Years ago when I worked at Bloomberg I noticed that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund seemed to, without fail, overestimate economic growth for their customers in good times, and underestimate coming contractions in bad times.
Since Bloomberg encouraged us to be data driven and rigorous, I proposed we develop some boiler plate for the brief stories about the latest GDP prediction from the lenders (which we slavishly and uncritically turned into stories within minutes of their landing in our fax machines.) Something like: "The World Bank, which has overestimated coming Indonesian GDP growth six consecutive times, today predicted that Indonesia's GDP will rise by 7 percent in 1997."
Over the years current and former employees of both groups have explained that bias is down to the belief inside the financial institutions that their rosy projections can take on a life of their own by inspiring that elusive beast "investor confidence" and unleashing a deluge of cash upon their clients. They see it as a form of benevolent lying.
A senior editor there shut my proposal down as silly, for reasons I could never quite fathom.
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Nevertheless, the evidence that these groups get it wrong have been mounting for decades, however, many of us in the press still act surprised when they're wrong, yet again. The latest evidence is the IMF's mea culpa this week over its incorrect assumptions and ineffective prescriptions for Greece in relation to the ultimately $310 billion bailout of the country. It's the latest, and some of the largest, evidence that the oracular powers and financial wisdom of the Bretton Woods institutions aren't what they're cracked up to be.
In short, the IMF austerity program for the country has been a failure, at least from the perspective of the Greek people (the IMF estimates it may have prevented "contagion" from spreading to other countries, which is surely a comfort to all the Greeks out of work).
New IMF report
In the case of Greece, the IMF published a report yesterday that said the Fund had (wait for it...) underestimated the depth of the Greek economic downturn, underestimated the harm to Greek income and employment that would be caused by slashing spending, and overestimated the likelihood that "investor confidence" would return in response to all this and spread its magic pixie dust over the Greek people.
The IMF also admits, obliquely, the extent to which politics and not the best and most honest advice possible, played a role as the Fund worked with the European Central Bank (ECB) and the European Commission to figure out what to do two years ago as Greece teetered on the edge of bankruptcy and an exit from the euro.
"On the positive side, moving ahead with the Greek program gave the euro area time to build a firewall to protect other vulnerable members and averted potentially severe effects on the global economy," the Fund writes. "However, not tackling the public debt problem decisively at the outset or early in the program created uncertainty about the euro area’s capacity to resolve the crisis and likely aggravated the contraction in output. An upfront debt restructuring would have been better for Greece although this was not acceptable to the euro partners."
By debt restructuring, they mean sharp reductions in the amount of money owed by Greece to private and government lenders across Europe. But everybody else wanted to get paid, so the IMF acquiesced. (The European Commission said today that the IMF is wrong about this and that haircuts for lenders before the bailout would have led to "devastating consequences.")
This is far from the first time. In the early 1990s, the IMF warned Argentina against imposing currency controls to deal with a financial crisis. Argentina ignored the IMF, and the Fund later admitted the country's politicians were correct in doing so.
In the middle of that decade, the so-called Asian financial crisis hit much of the region, with capital flight threatening private banks, government coffers, and project finance alike. Thailand and Indonesia accepted IMF loans in exchange for "structural adjustment programs" (government spending cuts, foreign investor friendly legal changes, promises to have fully convertible currencies), while Malaysia, against dire warnings from the IMF, imposed currency controls and sought to stimulate the economy out of the downturn with an expansive government budget. The results? Malaysia weathered the crisis better than its neighbors, with fewer job losses and much less political turmoil.
In 2001, Argentina ran aground financially again and appealed to the IMF for cash. A review by the Fund later found that its projections for Argentina were too rosy at the time, complained that the IMF backed the Argentine government in public even when senior officials in private knew it was pursuing a disastrous course, and undermined its own credibility. The author wrote that "any catalytic role that IMF financing might have had in the past has been put into question, as large-scale IMF support can no longer be seen as signaling policy sustainability."
IMF seal of approval
Yet come 2010, there was an assumption from within the IMF that its seal of approval would breed confidence in investors. It wasn't true then, and it certainly isn't true in the case of Greece now.
That wasn't the only strange assumption the IMF made. On page 5 of another recently released report the Fund writes that it expected that "fiscal consolidation" (government spending cuts and tax increases) and expected productivity gains had authorities expecting "that the crisis would mobilize broad political support for comprehensive structural reforms." What that essentially means is that the IMF and its partners apparently believe that the Greek people, as their economy tanked and employment sank, would rally around policies likely to lead to further short-term unemployment.
Any student of politics, well, anywhere, probably wouldn't make that kind of assumption.
Finally, is the question of whether "austerity" – which used to be called shock therapy sometimes – actually works. The IMF admits in the case of Greece it might have made more sense to provide more cash to the country (though says that was not politically possible, given the reluctance of wealthy European nations like Germany to pony up more) and eased Greece's deficit targets.
But as things deteriorated, the IMF and its European partners instead tightened the fiscal screws. "The scope for increasing flexibility was also limited," the authors write. "The fiscal targets became even more ambitious once the downturn exceeded expectations."
IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde probably feels awful about the Fund's errors. But at least she has $550,000 compensation package to cheer her up (tax free to boot; IMF and World Bank executive salaries are unburdened by the taxes they're always urging struggling governments like Greece to increase on their citizens.)
Meanwhile, Greece's people are left to ponder whose advice they'll take next, as the country heads through its sixth consecutive year of economic contraction.
