Sakset/Fra hofta

Intervjuet med Claire Berlinski er Michael J. Totten på sitt beste. Flanerende i formen og langt, men så dukker gullkornene opp. AKP-regimet tror det forstår Iran. Det forstår heller ikke den arabiske verden, mens USA har høstet dyrekjøpte erfaringer i Irak og vet endel om Iran.

Innenrikspolitisk har AKP næret en liten islamistisk gjøkunge, som allerede er blitt ukontrollerbar. AKP er slett ikke den suksesshistorien som norske medier og politikere vil ha oss til å tro.

I’ve visited Turkey a number of times, but always while on my way to some other place. I’ve never hunkered down there and gotten to work.

The country has become both more important and more bewildering lately, so I asked Claire Berlinski, my colleague at City Journal, if she could explain it to the rest of us. She has lived in Istanbul for five years and knows the country as well or better than just about any American writer.

MJT: First of all, what is it about Istanbul that has kept you there for so many years?

Claire Berlinski: I wake up every day and ask myself this question, actually. No one ever believes me when I try to explain this; but as usual the truth is boring and human. I never intended to live in Istanbul for five years. I moved here in the first place because my then-boyfriend, later fiance, later ex-fiance, lived here. He’s an American photojournalist, and he’d made Istanbul his base because it was a convenient flight from all the places gonzo photojournalists like to go. (Insert your favorite geographic “East meets West, crossroads of civilization” cliché here.) Also, at the time–right after the big economic crash–it was a cheap place to live, though it’s not now. So I moved here for the most uninteresting of reasons: a boyfriend.

Of course, I quickly discovered that Istanbul was interesting beyond all description–historically, culturally, politically–and quickly realized that Turkey was the most comprehensively misunderstood, under-reported story in the region. (I say this as someone who has not, actually, seen all of the region; I guess for all I know there are even more misunderstood countries that receive even less serious attention: But I wouldn’t know.) I became quite obsessed with trying to figure out what on earth is really happening here, and increasingly convinced that what people think is happening here, based on reporting in the English-language press, ranges from “half-right, with the most important half wrong,” to “delusional.”

David and I split up–for the usual boring reasons that men and women split up–but by then I had a life here that wasn’t easy just to dismantle. For one thing, I’d adopted seven cats. That was never the plan, either, but I found them abandoned, as kittens, all near death from starvation and cold, so I took them home thinking, “I’ll just nurse them back to health and then I’ll find good homes for them,” and predictably, being middle-aged and childless, fell too deeply in love with them to put them back on the street or give them away. The idea of trying to move somewhere else with seven cats is sufficiently daunting that you just don’t do it on a whim. And all my stuff is here–my books, a whole apartment full of stuff that would be a huge hassle to move–and some of my closest friends, and besides, where do you go after Istanbul? Wouldn’t anyplace else be boring? I often think, “What on earth am I doing here? Shouldn’t I move?” But then I think, “What a hassle that would be, and where exactly would I go?” And somehow that’s ended up with me waking up in the morning and thinking–”Five years in Turkey? How did that happen?”–and having no better answer for you than that.

MJT: What is going on with the Turkish government? The prime minister is increasingly creepy these days. Is he actually joining the Iranian- and Syrian-led resistance bloc, or is he just competing with it for influence in the Middle East as an alternative champion of similar causes?

Claire Berlinski: The AKP’s senior figures grandly imagine themselves as the heirs to Ottoman statesmen. They promote this understanding of their behavior at every opportunity. “You forget,” many an AKP spokesman has said to me, “that we’ve been in this region for years. We know it better than you do. Trust us.”

But the Ottoman Empire to which they are appealing exists in their fantasies. They do not, in fact, know much about the real Ottoman Empire. Nor do they possess the Ottomans’ knowledge of the region, nor do they exhibit the Ottomans’ diplomatic sophistication. If they did, the lessons they would draw would be entirely different.

