Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Spiral Of Violence In Turkey Spins Faster And Faster

Several years ago I was sitting in the back of a very small school room on a very small chair in the Kurdish area of Turkey watching an earnest young teacher trying to teach the Turkish language to about 40 Kurdish 10-year-olds. Suddenly the door burst open and another student rushed in with eyes as big as dinner plates. “Obzer,” he yelled, “Run for it. They’re here.” Obzer didn’t need to be told twice. He knew he was just the latest target in a generations-old feud.

In one bound he was out the window and quickly disappeared toward the Euphrates River in a ball of dust. A few minutes later the door crashed open again as two very rough men carrying small, lethal shotguns came into the room demanding to know where Obzer -- the new world record holder in the 400-meter dash -- had gone. No one said a word. One kid in the front row merely nodded his head toward the open window to indicate that their quarry had escaped.

            I was told later that this was more or less par for the course in that part of the country. Blood feuds were common. No one bothered calling the police or gendarmes to settle ancient grievances. In another, less lethal example, the farmer I was staying with grew rice near the river, and each night he had to hide his tools in a different location in an effort to keep them from thieves.

            Therein lies one of the big problems with the Kurds – the lack of unity, the lack of trust among themselves. Kurds are scattered over at least four countries. And from what I could see each of the several factions, tribes, families has a different agenda. Just when you think that a Kurdish-based political party is making serious, peaceful, headway in Turkey, another group becomes jealous of the newcomer’s power and resorts to violence to assert its own power. The only beneficiary of this mess is Turkey’s aspiring dictator, President Tayyip Erdogan. This intra-Kurdish conflict makes it easy for him to demonize all Kurds and erode the base of the Kurdish political party. This in turn makes it easier for him to get enough members of parliament to change the constitution.

            I have no idea who was behind the latest deadly suicide bomb attack in Ankara. The government is saying, predictably, that the Kurds are behind it. Perhaps. But it sounds a little like Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca, telling police to ‘round up the usual suspects.It is entirely possible that a little-known faction of the militant Kurdish guerrilla group, PKK, that is even more militant than the parent group has resorted to these attacks. If so, it is another nail in the coffin of Kurdish political development – at least in Turkey.

Is this the new normal in Turkey?

            It is not obvious who re-started the military conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state last summer. We know it followed the unexpectedly strong showing of the Kurdish political party in the June elections. Both the PKK and the government each had reasons to re-start the violence at that time. The PKK could well have wanted to demonstrate that it, not the Kurdish political party HDP, controlled negotiations with the Turkish state. The government, for its part, needed to demonize the Kurds to reduce their vote in the next election. That strategy worked like a charm in the November election.

            What is obvious now is that Erdoğan has no idea how to stop the violence. His preferred military solution isn’t working any better than similar efforts for the last 30 years. Security officials have so far proven incompetent in stopping the violence spreading from the southeast to big cities. Arial attacks on alleged PKK camps in the mountains of northern Iraq do nothing except make the rocks bounce. The bomb in Ankara on Sunday was the third deadly attack in the Turkish capital since last fall. In January another terrorist attack claimed about 10 lives in the middle of Istanbul’s main tourist area. In most countries, such failure on this scale would at the very least raise questions about the quality of the security services. Not in Erdoğan’s Turkey.

            It is also sadly clear that Erdoğan does not have the will, temperament, or imagination to seek any other solution at this time. He can use the violence and instability as an argument for his long-cherished unchecked presidency. He can blame the current parliamentary system for the current chaos in Turkey, and say that only a strong presidency can stop the violence. The fact that Erdoğan, already acting as a strong president, has been unable or unwilling to change course is conveniently forgotten by most AKP voters.

The tragedy of the situation is that at one time he almost succeeded in a negotiated settlement with the PKK. But he must have felt betrayed when that settlement lead to strong Kurdish political gains that put his cherished presidential ambitions at risk. He could, if he wanted, recognize that the military solution won’t work and re-start the political process. He could also, if he wanted, seek the support of the other political parties for such a move. But, given the dangerously polarized state of the nation it is unlikely any of this will happen. And it is the innocent citizens of Turkey who will continue to pay the price for this folly. At what point does he start to question the high cost of his obsessive push for the strong presidency?