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The latest quarterly report from the US government's Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reports that 15 percent of US casualties in Afghanistan from "hostile action" came in the form of Afghan police and soldiers turning their guns on their erstwhile allies.
While the report prefers the more delicate "Afghans in uniform attacking their Coalition partners," leaving the door open to the chance that some of these attacks are carried out by men in stolen uniforms and not official members of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), it's a safe assumption that the vast majority of the perpetrators are just that.
The number of insider attacks (Afghans in uniform attacking their Coalition partners) has been on the rise, from two attacks in 2008 to 46 attacks in 2012. The 2012 attacks resulted in 62 Coalition deaths, 35 of them US personnel. This accounts for more than 11% of all US casualties and 15% of all US casualties resulting from hostile actions in 2012... In addition, insider attacks by ANSF personnel (or individuals posing as ANSF personnel) against other ANSF personnel rose from three in 2008 to 29 in 2012 (through the end of September).
This quarter, insider attacks continued. On March 8, two US soldiers and two Afghan soldiers were killed and 10 US soldiers were wounded in Wardak when an Afghan in uniform opened fire on them. According to media accounts of the incident, Coalition forces quickly returned fire and killed the attacker. This was the third insider attack in 2013. In separate incidents this year, a British soldier was killed on January 7 and a US contractor was killed on March 8.
In addition to insider attacks aimed primarily at US and Coalition forces, insider attacks by Afghan police and soldiers against their colleagues continued this quarter. Notably, 17 US-trained Afghan Local Police (ALP) personnel in Ghazni were killed February 27 after one of their own drugged and shot them, stole their weapons, and fled, according to a media report. The Taliban claimed responsibility for that attack. In an incident on March 21, an ALP member killed five other Afghan police personnel in Badghis.
The good news is that the number of insider or so-called green-on-blue attacks in Afghanistan appears to be well below last year's pace – attributable to better vetting of recruits, the presence of fewer US soldiers, and far more controlled training environments introduced in response to last year's toll.
And it shouldn't be forgotten that the vast majority of Afghan soldiers and police are fighting for little pay, often far from home, against the Taliban, and are bearing the brunt of the casualties. The NATO coalition in Afghanistan reports that Afghan soldier and police averaged 535 deaths a month last year (6,420 for the full year). The foreign coalition's death toll for the year was 402, with 310 of those US troops.
And troops loyal to the central government are often the victims of traitorous colleagues as well, as SIGAR points out. As the US and other foreign militaries continue their withdrawal from Afghanistan (the current schedule is for foreign forces to be mostly gone by December 2014), Taliban incentives to strike out at Afghan forces, both covertly and overtly, will increase.
The Afghan Local Police (ALP) members that have been used as a sort of gendarmerie in rural Afghanistan are likely to remain a particular target, SIGAR writes.
"The Taliban’s senior leadership considers the ALP the top threat to the insurgency’s ability to control the population and threaten the Afghan government, according to (the US Department of Defense). Insurgents attack ALP units up to 10 times more often than other ANSF components," the report says. "ALP members are recruited locally, recommended by village elders, and assigned to protect their home villages. Because they are a local force, the ALP has demonstrated 'a unique resilience' against infiltration by the Taliban 'as anyone outside the area would be immediately recognized as a foreigner'" the authors write, quoting a Pentagon official.
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Death has stalked Iraqis in the form of car bombs on mosques and markets, assassinations of political figures, and organized massacres of security forces, prompting many to wonder if Iraq could plunge back into another sectarian civil war like the one that raged in the middle of the last decade, and claimed over 3,000 lives a month at its height.
"Systemic violence is ready to explode at any moment if all Iraqi leaders do not engage immediately to pull the country out of this mayhem," UN special representative to Iraq, Martin Kobler, said earlier this month.
While I think that Iraqis are sufficiently horrified at the prospect that it has restrained a surge in the conflict, looked at from a broader perspective than its own recent tragic history. Iraq is currently one of the deadliest conflicts in the world - probably in the top five. Syria at the moment is certainly bloodier. The drug war in Mexico (which some would not consider a war) probably claimed more than 10,000 lives last year. Good numbers on deaths from conflict in Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mali are currently hard to come by, but after that it's hard to think of a conflict that would be as or more bloody than Iraq currently is.
Jay Ulfelder, a political scientist who focuses on civil conflict and instability (and runs an excellent blog), reckons that Iraq is almost certainly currently among the top 10 deadliest conflicts and "very likely top 5" and estimates it could be near the top with Syria if per capita deaths are taken into account.
Collecting statistics from war zones is far from an exact science, and combatants have incentives to minimize their own casualties, maximize those of their opponents, and point the finger of blame elsewhere for civilian debts, adding more uncertainty.
Total deaths in the Afghanistan war, for instance, aren't compiled on a regular basis by anyone. Though the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan estimated 2,754 civilian deaths in Afghanistan in 2012 and the well respected Icasualties.org recorded 74 deaths that year for the US-led NATO coalition, deaths among anti-government insurgents and within the Afghan security forces don't appear to be tracked regularly by any outside body. However, an analysis of 2011 deaths by the Congressional Research Service estimated 1,080 deaths that year among Afghan soldiers and police and 3,021 among civilians. That year, 402 members of the US-led coalition were killed.