AKP spokesmen always insist that Turkey is categorically opposed to an Iranian Bomb. This is not a lie. Even if we imagine them as their most ardent enemies portray them—as fervent religious zealots whose overarching goal is to transform Turkey into a theocracy—it still defies imagination that they could be so stupid as to want a nuclear Iran on their border.

They are zealots, perhaps, but not quite in the way their critics are imagining. They’re zealots of delusional optimism and overconfidence. They have sincerely convinced themselves that they will be able to befriend Iran, dissuade it from going nuclear, and profit greatly from this relationship in the process. They refuse to entertain the idea that the Iranians view them as useful idiots. In this sense, yes, it is correct to see their Islamism, or at least their religious devotion, as relevant: Prime Minster Erdo?an and Foreign Affairs minister Ahmet Davuto?lu are genuinely naïve enough to think all Muslims can be trusted. (The discovery that neither Qaddafi nor Assad meant well, nor had they the slightest interest in listening to Turkey when push came to shove, came as a complete shock to them. You can see this on their faces: They are sporting expressions now that call to mind nothing so much as Harold Camping on May 21st at 6:01 pm.)


Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an

Much like its domestic policy, the AKP’s foreign policy focuses on the short-term. The party seeks to stay in power from election to election while making itself and its supporters as wealthy as possible as quickly as possible. Its policies are grounded in wishful thinking, greed, grandiosity, naiveté and emotion. They are not grounded in logic, and they are certainly not grounded in a “realistic, rational analysis of the strategic picture.” These policies are not merely annoying to the West—they are in the long term economically and strategically suicidal for Turkey, be that Turkey a secular state or a theocracy. Both the AKP and foreign observers have become so smitten with the AKP’s own legend that they have failed to notice this.

A policy of generating and exploiting anti-Israel and Islamist sentiment is, to be sure, an electoral crowd-pleaser in the short-term. The AKP may be able to win several more elections on the back of it. It may well succeed in permanently changing Turkey’s domestic political landscape by at once creating public demand for an anti-Western policy orientation and meeting that demand.

But in the long term and in reality, Israel poses absolutely no strategic threat to Turkey. Nor does the United States. Nor does Europe. Iran, however, poses a massive threat—and all evidence suggests that the Ottomans would have perfectly understood this. It is Iran, not Turkey, that may plausibly be seen to be advancing both a coherent Islamist agenda and realistic, rational, long-term plan to establish itself as the region’s economic and diplomatic hegemon. It is Iran’s leadership, not Turkey’s, that in fact knows the region well.

What the AKP seems to be missing is this: Iran’s emergence as a nuclear state will overturn the entire regional power equilibrium. Turkey’s vulnerability to this is the most pronounced in NATO, and the AKP’s nonchalance about this is astounding. Neither a massive conventional army nor “strategic depth” are of the slightest value against weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles, which is precisely why Iran wants them in the first place—obviously.

When Turkish spokesmen say they cannot imagine circumstances under which Iran would employ such weapons against Turkey, they are either disingenuous or stupid. One need not actually launch a nuclear weapon to change the strategic landscape. A nuclear-armed Iran would unhesitatingly begin exporting Shi’a radicalism throughout the region, and Turkey is part of the region. Iran has tried this before: The Turkish military ended up deporting the mullahs, but then, they could. Anyone in Turkey who believes the Iranians would refrain from influencing Turkish internal politics if they could get away with it has been paying no attention whatsoever to the way Iran operates throughout the region: It is only Turkey’s conventional military superiority that has dissuaded Iran from treating Turkey precisely as it does every other weak power in this neighborhood.

The mere announcement of the news that Iran has crossed the nuclear threshold will have an immediate, devastating effect on Turkey’s stature—that day will be the last we ever hear about a rising Turkey, Anatolian tigers, the Islamic-economic dynamo, or the revival of the Ottoman Empire.

