December 1, 2011

Biden's upcoming visit to Turkey - propping up an Islamist?

Sultan Ahmet Mosque, Istanbul (photo: Rick Francona)

Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to visit Turkey and Greece this week, after a short visit to Iraq. While it is normal for senior Administration officials to visit key allies Turkey and Greece - both countries are NATO allies - I am surprised Biden chose to visit Iraq following the Obama Administration's failure to negotiate the continued presence of American troops in the country past December 31, 2011. That's a matter for a different discussion - see my comments on that foreign policy debacle: Iraq - Obama spins another policy failure into a success? I still have hopes that failure can be salvaged.

Anytime Mr. Biden travels, he is apt to make embarrassing statements - we all remember his remarks on China's one-child policy. The vice president will be in Ankara to meet with Turkish officials about the situation in neighboring Syria, as well as Turkey's continuing fight with the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK, a designated terrorist organization). Mr. Biden will then travel to Istanbul to attend a global entrepreneurship summit aimed at increasing U.S. business ties in the Arab and Muslim world.

We have a preview of what the substance of Biden's remarks in Turkey might be. A few days ago, Biden's national security advisor (if we are looking for a way to save money in the federal government, let's eliminate this useless position) Tony Blinken praised the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

I will give Mr. Blinken the benefit of the doubt here - he seems like a bright guy, educated at Harvard and Columbia with a lot of Washington staff experience, but apparently little familiarity with things Middle Eastern. His statements echo the Administration's continued support of an Islamic government in what once was a staunchly secular Muslim democracy, the poster child for how Islam and democracy might coexist. I am sure he has a Google alert set up for his name, so I'll help him connect the dots.

We do need to support Turkey's fight against PKK terrorism, after all, Turkey supported American military efforts in Afghanistan by sending non-combat troops. However, the relationship between Ankara and Washington has suffered some serious setbacks over the last decade.

In January 2003, after agreeing to allow the U.S. Army 4th Infantry Division (4ID) to deploy into northern Iraq via Turkish territory, the newly elected Islamist government abruptly changed its mind and refused passage. That forced the United States to re-deploy the entire division from Turkey to Kuwait, delaying the 4ID's entry into the fight until mid-April. The delay not only prevented the United States from opening up a second front that would have caused the Iraqis to split their forces defending Baghdad, it possibly added to the number of American battle casualties.

Turkey also sought to create an Iranian-Turkish-Syrian alliance in 2010 after the Mavi Marmara incident. That was coincident with Turkish efforts to play the mediator role in the dispute between Iran and virtually the rest of the world over its nuclear program. Their efforts, while well-intentioned, slowed down the already glacial progress on the imposition of meaningful sanctions on Iran - which has not yet happened.

As Syria's regime has adopted brutal repressive measured against its own population, Turkey has been in the forefront of sanctions against Damascus and has made repeated calls for Syrian President Bashar al-Asad to step down. The Turks have allowed the major Syrian opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Syrian National Council, to set up its headquarters in Istanbul.

A closer look at Turkey's stance against the Ba'th Party regime in Syria might be instructional for Messrs. Biden and Blinken. First, some history might be in order. Prime Minister Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (Turkish: Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP) was founded in 2001 and elected to power in a landslide in 2002 with over two-thirds of the seats in the Grand National Assembly.

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 al-Qa'idah attacks on the United States, there was an increase in militant Islam throughout the Muslim world. In Turkey, that translated into growth for the nascent Islamist AKP. In the elections in 2007, the AKP increased its share of the popular vote, and again in 2011 the party was able to maintain the majority position in the government.

For the two gentlemen, please take away from this article that the Turkish government is controlled by an Islamist party, and that the Syrian National Council is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Erdogan is supporting his fellow Islamists in Syria, hoping that the next Syrian government is an Islamist one, much like the one he envisions for Turkey. Turkey is also forging ties with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, as well as with Palestinian Hamas*.

Mr. Blinken's own words demonstrate his regional naivete. "We've been urging the Turks in this constitutional reform process to have an inclusive process that strengthens freedoms of expression, religion and other fundamental rights, including the human rights of minorities...." The Turks I talk to believe they already had strong freedoms of these basic human rights until the ascendancy of Erdogan and the AKP. Turkey under Ergodan and the Islamist AKP is not progressing as far as these rights are concerned, it is regressing.

I just returned from a trip to Turkey. Granted, I spoke to mostly secular and Western-leaning members of the population, but there is a growing sense of unease that the AKP is leading Turkey away from the ideals that led to the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923 based on the secular ideals of Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk's party now finds itself in the minority and the opposition.

My Turkish contacts specifically are opposed to the attempts by the AKP to change many of the secular rules in favor of a more fundamentalist adherence of Islam. For example, current Turkish law prohibits women who work for the government from wearing the başörtüsü, the Muslim headscarf, in government facilities. The party attempted to change this law by granting "personal choice" to women employees. The party also sponsored a change to the country's constitution and the law that bans women from wearing headscarves at universities. While these seem innocuous to us, they are real issues in secular Muslim countries that are trying to balance Islam and modernity.

When Vice President Biden or members of his staff praise the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, they lend credibility to Erdogan's Islamist agenda. Do we really want to do that?