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Is This A Tory Party Bun Fight Or A Serious Debate?

What should be a serious debate about Britain’s place in the European Union has descended fairly quickly into nothing more than a food fight in a rather exclusive secondary school. On one side you have Prime Minister David Cameron and the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne lobbing day-old bread rolls across the dining room at other Tory party grandees who respond in kind with volleys of butter pats. Stewards at some of London's finer gentlemen's clubs aren't quite sure which members are no longer on speaking terms.

            Make no mistake. This is a Conservative Party issue. Most of the non-political population of Britain seemed perfectly happy muddling along in the bosom of the European Union with the ease of visa-free holidays overriding nebulous issues of ‘sovereignty’. There were a few dissenting voices, but they were largely relegated to some colorful fringe elements. Most of the rest of us are left with mouths agape at the finest example of British fratricide since the civil war in the 17th century. The Labour Party can only marvel at this sudden turn of good fortune that has taken attention off its own internal problems. 

            Those Tory party members champing at the bit to leave make a great claim about regaining British sovereignty and ending the rule of faceless, unaccountable EU bureaucrats in Brussels. The problem is they haven’t really defined exactly what they mean by sovereignty and how much that perceived sovereignty has been curtailed by Brussels. They forget the considerable success that British diplomats have achieved in winning substantial concessions for Britain. One of the main British victories allowed London to remain the leading financial center in Europe.

In their more fevered moments some members of the Leave campaign sound as if they would like to re-fight the Battle of Hastings. And this time the good, solid Saxons would send the poncey Frenchmen scuttling back across the English Channel to Normandy. One forgets that it was the Plantagenet heirs of those poncey Frenchmen that won eternal glory for the English at Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt.

            The debate has divided the British cabinet with several members taking prominent roles in the Leave campaign. The ever-calculating mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has thrown his lot in with the Leave campaign by trying desperately to sound like his hero Winston Churchill during the Battle of Britain. Unfortunately for him his thundering denunciations of the EU make him sound much more like Basil Fawlty than Winston Churchill.

            The main fault of the Leave campaign is that it only speaks in vague generalities about what Britain would look like outside the EU. Oh, there are brave words about how the economy would flourish, trade would soar, British-made justice would rule the land, and the British lion’s roar would once more be feared. But there are precious few specifics about how all this would be accomplished. No answers to questions about British access to European markets. No answers to questions about Britain’s relationship with the United States. No answers to questions about the likelihood of another referendum for Scottish independence. No answers to questions about the willingness of companies to re-locate or even remain in an EU-less Britain. No answers to questions about how seriously an EU-less Britain would be taken by the rest of the world. We are supposed to take it on faith that all would be good in this best of all possible worlds. Right.

            One of the biggest victims of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU could well be one of the most important parts of the country’s economy – the financial sector. London is without doubt the financial capital of Europe, if not the entire world. This status could be crippled by Britain’s departure from the EU by eliminating the ability of London-based financial firms to ply their trade in the EU. It’s not just the financial firms at risk. Think of the lawyers, the accountants, insurance companies and others that underpin much of the financial world. How long would they stay in a City of London stripped of its ability to operate within the EU? That crunching sound you might hear could well be the price of London office space landing on the suddenly empty streets.

            The best argument the Leave campaign might use has nothing to do with the imagined loss of British sovereignty to a bunch of Eurocrats. The best argument may well be that the European Union itself is crumbling under the weight of its own internal contradictions. Is it a loose federation of sovereign states? Or is it the beginning of the United States of Europe? Rather than deal conclusively with these hard questions the EU leaders preferred to bask in the glow of good feeling – almost as if they were a bunch of campers holding hands around a campfire singing Kumbaya. Meanwhile the real issues like common monetary policy or common foreign policy were left in limbo.

            If the British referendum on EU membership does nothing else, it should sharply focus the minds of everyone in the EU about the future of the entire project.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Donald Trump As President? Not Very Likely.

Donald Trump makes wonderful headlines as he trashes the Republican party primaries in the United States. He says he’s angry at everyone and doesn’t care who gets offended by his tirades. To hell with policies, it’s show time! Despite the reality TV theatrics, however, his path to a general election victory in November is as difficult as climbing Mount Everest in flip-flops.