MJT: How can the Turkish government be this dense?

Claire Berlinski: If you speak to anyone in the AKP—anyone who is staying on message, that is—you will hear the same words. “Sanctions don’t work. Engagement is the only possible path. You must trust us. We know Iran so much better than you do. Remember, we have been dealing with this region for centuries. Let us handle the diplomacy, we’re experts.” They believe this. They have absolutely persuaded themselves of this. They have persuaded many Western observers, too. But as Iranian friend of mine here in Istanbul put it, “They don’t understand the Iranian mentality at all. They haven’t even read a book about them.” He is a refugee from the regime. He knows its mentality all too well, alas.

The Ottomans Empire had settlements throughout the region, but not in Persia. And it is important to remember that Turkey experienced a profound rupture from its own history in 1922, when Atatürk purged the bureaucracy of its Ottoman elements, Westernized the education system, and replaced the Ottoman script with a Latin one. Every Turk born thereafter has been cut off from Ottoman culture. Turks of our generation can for the most part no more read Ottoman than a Latvian could. There is no special reason to think Turkish policy makers know Ottoman history intimately. There is no special reason to think they know recent history intimately. “Turkey’s regional knowledge is new,” said another journalist here. “It was cut off during the Cold War. The AKP is trying to recreate a lost past, but it’s a past according to them—a fantastic narrative. They don’t want to know why the Ottoman Empire collapsed after 200 agonizing years. ‘Trust us, we know Iran?’— that’s total bullshit.”

Turkish policy makers are probably even more cut off from the realities of Iran than American ones—American policy makers, after all, at least occasionally receive reports from professional analysts who read Farsi, and they probably even read them from time to time. The United States has had far more contact with the reality of Iranian foreign policy lately than the Turks—it’s the Americans who are in Iraq, not Turkey. Turkey, as its leaders are always keen to remind the world, stayed out of there, and it shows. There may have been a time when Americans couldn’t tell the difference between Sunnis and Shi’ites. They sure grasp that now. Some senior members of the AKP—Gül in particular—may justly claim to know the Saudis and Arab culture well. But Saudis and the Iranians are not the same. It is possible they are gravely confusing the Arab and Persian worlds—an irony given that every Turk alive will be rightly dismissive of the suggestion that one might easily confuse Turks and Arabs.

No one in the AKP leadership can remotely claim expertise on Persian culture, history, and negotiating strategy—and no one appears to have any deep familiarity with more than a millennium of Turkic-Persian rivalry. The Ottomans, by comparison, were intimately familiar with Persian culture, not least because they understood Persian. Persian was the first language of bureaucracy in Seljuk and early Ottoman Anatolia. Of course, to prevent the encroachment of Shi’ite ideas, the Ottomans were not taught Persian until the age of six—by that age, it was hoped, one’s Sunni identity would be strong enough to withstand the corruption. But from the age of six, literate Ottomans were steeped in it.

Not so, today. Faruk Lo?o?lu, the former ambassador to the United States, put it this way: “Even today there might not be a single minister in the Foreign Service who speaks Persian. There may be some who have taken courses. I know for sure that when I was in the Foreign Service, the number who spoke Arabic was maybe one. I don’t think there were any who spoke Persian.” He thought there were perhaps one or two in the Turkish intelligence services. No one in the foreign service wishes to study Persian: competence in the language, after all, might result in being posted to Iran.


Iranian Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Iranians, on the other hand, know this region’s history exceptionally well. As Volkan Vural– Turkey’s former ambassador to Iran—remarked, “Iran has cultural continuity. That gives them an enormous advantage—they remember what happened centuries ago, We need a translator.”

The Iranians have real reasons to believe they know Turkey well. About thirty percent of its population is Azeri, which is to say that an important segment of Iran understands Turkish fluently. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s first language is Azeri. Azeris are now in the center of power, even more so than in the past. Turkish television broadcasts throughout the region; many in the Iranian leadership understand it. This understanding does not flow both ways.

