Beware of economists (and historians) – connecting Anzacs and Armenians

My home country, New Zealand, was privileged last week to be visited by an eminent historian from the United States. Professor Jay Winter teaches at Yale University, and is said to be an authority on the First World War,

Well he had nice but sad things to say about New Zealand’s contribution to that horrendous conflict. It seems servicemen from my country died in greater numbers relative to population than those of any other combatant nation – a dubious honour, you’d have to think. Does that make our boys braver, more stupid, or just unlucky?

eight_col_Indian_Sikh_soldiers__Gallipoli__Turkey

Quite a few Indians were sent too, apparently, to “defend” the Empire

In the interview I read, Prof. Winter then proceeded to devote a lot of words to making a connection between New Zealand’s joining the ill-fated Gallipoli invasion, and another tragedy of the “Great” War, the deaths of thousands of Armenian civilians. The link is the date: 24 April is when Armenians remember the day in 1915 when their ancestors in SE Anatolia were rounded up by the Ottoman government and forced to “relocate” to what is now Syria, a lot of them dying on the way. On 25 April in the same year, the British Empire, following a plan championed by War Minister, Winston Churchill, landed on the beaches of the Gallipoli Peninsula in a vain attempt to take the Ottoman Empire out of the war.

Prof Winter seems to think he has found something very new and exciting, as every academic dreams of doing. Possibly in his professional writing he actually does manage to make some hitherto unnoticed link that will shine the unequivocal light of day on matters that remain highly contentious. After all, says the learned prof, “Historians are in the truth business.”

Naturally, historians, jealous of their professional reputation, would like to think so – but the sad reality is that history, like economics, is a social science, lending itself to interpretation according to the particular political or ideological lens one uses to view the “facts”. Prof Winter gives a clue to his real purpose in visiting NZ when he suggests that the country’s new “Labour” government may be amenable to joining the ranks of other self-righteous nations that have officially designated the Armenian tragedy “a genocide”, for which the modern Republic of Turkey should be held responsible.

obama

Genocidal violence with a smiley face

He may be right. Self-styled left-wing parties in the wealthy First World, bereft of ideas for actually changing anything important in the lives of the planet’s 99%, tend to offer crumbs of trendy, fashionable issues to their diminishing ranks of supporters. Barack Obama, in his original presidential campaign, wooed the Armenian lobby, but changed tack later, for reasons best known to himself.

Wiser heads may win the day in NZ too, and not simply because they fear that offending Turkey may earn their globe-trotting citizens a chillier welcome on their annual pilgrimage to Anzac Cove on 25 April.

However sincere Prof Winter may be in his search for truth, certain aspects of this interview gave me cause for concern. First, it appeared on News Hub, a NZ news service that airs on TV Three and radio stations run by MediaWorks. A little digging turned up the interesting fact that MediaWorks is a New Zealand-based television, radio and interactive media company entirely owned by Oaktree Capital Management. And Oaktree Capital Management, according to Wikipedia, “is an American global asset management firm specialising in alternative investment strategies. It is the largest distressed investor in the world, and one of the largest credit investors in the world.”

Nothing necessarily wrong with that, of course. Everyone has to make a living, and I’m sorry to hear those guys are distressed. However, the page where that interview appeared contained a link to another article praising “a young Kiwi historian” James Robins, who is apparently “grappl[ing] with the fact that no New Zealand Government has ever formally recognised the genocide of Armenians”. Mr Robins’s “grappling” is supported by a “genocide expert”, Maria Amoudian, and an American heavy metal musician Serj Tankian.

winston-churchill-bad-quote

Genocidal violence with a grumpy face

In the interests of academic objectivity, we might want to also take a look at the work of researchers with less obvious connections to the Armenian diaspora.

One such is Edward J Erickson, a retired regular US Army officer at the Marine Corps University in Virginia, recognised as an authority on the Ottoman Army during the First World War. He makes some interesting points in a paper entitled “The Armenian Relocations and OttomanNational Security: Military Necessity or Excuse for Genocide?” I’m quoting a chunk from it, but you really need to read the whole document. It’s only 8 pages long.

“The historical context that led to the events of 1915 is crucial for understanding the framework within which the relocation decision was cast. There are four main historical antecedents that must be understood in order to establish this context:

  1. the activities of the Armenian revolutionary committees (particularly the Dashnaks);
  2. the activities of outside powers supporting the Armenian committees;
  3. the contemporary counter-insurgency practices used by the Great Powers; and
  4. the Ottoman counter-insurgency policies and practices in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

“Many historians view the outbreak of the First World War as the proximate cause of what some historians refer to as the Armenian Genocide, others as massacres and relocations, and still others as the Events of 1915. To this day, interpretations of this question remain hotly contested by the advocates of the opposing positions. However, both sides agree on the fact that the Ottoman approach to the problem of quelling an insurgency clearly and dramatically changed in 1915 when it shifted from a historical policy of kinetic direct action by large-scale military forces to a new policy of population relocation. The problem then becomes that of explaining how the First World War created the drivers of change that caused this fundamental policy shift. Similarly to the four elements of the historical context, there were also four principal drivers of change created by the war:

  1. the actuality of an insurrection by the Armenian revolutionary committees;
  2. the actuality of allied interventions and support;
  3. the locations of the Armenian population as an existential threat to Ottoman national security; and
  4. the inability of the Ottomans to mass large forces effectively and rapidly to quell the insurgency.

“With respect to the question of whether the relocation was necessary for reason of Ottoman national security in the First World War, the answer is clearly yes. There was a direct threat by the small but capable Armenian revolutionary committees to the lines of communications upon which the logistics of the Ottoman armies on three fronts depended. There was a real belief by the government that the consequences of failing to supply adequately its armies that were contact with the Russians, in particular, surely would lead to the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman high command believed it could not take that chance. Pressed by the imperative of national survival to implement an immediate counterinsurgency strategy and operational solution, and in the absence of traditionally available large-scale military forces, the Ottomans chose a strategy based on relocation— itself a highly effective practice pioneered by the Great Powers. The relocation of the Armenian population and the associated destruction of the Armenian revolutionary committees ended an immediate existential threat to the Ottoman state. Although the empire survived to fight on until late 1918 unfortunately thousands of Armenians did not survive the relocation. Correlation is not causation and the existing evidence suggests that the decisions leading to the Armenian relocations in 1915 were reflexive, escalatory, and militarily necessary, rather than simply a convenient excuse for genocide.

Another article you might want to take a look at appeared in The Washington Times, in 2007, around the time Barack Obama was running hot on the Armenian issue.

“Armenian crimes against humanity and war crimes against the Ottoman Turkish and Kurdish populations of eastern and southern Anatolia during World War I and its aftermath have been forgotten amidst congressional preoccupation with placating the vocal and richly financed Armenian lobby.

“Capt. Emory Niles and Arthur Sutherland, on an official 1919 U.S. mission to eastern Anatolia, reported: “In the entire region from Bitlis through Van to Bayezit, we were informed that the damage and destruction had been done by the Armenians, who, after the Russians retired, remained in occupation of the country and who, when the Turkish army advanced, destroyed everything belonging to the Musulmans. Moreover, the Armenians are accused of having committed murder, rape, arson and horrible atrocities of every description upon the Musulman population. At first, we were most incredulous of these stories, but we finally came to believe them, since the testimony was absolutely unanimous and was corroborated by material evidence. For instance, the only quarters left at all intact in the cities of Bitlis and Van are Armenian quarters … while the Musulman quarters were completely destroyed.”

“Niles and Sutherland were fortified by American and German missionaries on the spot in Van. American Clarence Ussher reported that Armenians put the Turkish men “to death,” and, for days, “They burned and murdered.” A German missionary recalled that, “The memory of these entirely helpless Turkish women, defeated and at the mercy of the [Armenians] belongs to the saddest recollections from that time.”

capitalism

and all the world will live happily ever after. No need to study history.