In the absence of decent data on deaths within the Taliban and other insurgent groups, let's just make a number up (thoroughly scientific, I know). Let's assume that the 2011 death toll among Afghan civilians and security forces and among the foreign coalition were matched by deaths among insurgents (which is almost certainly an over-count. That would yield a total of 9,000 killed in Afghanistan that year.)
How does Iraq stack up? If the average monthly rate of deaths from conflict there over the past two months held up for a year, that would yield over 10,000 dead. That's of course not likely - violence typically ebbs and flows month to month, and picking the worst two month period over the past five years to extrapolate from almost certainly will end up producing an overestimate. Adding in the death tolls for March (271) and February (220) yields an artificial annual death toll of 6,744.
The point is that the Iraq of right now could reasonably be considered to be in a type of war, albeit a low-level one with little chance that the current Shiite-led government of Nouri al-Maliki being ousted. Is what's happening now a civil war? I guess it depends on how you define the terms.
In August 2005, I wrote that Iraq was probably already a civil war (a politically unpopular conclusion at the time, with the US eager to portray itself in the mopping up phase after dismantling the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein):
The academic thumbnail definition of a civil war is a conflict with at least 1,000 battlefield casualties, involving a national government and one or more nonstate actors fighting for power.
While the US has lost 1,862 soldiers, getting an accurate casualty count beyond that is difficult. The Iraqi government and US military say they don't keep figures on Iraqi troops or civilians killed. According to www.iraqbodycount.net, a website run by academics and peace activists, 24,865 Iraqi civilians were killed between March 2003 and March 2005. The report said that US-led forces killed 37 percent of the total.
Obviously things are currently better than that – but not by much. The horrors that Iraqis continue to confront, in a war that the US has largely put out of its mind, continue and remain the country's deepest challenge.
But that's undoubtedly how today's verdict against 43 Egyptians and foreigners associated with international democracy NGOs is going to be seen by large swathes of the US Congress the next time they're asked to re-up Egypt's annual subsidy.
And it also captures the levels of hostility that the Muslim Brotherhood have directed at the sorts of independent organizations that could prove a challenge to their grip on power. While Egypt's judiciary is nominally independent, the Brotherhood has been pushing forward a new NGO law that activists say would gut the ability of watchdog groups to raise money.
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The 46 people were given jail sentences stemming from their involvement with a group of democracy promotion NGOs, two primarily funded by the US State Department. All but one of the Americans were sentenced in absentia, having fled the country after weeks of hiding out in the US Embassy in a wink-and-a-nod deal made with the government of President Mohamed Morsi. The group that fled includes Sam LaHood, the son of President Obama's then Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
In all, 13 Egyptians, one German, and one American stood trial, with the balance of those charged outside of the country and generally receiving heavier sentences.
Robert Becker, a National Democratic Institute (NDI) employee, was the lone American to stay behind, arguing that it was hypocritical to urge Egyptians to stand up for a better system and to turn tail at the first sign of trouble. NDI fired Mr. Becker for his decision, and today he was given a 2 year jail sentence.
His specific crime? "Forming an illegal NGO." There was only one problem; NDI had been active in Egypt since 2006, and Becker had been hired by the group in 2011. Ahead of sentencing today, he wrote on his blog that the prosecution felt politically motivated. "The government witnesses for the prosecution never focused their testimony on the actual charges against us, instead using their 15-minutes of 'fame' to complain about the United States."
NDI and the International Republican Institute (IRI) receive most of their funding from the US State Department and are most active in transitional states conducting seminars on political party organization and focusing on building institutions. The court ruled today that they be barred from work in Egypt, along with Freedom House, the International Center for Journalists, and Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
The message from Egypt under President Morsi is consistently one of distaste for the creation of a vibrant, independent civil society, hardly surprising given the majoritarian views of the Brothers, who have consistently insisted that their winning of the presidency last year entitles them to run Egypt without interference. US Secretary of State John Kerry assailed the verdict today as "contrary to the universal principle of freedom of association and is incompatible with the transition to democracy."
"Democracy" is indeed about far more than voting, and Egypt's government – like those in many other states – appears reluctant to have foreign money poured into efforts to make their political opponents stronger. While Egypt might hold regular, reasonably fair elections going forward, without civil society groups to create strong political alternatives to the Brotherhood and help reform the judiciary and reign in police torture and other abuses, it's unlikely to prosper or have an open society in any meaningful way.
IRI's statement on the verdict captures what's at stake:
As IRI has said since this assault against international and Egyptian nongovernmental organizations began more than a year ago, this was not a ‘legitimate judicial process’ as claimed by Egyptian officials. This was a politically motivated effort to squash Egypt’s growing civil society, orchestrated through the courts, in part by Mubarak-era hold overs. IRI will pursue all avenues to challenge today’s verdict. Today’s ruling will have a chilling effect on Egyptian civil society and, taken with other recent developments, raises serious questions about Egypt’s commitment to the democratic transition that so many people demanded when they took to the streets in early 2011.
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Yusuf al-Qaradawi is an Egyptian preacher with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood that now rules his homeland, has long lived under the protection of the emir of Qatar, and wants his version of Sunni Islam to help redefine the politics of the Arab world.
John McCain is an American senator, a war hero who endured six years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and would like to see a vigorous US effort to bring America's vision of democracy to the far corners of the globe.
An odd couple, to be sure. But on the fundamentals of the Syrian civil war, they're on the same page: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go, a new government must be formed under the leadership of elements of the currently raging rebellion, and Iran's influence must be wrenched out of Syria.