The incompetence in Turkey has surely been reinforced by the incompetence of the White House, particularly by Obama’s willingness to play the fantasy game along with Turkey. “He can’t play the religious game. He should be playing the security game,” said Lo?o?lu. His policy toward Turkey, he said, “is a bad imitation of the worst parts of Orientalism.”


Istanbul, Turkey

MJT: What should be Washington’s policy toward Turkey right now?

Claire Berlinski: First thing: Speak up. Something people may not realize is that journalists here who are (for good reason) afraid to express their own opinions feel more protected if they’re quoting someone else’s, especially those of top-ranking US officials–no one can argue that those are not legitimate news. So one way to help Turkish journalists get information to Turkish people–which they need, desperately–is simply to say it. It makes a huge impact when the US ambassador notes that a hell of a lot of journalists seem to be getting arrested. That makes headlines, and brings awareness of that issue and why it’s a problem to a much wider audience.

The issue of endless pretrial detentions, not only in the case of the Ergenekon suspects, but as standard judicial operating procedure–why are we silent about that? Why aren’t we saying, “This is a major cause for concern?” Why aren’t we saying that the Ergenekon investigations are a legal travesty, and explaining, in detail, why we think this? Why did we praise last year’s constitutional referendum as some kind of great step forward for Turkish democracy, when in fact even the dimmest first-year law student could see that it contained clauses that severely imperil the independence of the judiciary? Ricciardone has been stronger than I expected him to be on some of this stuff, but the message needs to be much stronger still.

MJT: It’s obvious that Erdo?an has a low opinion of Israel, and I presume of Jews generally, but what do average Turks think? I know they aren’t huge fans of Israel, but are their opinions closer to the Arab or European view?

Claire Berlinski: Wide spectrum of attitudes. Turks are exceptionally sensitive to accusations of anti-Semitism, this being (rightly) associated in their minds with accusations of being Nazi-like, and that in turn associated with extreme sensitivity about the Armenian genocide. (What many don’t understand about Turkish public opinion on this is that few Turks fully understand what the word “genocide” means: They think they’re being called “Nazis,” which is one reason they become outraged by the charge. Often the same people who will be moved to fury by the phrase “Armenian genocide” will freely and with great sadness discuss the “tragic events,” unaware that the legal word for what they’re describing is “genocide.” But I digress.)

There’s still widespread pride that Turkey was a refuge to Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal and later fleeing the Nazis. But I would say that almost universally with some notable exceptions, Turks are to some degree anti-Semitic: Jews occupy their minds as a focus of bizarre conspiracy theories (mind you, so does everyone–the ruling AKP party, the Gulen movement, the British, the Freemasons: It’s like a whole country is dedicated to the proposition that Lyndon Larouche was right); there is almost universal anti-Semitism in the modern European sense, in that Israel is held to different standards than countries not chiefly comprised of Jews (an anti-Semitism characterized by the words, “You shouldn’t be called anti-Semitic, just because you criticize Israel,” coupled with a demonstrable lack of interest in criticizing any other country).

There is certainly now a strain of anti-Semitism in the modern Arab sense–a perverse mutation and direct inheritor of the most wicked strains of European exterminationist anti-Semitism. You know, the dripping-fang caricatures, words like “parasites,” “Death to Israel,” etc. That strain comes from the Arab world. It’s not indigenous to Turkey. But as everyone keeps saying, and it’s true, one of the big achievements of the AKP government has been to broaden Turkey’s contacts with the Arab world. I doubt the latter strain is of appeal to more than ten percent of the population, and certainly there’s revulsion toward it from the majority, but there’s way too much and it’s shameful.

MJT: What’s up with this second Turkish flotilla to Gaza? Surely the government knows about it if you and I know about it, and the government clearly did not try to stop it. What is Ankara hoping to achieve with this stunt?