“A March 23, 1920, letter of Col. Charles Furlong, an Army intelligence officer and U.S. Delegate to the Paris Peace Conference, to President Woodrow Wilson elaborated: “We hear much, both truth and gross exaggeration of Turkish massacres of Armenians, but little or nothing of the Armenian massacres of Turks. … The recent so-called Marash massacres [of Armenians] have not been substantiated. In fact, in the minds of many who are familiar with the situation, there is a grave question whether it was not the Turk who suffered at the hands of the Armenian and French armed contingents which were known to be occupying that city and vicinity. … Our opportunity to gain the esteem and respect of the Muslim world … will depend much on whether America hears Turkey’s untrammeled voice and evidence which she has never succeeded in placing before the Court of Nations.”

“The United States neglected Col. Furlong’s admonition in 1920, and again last Wednesday. Nothing seems to have changed from those days, when Christian lives were more precious than the lives of the “infidels.”

Will we ever know the truth? Who knows? But one thing is for sure: if you want to stand a chance of learning it, you need to keep an open mind and do your own searching. And beware of “expert” historians (and economists).

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Anzac Day and the Armenian ‘Genocide’ – What’s the connection?

Visitors from Australia and New Zealand attend a dawn ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gallipoli, at Anzac Cove in Gallipoli

2015 Anzac dawn service, Turkey

Tomorrow, or today, depending on your time zone, thousands of New Zealanders and Australians will gather for a dawn service on the beach of Anzac Cove beside the Dardanelle Strait in the Republic of Turkey. Most of them will then participate in organised tours around the battlefields and cemeteries of what we like to call the Gallipoli Peninsula.

I’ve been there several times myself. It’s a moving experience, reminding us antipodeans of our shared heritage, and providing us with a date on we can celebrate the emergence of a national consciousness.

Although I live in Turkey, I haven’t actually attended one of those 25 April commemorative services. My first visit was with a party of Turkish high school students and teachers, there for their own day of remembrance on 18 March. My most recent was with a couple of visitors from New Zealand on a quiet day in May.

I have, I guess, an unusual perspective on the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915. I grew up imbued with all the legend and mythology associated with its memory in New Zealand. My years in Turkey have shown me another side to the story. Interestingly, both countries trace aspects of their origins to that tragic, bloody and ultimately futile conflict.

One factor, however, that has kept me from joining my fellow New Zealanders on their annual pilgrimages, is a feeling that we are not quite as appreciative as we might be of the hospitality the people of Turkey show in welcoming their former invaders, and allowing us to celebrate our national identity on their soil. What were our boys doing there, after all, 17,000 kilometres from home, invading the land of a people they barely knew existed, who certainly had not done them any harm?

Politics - Winston Churchill and Kaiser Wilhelm II

Winston Churchill with German Kaiser Wilhelm, 1909

However brave our lads were, and that is beyond debate, they were in the wrong – or at least their military and political leaders who sent them were. I sometimes half seriously ask my Turkish students who they consider their country’s ‘Number Two Man’, after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. They show considerable surprise, even anger, when I offer my nomination of Winston Churchill for the title.

Certainly Mustafa Kemal was the victor of Gallipoli/Çanakkale, and the founder of the Republic. However, my contention is that, without the outrageous provocation of the British Empire, and Churchill in particular, the spark that ignited the struggle for liberation and independence might never have been struck. His was the grand plan to force the Dardanelles and the surrender of the Ottoman government, and to assist Imperial Russia in attacking Germany from the east, thereby relieving pressure on the Western front. Undeterred by failure, the British encouraged the Greek army to invade Anatolia in 1919 as part of their plan to divide and destroy the Ottoman Empire once and for all. When the Greeks too were driven out, Churchill’s final affront was an ultimatum calling on Turkish nationalists to refrain from attempting to liberate Istanbul from occupation. His bluff was called, and the modern Republic of Turkey came into being on 23 October 1923.

One of the most touching memories for me of the 1915 tragedy is the extract from a speech delivered by Atatürk, addressed to the families of the Anzacs who left their mortal remains on the battlefields of Gallipoli:

“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours … You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

We shouldn’t forget, when we visit Turkey, that we are there as guests of a sovereign nation. The British Government back then underestimated Ottoman resistance, duped by their own rhetoric about ‘The Sick Man of Europe’. Our grandfathers paid a high price for that. Short-term visitors to Turkey cannot be expected to learn the local language – but we might make some effort to learn a little history and geography. ‘Gallipoli’ is in fact a town in Southern Italy. The Turkish name for the peninsula is Gelibolu, a corruption of the ancient Greek town called Kallipolis. Turks refer to the campaign as Çanakkale (Chunnuck-kaleh) a name they also apply to the strait we choose to call the Dardanelles. This latter word derives from another ancient Greek town named for the mythical son of Zeus and Electra.

Who cares, you may ask? But I’m arguing that we, New Zealanders of all people, should care. For some years we have been starting to realise that many of our own place names arrogantly replaced meaningful words assigned by the indigenous Maori people – Aotearoa, Taranaki/Mt Egmont, Aoraki/ Mt Cook, and so on. The Republic of Turkey will celebrate its 93rd birthday this year. Perhaps its time we consigned that Greek mythology to its rightful place on library shelves.

NPG 142; George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron replica by Thomas Phillips

Lord Byron in ‘Albanian costume’ – I never even liked his poetry

After all, we owe much of our ‘knowledge’ of ‘Greece’ to a controversial, aristocratic English poet, Lord George Gordon Byron. A few words from his Wikipedia entry:

“Byron was both celebrated and castigated in life for his aristocratic excesses, including huge debts, numerous love affairs – with men as well as women, as well as rumours of a scandalous liaison with his half-sister – and self-imposed exile. He was living in Genoa when, in 1823, while growing bored with his life there, he accepted overtures for his support from representatives of the movement for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. Byron spent £4,000 of his own money to refit the Greek fleet.

Byron planned to attack the Turkish-held fortress of Lepanto, at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth. He employed a fire-master to prepare artillery and took part of the rebel army under his own command, despite his lack of military experience. Before the expedition could sail, on 15 February 1824, he fell ill. He developed a violent fever, and died on 19 April. It has been said that if Byron had lived and had gone on to defeat the Ottomans, he might have been declared King of Greece. However, contemporary scholars have found such an outcome unlikely.”

Thwarted by Byron’s untimely death, the British government arranged for the installation of a German prince from the Bavarian Wittelsbach family as King Otto I of their new puppet state.

Well, I’m not here to talk about Lord Byron and the past sins of Imperial Britain – rather to warn that we need to exercise caution in deciding what to believe, especially when that belief may lead to actions with unintended and undesirable consequences. The 16th century French essayist, Michel de Montaigne, observed that Nothing is so firmly believed as what we least know’, and the passage of time has not detracted from the truth of his words.

Western news media are presently full of articles and opinion pieces referring to the so-called ‘Armenian genocide’. The reason is that the global community of Armenians chose 24 April as the day to commemorate another tragic event of 1915. The issue, as I’m sure you are well aware, is whether the expulsion and deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire at that time should be labelled a ‘genocide’ – and whether the modern Republic of Turkey should accept responsibility.

Clooney-invite

If you can afford $33,400 to $353,400 for a ticket

The Catholic Pope has apparently come out in support of the Armenian claim, and I read of a church service being conducted by a Catholic cardinal in a cathedral in Boston. George Clooney, better known as a Hollywood actor, has also announced his support for the Armenian cause. President Obama, meanwhile, has angered Armenians by soft-pedalling on the issue, despite earlier promises on the campaign trail.

Well, I’m not going to engage in diversionary arguments about whether the Catholic Church has any right to take anyone else to task for human rights abuses. Nor attack Mr Clooney and his wife for their ‘obscene’ financial support of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

I would, however, like to express my sadness and disappointment over an article published in the New Zealand Herald today. Admittedly it’s an opinion piece, and possibly doesn’t reflect the position of the owners and publishers of the paper. However, it’s a sensitive issue, and they should give some thought to the warning of M. Montaigne.

