The President of Turkey – another side of the story

Last week I asked the students in one of my English classes to write a short essay about a person they admired. The most frequent response from students in Turkey is a rather dull piece about the founder of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. So I was very pleased to find this one among the papers I had to mark:

“Many people don’t appreciate what they have until losing something or someone.

recep-tayyip-erdogan-in-nurlu-yuzu_624428“I really like and admire Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the President of Turkey. He loves his country. He always tries to do good things and improve the country. He is not afraid to say what he feels – about a person, a topic or anything else. He is clever. He knows how to manage his assistants and the public. When he talks on television or face to face, people feel strong because of his strong personality.

“Everyone can make mistakes in their life. We are not perfect – we never have been and never will be. Some people love to criticise everything and everybody. When someone makes a mistake, it doesn’t mean he/she is bad, or an unsuccessful person. The President can make mistakes too. He has many things on his mind: the public, other countries, war, peace, the economy . . . He may not always make the best decision. The important thing is his character. Does he love his country and his people? Does he care about people’s lives? Does he take an interest in every problem? Does he meet and listen to people from every part of the country? Can he answer the questions of other countries? We can ask or compare many things.

“To sum up, I like our President so much because I believe he always wants the best for our country.”

What’s Going on in Turkey These Days?

The following piece appeared in today’s English edition of Zaman newspaper. I’m not commenting – just putting it here with a recommendation that you check it out:

Normalcy, but how?
Markar Esayan

Turkey fell into a crisis right at a moment when no one was expecting it. While it was clear that the run-up to local, general and presidential elections might see some political turbulence, no one thought the country would boil over so thoroughly, moving a hair’s breadth from civil war.
The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government must also have been unprepared; it was seriously shaken by the crisis. What’s clear now is that Turkey can no longer shoulder the politics of polarization, and that the manipulation of said polarization has become riskier than ever. Many say — and it’s apparent — that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tends to handle the politics of polarization with mastery. This is true.
At the same time, claiming that this polarization is what Erdoğan wants is skewing the truth. Since the end of 2002, when the AK Party came to power, the party has been the focus of constant harassment, its agenda the target of endless attempts to raise tension. The years 2003-04 saw a series of coup plans that were known to both the military’s General Staff headquarters and the government. The generals behind these coup plans used military and civilian tools to keep the national agenda as infused with tension as possible and to try to portray the AK Party as opposed to secularism. Read more

BBC Interviews Turkish Citizens about Protests

In Turkey tens of thousands of people have taken an active part in protests, voicing their anger at what they see as the increasingly authoritarian government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But he won a landslide at the last election and still has high levels of support across the country.
This weekend there are expected to be big rallies backing the prime minister.
Here, some of his supporters give their views on the current crisis. Read more . .

Artists, Protesters and Bare Naked Ladies

Perhaps surprisingly, and contrary to what some people inside and outside Turkey would have you believe, local newspapers and TV channels here are full of reports and comments criticising the government of Tayyip Erdoğan for its handling of the Taksim Square protests and pretty much everything else, from the actions of a 16th century Ottoman sultan, to the civil war in neighbouring Syria. Maybe the writers are being secretly thrown into prison, but you’d think their families might have got the news out somehow. My Turkish colleagues at work are all alternately crying and laughing over Youtube, Facebook and other social media postings, none of which have been closed down by the government. Still, Western media seem convinced that Turkey’s oppressed citizenry are rising against an autocratic dictator, along the lines of Egypt’s Mubarak, Libya’s Gaddafi and Syria’s Assad. I’d like to comment on two of these articles.

The first is an interview, entitled ‘Turkish Artists Respond to the Wave of Protests Rocking their Country’ which appeared in an online artmag Blouin Artinfo (thanks Margie). The italicised lines are direct quotes. My comments follow.

Taner Ceylan and his fellow artists are supporting the democratic protests against unwarranted police violence. What makes them especially democratic rather than just ordinary protests, I wonder?