The blockade-busting Mavi Marmara

Claire Berlinski: Of course Ankara knows about it. The government is hoping to keep this whole issue from blowing up in its face before the election, and plans to think about it afterwards–right now it’s dealing with a head-spinning number of domestic and foreign policy crises, and I mean crises. The flotilla is on page 60 of their list of “emergencies to worry about.” I wrote about this here and here, and I don’t think I can put it better:

They let that genie out of the bottle. They’ve got no idea how to stuff it back in. Davuto?lu pretty much admitted this a couple days ago: No, he said, the government would not try to stop the new flotilla, because it couldn’t:

The government also refuses to pressure ?HH to stop the new flotilla, saying it is a civilian initiative and, as a democratic country, it cannot intervene in the decisions of civil society groups.

“It is an Orientalist belief that nongovernmental groups in Turkey move when they are told by the state to move and stop when they are told to do so,” he said.

Do not be skeptical: I suspect he’s telling the truth. It is a very telling statement. They can’t control this little monster they nourished. It looked so cute when it was a puppy, but now that thing weighs 800 pounds. They’re just praying that if they keep feeding it, somehow it will stay focused on Israel, not them–oh, and on Syria, by the way. Lately the IHH has been staging protests in Istanbul against the Syrian regime. That’s awkward, too.

MJT: Was the Turkish resistance against the Iraq war mostly about their fear and loathing of an independent Kurdistan, or was something else going on, too?

Claire Berlinski: That was certainly a big part, as well as the fear (which proved well-founded) that they’d be left holding the bag if refugees began streaming across the border. They knew it was going to be a bloodbath, which it was. Their perspective on it was similar to their perspective on Iran now. We were saying, “It’s going to be a bloodbath now or an unimaginable bloodbath later.” They were saying, “Well, we can’t deal with that now. We really can’t. So it’s not happening.” That’s actually a pretty typical Turkish posture to life across the board, by the way, not just in foreign policy, and it’s not confined to the current government.

MJT: What happened to the Turkish army? The military of yore would have removed the AKP from power by now, right?

Claire Berlinski: Of yore, maybe. Of today, I don’t think so. If they had wanted to remove them, they could have. I think people miss a key point, which is that the coups were horrible. People suffered terribly. The military knows full well that it is no trivial thing to topple a legitimate, democratically-elected government–they would be left in control of a country that hated them. And most of them, contrary to popular belief, believe to a greater or lesser degree in democracy, and know that a coup would set Turkey back decades–economically, politically, in world opinion. In the past, coups were preceded by such an extreme breakdown of public order that by the time the military stepped in, people were relieved. That hasn’t happened here. If you take the Ergenekon nonsense seriously, you’ll believe that the military was planning to create that kind of breakdown in public order by staging a series of terrorist attacks on Turkish soil, but the more I look at these accusations, the more obviously fraudulent they appear–the so-called Balyoz case, for example, rests upon a document that was supposedly drawn up in 2002, but makes reference to companies that only came into existence years later; the thing is riddled with anomalies like that.

MJT: You keep writing about the PKK’s terrorism in a despairing tone of voice, wondering why the rest of us aren’t taking it seriously. Do you see another war between Turks and Kurds on the horizon, or are you just frustrated that few outside Turkey seem interested if innocents get blown up in Istanbul?


PKK fighter

Claire Berlinski: Both. This divide is far more volatile and dangerous than people realize. They’re focusing on the so-called Islamist-secular divide (which is a misleading way of putting it; everyone here is a Muslim, pretty much, and all claim to be committed to secularism, pretty much–the distinction is much more complex than the phrasing suggests). But that stands a good chance of being resolved democratically, although not necessarily in a way that’s good for Turkey or the region.

The possibility that the Kurdish issue will simply explode, soon, and very violently, seems totally unappreciated outside of Turkey. I mean, it has already–40,000 deaths, with no end in sight.