The writer, James Robins, has chosen to make a connection between the Anzac involvement in the Gallipoli Campaign, and the current campaign to have the Armenian tragedy recognised as a genocide. He claims that New Zealand soldiers actually witnessed events proving that a genocide, the systematic and near-complete destruction of a people’ took place. Robins asserts that For centuries the Armenians had been second-class citizens in the Ottoman Empire.’ In fact, Armenians, along with Orthodox Christians and Jews had been given the right to build schools and churches, speak their languages, practice their religion, bury their dead, hold high positions, and live rich and comfortable lives in the Ottoman Empire.

The article contains a picture of a desecrated and destroyed Armenian cemetery. I can take Mr Robins to many Armenian churches and cemeteries occupying fabulously valuable real estate in modern Istanbul. If he has any Greek friends, he could ask them to show him mosques or synagogues in Athens or Salonika, cities that once had large Muslim and Jewish populations. And good luck with the search.

Armenian cemetery 2

Armenian cemetery in Şişli, one of Istanbul’s most expensive neighbourhoods

Robins quotes the ‘historian’ Taner Akçam – much of whose ‘research’ has in fact been called into question. A Turkish historian, Haluk Şahin, has just published a book, ‘Anatomy of a Forgotten Assassination Plot’. Şahin refers to the murder of two Turkish diplomats in Santa Barbara, California, on 27 January 1973 by an American citizen of Armenian descent – the first killing in an orchestrated programme that caused the deaths of 90 Turkish diplomatic staff and members of their immediate families.

I have in front of me an article from Al Jazeera dated 5 April, about the ongoing conflict between the country of Armenia and its neighbour Azerbaijan. The subheading reads: ‘The international community has consistently deplored the occupation of the Azerbaijani territories’. The article refers to the 1993 incident where Through the Armenian aggression and ethnic cleansing policy, 20 percent of the internationally recognised Azerbaijani territory (Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven adjacent districts) were occupied by Armenia, and more than one million Azerbaijanis were expelled from their ancestral lands.’

I’m not interested in taking sides on these issues. We New Zealanders have unsavoury and still unresolved events in our own history. The Roman Catholic Church likewise. I do hope, however, that the Herald’s correspondent, James Robins, represents a minority point-of-view when he asks, ‘Can New Zealand state officials stand on a platform with Turkish officials at Gallipoli knowing that they actively refuse to acknowledge the truth of what happened to the Armenians? Knowing now that New Zealanders risked their lives for the survivors?’

Just remember who looks after those Gallipoli cemeteries from one Anzac Day to the next; whose government gives New Zealanders free visas to enter their country, and whose people welcome us like family when we’re there. Are you really so sure of your facts that you want to jeopardise those privileges?

__________________________________________

Other posts on this issue:

Who killed the Armenians?

Armenian Massacres and the Nationalism of Hate

In Search of Solutions

History at 10,000 metres

Reality buttocks, papal infallibility and the Armenian issue

Selective Amnesia

Who hijacked the left?

