that until fairly recently, Turkey had been an important facilitator of democracy in the Middle East. Almost every American president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has praised the partnership between the United States and Turkey, he said. In 2004, President George W. Bush told journalists in Ankara that he appreciated how Turkey was a Muslim country but how it was also a country that “embraced democracy and the rule of law and freedom.”

But that is not true today, Rubin said.

“In just a decade, Turkey has transformed from an aspiring democracy into a populist autocracy,” he said. “Freedoms have evaporated, and Turkey is now a force for instability in the region. If Turkey has become a model for anything, it is not how a majority Muslim country can lead a democratic renaissance, but … how an Islamist movement can cloak itself in the rhetoric of democracy to achieve the opposite ends.”

In the months leading up to Turkey’s 2002 elections, the country was “an economic basket case,” Rubin said. Fraud and corruption were rife. Inflation was out of control, with the Turkish lira losing its value at an alarming rate; Rubin remembers seeing a middle-class apartment for sale in Istanbul costing quadrillions of lira.

“You would have to be a millionaire in Turkish lira to enjoy a Coca-Cola on the street,” he said.

The public was fed up. After the 2002 election, two-thirds of Turkey’s parliamentary seats and the position of prime minister went to the Justice and Development Party, better known as the AKP.

This election marked the first time in Turkey’s history as a republic that an Islamist party had the majority. Initial fears of the government moving away from secularism were quickly assuaged by the newly elected prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who promised instead to focus on tackling inflation and increasing real gross domestic product.

And while Turkey did manage to minimize damage from the global economic crisis of 2008, Erdoğan’s promised economic boom has not been sustainable; last year’s GDP rose just 2.2 percent, down from 8.8 percent the year before.

Since Erdoğan has been in power, Turks have been saddled with more debt than under all previous prime ministers combined, Rubin said. With the expanding credit bubble, many Turks began to take out bank loans just to pay interest on their personal debt.

Erdoğan replaced all the members of Turkey’s central banking committee with what Rubin called “alumni of Islamic finance, most of whom had worked for years in powerful Saudi institutions.” Once under AKP control, Rubin said, the prime minister used the board to attack opponents’ assets, even driving some into bankruptcy.

The banking committee also ignored the influx of money from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Donations from these countries line the coffers of the AKP party, creating “a multi-billion dollar slush fund” for Erdoğan, Rubin said.

A free press, the essential cornerstone of a healthy democracy, is no longer present in Turkey; journalists who criticize Erdoğan’s government fear for their lives. Reporters Without Borders has called Turkey “the world’s biggest prison for journalists,” reporting that 72 media personnel are currently being detained in the country.

“In a strategy borrowed from Iran, Erdoğan has actually confiscated newspapers, transferring their ownership to political allies and, in some cases, family members,” Rubin said.

The latest confiscation was by Erdoğan’s son-in-law, who bought the newspaper Sabah after all the rest of the bids to buy the paper “mysteriously” disappeared.

“Even when countries don’t have a free press, that doesn’t mean that the journalists in those countries don’t know what the truth is,” Rubin said. “They know what the truth is — they’re just not allowed to print it.”

Rubin said one of those truths is the plight of minorities, who suffer disproportionately under Erdoğan’s rule. The government offices have been emptied of women, and Turkey’s own justice minister reported in 2009 that in the near-decade of Erdoğan’s term, the murder rate of women in Turkey has increased by 1,400 percent. Part of the sharp increase may be from better reporting, Rubin said, but it is also likely that honor killings have increased. With a conservative police force and court system, perpetrators can act with little fear of retribution.

“Realists might dismiss Turkey’s domestic woes as none of Washington’s business,” Rubin said, “but American officials can no longer trust that the partnership with Turkey bolsters national security.”

“Turkey may be a model, but it is not a model for democracy,” he continued. “Rather, it has become a model for how to convert a forward-looking, evolving democracy into a country that puts a religious agenda above democracy.”

Q&A

Q: This question comes from Twitter, and anyone who wants to tweet their questions can do so using #CHQ. Why is the conservative government supported so broadly?