“The result of the last ten years has been a lack of respect for human rights, women’s rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of speech,” Taner explained. I have seen no evidence of this. On the contrary, I would say all these areas have seen considerable improvement in the last ten years. Generals and other military officers who presided over coups, killings and torture in the past have been brought to trial. Another group who were planning a coup to oust Erdoğan’s democratically elected government were caught and put on trial. It is now possible to discuss openly issues surrounding Kurds, Alevis and other minority ethnic and religious groups in a way that was forbidden when I first came to Turkey in the 1990s.
He [Ceylan] mentioned the disproportionate number of journalists currently imprisoned in Turkey. I keep hearing this. Journalists is an emotive word in this context. The Turkish mainstream media seem to publish criticism of the government with impunity as far as I can see – though there are issues where you need to be careful. Turks don’t like people slanging off MK Atatürk, the founder of the republic, or siding too publicly with expatriate Armenian pressure groups, for example. Incidentally, PM Erdoğan himself, while serving as mayor of Istanbul, spent four months in prison in 1999 after the parliamentary Islamic party, of which he was a member, was banned by Turkey’s Constitutional Court, and he spoke out about it.
Upper section of a Taner Ceylan painting.
No prizes for guessing what the lower section shows.
He said he and other artists had received death threats as a result of the content of his work in recent years. Well, you can’t really blame the government for that. I received a death threat once myself, as a teacher back in New Zealand. There are crazy people around in every country, I guess. Still, if you deliberately set out, as an artist, to challenge people’s religious beliefs, you can’t reasonably be shocked if you get the occasional extreme reaction. One of Taner Bey’s paintings features a veiled Ottoman lady juxtaposed with the work of French artist Gustav Courbet known as L’Origine du Monde. The interviewer coyly and somewhat euphemistically describes the female figure in Courbet’s picture as naked from the waist down. She certainly is! And no doubt Ceylan’s painting would upset some people – but I have to assume that was the point of the exercise in the first place.
“Cultural centers are being closed and censored,” he added. “Big projects, such as mosques and bridges, are being realized without asking citizens for input.” Ceylan said the government’s decision to replace a park in Taksim Square with a replica of an Ottoman-era army barracks was a breaking point for many citizens. In fact I see new cultural centres springing up everywhere, along with commercial and residential skyscrapers, shopping malls and, yes, mosques. There is a huge building boom going on all over Turkey, not just in Istanbul. In addition, there are major public transport projects completed, under construction or planned, aimed at relieving Istanbul’s and Turkey’s notorious traffic problems. The vast majority of ‘citizens’, I believe, are happy with these. Central and local governments have been building, and are continuing to build,  parks and recreation areas on a phenomenal scale, providing free open-air fitness centres, cycle and running tracks, picnic areas and sports facilities which are enormously popular. Should every project, public and private, be opened for public debate? It seems to me there is unrestricted opportunity for groups or individuals to express their opinions – the Marmaray underground project, for example, is years behind schedule because of the need to allow archaeologists access to the excavations. See my previous post for a picture of the Ottoman army barracks and a comment on the plans for Taksim Square.
The whole affair represents the way in which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has slowly strangled all opposition while making sure to remain within democratic lines. Sounds impressive until you try to figure out exactly what the sentence means.  As I often say, Turkey’s biggest problem is the lack of a credible and effective opposition party to provide a legitimate voice for protest and alternative proposals, without which a democracy cannot properly function. Once again, however, it’s a little unfair to blame the democratically elected government for that. Should they start up a puppet alternative party as Atatürk himself did once or twice in his day? You’d think it was really the responsibility of responsible, democratically minded citizens to do that for themselves, given that, as far as I am aware, there is no prohibition on doing so.