A Passage to India – with David Cameron and Boris Johnson

Well, it seems good Queen Bess is not going to give the Koh-i Noor diamond back to India – in case anyone had seriously expected she would. It will remain there, sparkling in the crown worn by queens of Great Britain, as it has since 1901 when it was set there for Alexandra, Consort of King Edward VII, and placed on her royal head at their coronation.
Now I understand it’s not a popular decision in India, so Elizabeth R is probably secretly pleased she didn’t have to deliver the bad news herself. One of the advantages of constitutional monarchy is being able to delegate such responsibilities to your Prime Minister, or ‘First Lord of the Treasury’, as I learnt he or she is still quaintly known in official circles. As a result, it was David Cameron who was given the task of informing the government and people of the Republic of India that the legendary jewel, expropriated by the British East India Company in 1850, would stay where it was, or is. News coverage quoted Cameron as comparing the diamond to the so-called ‘Elgin Marbles’, formerly decorating the Parthenon in Athens, and on display, since 1816, in the British Museum in London – which the Brits also have no intention of returning. So, I guess Cameron managed to upset the Greeks and the Indians with one impolitic word.
Nevertheless, the news wasn’t all bad for India. PM Cameron apparently took the opportunity, while visiting the country recently, to stop by the Sikh holy city of Amritsar and ‘pay his respects’ at the memorial to the hundreds of unarmed Indian civilians who were massacred by soldiers of the British Raj on 13 April 1919 – the first British Prime Minister to do so, so credit where credit’s due. While accepting that the massacre was a ‘deeply shameful event’, Cameron stopped short of offering an apology, saying, I dont think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologize for. I think the right thing is to acknowledge what happened, to recall what happened, to show respect and understanding for what happened.’
Well and good, if acknowledging, recalling and understanding what happened is what you actually do. On the other hand, there are knowledgeable people in India today with the feeling that what contemporary British governments prefer to do is sweep past events under the carpet, take a selective view of history and tippex out the parts that don’t fit with the national view of Britishness as characterized by honesty and fair play.
That diamond, for example, was added to Queen Victoria’s jewellery collection by a certain Lord Dalhousie at the conclusion of the Second Sikh War in 1850. If you want to know why the British were fighting wars in India (and Afghanistan) at that time, you’d better look it up elsewhere – it’s a fascinating story. Suffice it to say here that the Sikhs were defeated, their territory, the Punjab, was incorporated into British India, and the Koh-i Noor diamond passed, along with other spoils of war, into British hands.
I don’t know what else they acquired at the time, but the diamond itself was quite a prize. According to Wikipedia, one of Nādir Shāh [an 18thcentury Shah of Iran]‘s consorts supposedly said, “If a strong man should take five stones, and throw one north, one south, one east, and one west, and the last straight up into the air, and the space between filled with gold and gems, that would equal the value of the Koh-i Noor.”’ Still, when you read what happened after the gem got back to England, you can’t help thinking there must have been some guilty consciences. Queen Vickie’s beloved husband Albert apparently had the jewel significantly cut from 186 to 105 carats because he didn’t like the look of it. The Wikipedia entry goes on to tell us, ‘It is believed that the Koh-i Noor carries with it a curse which affects men who wear it, but not women.’ Subsequently the crown in which it is set has only been worn by female British royalty. Well, we’re not scared of that heathen mumbo jumbo, but why take unnecessary risks?
Some seven years after the Sikhs had been subdued, more violence broke out in an event generally referred to in British history as the Indian Mutiny. Indians tend to prefer calling it a nationalist uprising, but Brits justify their position by pointing out that many of the participants were employed as soldiers in the Queen’s regiments. Interestingly, this time, defeat of the rebels was aided by the Sikhs, a proud warrior race. Apparently they chose to support the British because of their hatred and contempt for the Hindu sepoys who had helped to defeat them in the previous decade. Sixty years later, they were perhaps wishing they had taken a longer term view.
The British Empire was starting to creak a little by the early 20thcentury, and the movement seeking Indian independence was growing stronger. Nevertheless, nationalists refrained from taking advantage of Britain’s difficulties in the First World War, even contributing militarily to the imperial cause and taking heavy casualties. When hostilities ended, however, there was a natural desire to get back to business as usual, which meant, among other things, that India would resume its place as literal and figurative jewel in the crown of empire. Nationalist meetings were discouraged and in 1919 large public gatherings were banned.
The crowd that assembled in Amritsar on 13 April was entirely peaceful, with a religious rather than a political purpose. The city is the site of the Sikh Golden Temple, a place of pilgrimage. The crowd assembled in the Jallianwala Bagh (garden), estimated at between twenty and thirty thousand, included unarmed men, women and children of all ages. The official inquiry after the event heard that General Reginald Dyer, wishing to teach a lesson of unquestioning obedience to the Indian people, ordered his troops to fire on the assembled multitude, who had no way to escape from the enclosed space. Firing continued for ten minutes, during which 1,650 rounds of .303 Lee Enfield ammunition were expended. British and Indian sources dispute the number of dead, but indisputable is the fact that these were trained soldiers firing with lethal intent at defenseless civilians from close range. Does the word ‘shameful’ do justice to that, I wonder?
Admittedly, Winston Churchill did, at the time, use the word ‘monstrous’ to describe the atrocity – but generally he seems to have been unsympathetic to, even contemptuous of the Indian people. There was a feeling among the British ruling elite at the time that General Dyer had done the right thing, and certainly India remained subjugated. There also seem to have been attempts made to keep the event a secret, but, As Kurt Vonnegut said later of the 1945 fire-bombing of Dresden, ‘I wrote the Air Force back then, asking for details about the raid . . . who ordered it, how many planes did it, why they did it, what desirable results there had been and so on. I was answered by a man who, like[1] myself, was in public relations. He said that he was sorry, but that the information was top secret still.
I read the letter out loud to my wife, and I said, “Secret? My God—from whom?”’
Getting back to the business of acknowledging, recalling and understanding events of the past, I am currently reading an interesting book, ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’. The author, Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, has chosen his one hundred objects from that institution’s stupendous collection. One chapter describes a 2000 year-old Native American carved stone pipe found at Mound City, Ohio. Discussing the use of tobacco, MacGregor mentions that it came late to Europe, and that ‘Bremen and Bristol, Glasgow and Dieppe all grew rich on American tobacco’. I can’t speak for the other three cities, but it is well known that the wealth of Bristol (and Liverpool) derived from what is euphemistically referred to as the Triangular Trade, which involved shipping manufactured goods to West Africa, exchanging them for local natives who were then transported to the Americas and sold as slaves to work on the plantations. The produce of these plantations, part of which was certainly tobacco, was then brought back for sale in Britain, but the whole truth seems to be missing from Mr MacGregor’s glib statement.
Another book I read recently, ‘Colossus’by Niall Ferguson[2], discusses the question of whether the modern-day US is an empire – and there does seem to be reluctance among the rich and powerful to accept that their behaviour is not much different from that of other historical elites. Chapter 35 in ‘100 Objects’ quotes Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, and an Oxford classics graduate, as saying, ‘If you think about the tsars [of Russia], the Kaiser, the tsars of Bulgaria, Mussolini, Hitler and Napoleon, all of them have tried to imitate that Roman iconography, that Roman approach, a great part of which began with Augustus’. If you think about Mayor Boris’s list, you might suspect there is at least one major omission.
3rd Century BCE Hellenistic coin
with image of war goddess Athena
An earlier chapter in MacGregor’s book describes a coin with the head of Alexander, dating from around 300 BCE. The obverse of the coin depicts ‘the goddess Athena Nikephoros, bringer of victory, carrying her spear and shield. She is the divine patroness of Greeks and goddess of war.’ When I was a lad in New Zealand in pre-decimal currency days, there were still to be found old bronze pennies from the reign of Queen Victoria bearing the inscription: VICTORIA DEI GRA BRITT REGINA FID DEF IND IMP, which says, in abbreviated form, in the Latin of Imperial Rome, ‘Victoria, by the Grace of God, Queen of Britain, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India’. The obverse of those pennies bore an updated version of that same goddess Athena. OK, if you want to quibble, a mixture of Hellenistic and Roman iconography, but still . . .
19th century Victorian coin
with image of . . .
As an interesting little sideline, while checking out Mayor Boris, I turned up the intriguing fact that his paternal great grandfather was a Turkish gentleman by the name of Ali Kemal Bey, one of the last interior ministers of the Ottoman Empire, assassinated during the Turkish War of Independence. The grandfather, born in England in 1909, went by the hybrid handle of Osman Wilfrid Kemal. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson’s parents seem to have preferred their aristocratic German connection in naming their boy child. Make what you will of that!
Anyway, let’s get back to the British Museum. No. 39 of the 100 historical objects is a Chinese painting known as the ‘Admonitions Scroll’, dated somewhere between 500 and 800 CE. MacGregor notes that this scroll had been the prized possession of many Chinese emperors. The Wikipediaentry informs us that its last Chinese location was the Summer Palace near Beijing whence it was uplifted by a Captain Clarence A. K. Johnson of the 1st Bengal Lancers in the aftermath of the so-called Boxer rebellion. This event, in 1899, involved an uprising by Chinese nationalists opposing foreign imperialism and the intrusion of Christianity. The uprising was forcefully put down by a group of like-minded states known as the Eight-Nation Alliance (Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States), after which there was ‘uncontrolled plunder of the capital and the surrounding countryside . . . along with the summary execution of those suspected of being Boxers’.
Thereafter, with the assistance of Captain Johnson, the priceless scroll found its way to the British Museum. None of this will you find, however, in the above book or on the Museum website, the latter merely stating laconically: ‘Before its arrival at the British Museum in 1903, the scroll passed through many hands.’
Apart from admiring their table-tennis players, I confess I have never taken a lot of interest in the Chinese or their history and politics. However, I am currently feeling more sympathy, since reading about the Scroll, the Boxers, and the earlier Opium Wars (1839-1860) where the British Government used its military might to assert the right of its citizens to import and sell opium in China against the expressed wishes of the country’s rulers.
I am fully aware that, as usual, I have gone on too long, roaming far and wide over large swathes of the globe. I would like to leave you with one final example that may usefully be acknowledged, recalled and understood. After the suppression of that Indian Rebellion or Mutiny of 1857, severe reprisals were taken against those who had participated. One exemplary form of execution employed by the British victors was tying the victims over the mouths of cannons and blowing them into pieces difficult for relatives to reassemble and bury. A Russian artist, Vasily Vereshchagin, painted a recreation of the scene in 1884. There are many reproductions but the original seems no longer to exist. The Wikipedia entry says it ‘was in the United States. According to legend, [it was] bought and then destroyed by the British’.
In spite of the foregoing, I have some sympathy for David Cameron’s position. Most of us, nations, families and individuals have skeletons in our closets. Disinterring long-buried bones for the sole purpose of ascribing blame is unlikely to achieve positive results. On the other hand, true understanding will not come from selective recollection. Lasting peace can never be attained so long as powerful states continue to interfere in, and try to manipulate the internal affairs of others. Nor can it by calling other nations to account for past sins while conveniently ignoring one’s own. As Shakespeare had Hamlet say, four centuries ago, ‘God’s bodykins . . . Use every man after his desert and who should ‘scape whipping?’


[1] ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’, Neil MacGregor (Penguin, 2012)
[2] Colossus – The Rise and fall of the American Empire’, Niall Ferguson (Penguin, 2005)