Very, very long odds of him becoming president
History and the numbers are against him. First the history. Americans have never, ever elected an extremist of the left or right as president. Ignoramuses, fools, crooks yes. Some of them have managed to find their way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But candidates representing only fringe elements, no. Strom Thurmond in 1948, Henry Wallace in 1948, Barry Goldwater in 1964, George Wallace in 1968, Ralph Nader in several campaigns, and Ross Perot in 1992. Goldwater helped dig his own grave in 1964 by famously declaring “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” The Democrats had a field day with that statement, forcing Goldwater onto his back foot for the entire campaign by making extremism sound like a very dangerous word. The famous Daisy ad complete with an atomic explosion highlighted the campaign against extremism. In that election the American voters showed what they thought of extremism by electing Goldwater’s opponent, Lyndon Johnson, in a land slide.

People are angry now. But believe me they were even angrier in 1968 when the twin assassinations (Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King), Vietnam, the Weathermen, Black Panthers, Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, riots in Paris that ultimately forced Charles de Gaulle from power were threatening to tear societies apart. In that American election year George Wallace, former governor of Alabama, ran a fiery campaign appealing to much of the same demographics as Donald Trump – angry white men who felt left behind by the march of minorities and the so-called ‘Big Government’. Wallace wound up getting 13% of the popular vote and 45 electoral votes. Richard Nixon, who had been around for ever as a right wing California congressman, vice president, failed presidential candidate, wound up getting elected.
George Wallace was angry in 1968
 The numbers are also stacked against a Trump presidency. A candidate has to win 270 of 535 electoral votes to become president. In theory the electoral college serves to protect the interests of smaller states. It is possible, but difficult, to lose the popular vote, as George W. Bush did in 2000, and still win. Each state is awarded two electoral votes representing the equal number of senators each state has. The rest of a state’s electoral votes are apportioned according to the number of congressmen it has in the House of Representatives. The District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.) was given three electoral votes. All but two states have a first-past-the-post system whereby a candidate who wins the popular vote in a given state wins all that state’s electoral votes. Nebraska and Maine use proportional representation.
2012 electoral map shows the difficult road for a Trump candidacy

Despite the efforts to keep small states in the game, the system clearly favors large states. California, for example has 55 electoral votes, one for each of its 53 members of the House of Representatives and two for its two senators. My home state of Vermont, on the other hand, gets only three electoral votes because we have but one congressman and two senators. This puts Vermont on a par with the likes of Alaska, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Delaware. You can see why candidates don’t spend a lot of time campaigning in those states.

The problem for Trump and other screamers from either side is that the big states tend to vote for main line candidates. Right now these states with the exception of Texas, tend to vote Democratic. Even states that were solidly Republican like Virginia and North Carolina are turning from solid red to purple.  That means any Democratic candidate starts with the huge advantage of California plus most, if not, all of the heavily populated Northeast, and key Midwest states like Michigan and Illinois. It is also extremely difficult to see any of the current Republican candidates winning Oregon or Washington state. By my count this gives any Democratic candidate almost 200 electoral votes of the required 270 before the counting has even begun. Obviously, some Republicans have broken this strong hold, but only by appealing to the broad center of the electorate. And there is not a Republican in sight who appeals to this key group – represented by what I call the extremely sensible and smart ‘Ohio soccer mom.’ She may well vote Republican from time to time, but there is no way in hell she will cast a vote for either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.

So sit back, enjoy the theater as Trump flails around the country destroying the traditional Republican party. But he might want to hold off on his plans to re-decorate the White House. In this environment, it is easy to understand why former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is considering a run. While the odds are strongly against him, he is the only one of Hillary Clinton's potential opponents who has even a slim chance of blocking her trip to White House.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Try Something Different. Go North -- Very Far North -- For A Winter Break.

Forget the Caribbean! For a real break from the urban winter blues of damp cold, slush, and a transport system that fails with the merest hint of a snow flake do something completely different. Head even further north, above the Arctic Circle. 

OK, I have to admit that my wife’s initial enthusiasm for a trip to northern Norway in February was a bit muted – especially as we had been talking about Florence. But she began to warm to the idea – as it were -  after studying the attractions of Oslo and learning that Tromso –north of the Arctic Circle – offered more than igloos and dog sleds.