A: That’s a very good question, why is the conservative question supported broadly, and I’m going to address that in terms of domestic politics inside Turkey. [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan] has won three of four successful elections, and now in his most recent election he has won 50 percent of the vote. So, he has 50 percent support — but make no mistake, in the context of Turkish politics, that is very, very broad, because Turkey is a system that’s not a two-party democracy. But, rather, traditionally a five or six-party democracy, so anyone achieving 50 percent of the vote is important. There’s a couple of reasons why he’s been successful. First of all, the AKP, more than the establishing parties, have really taken care of constituent services. I mean, it may sound really mundane, but it matters. No. 2: demography. And I used to say, “Talk about demography,” but I can see everyone’s eyes roll back into their head. So, let me put it this way: I want to talk about sex in Turkey. You’ve got a situation in Turkey where the Turks most Westerners see along the Mediterranean coast, in Istanbul, in Ankara, in Antalya, they are of much more European background and they look much more towards Europe. However, if you go into eastern Turkey, specifically southeastern Turkey, where the Kurds live, they have a much higher birthrate, and increasingly it looks like they’ve simply reach the tipping point where they are going to dominate politics. Now on top of this, you also have the outgrowth of the Kurdish insurgency that Turkey has fought since 1984. If, in 1984, when the Kurdistan Workers Party started the so-called “PKK,” most of the Kurds were in … southeastern Turkey. Now you have a situation that the city with the largest Kurdish population on earth … it’s Istanbul. And, because you have this population, which is now spread throughout the country, it has also impacted local elections. Thank you. But actually, one last point: In polls since the Gezi [Park] protests, since these most recent protests, the public support for the AKP has dropped back to around 35 percent. Thanks.

Q: We got several questions asking for comparisons. This one, looking at your commentary last Friday about Pakistan, is asking you to compare Pakistan and Turkey.

A: Look, let me think. Let me preface what I say this way: As an analyst, I like making comparisons; I find them useful. As an academic, I find joy in picking apart every single comparison that someone makes, and so many academics are afraid to make comparisons. But this is where I think comparisons are most apt. Again, I’m sorry to go off on a tangent, but when I’m teaching in the military, when I’m teaching history, it’s not just names and numbers; I teach history so people can understand — I use history as a tool to get inside people’s minds, how they process information, how they think; narrative is important. Let’s talk about President Obama, for example. If I’m watching MSNBC, they may say that President Obama is like Abraham Lincoln, and they both have their political career in Illinois and they rose up relatively quickly. If I’m stuck in airport, which means I’m watching CNN, they might say, “President Obama, he’s like John F. Kennedy.” Whether you like Obama and Kennedy or dislike them, you have to give them credit; they both know how to give a speech, they’re both able rhetoricians, they’re both good with talking, unlike me. But if you’re watching Fox News, they might say, “President Obama, he’s like Herbert Hoover.” Now, what I also tell American servicemen when I’m teaching Afghan history is, if you went into Afghanistan and you started talking about Lincoln, Kennedy or Hoover, what would it mean to the average Afghan? And the answer to that is absolutely nothing, which is why it’s important to study history to understand how other people think. Now, if we want to understand how the Pakistanis think, why is it that the Pakistanis support the Taliban? Pakistan is an artificial country. I mean, think about it, it’s an anagram: P stands for Punjab, A stands for Afghan, K stands for Kashmir, I stands for the Indus River Valley, S stands for sindh, N comes from the northwest frontier province, and if there’s a Baloch in the room, they’ll tell them that the T and the A come from Balochistan because they couldn’t make it fit in any other way. It’s also a pun: Pakistan, land of the pure. It was supposed to be a land for the Muslims. But its impossible to boil anyone’s identity down to just a single variable. You might be a Muslim, but you could be a Punjabi, a Baloch and so forth. Well, in 1971, Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, rose up and seceded, largely for ethnic reasons. And so the lessons learned the Pakistani military had was, “In order to hold our artificial country together, what we need to do is promote Islam, radical Islamism, in order to be that glue that subsumes identity.” And remember, Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, is within the military hierarchy. So, they actually — the Pakistani military promoted radical Islamism as the glue to hold the country together, and that’s why they don’t see the Taliban in the same way as a threat that the United States does. Now Turkey traditionally, has been different. The Turks, the Turkish military, traditionally, has served in order to prevent the rise of radical Islamism. However, as the grip of the Turkish military is undone, then ultimately we have this problem, where perhaps Turkey will start looking like Pakistan. That said, Pakistan’s got what, 170 million people? The way I always put it is, if 10 percent of the Indians were educated or middle class, or 15 percent, that would be like the entire population of Pakistan. So Pakistan — I don’t have a lot of faith in in the future. Compare Turkey and Iran — they both have, what, 75 million people? Iran floats on oil and gas and Turkey has nothing — who has the better economy? I mean I’m still more optimistic in the future about Turkey than Pakistan. I’m sorry for rattling so much, I’ll be more succinct with other questions.