Redefining Democracy – and getting the monkey off Turkey’s back

I’ve spent several years trying to define and or describe Turkey and its people on this blog – and now I feel I’m ready to tackle one of the world’s really big questions. What is this ‘democracy’ thing that people keep talking about?
William J Clinton to the contrary, it was the USA’s 16th President Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address of 1863, who asserted that 750,000 of his citizens would die in the Civil War ‘that government of the people, by the people for the people shall not perish from the earth.’ Well, he didn’t know the exact figure at that stage, of course, but he must have known it would be a lot. He was, we assume, expressing his support for a democratic system of government, despite the fact that the vast bulk of the US population in those days was not eligible to cast a vote.
Lambs to the slaughter – so what’s changed?
The word ‘democracy’ has a long history, yet as a concept, it has only relatively recently become widely accepted as a desirable goal, and among political leaders, tends to be more honoured in the breach than the observance. Encyclopedia entries and tourist brochures describing the modern nation of Greece often refer to that land as the cradle of democracy. In truth, however, the much vaunted Athenian system of Cleisthenes lasted a mere two hundred years, more than two and a half millennia ago – and at best allowed for the participation of perhaps twenty percent of the population.
Subsequently, there was not even self-government in that small corner of the Mediterranean until the 19th century when the Great Powers of Europe wrested it from the Ottoman Empire. Even then, self-government is a misleading term, given that said Great Powers installed, first a German, then a Danish Prince on the throne of the kingdom they had created. The foreign-imposed monarchy lasted, on and off, until 1967 when it was finally deposed by a military coup, whose generals ruled the country with an iron fist until 1974. So it seems democracy as a political system has an uncertain, questionable pedigree at best.
Still, it’s a worthy aim, for all that. However, you can understand that some might view it with cynicism. Check any collection of quotationson the subject: The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.(Winston Churchill);The difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is that in a democracy you vote first and take orders later; in a dictatorship you don’t have to waste your time voting.’ (Charles Bukowski).
Apart from the cynics, much of the other wisdom has to do with the fragility of the concept when put into practice, and its vulnerability to abuse and manipulation: ‘Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education. (Franklin D. Roosevelt);A healthy democracy requires a decent society; it requires that we are honorable, generous, tolerant and respectful.’ (Charles W. Pickering).   Education of the masses is seen as an indispensable component, as is constant vigilance, by which we may understand, an effective system of checks and balances – not to mention a need for honest folks in high places, and probably compulsory polygraph testing for lying and hypocrisy, especially in the case of high court judges.
The big problem is that in any country or institution, the ruling elite is always understandably reluctant to surrender its grasp on power. As they are forced to give up concessions to populist reformers – abolition of slavery, universal suffrage (especially for the non-wealthy, and for women), an open press, the secret ballot, objective supervision of vote-counting and so on – they are obliged to find more subtle ways of ensuring that votes cast do not unduly hamper their pursuit of riches and power.
One such method is the sophisticated, expensive and lucrative system of political lobbying. According to Wikipedia: ‘Wall Street lobbyists and the financial industry spent upwards of $100 million in one year to “court regulators and lawmakers”, particularly since they were “finalizing new regulations for lending, trading and debit card fees.” . . . Big banks were “prolific spenders” on lobbying; JPMorgan Chase has an in-house team of lobbyists who spent $3.3 million in 2010; the American Bankers Associationspent $4.6 million on lobbying; an organization representing 100 of the nation’s largest financial firms called the Financial Services Roundtable spent heavily as well. A trade group representing Hedge Funds spent more than $1 million in one quarter trying to influence the government about financial regulations, including an effort to try to change a rule that might demand greater disclosure requirements for funds.’ Given this level of expenditure, what would you say are the chances of persuading Congress that Wall St needs a little more regulating?
Another method of circumventing the democratic process is the creation of ‘flexible’ labour markets – which essentially means the removal of manufacturing and service industries from countries with high labour costs (read ‘a reasonable standard of living for all’) to poor countries where workers can be exploited for wretchedly low wages and conditions. A useful side benefit of this ‘flexibility’ is a level of ‘structural’ unemployment in the original country such that those who do have jobs can be frightened into accepting lower pay and reduced conditions.
Parallel to this ‘flexible labour market’ runs the establishment of a senior management elite with the power to remunerate themselves beyond King Croesus’s wildest dreams for their achievements in reducing costs and maximizing profits for their companies. Since most of their work force is either employed for slave-labour wages in distant third world lands, or too frightened and de-unionised to complain, and the unemployed, on the whole, don’t have a voice, we don’t hear a lot of criticism. There have, admittedly, been protests in France over the salary package of Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, though even the French government couldn’t convince him it was excessive. Reutersreported recently that, Ghosn earned 2.79 million euros from Renault in 2011 and 9.92 million from Nissan in its corresponding financial year, making him one of the highest-paid CEOs in France or Japan.’ In the same article, it was noted that, ‘Renault is cutting 7,500 jobs over three years . . . and is demanding union concessions on pay, flexibility and working hours in return for guarantees to keep French plants open.’ Interestingly, my Turkish dailyreported the other day that Mr Ghosn had agreed to a 30% cut in salary if workers in Turkey’s Renault plant accepted the company’s new contract. Nice to see the developing world fighting back! Still, it must be comforting to know that you can take a 30% cut and still make 9.6 million euros for a year’s work, if work is what the gentleman in question actually does.
It seems, for the most part, that corporate CEOs can pretty much do what they like, especially those in the financial sector, who don’t have to worry about uppity union representatives from the factory floor. Nevertheless, you can’t be absolutely sure some bleeding heart President isn’t going to get nervous about the effect all this is having on the morale of the nation as a whole, and start trying to change things. Lobbying alone may not be sufficient. Political campaign funding is a tried and tested means of buying the support of the people’s elected representatives. A recent phenomenon, or at least one that has recently been brought to light, is known as “dark money”[1]. What we have here is wealthy individuals hiding behind seemingly public-spirited organizations donating large sums to politicians’ election campaigns.  Huffington Post gives some examples: The Karl Rove-founded Crossroads GPS, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, the shadowy American Future Fund, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have spent $295 million since the beginning of 2011, targeting candidates from President Barack Obama on down to the most contested House and Senate races, all without disclosing the names of their donors to the public.
‘These groups are organized as either social welfare nonprofits under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code or, in the case of the Chamber of Commerce, as a trade association under section 501(c)(6). Since these groups qualify for tax-exempt status, they are also exempt from disclosing their donors, which political committees are required to do.
‘In total, these “dark money” groups have combined to spend $416 million on the 2012 election.’
Once you have these systems in place, you can pretty much guarantee that things will go the way of big business. On the other hand, there remains the problem of investigative news media that may probe and embarrass your tame politicians. It’s not a major problem, since your big business probably owns most of the media anyway – but still you may get the occasional maverick. What you really need to do is ensure that your system is so deeply entrenched and unresponsive to uncontrolled influence and change that most of the citizens who might want reform have been effectively disenfranchised. A post-election article in Time Magazinenoted that large numbers of reporters slaved throughout the presidential campaign to ferret out lies and contradictions perpetrated by candidates:
‘Clear examples of deception fill websites, appear on nightly newscasts and run on the front pages of newspapers. But the truth squads have had only marginal success in changing the behavior of the campaigns and almost no impact on the outside groups that peddle unvarnished falsehoods with even less accountability. “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers,” explained Neil Newhouse, Romney’s pollster, echoing his industry’s conventional wisdom.’ Clearly both political party machines are happy to play fast and loose with the truth, secure in the knowledge that the system is stacked against accountability.
In consequence, voter turnout in US Presidential elections seems to reflect a lack of belief in the electoral system. It is estimated that 57.5% of eligible voters turned out at the polls in 2012. Mitt Romney was ridiculed and lambasted for stating that 47% of voters would vote for Obama no matter what, so he didn’t have to worry about them. In fact, 43% of US voters, approximately 93 million citizens, have been so effectively cut out of the democratic process that neither party needs to think about them.
Which brings me to my next point in the sorry tale of exemplary democracy. Does anyone really understand how representatives are sent to the US Congress and Senate, and how a President is elected? And if they do, can they explain to what extent the results actually reflect the wishes of US voters? The current system for electing a US President was designed by the founding fathers at the birth of the Republic, allegedly to guard against potential evils, one of which was the dominance of party politics. In fact, the same two parties have been taking turns to screw the country for the past 160 years, the ‘Democrats’ since 1832, and the Republicans since 1854. Interestingly, at the time of Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War, the Democrats were actually the pro-slavery party – another bend sinister on the ancestral escutcheon of democracy.
Former First Lady Hillary Clinton is said to have told the European Parliament in 2009, ‘I never understood multi-party democracy. It’s hard enough with two parties.’ If Madame Clinton actually did utter those words, and if they truly reflect her opinion, you’d have to wonder whether she has the mental equipment to cast a responsible vote, never mind carry out the duties of Secretary of State or, God forbid, President of the most powerful nation on Earth! For Mrs Clinton’s information, the majority of the world’s democratic states employ a proportional representation electoral system which allows for the presence in their legislative assemblies of several political parties – and most of those countries have a higher turnout at the polls than the USA. Not surprising when you remember that the media were telling us prior to the 2012 election that, if you didn’t live in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa, Ohio, Nevada or New Hampshire, you might as well stay home for all the difference your vote would make to the final result.
One of the things that have impressed me about Turkey in recent years is the capacity for change within the system. When I first came to this country in 1995, the AK Party currently in power did not exist. Now, none of the parties involved in government at that time can manage a single representative in parliament. Very likely, Mrs Clinton would struggle in such an environment. She wouldn’t know which lobbyists to listen to, or which unaffiliated public interest group to accept campaign funds from – or even which party to join. The Turkish system may be tough on politicians, financiers and retired army generals, but it does keep Turkish voters interested. And I suspect a good number of those 93 million non-voting Americans would make more effort if there were a little more choice on their voting papers.
Undoubtedly there are social and economic problems in Turkey. The education system is desperately in need of serious expert attention, for instance, and the gulf between rich and poor is unacceptably high. On the other hand, the nation has so far avoided the worst effects of the world financial crisis that has battered its European neighbours Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and even the UK. The home of modern democracy seems to have silenced its discontented poor for the time being, but tens of thousands have been taking to the streets regularly in the PIIGS nations in recent months to protest their governments’ imposed ‘austerity’ measures.
‘Austerity’, needless to say, is generally understood to mean reducing pensions and social welfare benefits for the retired and unemployed, cutting back the public sector workforce, and reducing spending on education and public health. Little in the way of belt-tightening is required from the banking and finance sectors – Irish banks, for example, have reportedlyreceived 64 billion euros in government handouts to keep them solvent. Furthermore, those government handouts are funded from tax paid by the diminishing pool of wage and salary earners, or more likely, given their indebtedness, by government borrowing from banks. In the mean time, the UK parliament has published a report announcing plans to try and collect billions of pounds in tax from US multinational corporations such as Starbucks, Google and Amazon, who use a technique referred to as ‘profit-shifting’ to pretty much avoid paying any tax at all. The New York Times reported the other day that, Starbucks said . . . that it was reviewing its British tax practices after the company disclosed recently that it had paid no corporate tax in Britain last year despite generating £398 million in sales.’ Unfortunately, the article goes on to say, the British Government expects that their campaign to extract a little internal revenue from these sources will cost them at least £77 million.
Still, the British taxpayer has got it soft compared to his or her American counterpart. According to a recent article in Time, the Pentagon is splashing out $400 billion dollars to purchase 2,457 Lockheed F-35 fighters that are apparently starting to show many of the attributes of a white elephant. At approximately $160 million each, the single-seat warplane costs about the same as a 204-seater Boeing 767. I don’t remember seeing that voters were offered the opportunity to say yay or nay to this project in last year’s national presidential poll – but I suspect not. The same article quotes a Republican senator saying that US spending on ‘defense’ now accounts for 45% of the world’s total.
Well, so much for the power of a democratically exercised vote, and the fair spread of the tax burden over those able to pay. What about equality before the law, another foundation stone of a democratic system? A recent study carried out in New Zealand by an academic at Victoria University found that white-collar fraudsters are far less likely to spend time in jail than denizens of society’s lower echelons hauled into court for welfare benefit cheating – in spite of the fact that the sums of money involved are invariably much larger in the former group.
Like me, you may be following the case of Jesse Jackson Jr, former Chicago Democrat congressman once talked about as having the potential to become the first black president’, who has admitted charges of channelling campaign funds to his personal use. Apparently Jesse Jr delegated the responsibility for the family tax forms to his wife Sandi, a Chicago City Councillor – who is also facing charges for filing false returns. Let’s see what happens to them, bearing in mind that a blue-collar employee who steals from his or her employer is usually treated harshly by the justice system. And then there is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former IMF chief with plans to run for President of France. His stellar career was derailed when a hotel maid accused him of sexual assault. Stauss-Kahn’s lawyers were able to discredit the woman and avoid criminal prosecution, but she subsequently brought a civil case against him. The latest news is that the case has been settled out of court for an undisclosed, but presumably large sum. Well, you’d have to wonder why the guy would want to do that if he was, in fact, innocent. You can’t help feeling that Big Abe’s famous words could be modified these days to: Government of the people by a small and privileged elite largely for the benefit of that latter group. Monsieur Dominique, incidentally, would have been standing as a Socialist candidate!
Anyway, where does all that leave us? I’m sure you knew or suspected most of the foregoing, even if you may not have known all the fine details. I fondly remember the days when my own name was on the ballot paper in New Zealand, which made casting a vote in national elections so much easier. These days it seems I don’t qualify to exercise democratic voting rights in New Zealand or Turkey, so for the most part, I just sit on the sidelines and offer helpful comments. Still, I do feel that the Western media should assist in getting their own national houses in order before criticising too harshly democracy in Turkey and elsewhere.