But after that is when the trouble starts. Mr. McCain has been a proponent for greater US involvement in the Syrian war and made a brief trip into rebel-held territory there last week. He has argued that President Barack Obama's reticence about US involvement in a civil war that has strong sectarian overtones is undue, and that it's possible for the US to selectively support rebels who back US interests and keep arms out of the hands of Sunni jihadis aligned with Al Qaeda in Iraq – who have emerged as some of the rebellion's most capable fighters.
But his trip to Syria, organized by a DC-based group of exiles lobbying for US involvement, inadvertently illustrated how difficult it is to vet fighters in a far off war, in a cultural and political context that few US officials understand. During his few hours in the country, he posed for a picture with a group of rebel supporters. Two of them were later identified by Beirut's Daily Star (apparently bouncing of a report on Lebanon's Al Jadeed TV, which is sympathetic to Hezbollah) as having been involved in the abduction of a group of 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims as they traveled home last year.
McCain disputes that either man was one of the kidnappers or motivated by sectarian hatred. It still appears possible that one of them was. There's no fault on McCain for this – he didn't know who he was meeting, and in rebel encampments in Syria, various people with various agendas are often present. But the incident illustrates how hard it is for outsiders to know who they're dealing with, or who they should trust.
Far more important than who McCain may have briefly met, there's reasonable evidence that weapons that were sent to Syrian fighters in a joint US-Saudi-Jordanian operation ended up within months in the hands of jihadi groups – including Jabhat al-Nusra, which is designated as a terrorist group by the US State Department.
This isn't particularly surprising. In wars like Syria's, with a patchwork of rebel units and little in the way of a central command, weapons are fungible. And while the vision that members of the Free Syrian Army may have for the future of Syria is dramatically at odds with that of Jabhat al-Nusra, they're united in their hatred of Assad's government. An FSA general might promise that US-supplied anti-aircraft missiles, for instance, would never be given to a group the US doesn't like, but a more junior officer fighting to hold on to territory, and cooperating with one of America's proscribed groups, could easily make a different decision in the heat of battle.
And that brings us to Mr. Qaradawi, an influential Sunni preacher who has broad regional reach thanks to his regular television show on Qatar's Al Jazeera.
Qaradawi wants Iran – and its ally, the Lebanese Shiite political movement and army Hezbollah – out of Syria, much as McCain does, though Qarawadi's motivations are far different. He wants a Sunni Islamist political order to replace the current regime, and according to his comments at a rally in Qatar on Friday, views Iran's interests in Syria as sectarian. "Now we know what the Iranians want.... They want continued massacres to kill Sunnis," he said.
Qaradawi said he wasn't against all Shiites, but said he was ashamed of his past support for Hezbollah (given because they fought Israel) and dubbed the group the "Party of Satan." (Hezbollah means "Party of God.")
"Every Muslim trained to fight and capable of doing that [must] make himself available.... Iran is pushing forward arms and men, so why do we stand idle?," he asked. "How could 100 million Shiites defeat 1.7 billion Sunnis? Only because Sunni Muslims are weak.”
Those totals refer to rough estimates of global number of Sunnis and Shiites, and the import of his meaning was clear: a call for a mandatory jihad in Syria, similar to calls made by other preachers to carry out jihads against the Soviet or US presences in Afghanistan, or the US-led occupation of Iraq.
On Fox and Friends this morning, McCain dismissed worries that US involvement in the war would encourage a spreading of sectarian conflict, arguing that in fact it would be the fastest way to end the war.
"Yes, there are extremists flowing into the country," he said. "But that’s because we’ve done nothing to help the rebels succeed. And yes they have some light weapons, but they need anti-tank weapons and they need anti-air weapons. And thanks to Hezbollah, the Russians, and Iranians, now Bashar al Assad has the initiative on his side."
McCain called on the US to imposed a no-fly zone on the country and to "take out their air assets" and implied that would head off dangerous regional repercussions:
There’s a real threat to [Israel] now, this has spilled over into Lebanon, fighting in Lebanon, Jordan cannot last, the king of Jordan cannot last under this present scenario. Ten percent of their population are refugees. Can you imagine 10 percent of our population being refugees?
The same concerns that we see publicly that we don’t want to get involved in escalation [he said, asked about Obama's reasons for inaction]. The Americans are war-weary there’s no doubt about that, but if we stand by and watch this continue and spread it’s going to become a regional war and we can affect things beneficially. And if we can’t, then I can assure Americans that they are wasting hundreds of billions of tax dollars on national defense."
It's not clear how a US effort to help the rebellion win would necessarily end the refugee crisis – though it might shift its demographics.
Syria's Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that Assad and many of the stalwarts of his regime belong to, make up about 10 percent of Syria's population – about 2.2 million people. Syria's ancient Christian population is also likely to feel threatened after a war won by the country's Sunni majority. (Iraq's Christian population fell by at least a third as a result of jihadi attacks during the Iraq war.)
At any rate, McCain, a leading US hawk, wants the same thing in the short term as Sheikh Qaradawi. But the two men, their two camps, want dramatically different things in the long term for Syria. Which camp is likely to have more influence in a post-Assad Syria?
Remember Occupy Wall Street? The leaderless "movement" built around anger at income inequality and the power of corporate interests in US politics that faded as winter came to New York and failed to build a coherent political approach to change?