The second article I would like to comment on was published the other day in Foreign Policy Online, entitled How Democratic Is Turkey?
Under the AKP and the charismatic Erdogan, unprecedented numbers of Turks have become politically mobilized and prosperous — the Turkish economy tripled in size from 2002 to 2011, and 87 percent of Turks voted in the most recent parliamentary elections, compared with 79 percent in the 2002 election that brought the AKP to power.  Well, yes. So what seems to be the problem?
Yet this mobilization has not come with a concomitant ability to contest politics. OK, I see. But whose fault is that? See above.
Replying to criticism, Spokesmen and apologists for the AKP offer a variety of explanations . . . from “it’s the law” and the “context is missing,” to “it’s purely fabricated.” These excuses falter under scrutiny and reveal the AKP’s simplistic view of democracy.  They also look and sound much like the self-serving justifications that deposed Arab potentates once used to narrow the political field and institutionalize the power of their parties and families. Once again, it sounds good, but what does it actually mean? Why don’t AKP’s opponents get their act together and organise a party capable of providing Turks with a genuine alternative in parliamentary elections? There are plenty of issues of vital interest to citizens that such a party could address. And what, pray, is the relevance of deposed Arab potentates to a popularly elected and successful political party?
Turkey’s new alcohol law, which among other things sets restrictions on alcohol sales after 10 p.m., curtails advertising, and bans new liquor licenses from establishments near mosques and schools, is another example of the AKP’s majoritarian turn. I don’t know about your country, but New Zealand certainly has restrictions on alcohol advertising in newspapers and cinemas, and the sale of alcohol in stores late at night. I seem to recall some restrictions in the UK on selling alcohol on Sundays – no problem buying it from supermarkets etc on Fridays (or Sundays) in Turkey. There are certainly restrictions on the consumption of alcohol at large public gatherings in NZ and Australia. In Turkey there have always been limits on licensed premises near mosques – and why not, one might think? Schools too, for that matter. Majori-what? Is that even a word? If so, what does it mean? Maybe the writer would prefer minoritarianrule, as Turkey mostly had in the past.
Over the last decade the AKP has built an informal, powerful, coalition of party-affiliated businessmen and media outlets whose livelihoods depend on the political order that Erdogan is constructing. Those who resist do so at their own risk. Resist what? At the risk of what? Tell me Republicans don’t have such an informal coalition in the US, the Conservatives in the UK, and the National Party in New Zealand. It seems to me the AKP would be mad if they didn’t try to get business interests on their side. And if they didn’t, it’s very likely those interests would tend to coalesce of their own accord around a government as successful as this one (see the statistics above). Besides, I have seen no evidence of anything in Turkey resembling Silvio Berlusconi’s media empire in Italy, for example.
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. Well, I think I dealt with this one earlier. However, I would go further, and say that, if Turkey has become a one-party state (whatever essentially means) the blame can be laid almost entirely at the door of the opposition Republican People’s Party and that hard-line Kemalist elite who ruled the country with insipid coalitions and military support before the appearance of AKP on the political scene in 2001.
The AKP and Prime Minister Erdogan might have been elected with an increasing share of the popular vote over the last decade, but the government’s actions increasingly make it seem as if Turkish democracy does not extend farther than the voting booth. What can you say to that? What percentage of eligible voters turn out for elections in the United States? And ask the ‘99%’ who occupied the parks last year what they think about post-ballot box democracy.