Destroyed village in Turkish Kurdistan

And yes, it drives me insane that these attacks happen in the middle of Istanbul and the world shrugs. I can’t figure out why–is it because the PKK isn’t an Islamist group, so people can’t fit it conveniently into a broader narrative? Is it because Istanbul doesn’t seem real to people, the way maybe Paris or Rome would?

You have to imagine that if a group linked to al Qaeda blew off a woman’s leg in Fortnum and Mason in London, that would have made headlines in the US, wouldn’t you? Well, the PKK blew off a woman’s leg right outside an upscale shopping mall here last week, and I don’t think anyone outside of Turkey even heard about it. Recently they tried to burn a dormitory full of kids to the ground, leaving kids with massive burns, critical wounds–kids!–and if you read only the mainstream US media, you’d never have heard about it.

You’d hear about it for sure if Israelis did that to Palestinians, wouldn’t you? Or if Salafists did it to Copts in Egypt? Some friends and I were laughing, darkly, about how frustrated the PKK must be: “We blew up a bus stop! We killed a police officer! We tried to whack the prime minister! Kids, we burnt a school full of kids! What more do we need to do to get people to notice? Do we need to get on Twitter with this Weiner guy?”

MJT: How much does radical Islam influence the AKP’s thinking? They’re obviously not Al Qaeda or the Taliban, and they don’t look like quite the Muslim Brotherhood, either.

Claire Berlinski: Islamism does play a part in the AKP’s doctrine. But it is more heuristically useful to use this as your starting assumption: They don’t have a doctrine. Certainly, the leadership hopes to assume a leading role in the Islamic world and the Middle East economy. There is in fact a major obstacle in their way, but they don’t want to think about it. They genuinely believe the Iranian threat is exaggerated. They have persuaded themselves that the world is alarmed about Iran only because it’s an Islamic country, and they know Islamic countries better. And besides, they need the money, now. “Our long-term political interests have been subdued by our short-term interests,” one diplomat lamented.

They are willing to take a subtle vein of anti-Western sentiment that runs through Turkish society and gin it up, to make it an overt, driving sentiment. But the game they have started has created its own dynamics, and soon they will be hostage to it. If they tell you that they have to follow this policy because it is what the electorate wants, remember to ask them who, exactly, has been telling the electorate they should want this in the first place.


Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar

It is not just Iran. Turkey has nothing to show for the domestic and international political risk it took by inviting exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal to Ankara to speak at the AKP headquarters last year. As the Turkish columnist Abdulhamit Bilici allows on the pages of Zaman—a paper closely associated with the government—“Hamas did not take any steps toward improvement, which was the most unfortunate aspect of this move. However, if Hamas, which had agreed to enter elections, had given even the tiniest hint that it would distance itself from violence, this would have had massive repercussions. If Mashaal had given such a signal, this would have prevented the division in Palestine and avoided the international embargoes and Turkey would have gained great prestige.” Well, yes. And if they’d discovered a cure for cancer, Turkey’s prestige would have been enhanced even further.

But reality seems to have no impact on the optimism of anyone observing these events. “While it did not have the intended results,” Bilici continues, “this diplomatic initiative served to increase Turkey’s effectiveness in the region. Obviously this has played an important role in making Turkey the key player in the Gaza crisis and helping it be actively involved in the cease-fire negotiations between Israel and Hamas.”

Oh, really?

To look at the results of any of these policies is to come to the same conclusion. Turkey is kidding itself and it is harming itself, and the rest of the world is going along for the ride. Over and over, the same themes emerge: naiveté, wishful thinking, and sheer incompetence, which no one is pointing out because everyone is swallowing the AKP’s line: “Trust us, we know what we’re doing!”

Unfortunately, this is not a strategic doctrine: It’s just famous last words.

Claire Berlinski is the author of Menace in Europe: Why the Continent’s Crisis Is America’s, Too and There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters. She lives in Istanbul, Turkey.