Well, the slogan lives on. The latest protests to receive the "occupy" brand are the Turkish ones that erupted after a harsh police crackdown on a sit-in protesting the government's plans to destroy Gezi Park in central Istanbul and replace it with a shopping mall. Over the weekend, the protests became about far more than Istanbul's dwindling green spaces, with grievances ranging from the heavy-handed leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to concerns about unrestrained capitalism, Islamist-motivated crackdowns on alcohol consumption, and police brutality. Since, #occupygezi has proven one of the most popular hash tags on Twitter.
The grievances are visibly real, and the protests are Turkey's most wide-ranging for decades. But recent history has shown that leaderless protests are far better at illustrating what they don't like than what they want and how to get there. On Friday, when the Gezi Park encampment was attacked and the broader protests started in response, I wrote: "Branding your protest as an 'occupy' is a leading indicator that it won't accomplish much."
This is not a generally-popular sentiment in the Twitterverse. But political change happens elsewhere, and today comes some support from someone who, unlike me, actually knows something about Turkey. Stephanie Soiffer, a PhD candidate in international affairs at Ottawa's Carleton University wrote a master's thesis on "Explaining varying patterns of compliance with human rights law in Turkey." She writes that the "Occupy love-ins degenerated into shantytowns that marred often previously pristine public spaces and that unfortunately, as time wore on, attracted larger and larger proportions of hooligans and extremists" and that she doubts the approach will work to change much in Turkey:
Sitting at my desk in Ottawa, it is unclear to me whether this handle originated somewhere on the web as a very catchy hashtag or whether it was originally promoted by the protestors themselves. Origins aside, Hurriyet is reporting on their English website that presently the protestors are now identifying with the Occupy movement. This pains me since this is not a protest model that will likely lead to a valuable outcome.
Unless something changes soon, Turkey’s Occupy movements (there are now protests in Ankara and Izmir as well) will be just as forgettable. Like the Occupy protests that have already come and gone, the protest in Turkey is directionless and leaderless. Originally, when the protest was very young and still small, it clearly articulated one demand: it wanted the government to not follow through with its plan to mow down the greenery in Gezi Park in order to make room for a shopping mall. Although the movement grew out of dissatisfaction with urbanization it is now believed to represent an increasingly large number of complaints such as Turkey’s autocratic leanings, its movement away from secular policies and practices, abuses of the population’s physical integrity rights, and its limited freedoms of assembly, of the press, and of expression to name but a few. In sum, a movement that began making one focused demand is now demanding all the rights enshrined in the International Bill of Human Rights and all the treaties and covenants it encompasses.
For now, Prime Minister Erdogan is defiant and dismissive of the protesters – unwilling to bend on the determination to destroy Gezi Park, let alone on anything else, and warning that he could swamp the current protesters with far more supporters of his own if it comes to it. And with no political group as yet to channel and prioritize demands, it remains easy, if offensive, for the prime minister to dismiss his critics as a rabble.
Probably the best overview of the state of Turkish politics and how it plays into these protests that I've seen so far was written by Steven Cook and Michael Koplow for Foreign Policy this morning. They explain how Erdogan's Turkey isn't as democratic as it's often portrayed by US officials. While they place most of the blame on Erdogan's ruling AKP, they also write that the opposition has made the ruling party's task far easier.
Under these circumstances, Turkish politics is not necessarily more open than it was a decade ago, when the AKP was pursuing democratic reforms in order to meet the European Union's requirements for membership negotiations. It is just closed in an entirely different way. Turkey has essentially become a one-party state. In this the AKP has received help from Turkey's insipid opposition, which wallows in Turkey's lost insularity and mourns the passing of the hard-line Kemalist elite that had no particular commitment to democracy. Successful democracies provide their citizens with ways in which to express their desires and frustrations beyond periodic elections, and Turkey has failed spectacularly in this regard.
The combination of a feckless opposition and the AKP's heavyhanded tactics have finally come to a head. This episode will not bring down the government, but it will reset Turkish politics in a new direction; the question is whether the AKP will learn some important lessons from the people amassing in the streets or continue to double down on the theory that elections confer upon the government the right to do anything it pleases.
The Syrian pot yesterday called the Turkish kettle black.
It may seem crazy for the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to complain about the use of excessive force in Turkey surrounding the protests that erupted at Taksim Square in Istanbul on Friday, given that his government has killed thousands of civilians and tortured countless more during that country's civil war, and there has only been one confirmed death from Turkey's recent clashes, but self-awareness and a grasp of irony have never been strong suits among Middle Eastern leaders.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi suggested that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan should immediately resign and go into exile in Qatar, and chided Mr. Erdogan for comparing the protesters to terrorists.
The comments amount to diplomacy by snark, and are basically throwing Erdogan's words and positions about the Syrian uprising back at him. Turkey has called for Assad to resign and flee his homeland, and Qatar has been a major backer of the uprising against his regime, both in the forms of cash and weapons, in international diplomatic circles, and on the propaganda front via the Al Jazeera satellite news channel owned by its leader. Turkey, likewise, has complained of Syria calling the armed opposition a group of terrorists.
Proportional? Hardly. The brutality of Syria under the Assads (Bashar's predecessor was his father, Hafez; between father and son, the family have held the top spot in Syria for 42 years) far outstrips the misbehavior of any of Turkey's rulers under that period. While it is easy to look at Turkey and criticize its human rights record and respect for basic freedoms in isolation, in comparison to Syria, the country is a paradise of civil liberties.