By the way, for a shorter and more balanced piece in the same online magazine, click here.

He Who Pays the Piper Eats the Turkey

Great news! I’ve found a new journalist to dislike! Now I don’t have anything personal with journalists, you must understand. It’s just that, as a group their job requires them to sensationalise situations, look for the negatives in an issue, employ emotive language when short of facts, and toe the party line of whichever media magnate is paying their salary. In that last respect, they are much like economists.
Journalistic wit – example of
I came across an article about Turkey the other day. That’s Turkey with a capital ‘T’ – though it wasn’t immediately obvious from the headline, ‘Overdone Turkey’, and the accompanying photograph, a close-up shot of a mouth-watering, golden roasted, juicy fowl straight from the oven. Well, we all enjoy a little joke, of course, but you might have expected something slightly more creative, or at least less trite, from a professional writer with a PhD in Political Science and several books to his name, as this gentleman, Steven A Cook seemingly is. Anyone who has googled the name of this blog site will be aware that the simple brain of the world’s most popular search engine is incapable of distinguishing between the bird that adorns American tables on the fourth Thursday of November, and the nation of 75 million people on the eastern fringe of Europe that has been a loyal ally and key figure in United States strategic planning in the region since at least the beginning of the Cold War. That’s an unfortunate semantic fact of life for Turks, in whose own language the two words have no similarity whatsoever. They don’t get your joke, Steve – they just think you have a puerile, sub-adolescent sense of humour.
OK, admittedly, that article was published in November last year, and I don’t want to be too hard on the guy. Situations can change pretty rapidly in world affairs. Still, you’d think that a trained academic setting himself up as some kind of guru on US foreign policy would have a tad more objectivity, and an ability to make more accurate predictions than are evident in this piece. To save you the trouble of laughing your way through an article with more opinionated fluff than substance, here’s a brief summary:
The Turkish Prime Minister and his insignificant little country had been getting ideas above their station. They were starting to think of themselves as some kind of regional power with the clout to solve the problems of the Middle East – and some Americans (less intelligent and perceptive than Dr Steven A Cook) had been starting to believe the hype. The truth, we are told, is that the Turkish government had blown its relations with Israel in order to curry favour with neighbouring Muslim states and its own Islamist electorate, with the result that it was now relegated to the sidelines of Middle East diplomacy, its place taken by the new Egypt of Mohammed Morsi.
Wow! Steve, I hope you are enjoying eating those words. Afiyet olsun, as the Turks say, before a meal. May the dish prove beneficial to your health and well-being. Without the advantages conferred by a doctorate in pol. studs, I can nevertheless assure US readers that Turkey has no aspirations to return to the glory days of imperial Ottoman power. They may perhaps, with some justification, see themselves as a moderately successful secular democratic republic with a healthily diverse economy, serving as an example to neighbouring Muslim nations in the Middle East and Central Asia. On the whole, however, they adhere to the doctrine of their founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, one of whose goals, often quoted, was ‘Peace at home, peace in the world’. He is also reputed to have said that the only justifiable war was one fought to defend your own home turf.
Certainly, Turkish-Israeli relations were somewhat strained there for a time, for reasons Dr Steve itemises, and certainly not all of Turkey’s making. However, recently, there has been a reconciliation of sorts, instituted, we believe, by the mediation of US President Obama. ‘Why would he bother?’ you may ask. Undoubtedly because he and his advisors have a better grasp of regional affairs than Dr Steve. The simple fact is that Turkey and Israel are two of the saner, more balanced, moderate, democratic states in that part of the world – and if push comes to shove, I’m not so sure about Israel. I am, however, pretty sure about Egypt. If Steve still believes that Egypt is stable and secular enough to perform the role of credible mediator between Israel and Palestine when it can’t govern itself without the army and martial law . . . well, I suspect he may now be having second thoughts.
The thing is, though, Steven A Cook is not alone. Time magazine on May 16, published an article by one Ishaan Tharoor mocking Turkish PM Erdoğan over his recent visit to the USA, where he met and had dinner and discussions with President Obama – an honour, I suspect, not granted to every visiting head of a tin-pot state. I’ve never been a big believer in conspiracy theories, but it does seem to me that a good deal of ink is being expended in influential media in the West aimed at belittling and discrediting Turkey, and I can’t help wondering why. So I did a little digging, and came up with some interesting stuff.
The article referred to above, by Steven A Cook, appeared in a publication called Foreign Policy Magazine. FPM was founded by a certain Samuel P Huntington, author of the 1993 book ‘Clash of Civilisations’ which, rightly or wrongly, seemed to inspire much of the focus on the Muslim world as a substitute for the Soviet evil Empire in the post-Cold War age. Samuel P’s business partner was Warren Demian Manshel, an investment banker, director and Chief Administrative Officer of the CIA-backed Council for Cultural Freedom. Foreign Policy Mag’s editor-in-chief for fourteen years until 2010 was a guy called Moises Naim, who (despite the name), prior to taking up the reins at FPM, was Minister of Trade and Industry of Venezuela, and Executive Director of the World Bank. Naim served in the government of Carlos Andres Perez who was forced out of office and subsequently convicted of large-scale embezzlement of government money, which he is said to have stashed in secret bank accounts in the USA, held jointly with his ‘mistress’. Perez fled to the US where he lived in exile in Florida until his death in 2010. You might think the new Venezuelan government would have wanted to bring him back for trial, as the US does with Julian Assange and Kim Dotcom. What stopped them, I wonder? Incidentally, the CIA is suspected of involvement in an unsuccessful 2002 coup to overturn that new democratically elected Venezuelan government headed by Hugo Chavez.