Q: We had a week on Pakistan. Another comparison question: You have pointed out the dangers of a theocratic government. Does America base the same diminution of democracy and freedom from the Christian Right, especially after the growth of religious-based state legislation?

A: Short answer is no, I don’t think, because we have functioning checks and balances and that’s apparent every single day. We may not agree with everything which another segment of society chooses to pursue through their Congress, but certainly the courts have been very active, whether from the perspective of the right or the perspective of the left in order to defend our Constitution. We have vibrant debates about how our Constitution should be interpreted, what the intent of the Founding Fathers were. But we don’t have a debate about whether we should replace our Constitution, which, by the way, I didn’t mention is the debate that’s going on inside Turkey right now.

Q: We also had a week on Iran. What is Turkey’s relationship with Iran, considering that Iran supports [Syrian President Bashar Assad] and Turkey vigorously opposes him?

A:  Turkey has a love-hate relationship with Iran. I mean, certainly whenever I’m driving the streets in Turkey I see several more Iranian trucks than I do when I’m in Iraq — Iranian plated trucks, trucks going into Iran, that sort of thing. Turkey has become the big hole in the sanctions regime with regard to Iran, finding the loopholes with regard to gas for gold. Once the currency was — once they could no longer trade in currency, they started trading in gold. Now that that loophole has been free, the Iranians had started giving Turks ships. Long story short: Rather than try to pressure Iran, they’re trying to profit from the sanctions regime. At the same time, as Erdogan has become more sectarian in his outlook, it has created tension. So, its like the three blind men and the elephant; whichever segment of Turkish-Iranian society you want to describe, you’re going to come to a radically different conclusion. But when you look at the whole, it’s a mixed picture.

Q: One more geopolitical question and then we’ll move off of that topic. Do you see any prospects for better relations between Israel and Turkey?

A: I do not see prospects for better relations between Israel and Turkey in the very near future. Unfortunately, whenever we have populism in the Middle East, often times that populism for domestic purposes can undermine the resolutions. I believe that Dennis Ross spoke here last week, and when Dennis Ross came out of the Clinton administration, I heard him give a talk and I heard someone ask him, “What do you see your biggest mistake as having been?” And he responded and I thought very aptly: “We didn’t take incitement seriously, we were focused too much on what the diplomats were telling us rather than what they were telling their people, and it’s what they’re telling their people that matters the most.” It’s not simply the case of Turkey versus Israel. I’d urge all of you to go to the Pew Global Attitudes [Project], which does an annual survey throughout the world of Anti-Americanism, and Turkey is now considered more anti-American — not just anti-Israeli, anti-American — than even Pakistan and Jordan.

Q: Women. You mentioned that the murder of women is increasing, why is this happening, and please comment on the role of women in 2013 in the major cities. Is Sharia law in effect?