But that is not to say that Syria doesn't have a point. Finding a Middle Eastern leader with a fundamental respect for open societies and the rough and tumble of political disagreement is no easy task. Just as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak or Tunisia's Ben Ali described the protests that ultimately drove them from power in 2011 as motivated by "foreign hands," Turkey's Erdogan turned straight to that page in the playbook.
According to Turkey's Hurriyet daily, Erdogan said today that "our intelligence work is ongoing [to determine the foreign actors behind the protests]. It is not possible to reveal their names. But we will have meetings with their heads."
The press is heavily controlled in Turkey, particularly the broadcast media, and as regional and international stations spent the weekend chronicling the protests (if a tad breathlessly at times), national stations like CNN Turkey were carrying cooking shows and wildlife documentaries.
Erdogan also lashed out at the hard-to-censor Internet, particularly social media, which has been flooded with coverage of the protests and criticism of Erdogan. "There is this curse called Twitter ... social media is a curse on society," the prime minister said.
One way of looking at Turkey over the past decade is as a glittering success. Its economy has soared, the military's role in political life has been severely curtailed, and the country has established a habit of holding free elections with large turnouts, the latest giving the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) a hair under 50 percent of the seats in parliament, an unprecedented mandate.
That vote was a reflection of public satisfaction at the Islamist AKP's economic stewardship under the guiding hand of the popular Erdogan. But the protests that have raged for the past few days in Istanbul and other cities are a clear reminder that all is not well in Turkey.
The country's apparent "democratization" over the past decade has also been accompanied by a crackdown on the press, brutal behavior by the police, and expanding crony capitalism in the form of close ties between senior AKP officials and wealthy businessmen. A sizable number of Turks resent the creeping Islamization of the nation by the AKP as an assault on their own lifestyles and the nation's traditional cosmopolitanism, and feel cut out of the political equation.
That, more than a protest over the destruction of Gezi Park in Istanbul to make way for a mall, is why tens of thousands braved tear gas and baton charges over the weekend.
And though there is no equivalency between Syria and Turkey, the difference of agendas between Turkey's peaceful protesters and Syria's armed rebellion is an interesting reminder of the complex agendas in the region. While in Turkey, an important component driving the protesters is resentment against the Islamist agenda of the AKP, in Syria, a large portion of the armed rebels are interested in bringing Islamist politics to the country, which has been mostly secular under the Assads.
In recent decades, government sponsored nongovernment organizations (NGOs) have played a big role in trying to promote democracy across the world, from the former states of the Soviet Union to the Balkans, through the Middle East, and on to Indonesia and other parts of Asia.
And not surprisingly, they've also attracted the attention and fear of governments that see them as fifth-columns who exist to undermine their leaders and practices. Much of this verges on conspiracy theory, with claims that the role of such groups is to specifically destroy existing governments (the pro-democracy NGOs financed by billionaire George Soros are particular targets for this kind of complaint).
Well, various governments without exactly sterling human rights and democracy records have been pushing back hard against NGOS, drawing outrage from democracy advocates and governments such as the US.
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Russia passed a law last year requiring NGOs that receive foreign money to either register as "foreign agents" or give up the cash, and has been vigorously enforcing it of late. More than 500 nongovernment organizations, who do election monitoring, human rights work, and run anticorruption efforts, are under investigation as deserving of the label.
In Turkmenistan, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov decreed that a state commission be created to supervise all foreign funded projects and Eurasianet claims that "if implemented in its entirety, the decree would enable the government effectively to take financial control of all forms of nonprofit activities in the Central Asian state."
Egypt, just two years after its uprising against Hosni Mubarak and now ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi, is also getting in on the act. A new draft NGO law is drawing fury from human rights workers and political activists. Heba Morayef, the Egypt director for Human Rights Watch, writes on Twitter today that it looks "like latest draft of NGO law bans all foreign governmental & inter-governmental funding of NGOs. Bye bye UN, EU, USAID, DFID funding."
President Morsi announced today that he had referred the law to the Shura Council, Egypt’s nominal upper house of parliament. While the lower house remains dissolved, the Council has the authority to pass new legislation until elections are held to elect a lower house.
“If they pass the law in its current form, the Egyptian authorities would send a message that little has changed since the Mubarak era, when the authorities restricted independent human rights organizations to stop them from exposing abuses,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International. “Passing a law such as this one in a country with a long history of cracking down on the work of human rights organizations would be incredibly dangerous. If Egypt is serious about moving forward from its recent past, the authorities must turn away from this law and instead enable an environment for NGOs to ensure human rights are protected and promoted.”
Since the fall of Mubarak, Egypt has been incredibly wary of foreign NGOs – a group of NGO workers are currently on trial for receiving foreign funding, one of them an American.
But it's not hard to understand why governments don't like NGOs getting hard-to-control foreign funding (in poorer countries there isn't much money available for such groups and the locally wealthy who might help them out can be easily leaned on by the state). More openness and transparency are, after all, threats to many of these regimes – as are flourishing democracies.
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The US position on Syria's civil war remains, in public at least, much as it has long been: The end of President Bashar al-Assad's rule via some sort of negotiated settlement between the rest of his regime and the patchwork of secular Syrians, mainstream Islamists, and jihadis fighting against him.