Moises Naim, the while, was editing Foreign Policy Magazine, which, incidentally is owned by the Washington Post, whose principal shareholders are apparently, the family of Eugene Isaac Meyer and Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Eugene Isaac Meyer (despite the name, no Venezuelan connection, as far as I can discover) was Chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank in the early days of the Great Depression, going on to become first president of the World Bank Group. Berkshire Hathaway is a ginormous multinational corporate behemoth that, according to Wikipedia, ‘wholly owns GEICO, BNSF, Lubrizol, Dairy Queen, Fruit of the Loom, Helzberg Diamonds and NetJets, owns half of Heinz, owns an undisclosed percentage of Mars, Incorporated and has significant minority holdings in American Express, The Coca-Cola Company, Wells Fargo, and IBM’  – controlled by chairman, president and CEO, Warren Buffett, consistently ranked in the top three on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest human beings.
Now I can’t say with one hundred percent certainty that Mr Buffett calls Foreign Policy Magazine writers into his office of a Monday morning to give specific instructions on what they are going to write this week. I do suspect, however, that there are some men in the United States (and women too, for all I know) who feel they are entitled to a major say in shaping the nations domestic and foreign policy. Presidents come and go, but the Buffetts and the Meyers are in this for the long haul. If all those starry-eyed US citizens who, full of hope for a better future, voted for Barack Obama in 2008, wonder what went wrong, they just need to take a look at the policy movers and shakers who weren’t actually up for election.
But why pick on Turkey? With its 75 million people and economy ranked 17th in the world, it’s never going to be a major global power again. It seems to have minimal fossil fuel resources, treats its people relatively well, welcomes tourists from wealthier nations to its bars, beaches and historical sites, and has no aggressive territorial aims. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your point of view, Turkey’s location gives it huge geo-political significance. Situated on the back-doorstep of Europe, buffering Christendom against the Islamic tide of the Middle East and straddling the narrow sea-lane that gives warm water access for shipping to and from Russia and the land-locked republics of Central Asia, Turkey inevitably looms large in the strategic planning of the world’s big players. It has always been so, since time immemorial.
If you want a military base from which to bomb Baghdad, or site nuclear missiles within easy reach of Moscow, Turkey’s a good location. If you want to run a pipeline bringing oil from Kazakhstan to Europe, you might want to run it through Turkey. If you want diplomatically immune and reasonably secure  consulates and embassies from which to manage intelligence-gathering operations in Russia, the Middle East and beyond, hard to find a better place. Turkey, as noted above, has a stable democracy, a relatively satisfied population, fairly reliable and efficient internal security, and, despite the doom-sayers, little likelihood of being taken over by Al Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood. Plus, it’s a nice place to live, if you’re a big wheel in business or the diplomatic corps, and you have to be posted abroad.
The downside, from the perspective of those big world players, is that Turkey is a bit of a free spirit in the world of international affairs. The Ottoman Empire it may not be, but there is a strong residual memory of a time when Istanbul was capital of an empire wielding considerable power in early modern Europe. Apart from a brief spell of five years after the First World War when the city was occupied by British and French military, the heartland of modern Turkey was never subsumed into, nor colonised by any foreign empire. In the early years of the Republic, Turkey managed to maintain neutrality during the Second World War and avoid invasion by the Nazi war machine.
They did send troops to Korea in the early 1950s, and put their lives on the line for NATO as a bulwark against Soviet expansion during the Cold War years. Nevertheless, they have always reserved the right to make their own decisions, as George Dubya found out when he invaded Iraq in 2003. Bush and his team would have dearly loved to include Turkey in their ‘Coalition of the Willing’ to show that they were not just a coalition of willing Christians against the Muslims. It was said the US Government offered a substantial financial incentive to secure Turkey’s participation. Unfortunately some indiscreet aide let slip the opinion that the Turks could be bought, and the Turks, whose sense of pride and honour sometimes gets them into trouble, not only pulled out, but also refused to allow their İncirlik base to be used for launching US bombers.
So, democracy, despite the hype, is probably less popular in their corridors of power than Western leaders would have us believe.  When Egyptians rose in Tahrir Square against 30-year President Hosni Mubarak, their protest led to the ousting of a ruler much loved by US leaders but not awfully popular in his own country. It has been suggested that he at least had prior knowledge of the assassination of predecessor Anwar Sadat. At no time did Egyptian citizens elect him in a free and democratic election. He was widely regarded at home as an American puppet, and there is no doubt that his huge military machine was supplied by the generosity of successive United States Governments.
The big question is, who makes these things happen? And who controls the news media so that ordinary citizens in the United States and elsewhere are kept in the dark about what is actually going on? Clearly Barack Obama is not the only one calling the tune of American foreign and domestic policy. And Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan has a hard job to maintain his country’s independence in the face of a slanderous campaign by Western media. And I will refrain from adolescent speculation on what the ‘A’ in Steven A Cook stands for.