Oslo turned out to a real treat - full of great museums like the Viking ship museum, good restaurants, good public transportation, and a stunning opera house where we went to see the ballet Giselle. Ticket prices were moderate, and the opera house is intelligently organized for a relaxed meal before the performance. Furthermore, the temperature in Oslo was not bad at all – nowhere near as cold as my home town in New England where the thermostat dropped to -20◦C. I know it’s a cliché, but everyone we encountered in Norway spoke beautiful English. That’s useful because nothing you studied in school even remotely resembles Norwegian. Maybe the Swedes and Danes can understand it, but I seriously doubt that anyone else will have a clue what they’re talking about.
Royal palace in Oslo
The Gokstad ship in the Viking Ship Museum
The Oslo opera house

The 1 ½ hour flight from Oslo to Tromso, a small city at 69◦N latitude on an island in one of Norway’s innumerable fiords, was uneventful. However, as we descended over frozen, snow covered mountains and a frigid fiord instead of the graceful domes and Arno River of the long-promised Florence my wife’s face took on a certain ‘You owe me – big time’ expression. However, things began to look up as soon as we landed.
"This doesn't look like Florence!"
The first surprise after a short bus trip from the airport to our hotel was the number of tourists – including large groups of Chinese -- in town. Locals said that tourism was up at least 50% this year and they were having trouble finding staff to deal with the crush of visitors. When you consider that Norway has a population of only five million people – less than half the population of the city of Istanbul alone – it is not surprising that much of the staff in hotels and restaurants comes from nearby Sweden. Maybe tourists have decided to forgo the ‘charms’ of the current political climate in the Mediterranean region and flock to a place where the most frightening event might be a couple of reindeer ambling down the street.

In addition to tourism, Tromso’s economy benefits from the presence of a university, a polar research center, and good fishing throughout the surrounding fiords. Tromso also has become somewhat of a conference center. Several of the hotels were hosting conferences of companies and non-profit groups from all over Norway. While the conference attractions may not rival Las Vegas, there is plenty for the attendees to do outside the meetings.

 Like Oslo, this surprisingly sophisticated arctic town has very good restaurants, fascinating museums, and at least one good modern art gallery. As you might imagine the restaurants feature a lot of fish – cod in all possible permutations, haddock, halibut, multiple varieties of herring, and enormous crabs. Meat is mostly local lamb and reindeer. Decent wine lists are supplemented with good whiskeys from relatively nearby Scotland.

Daytime activities include whale-watching, snow mobile journeys, cross-country skiing, dog sleds, visiting the native Sami people and feeding reindeer, or hiring a car to see the dramatic scenery that dominates the region. During the night you can also choose to drive to a distant base camp where the Northern Lights are more visible. This requires a bit of patience because the lights seldom appear before 10:30 – 11 pm.
The Sami reindeer herders
Mariella opted for feeding the reindeer, meeting the Sami, and sampling some of their reindeer stew. I chose the more sedentary whale watching, and after a couple of hours of a beautiful boat trip along the fiords we arrived near the picturesque island of Sommaroy where numerous humpback and fin whales were lazily searching for food. Occasionally they would reward us with a flourish of their huge tails and dive beneath the surface. Other times I was conscious of being in a fairly small boat as they circled us sometimes blowing geysers high into the frozen air.
Whale diving for food near Sommaroy
Northern Lights brighten the night sky
On the way back to Tromso we passed a Norwegian submarine slipping out to sea, and I was reminded of the life-and-death struggles on these icy waters during World War II as allied convoys struggled to bring vital supplies around the northern tip of Norway to beleaguered Russian ports. As if the natural elements of violent storms, wild seas and ice weren’t bad enough the convoys faced constant threats of German U-boat attacks and bombers flying from fields in occupied Norway. Standing on the slippery deck of our small boat early in February even in the calm water of the fiord, it didn’t take a great deal of imagination to appreciate the bravery and endurance of the mariners who made that perilous trip.
Ice forming on WW II convoys around northern Norway
The austere beauty of the arctic may not initially appeal to everyone whose idea of a winter holiday is a Caribbean beach and drinks with umbrellas. But those willing to leave flip-flops and bikinis at home and venture north of the 66th parallel will – to borrow a phrase from Gertrude Stein – find that there is a there there, some place special, some place you won’t quickly forget as soon as the plane brings you home.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

One Day, What Goes Around Comes Around -- Even In Turkey

Turkey seems to be sleep walking into one of the most important political decisions in the history of the republic, almost as if the country has had a national lobotomy.  President Tayyip Erdoğan and his henchmen are pressing hard to change the constitution in such a way that the president will have almost unfettered powers, but the debate is strangely muted.