That's the premise for a conference the US, France, and Britain have been pushing for in Geneva next month. But recent battlefield gains for Mr. Assad's forces, a Russian promise of a delivery of advanced air defense systems to the government (which would make a US-led air campaign more dangerous), and a divided political leadership for the opposition all make it appear very unlikely that peace will break out next month in Switzerland.
Put simply, the Syrian opposition has not come together in the way the US had hoped – not in its military composition, which now involves a lot of foreign travelers from a regional Al Qaeda affiliate, nor on the international diplomatic front, which is fraught with infighting and doubt about the worth of a conference far from the battlefield.
Meanwhile, members of the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah continue to pour into Syria to fight for Assad, with Iranian and Russian military support for the regime lurking in the background.
That's made the opposition in some ways almost as unattractive from a US perspective as Assad himself, and explains American reticence. But the fact remains that Assad has long been isolated and sanctioned by the US, and the civil war has claimed at least 80,000 lives so far, with cities like Homs and Aleppo reduced to rubble by the government's long-range shelling.
Speaking today, Fred Hof, who resigned as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's special representative on Syria last September, said: "This is a war Iran and Hezbollah have decided not to lose... we have not seen the same level of commitment from US."
But after decades of claims that US foreign policy is a "moral" one and calls for a US ready to end horrific wars after the genocide in Rwanda, some in Washington say the US looks hypocritical for not at least giving the rebels more advanced weapons and, perhaps, using air power to halt Assad's advances and give the rebels enough breathing room to regroup and win their war.
US Sen. John McCain, who darted across the Turkish border into rebel-held Syria on Monday, has been leading that charge. On a visit organized by the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a pro-rebellion group based in Washington, he met with Free Syrian Army leaders. He met with Gen. Salim Idris, a Free Syria Army leader, who according to the group "asked that the United States increase its aid to the Free Syrian Army in the form of heavy weapons, a no-fly zone, and airstrikes on Hezbollah."
Earlier this month Senator McCain said "the strategic and humanitarian costs of this conflict continue to be devastating" and called on the US to consider an "overt and large-scale operation to train and arm well-vetted Syrian opposition forces" and said that "we could use our precision strike capabilities to target Assad’s aircraft and SCUD missile launchers on the ground without our pilots having to fly into the teeth of Syria’s air defenses. Similar weapons could be used to selectively destroy artillery pieces and make Assad’s forces think twice about remaining at their posts. We could also use Patriot missile batteries outside of Syria to help protect safe zones inside of Syria from Assad's aerial bombing and missile attacks."
But is anyone in Washington listening? President Obama has been very cautious about getting more involved and today his administration poured water on a story in The Daily Beast yesterday that, citing "two administration officials," claimed that "The White House has asked the Pentagon to draw up plans for a no-fly zone inside Syria that would be enforced by the US and other countries, such as France and Great Britain."
USA Today quoted National Security Council Spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden this morning as saying: "I'm not going to discuss our internal deliberations, but we have said for many months that the administration is prepared for a variety of contingencies in Syria and all options are on the table."
That sounds about right. The Pentagon is always readying contingency plans in responses to conflict, particularly when it looks like US politicians might request action. It's safe to assume a variety of no-fly and no-drive zone plans have already been drawn up. Whether the US imposes any of them is a matter of politics, of course.
And as horrific as Syria is now for the people living through the war, the possibility of broadening the conflict, already spilling over into Lebanon and Iraq, to involve Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and Israel (they have conducted airstrikes against what they alleged were attempted Assad weapons transfers to Hezbollah) would give any president pause. This is a far more dangerous situation than in Libya.
Where are the hawks?
But the push for war continues. In the Washington Post yesterday there was a curious news story about the dearth of "liberal hawks" who were bullish on the Iraq war speaking out in favor of armed US intervention in Syria – curious because it gives so little time to liberal hawks who are skeptical of armed intervention in Syria. In the long, three-page piece you have to read until the middle of the third page to find a supporter of the Iraq war who opposes a US war in Syria (the columnist Fareed Zakaria) being quoted (it is also only on the third screen that an overall critic of liberal interventionism, Stephen Walt of Harvard, is quoted).
But amid the burst in outside engagement, one influential group seems noticeably silent. The liberal hawks, a cast of prominent left-leaning intellectuals, played high-profile roles in advocating for American military intervention on foreign soil — whether for regime change or to prevent humanitarian disasters. They pressured President Bill Clinton to intervene in Bosnia, provided intellectual cover on the left for President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq and urged President Obama to engage in Libya. But even as the body count edges toward 100,000 in Syria and reports of apparent chemical-weapons use by Assad, liberal advocates for interceding have been rare, spooked perhaps by the traumatic experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan and the clear reluctance of a Democratic president to get mired in the Middle East. Call them Syria’s mourning doves.
This is certainly true. There are fewer members of the US political, academic and journalistic establishments that support an armed US effort in Syria than did in Iraq. And the poor outcome of that war, which led to a sectarian civil war that claimed over 150,000 lives, certainly plays in to many calculations. But it isn't just that people feel burned by Iraq. Many people view the situation in Syria today particularly dangerous, with the likelihood of nasty effects in neighbors Lebanon, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Israel. And the sectarian element of the conflict can't be denied.
It is not inherently inconsistent to support intervention in Libya, a tiny and far more homogenous country that had no powers standing behind it, and still be leery of one in Syria, where Iran and Russia back Assad. It is the specifics of Syria that must be taken on in making the case for war there – not potentially foolish appeals to consistency.