A: OK. First of all, I gave that statistic, 1,400 percent increase in the murder rate of women between 2002 and 2009. Why is it happening? That’s an excellent question, and it’s a question that Turks should be asking themselves. The short answer is, there’s no definitive answer, which is a very problematic answer. The statistics came from the Turkish judiciary, and I would hazard to guess that part of the reason why we see the murder rate increasing is simply because of better reporting. But that doesn’t explain the 1,400 percent; better reporting may explain some of that. And therefore, you have a situation with the growing conservatism in society, where there’s some people committing traditional honor crimes and believe that the police force or the ministries or the government is sympathetic, and therefore they can literally get away with murder. At the very least — I mean, when you have a jump like that, that’s when you need a special commission to start investigating. And the Turks haven’t been shy about special commissions for other things; this is one where they certainly need the case. Now, with regard to women more broadly in politics. I mean, Turkey was only the second majority Muslim country to have a female prime minister. But when you look at the statistics released by the office of the Turkish prime minister, what you see is, now, not only do Turkish women not get the highest ministries — I mean, they may be in the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and that sort of thing, but, why shouldn’t they be prime minister or foreign minister or president or something like that? You also have a situation where you look at the top three levels of the bureaucracy, I mean, the ministries, the undersecretary levels, the deputy secretary levels, the undersecretary level, and women now make up less than 1 percent of those posts. It used to be much more; there’s a trend afoot and that’s something which should concern. That’s why a lot of very vocal Turkish women became so upset when Prime Minster Erdogan started telling them how many children to have, when he started talking about abortion in a way that even in the United States we don’t talk about it, and when he proposed outlawing cesarean sections as against God.

Q: Doesn’t social media counteract the press censorship?

A: Does social media counteract the censorship of the press? You know, if I really wanted to put this audience to sleep, I could talk about my dissertation, which was about the introduction of the telegraph to Iran in the 19th century, anything you want to know. I mean, my parents wanted to read it and my mom found a type on page 3, and my mom closed it and said, “I’m not going to finish with this, you had a typo.” … There’s actually a $50 bill in my dissertation in the library at Yale University with an envelope saying, “Keep the bill, but if anyone’s read this, send me a note.” The point of this is, when I was academically looking at the introduction of the telegraph, the telegraph was to the late-19th century what Facebook or Twitter are today. My dissertation really was about the enabling of the first mass movement of Iranian politics, the constitutional revolution in 1906. The point to this is that whenever you have a new technology, the government always tries to maintain control of it until they lose control of it, and then that enables the opposition. There’s a situation in Turkey and in Egypt and elsewhere where certainly social media is a phenomena and the battle right now is whether or not it can be constrained. I mean, Prime Minister Erdogan, after the Gezi Park protest erupted, basically called Twitter “evil” and has been rounding up people who were tweeting. That itself is scary; the question is whether or not he gets away with it. And what we see — I’m not one who believes that, just analytically, that when the genie of reform is out of the bottle, or the genie of youth is out of the bottle, it can’t be put back in. I mean, governments try their hardest to constrain; the question is whether they’re going to be able to do it or not, and that’s going to be an ongoing battle that’s going to be seen. But, I don’t know of any governments, except maybe Azerbaijan, which have a strong censorship regime when it comes to newspapers and then have completely free Internet and social media.

Q: Is Erdogan guided by a religious structure, or is he interpreting that religious structure for himself?

A: It’s a great question. And, you know, in my about 15 years of traveling around the Middle East, from Afghanistan to Morocco, what I’ve found is the most commonly cited verse in the Quran, chapter in the Quran, is the famous, “I know it’s in there somewhere, but I just don’t know where” verse. The fact of the matter is, this is why I get upset when people start talking about Sharia, Islamic law, because Islamic law has never been codified. Talking about Sharia is like talking about state law in the United States without identifying what state you live in. The point of this is, Erdogan may believe himself in trying to raise a religious generation, but his interpretation is his own.

Q: Has the current Islamic government affected tourism? Wouldn’t a boycott of tourism send an effective message?