            It would be one thing if Erdoğan had guided Turkey from success to success and the country was now claiming its rightful place at the high table of stable, democratic, economically sound countries of the world. But it is not. It remains far down below the salt. His list of failures is extensive:

1.     Economy – once the envy of the emerging world. Now struggling with rising inflation, rising unemployment, decreasing exports, and very limited foreign investment. The only good news is that the collapse of the price of oil has narrowed Turkey’s current account deficit.
2.     Foreign policy – how to turn ‘zero problems’ into ‘zero friends’ in 10 easy steps. It is now a real challenge to name even two countries that consider themselves close friends of Turkey --- and Kyrgyzstan doesn’t count. Turkey’s so-called Red Lines in Syria seem to be quickly fading to light pink as the realities of major power involvement become clear – realities that pretty much ignore Turkey.
3.      Domestic peace – never in recent history has Turkish society been more dangerously polarized. The so-called Peace Process with the Kurds has turned into open warfare. The split between fanatic, thuggish Erdoğan supporters and the rest of society has become increasingly violent.

If this is what he can accomplish with limited powers just think what he can do with unlimited  power. Surely the people can recognize the danger signs on the road to autocratic power. Wrong. Erdoğan’s almost complete suppression of the media -- jailing obstreperous journalists or intimidating hapless owners -- means that any opposing views are drowned at birth or classified as the lunatic rantings of disloyal segments of society under the perfidious influence of unnamed foreign powers. A deep freeze has descended on Turkey’s once vibrant, if not always accurate, media. Worst of all, it has become boring to read and watch the same nonsense day in and day out. Maybe that’s Erdoğan’s goal – bore everyone to sleep and then pass critical legislation without a murmur.

            Obviously this has worked with Turkey’s feeble opposition. While Erdoğan dominates the daily news with fervent statements about the supposed benefits of a new constitution the opposition sits on its hands. An outside observer is not quite sure if he’s watching a key national debate or a re-run of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

            So far I have not heard or seen one single person defending the current parliamentary system. All they can do is protest that Erdoğan is becoming dictatorial. Not a startling or original claim!  Merely focusing on the man’s hunger for more power will never generate enough votes to defeat the coming constitutional referendum. This strategy of focusing on the negative has failed time and time again to dent his voter base, yet no one seems to have accepted this rather basic reality.

            It would be nice to see the opposition start making the positive case for the current parliamentary system – namely that the long suffering people are better represented with a parliament than with the narrow views and prejudices of one person. If the opposition really believes in the value of a broad-based parliamentary system why don’t they duplicate some of Erdoğan’s tactics and stage as many rallies as he does? They could, if they have the energy, explain loudly why the people are better off with a parliament. They may still lose, but surely losing with a fight is far better than waiting passively in the middle of road for the truck to run over you. It’s also a waste of time hoping that former founders of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) who split with Erdoğan will ride to the rescue. People like Bulent Arinç or former president Abdullah Gül may disagree with Erdoğan, but they have no stomach for a public fight or for creating a new party based on disgruntled former AKP members. 

            On the other hand, Erdoğan should be careful what he wishes for. He may well get his new sultanate, and he may well turn the country into something found in the pages of George Orwell's 1984 or Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. This will work for him, but I’m not sure about the rest of the Turkish population.

            But what happens when one day someone with strongly opposing views takes over? That new president, and there will be new presidents some day, could easily use the same powers to undo everything that Erdoğan has done. One need look no further than the late unlamented Soviet Union to see how fast policies can change with new leaders. Ottoman history itself is filled with fluctuating domestic and foreign policies of different leaders. If he’s not careful Erdoğan will go down in history as the man who created and then destroyed the AKP movement.