Turkey, Israel and the United States

“Talking Turkey About Zionism”

Here’s a very interesting article (thanks Ian) inspired by response to a recent speech by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan. It’s a very balanced view which I recommend to you. The writer is Philip Giraldi, and the article can be found on ‘Antiwar.com’:

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in trouble again with Washington and Tel Aviv because he dared to equate Zionism with fascism and anti-Semitism as an ideology or political movement that has brought oppression. Erdogan was speaking at a United Nations sponsored Alliance of Civilizations conference in Vienna dealing with instilling tolerance. He spoke in Turkish, but his words as translated into English were, “It is necessary that we must consider – just like Zionism or anti-Semitism or fascism – Islamophobia is a crime against humanity.” Erdogan was immediately pounced upon by the usual suspects and new American Secretary of State John Kerry was also quick to pull the trigger by saying, “We not only disagree with it. We found it objectionable.” He also stated that the comments did not help the Israel-Palestine peace process. That there is no peace process due to Israel’s unwillingness to countenance an actual Palestinian state with genuine sovereignty is apparently irrelevant, but then again it has been irrelevant to American policymakers ever since 1967, when the Israelis first occupied the remaining land that they had not already taken in the aftermath of the 1947 partition of Palestine. Read more

Reset your Dials – the Middle East in your wildest dreams!