A: A couple issues about tourism: When I was talking before about the so-called “green money,” and this money that was coming in … the way AKP members will try to explain it is by basically fudging the tourism numbers, because the way tourism statistics are collected in Turkey is through face-to-face interviews. It’s easy to manipulate face-to-face interviews. That said, if you’re looking at specific segments, such as the person who asked about Israel, the Israeli tourism has plunged at times and then rebounded and plunged. You have a massive amount of tourism from the Persian Gulf region, like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and so forth. That’s creating some social concerns inside Turkey as well. But ultimately, it’s an important question because this is going to come into play in less than a month; on Sept. 7, the International Olympic Committee is going to decide whether Istanbul, Tokyo or Madrid should host the 2020 Olympics. So many of the issues which we’ve seen in Turkey — which, by the way, erupted against the backdrop of the Olympic Committee coming to visit — are really going to be on display over the next three months. When it comes to advocating or not, at this point, I’m just here as an analyst. Like I say, I’m a historian, so I get paid to predict the past, and I only get that right about half the time, so I don’t want to advocate a strategy for the future.

Q: Where do the Gezi protests stand right now? Has there been any resolution? 

A: Let me just say a word about the Gezi protests, and then you can’t talk about any Middle Eastern country without throwing out a conspiracy theory, so I’m going to do that as well. Certainly, the Gezi protests have more or less been broken up, so Taksim Square is open. Some of the stuff that hasn’t hit the media  — and, just some background for those of you who weren’t following this, it started out as an environmental protest against the development of a park. Istanbul’s a beautiful city, but it doesn’t have much in the way of green spaces in the center of town, so people started protesting. Then, the heavy-handed response to this actually brought in a whole bunch of other protesters who were protesting for any number of reasons. Turkey this week actually ran out of tear gas. I mean, the response was so over the top, and several people were killed. Now the tension has died down, the protests have died down, but the tension remains under the table. … One of the reasons the tensions abated was because the court finally ruled against Erdogan in developing this land. So we’ll see what will happen there. Now, the conspiracy theory which is out there — and the way I tend to approach Middle Eastern conspiracy theories is, sometimes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire — so, it’s just an interesting explanation. One of the questions with regard to the Gezi Park protests would be, why it is that Erdogan seemed to act so self-destructively? I mean, the protesters went out, he attacked them with massive anger, then he left on a state visit to Morocco and Algeria, and the protests calmed down. You actually had the president of Turkey, Abdullah Gül, more or less apologize and things had calmed down. As soon as Erdogan came back with his rhetoric, he started attacking the protesters again. He called them all terrorists and started tear-gassing people again, and so forth. It raised a lot of concern. Why is it that Erdogan seemed intent on doing basically the wrong thing and trying to get these protests going again, and this goes to that Turkish economic bubble. Turkey’s gross domestic product growth rate has dropped from 8.8 percent to 2.2 percent. They were expecting around 6 percent. At the same time, you have that personal finance bubble and you have the demographic boost, to those seeking jobs and so forth, declining. So it looks like Turkey’s economy may be in for a rough time. The question is whether Erdogan plans to use the Gezi protests and argue and try to pin the decline of the Turkish economy on the protesters by keeping the protest alive long enough in order to do this. The problem with the Turkish opposition is that you really don’t have any charismatic or skilled leader. Whether you like Erdogan or not, Erdogan is a very skilled politician.

Q: Where do you see Turkey in 10 years?

A: Now is where it’s good to be a talking head and get used to giving 17 seconds of wisdom. I look at the future of Turkey and — I’m dating myself here. Are you guys familiar with those “choose-your-own adventure” books? They were big in the 1970s and 1980s for reading to kids when I was growing up. It gives a page, and then you make a decision as a reader. Depending on your decision, you jump to one page or the other. I look at Turkey’s future — and maybe I’m taking the cheap way out of this — as a choose-your-own-adventure story. The question is, so much now depends, I would argue, on what happens in the next month. This is one of the most important months in Turkish history dating back to the foundation of the republic; not only do you have the Kurdish peace process, which we haven’t talked about a great deal, but I’ll be here with my wife, and you can spot us because we’re the ones with the 16-month-old. Just spot us — it will get me off diaper duty if you want to start talking about the Kurds. So much depends on the Kurdish peace process. So much depends on the Turkish economy. So much depends on whether Turkey gets a new constitution like Erdogan has been trying. If it gets a new constitution with a strong presidency, he’s in office for another 14 years and that’s going to fundamentally change [Turkey]. We are at the tipping point right now. I want to thank you for making my first trip to Chautauqua so special.

—Transcribed by Josh Austin

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