[1] coined by the Sunlight Foundation

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)

Combating Terrorism –and treating Turkey right

I paid a visit to the US Consulate in Istanbul recently. I’d heard about it, but this was my first visit to the new location. It’s an impressive building, if a little out of place, its stark minimalist architectural bulk rising over the modest apartment blocks and roadside stalls of backstreets Istinye.

The US Consulate in Istinye, Istanbul
I was reminded of the previous consular building in Şişhane, in the heart of the city’s old European district of Galata/Beyoğlu. Like its neighbours, it was a 19th century structure of the belle époque – built on a more human scale, considerably more accessible, and infinitely less intimidating than its modern replacement. Perhaps its best feature, as far as I was concerned, was the library, which was open to the public. In my early days in Istanbul, in the mid-90s, before the Internet created a research centre on my desktop, an English language library was a pearl without price.

There was another such library, a few hundred metres up the road near the Galatasaray High School, part of the facilities provided by the British Council, in their mission to bring the English language to nations in need. That one too has gone, both of them victims, not human, but sad losses nonetheless, of the terror that struck the Western world in the early years of the new millennium.  In addition to the suicide plane attacks in New York and Washington DC, there were bombings on public transport in Madrid and London. In Istanbul, two synagogues, the British Consulate and the headquarters of HSBC Bank were targeted.

The Istanbul buildings were high profile locations, and the dead included six Jewish people, as well as the British Consul-General himself. The HSBC Bank was an iconic new tower in a particularly public spot on a main thoroughfare in Istanbul’s financial district. The force of the explosion blew off most of the white marble and green glass that were a feature of the façade – and the denuded concrete skeleton remained a grim reminder of the attacks for nearly seven years.

It seemed that the terrorists had focused particularly on foreign nationals in Istanbul, so we can understand why the British and Americans were somewhat nervous. The Americans, in fact, had already moved four months earlier to their impregnable fortress some distance from the metropolitan heart of the city – which probably saved them from featuring among the targets. The British decided to stay where they were – no doubt reluctant to leave what must surely be one of the most expensive and desirable pieces of real estate in a city rich in such treasures. They did, however, take the precaution of building a seriously high wall around the perimeter of Pera House’s four hectares of elegant lawns and sculptured gardens.

The British Council had continued operating their library, English teaching and teacher training programmes from a conveniently located building in the historic area of Beşiktaş, beside the Bosporus. After the bombings, they moved across the road to the second floor of the five-star Conrad Hotel. I did visit them there once or twice, negotiating, with some difficulty, hotel security and a labyrinth of corridors – but I was not altogether surprised to hear that they had closed down their Istanbul operation, one assumes, from lack of suitably determined customers. I checked out their UK website recently, under the ‘What We Do’ heading, and I found this:

Creating international opportunities and building trust
The British Council creates international opportunities for the people of the UK and other countries and builds trust between them worldwide.
We call this cultural relations.
We have offices in more than 100 countries and territories and are active in many more.
Cultural, diplomatic and economic benefit for the UK
We create long-term relationships that provide cultural, diplomatic and economic benefit for the UK.
We provide access to the UK’s assets (language, arts, education and society), especially in big and emerging markets, as well as opportunities for millions of people to engage in global dialogue.
We are operationally independent from the UK government, which enables us to build trust on the ground in places and with people where relationships with our country, society and values are strained.
We place the UK at the heart of everything we do. We are working for the UK where it matters.

Well, clearly Turkey is not one of those one hundred countries where the British Council have an office, nor even one of the ‘many more’ in which they are particularly active. My attempts to locate them online turned up a PO Box in the Turkish capital, Ankara, an Istanbul telephone number, a web address that connects to the British Consulate (despite their ‘operational independence’), and a Google map with a flag which, on closer inspection, announces ‘This address does not belong to the British Council Istanbul office’.

Anyway, that’s the British Council, a non-profit-making, non-governmental organisation, with no particular obligation to risk life and limb in the establishment of cultural relations. But what about the British Government itself? Their diplomatic representatives in Istanbul used to hold an annual fete in the grounds of their palatial Beyoğlu Consulate to raise money for charitable causes. Tickets were sold at the gate on a Saturday in early summer. Hundreds of Turks and ex-pats took advantage of the opportunity to shop for second hand clothes and books, rummage for treasures at the white elephant stall, partake of tea and scones, and generally immerse themselves for a few hours in a moderately authentic English ambience. Sadly, no longer. The fete continues, but tickets must be purchased weeks in advance, from limited, user-unfriendly outlets, and the occasion these days hardly warrants the effort required.