Of windmills and donkeys
Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center made the case for the US to give up what he describes as a "quixotic" effort to mold a Syrian opposition to its liking, and accept the Syrian opposition as it actually is. Writing in The Atlantic, he says it's a folly to wait "for a more perfect Syrian opposition" and appears to call for more arms for the rebellion, notwithstanding that it's armed component is "effectively dominated by Salafis and Islamists."
The original sin of US policy was taking military intervention off the table and focusing instead on a "political settlement," as if the two were mutually exclusive. Instead, intervention and diplomacy should have proceeded in parallel. It was only a credible threat of military action that would have brought the regime, or at least elements of it, to the negotiating table. In Bosnia and Kosovo, the Serbian government gave up its ethnic cleansing campaign and agreed to Western terms only after NATO military intervention, not before...
It is a testament to the faith that the Syrian opposition still places in the United States that they are even willing to go to Geneva. They, and we, have been through this before, the cycle of hope, followed by disappointment and even betrayal. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they still hope that American policy might change and adapt, after yet another round of diplomacy fails, as it almost certainly will.
In a series of tweets this morning, Hamid expanded on what he'd like to see happen, while also saying "in some ways, it's already too late for Syria." (he thinks the US should have gotten seriously involved 18 months ago, before the presence of jihadis within the insurgency grew.) He wrote the US should provide advanced weapons to the Free Syrian Army (the US has worried that such weapons, particularly portable anti-aircraft systems, could end up in the hands of jihadis), announce a deadline for the regime to step down and strikes against government and military installations (I originally misunderstood Hamid as meaning regime figures, he clarified later), and a "no-drive zone" imposed by air power if it does not comply.
Today is the 15th anniversary of the day Pakistan decided to go nuclear and the world, supposedly, changed forever.
Pakistan's decision to test a nuclear device was driven by age-old enemy India's nuclear tests a few weeks earlier (though India first tested a small nuclear device in 1974, it hadn't crossed that line again; Pakistan had vowed to go nuclear if India did).
India and Pakistan's dueling tests fueled frightened headlines and editorials around the world, economic sanctions that did more harm to Pakistan's economy than to India's (though the situation changed after Sept. 11, 2001), and intense polarization about what was to be "done" about South Asia. It also spurred talk of Pakistan's "Muslim bomb" as if the weapon would somehow be used to in the interests and at the demands of all Muslims, rather than in the interests of Pakistan.
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(The history of that phrase would be interesting to pursue; its first appearance in this paper appears to be 1981 and I also found a quote in an August 1981 New Yorker article in which an unnamed Pakistani general paraphrases former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the father of the nuclear program, as saying "There is a Christian bomb in the US, a Jewish bomb in Israel, a Hindu bomb in India, why not a Muslim bomb in Pakistan?")
And yet, 15 years later ... nothing particularly awful has happened because of Pakistan having joined the nuclear club. In fact, the past 15 years has been the quietest such stretch when it comes to nuclear testing since the US was first to test a nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945, following that up just a few weeks later with the only aggressive use of nuclear weapons in history - the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Though North Korea exploded its first bomb in 2006, its three separate nuclear tests have been the only nuclear detonations in the past 15 years.
And yet, this paper wrote the day after the Pakistan test in a dispatch from Washington that:
Peace in South Asia, home to the poorest one-sixth of humanity, and the future of global disarmament have been plunged into uncertainty by Pakistan's detonation of five nuclear devices in response to five by rival India. In setting off the devices yesterday in an underground shaft at a site in the remote Chagai region, Pakistan ignored threats of economic sanctions and pleas for restraint by President Clinton.
... Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif bowed to intense domestic pressure stoked by national pride and demands he ensure Pakistan's security... These tests by India and Pakistan have transformed the global balance of power within 17 days.
Transformed the global balance of power? Maybe. They've certainly made India and Pakistan less likely to be invaded. And while they've made their mutual hostility more dangerous, they've also restrained their hands from all out war. The two countries had three major wars before Pakistan went nuclear and, depending on how you view the Kargil conflict in 1991 which claimed about 1,000 lives, one or none since (restraint from both sides may have had something to do with fears of nuclear escalation).
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After Pakistan's second nuclear test that weekend, the Monitor quoted the soon-to-be notorious AQ Khan.
"Pakistan's top nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, said yesterday that a nuclear warhead could be deployed on missiles "within days" if "we are forced to do something," but he also believes that nuclear capability can help guarantee peace.
Other officials say Pakistan's next move could be diplomatic. "If there is a conciliatory signal from India or the US offering itself as a conciliator, that may move the process ahead," said an official who requested anonymity. "Pakistan could also probe ideas for peace. But the exact strategy is still being devised."
So far, India and Pakistan have avoided another all-out war. And both countries have been more restrained in flexing their nuclear muscles through testing than almost all the other countries that joined the nuclear club before them.
Does this mean the tongue-in-cheek headline at the top of this story should be taken literally? No. Nuclear weapons are scary, and the more people that have them the scarier they get. But the track record of countries who get the bomb behaving responsibly with them has held.
To get the rhythm of nuclear explosions and how governments have responded with tit-for-tat nuclear tests – the ultimate in macho posturing – and how much things have improved, have a look at this fantastic illustration of the timing and location of all nuclear explosions in history up until 1998 (there have been three more tests since 1998, all by North Korea).