Imagine a Middle East where a democratic secular republic of Iran cooperated with America to solve the problems in Afghanistan and Iraq; where Israel and Palestine resolved to accept each other’s existence and agreed on territorial boundaries; where Saudi Arabian rulers worked out a way to govern their people and relate to the outside world without the support of the US arms industry.
A refreshing look at old problems
You may say I’m a dreamer – but I’m not the only one. Stephen Kinzer, author, academic and sometime foreign correspondent with the New York Timesand the Boston Globe is with me on this – or rather, I’m with him. Kinzer’s recent publication ‘Reset’ proposes these and other fabulous possibilities in an impressively researched, cogently argued, extremely readable book subtitled ‘Iran, Turkey and America’s Future’.
The essence of Kinzer’s thesis is that, for various historical reasons, the United States is locked into two relationships in the Middle East whose continued relevance is at best questionable, and which are poisoning the diplomatic climate in the region, rendering futile all attempts to achieve long term peace and stability. He argues that America’s continued support for the dysfunctional Saudi royalty, and its commitment to backing the Israelis, right or wrong, have in fact helped to create the world-wide axis of evil and terror it so wants to destroy, and actively worked against all moves to pacify and democratize the region. Kinzer goes on to propose that the best and most logical allies for the United States in those troubled lands are Turkey and, in defiance of current logic, Iran.
‘The old triangle – actually two bilateral relationships, the United States with Israel and the United States with Saudi Arabia – served Washington’s interests during the Cold War. It has not, however, produced a stable Middle East. On the contrary, the region is torn by violence, terror, hatred and war. Yet, for economic as well as strategic reasons, the United States must remain engaged there. Its dilemma can be simply stated: America wants to stabilize the Middle East, but its policies are having the opposite effect. What new policies could America adopt to replace those that have failed?
Here is one answer. First, build an ever-closer partnership with Turkey and, in the future, with a democratic Iran. Second, reshape relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia in ways that will serve their long-term interests and those of the United States – even if they protest.’
One factor often lacking in discussions about the problems associated with radical Islam is perspective. In order to move on from the seeming impasse in which we find ourselves, there is a need for some historical context and a sense of where we actually want to be, eventually. This perspective is what Stephen Kinzer provides in an accessibly slim volume of 227 pages (excluding notes, bibliography and index).
The book’s first chapter looks at Iran (or Persia) in the early years of the 20th century. According to Kinzer, the country was taking its first steps to becoming a constitutional monarchy with a representative parliament. Why this did not eventuate he attributes to the interference of, first Russia, and later, Great Britain, inspired by our old friend Winston Churchill. And not coincidentally, to the fact that Iran was ‘sitting atop an ocean of oil.’ So, first Russia stepped in, in 1911, to dissolve the popularly elected parliament. After their own revolution, when Russians became more concerned with their internal problems, it was the British, thirsty for that liquid gold, who engineered a coup resulting in the installing of a puppet prime minister, later to become Shah Reza Pahlavi. In the aftermath of the Second World War, it was the turn of America to instigate an upheaval which ousted the democratically chosen government of Mohammed Mossadegh and installed Shah Reza’s son on the throne.
Twenty-five years of increasingly repressive rule by this pseudo-royalty sowed the seeds of extremist revolution, the fertilizer provided by a US whose economy required oil in vast quantities, and customers for its arms industry. The 1979 hostage crisis that terminated the employment of President Jimmy Carter, and brought to power the Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, was, in Kinzer’s view, a predictable outcome of continued foreign interference in Iranian/Persian affairs.
Turkey’s comparative advantage was, perhaps ironically, its lack of oil. When nationalists reacted against the threat of post-World War One partition, ousted the victorious allies and their lackey Greek invaders, overthrew the puppet government of the last Ottoman sultan and established the modern secular Republic of Turkey in 1923, the European powers were embarrassed and somewhat put out, but not inclined to force the issue merely to save face.
Perhaps the most interesting pages of Kinzer’s chapters on Turkey are those where he analyses the achievements of the current AK Party government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 
Something truly historic happened in Turkey during the first decade of the new [21st] century’,he says. ‘It was not simply that the country made its decisive breakthrough to democracy; that was certain to happen sooner or later. More remarkable was the fact that for the first time in modern history, a country was led toward democracy by a political party with roots in Islam.’
‘The success of Erdoğan and his AKP,’ he continues, ‘does not represent the triumph of Islamist politics in Turkey, but precisely the opposite: its death. Democracy has become Turkey’s only alternative. Even pious Muslims recognize, accept, and celebrate this.’
Having made a case for the adoption of Turkey and Iran as its new partners in the Middle East, Kinzer then turns to the matter of why the US should revisit and revise its historically-rooted and anachronistic relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Somewhat fortunately for the credibility of his case in this area, the author appears to have impeccable Jewish credentials, dedicating the book to his grandparents who, we are informed, ended their days in 1945 amidst the horrors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He traces the origin of the modern state of Israel to the intercession of Harry Truman’s army buddy and best friend Eddie Jacobson, who apparently successfully twanged the Presidential heartstrings to gain his indispensable support for the project.
It was Truman’s predecessor, Franklin D Roosevelt who initiated the US’s special relationship with the Saudi royal family. In another touch of irony, the Saudis were totally opposed to the foundation of an Israeli state in Palestine – but American pragmatism carried the day, establishing friendships with two implacably opposed foes. These friendships were of particular benefit to the US during the Cold War years, with the Sauds providing unlimited funding and the Israelis their talents in covert operations, to implement strategic policies in far-flung parts of the world requiring action without too obvious direct American involvement.
Again, however, Kinzer argues that the continuation of these friendships in their present form no longer serves US interests in the Middle East. On the contrary, he suggests that US support of Israel right or wrong is the single most influential factor working against the achievement of lasting peace in the region. In his final chapter, he makes the provocative statement that: 
‘Israel and Iran are in similar positions. They are the two Middle East countries most mistrusted by their neighbours, and their governments are detested by millions around the world.’
He concludes with a powerful message: ‘In today’s rapidly changing Middle East,  . . . realities include growing Iranian power, intensifying Israeli intransigence, continuing Saudi support for anti-American terror, and the likelihood that democratic governments in Arab countries will not be reflexively pro-American. Unless the United States accepts and deals with these realities, rather than trying to wish them away or pretending they don’t exist, it risks a serious erosion of its ability to shape events in the world’s most turbulent region.’
My advice to you? Buy this book and read it!
Reset – Iran, Turkey and America’s Future, Stephen Kinzer (St Martins Griffin, 2011)