Again, you may say, so what? The staff of a General Consulate have more important business than providing entertainment and cheap shopping opportunities for down-at-heel locals and itinerant back-packers.  But what business? There used to be an office attached to the Consulate which carried out passport renewal and visa-issuing services. After the bombing, these services were outsourced to a Turkish company whose premises were located across the Bosporus on the Asian side of the city. Last year I heard from an English colleague that even this minimal service had ceased. Check it out for yourself – British residents in Turkey are now required to apply to the United Kingdom’s Regional Passport Processing Centre in . . . Dusseldorf, Germany! I wonder what the Queen thinks about that as she celebrates her 60th year on the British throne. If she happens to pass by the churchyard of St Martins in Bladon, Oxfordshire, she may well hear the rattling of Winston Churchill’s bones as he stirs restively in his grave.

Nevertheless, you can understand the Brits wanting to stay. Pera House was purpose-built as the British Embassy in Istanbul in 1844, at a time when Queen Victoria’s Empire was well into its century of world domination. The Ottoman Empire was still staggering along, but undoubtedly under the contesting thumbs of the European Great Powers, all of which maintained grand ambassadorial palaces in this ‘City of the World’s Desire’[1]. You can appreciate their initial incomprehension and disbelief when the Turkish Nationalists emerged victorious from their War of Independence and declared the establishment of a new republic in 1923, with its capital in the dusty Anatolian town of Ankara, effectively side-lining the Ottoman Sultan and his government in Istanbul. We can perhaps imagine the European victors of the Great War growing increasingly frustrated as the fledgling republic stubbornly refused to collapse and disappear into a historical footnote.

So the Brits are still there, in that Beyoğlu palace, though heaven knows what they do. The Germans, the Russians and the French similarly maintain architectural reminders of their former imperial grandeur, although their ambassadors and associated staff have long since relocated to Ankara. Still, Istanbul remains by far Turkey’s largest city, its commercial, financial and historical heart, and continues to attract foreign companies and capital investment, huge numbers of short-term tourists and significant numbers of more serious travellers, financing their wanderings by selling their God-given gift of the English language to the EFL industry. There are even some of us who find the country and people so attractive that we elect to make a new life here. Clearly, then, there is a need for consular services. The Americans at least recognise this. Their Istinye fortress may be intimidating, and their demand for payment in Yankee dollars a little arrogant, but at least they provide a face-to-face service.

Now, you may think I’m being unnecessarily critical here. After all, as we noted above, there were four very unpleasant bombing attacks on foreign interests in Istanbul back in 2003, and the British Consul-General himself was killed. Of course the countries concerned will be wary of exposing their people to repeat attacks. It’s a natural response. However, let’s take a look at some statistics:

The final list of casualties in the Istanbul bombings totalled 57 dead and around 700 injured. Most of those killed and injured in the attacks, were, in fact, Turkish Muslims, despite the fact that the perpetrators were apparently Al Qaeda affiliates. Those numbers are comparable to the 2005 incidents in London, when bombs in the Underground and on a double-decker bus resulted in 52 deaths and approximately 700 injured. They are somewhat less than the toll in the 2004 Madrid train bombings, in which 191 died and 1800 were injured.

The September 11 attacks in the US resulted in 2996 deaths. I have not been able to find the number of injured persons, and I wouldn’t want to speculate. My purpose is not to compare or belittle the scale of grief and suffering caused by these terrorist attacks. What concerns me is that, generally, the response of governments to such events is a determination not to be intimidated, and to return to business as usual as soon as possible. The Assembly of Turkish American Associations records 27 attacks by Armenian terrorists on Turkish embassies and consulates abroad in the 1970s and 80s, in which 21 diplomats and other Turkish nationals were killed. As far as I am aware, the Turkish Government has continued to provide services to Turkish and foreign nationals in those cities.

I have lived in Istanbul for fifteen years, and I have travelled much in the rest of the country. I have to say that I feel safer on the streets of this city of thirteen million, than in my own hometown of Auckland, with a tiny fraction of the population. In no public toilet in Istanbul have I seen a box for the disposal of used syringes, such as are commonplace and unremarked in Sydney, Australia. As a high school teacher in New Zealand twenty years ago, I had to cope with students who would return to class after a lunch break spent convivially toking a joint in a distant corner of the playing fields. My Turkish students of the 21st century are refreshingly and touchingly innocent by comparison. Street crime can, of course, be a problem in certain parts of town, and sensible caution should be exercised in venturing down back streets in seedier areas – but race-based gangs are nowhere in evidence, and unruly public drunkenness is a rare sight.

I don’t want to be too hard on the Brits and the Americans. This is a dangerous part of the world. Every Turkish male is required to do a stint in the armed forces – and one look at a map of the region will be sufficient to understand why. Starting with Greece in the west, and working our way in a clockwise direction, we see Turkey’s adjoining neighbours as: Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Without even considering the Middle Eastern states, as recently as the 1980s, Bulgaria was ethnically-cleansing Muslim Turks; and the Greeks have never forgiven them for the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Resentments run deep in this part of the world, and violence for the sake of religion, nationalism or political interests is an ever-present threat.

Democracy and internal security are goals to which (one hopes) we all aspire, but which exist nowhere in their purest forms. Undoubtedly, Turkey needs to work on issues of human rights, freedom of speech and equality of opportunity. At the same time, Western nations should recognise the value of Turkey as an outpost of genuine democratic aspiration and economic and political stability in a part of the world desperately in need of an example locals can identify with. Adhering to ancient prejudices of the Islamic and Turkic world as ‘other’, and treating Turkey as some kind of international pariah will, in the long run, have a negative impact on the West.

What can be done? As a New Zealand citizen, I feel like an honoured guest in Turkey. When I and my compatriots enter the country, we breeze through passport control and immigration without requiring any kind of visa or payment. When I see the hoops the NZ government requires Turks to jump through, even to visit as tourists, I feel more than a little shame. Especially when I see a wealthy young German, with a history of cyber-crime, welcomed with open arms. Some kind of reciprocal visa deal with Turkey would be nice gesture. The US Government might like to consider that accepting Turkish Liras as payment for consular services in Turkey will not unduly compromise their national security or international prestige. The British Government, for their part, might give thought to assisting or encouraging the British Council to re-establish library facilities in Istanbul – in the interests of fostering cultural relations.


[1] Constantinople –
City of the World’s Desire 1453-1924 
By Philip Mansel

Beyond Futility – Gallipoli Revisited

One of my first expeditions out of Istanbul was a school trip. I’d started working at a small private high school as a teacher of English. My English colleague and I tagged along with a coach-load of Turkish students and teachers. Our itinerary took in the small town of Çanakkale on the Asian shore of the Dardanelles, the archeological excavations of Troy, and the Aegean seaside village of Behramkale, alongside another historical site, the ancient city of Assos.

I was really looking forward to seeing the ruins of Troy, but it turned out that Çanakkale was, in fact, the most important destination for us. It was 17 March and the town was buzzing. We stayed overnight in a hotel, rose early on Saturday morning and found vantage points near the town square to watch the parade. There was music and dancing, military bands, students from dozens of local schools regaled in traditional folk costumes – all the ingredients of a major celebration. And what was the occasion? Çanakkale Victory Day.

Well, it’s possible that you may not immediately get the significance of this, so let me go on. After the parade, we crossed to the European side of the strait and were taken on a guided tour of the graveyards, museums and battle sites of what we grandsons and daughters of the British Empire know as the Gallipoli Campaign. We saw row upon row of gravestones in neatly kept cemeteries preserving the memory of the estimated quarter of a million young men who died in this tragic sideshow of World War I. We climbed to the highest point on the peninsula, Conk Bayırı in Turkish, known in English as the ridge of Chunuk Bair. There we saw the larger-than-life statue of Mustafa Kemal, the Turkish colonel whose success here began his rise to eventual founder and first president of the modern Republic of Turkey.
Nearby, on the ridge whose name is immortalised in a play by New Zealand author Maurice Shadbolt, there is another, slightly smaller monument. No statue adorns it – merely a laconic inscription in English, ‘From the Uttermost Ends of the Earth’. It commemorates the hundreds of New Zealand soldiers who died while capturing and holding, for a brief 48 hours (undoubtedly an eternity to the few who survived) this desolate peak which, it is said, held the key to the entire campaign.
Of course others died too. West Country men, from Gloucestershire and Wales fought and died alongside the New Zealanders . . . and hundreds of Ottoman soldiers fell too, urged on by their commanders who well understood the strategic importance of Conk Bayırı. They recaptured the ridge on 10 August, 1915, and Allied forces never again succeeded in getting so near to achieving their goal, though they remained four months more on the peninsula, pouring out their blood on the beaches, the slopes and in the ravines of Gallipoli, before the bitter Thracian winter convinced their commanders that the campaign was a lost cause.
Anyway, I guess you’re with me now. You’ve realised that the futile exercise in human slaughter we refer to as the Gallipoli Campaign, is known to the Turks as the War or Battle of Çanakkale. They didn’t have much to celebrate after the so-called Great War, so they are justifiably proud of their success in defending their homeland against Allied invasion. What bothered me, however, as I toured the trenches, trying to imagine the carnage that had taken place here, eighty years before, was . . . how come the Turks are celebrating their victory on March 18, when we hadn’t even got here till April 25?

My first thought was that it might have something to do with the Islamic calendar. After all, the Ottomans continued using the old lunar reckoning based on the Prophet Muhammed’s journey to Medina, right up until their final dissolution. But, no – 18 March, it seemed, was 18 March; and 25 April, by anybody’s calculation, comes five weeks later, so long as they occur in the same year, which they did, on this occasion: 1915.
What to make of that? So I did a little digging, and it turned out that the Turks, of course, have a very good reason for their choice of dates.
It’s important to understand, first of all, what exactly the ANZACs and other sons of the British Empire were doing on that desolate peninsula, some 2000 kilometres from the action on the Western Front. In fact, the situation in France and Belgium had bogged down pretty early on in the war. First Lord of the British Admiralty, Winston Churchill, came up with the idea of supporting Russia to mount a major offensive from the east. Problem was, the only realistic supply route for Russia was via the Black Sea and the Bosporus Straits, which were controlled by the Ottoman Empire, who, of course, were fighting on the German side. So, you take out the Ottomans, open up the Bosporus to Allied traffic, bolster up the Russkies and pincer the Germans and their allies by opening up a second major front in the east. Very neat. And who better to sort out the Ottomans than the Royal Navy, in those pre-air force days, the world’s premier fighting force.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work. The Ottomans had had fortifications on the Dardanelles for 500 years, and, with a little help from their German allies, had some fairly serious shore-based firepower at a point where the straits are less than two kilometres wide. They’d also had sufficient warning of the impending assault to lay mines as an extra deterrent. Nevertheless, the British, aided by the French, felt confident of their naval superiority, and sent a force of eighteen battleships plus assorted cruisers and destroyers to force their way through to Istanbul. Despite possessing such imposing names as ‘Irresistible’ and ‘Inflexible’ (and their French equivalents) three battleships were sunk and three more severely damaged. Discretion was deemed the better part of valour, and the Entente navies retired to lick their wounds. The sea approach was crossed off the list of strategies, and Allied thoughts turned to Plan B.
Plan B? You guessed it – a land invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula aimed at neutralising the Ottoman shore defences so that the battleships could sail through with less discomfort, heave to in front of the Sultan’s Palace in Istanbul, and order the Grand Turk and his Sublime cohorts to come out with their hands up. Well, Europeans had been making jokes about ‘The Sick Man of Europe’ for so long that they didn’t expect much serious opposition. Perhaps a little less gung ho jingoism, and some knowledge of history might have resulted in a more realistic approach. It hadn’t been that long since the Ottoman army was feared throughout Europe; and while they were no longer threatening to overrun Christendom, they might have been expected to put up stiff resistance to an invasion of their homeland.
Carrying out an invasion from the sea is a notoriously difficult military activity. The Allied forces achieved it at Normandy in 1944, as a result of elaborate planning, enormous investment of manpower, equipment and supplies, huge naval and air force support, not to mention the participation of the United States of America. Even so, there were horrific casualties. In 1915 aerial warfare was in its infancy, and naval bombardment seems to have been as much of a curse as a blessing for the Allied troops on the ground. Nevertheless, Plan B went ahead. Regiments of young men from all parts of the British Empire were landed on Gallipoli beaches to face the machine-guns, artillery and bayonets of entrenched and determined troops fighting for the defence of their homeland.
Predictably, Plan B was a worse failure than Plan A. A two-day naval engagement was followed by a nine-month attempted invasion. Where the loss of three battleships and around 1000 sailors had been deemed unacceptable, a war of attrition was allowed to continue from April 1915 until January 1916, in which hundreds of thousands were sent to die in inhuman conditions with no realistic hope of success.
Some semblance of justice can be said to have been effected with the metaphorical rolling of heads that followed back in London after the withdrawal from Gallipoli. Winston Churchill lost his prestigious job as First Lord of the Admiralty. The British War Secretary, Lord Kitchener, kept his job, but lost his reputation, and, in fact, died the following year. General Sir Ian Hamilton, overall commander of the campaign, was nudged into retirement, as was General Sir Fredrick Stopford, who is reputed to have slept through the landings at Suvla Bay which he was, in theory, in charge of. The Liberal Government of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith lost its majority and was forced into a coalition with Conservatives led by David Lloyd George, who not long after, replaced him as Premier.
Little enough consolation for the families of the men who had died; and it is even more shocking to learn that, as far as the Turks are concerned, the war had been won before the first Allied soldier set foot on those fateful beaches.  The Royal Navy was the number one fighting force in the world at the time, and if they had succeeded in forcing a passage through the Dardanelles, the war, for the Ottomans at least, would have been pretty much over. Turning back His Majesty’s battleships reduced the threat to a land invasion, which the Ottoman military backed themselves to repel.
As, in fact, they did, despite the best efforts of the Allied soldiers who fought and suffered above and beyond the call of duty for upwards of eight months. In later years, as the truth of the horror and crass stupidity came out, one positive has been the growth of a sense of nationhood among the former colonies that sent men to fight for Britain. For the Turks, of course, the Çanakkale War threw up their one victorious commander, who subsequently went on to lead the struggle to establish the Republic of Turkey from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Thousands of pilgrims who journey to the peninsula of Gallipoli on 25 April this year, and are welcomed by locals in a spirit of friendship, will have cause to remember his magnanimous words:
Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours… You, the mothers, who sent your sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.
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As an epilogue to the foregoing, I would like to mention an interesting tale I came across recently while reading a novel by the Turkish author, Buket Uzuner. One detail of the Gallipoli campaign that is often mentioned in Allied reports is the fact that the first landings were made in the wrong place. Instead of coming shore on a gently sloping sandy beach, the unfortunate soldiers found themselves facing steep ravines and cliffs. Generally the mistake is attributed to the pre-dawn darkness in which the landings were made. In her 2002 novel, ‘The Long White Cloud’, Ms Uzuner has one of her characters, Ali Osman say:
. . . [A]ccording to local legend, Turkish fishermen noticed an unfamiliar buoy moored out near Kaba Tepe and grew immediately suspicious, being already in a wartime state of mind. They reported the incident to police headquarters in Gallipoli, then, that same night, with the help of a few soldiers, moved the buoy fifteen hundred metres north to Arıburnu Cove, a most unsuitable place for a military landing. At the time, there was only one Turk who believed that the enemy might land at the Arıburnu/Anzac Cove, and that was a colonel named Mustafa Kemal. Indicating that even the Turks did not take the signal buoy very seriously at the time.’
I haven’t been able to verify the story, but it’s an interesting and not implausible one, it seems to me.