Q: Are the protests in Turkey more Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street?
A: The ideas that this is some far left thing is a slander by Islamists. Those involved include a wide front of social democrats, liberals, and conservatives (usually called center-right in Turkey), and all sorts of people who are tired of a ten-year-long march toward Islamism. This is the kind of thing we should be supporting. Instead, unfortunately, the Obama Administration is on the side of the democratically elected dictator, so to speak.
Q: What is this exposing about Erdogan?
A: His vicious oppressive side. He’s the man who said that democracy was like a streetcar and you just decide where to get off. He has intimidated the once-free media, harassed the courts, and supported Iran and terrorist groups abroad. This week he was busy trying to destroy the Turkish republican tradition of beer-drinking. He is trying to undo 70 years of social progress in Turkey.
Q: How are words like dictator and tyranny not overdramatizing the situation?
A: Because the Western mass media has not covered what’s been going on in Turkey during the last decade. Listen to what millions of Turks say. The media-economic power of the regime is incredible. There are many anecdotes: A television journalist practically trembling while talking to me about repression in his office; the billing of a newspaper for hundreds of millions of alleged tax debts unless it toed the regime line, the women who fear to walk through Istanbul neighborhoods unless dressed in Turkish-style “Islamic garb,” the anti-American propaganda, the knowledge of government officials that you will be promoted faster if your wife wears a headscarf, the thousands of political prisoners, the Jewish family firm told that after almost a century of providing equipment to the government they shouldn’t bother to put in bids any more, the antisemitic website which behind the scenes was sponsored by the Ministry of Education, a retired general sentenced to a year in prison for telling a villager that the government had betrayed the country. A lot of the truth was reported by the U.S. embassy as we can see in the Wikileaks.
Q: How does this end? Is there any ending well?
A: I don’t think so. The army is finished; opposition politicians are fools at worst and incompetents at best. Maybe these demonstrations will mobilize a new opposition? Maybe it will make the ruling AKP go slower or maybe it will become more open and oppressive. Moderates and pro-Western forces in Turkey know they cannot depend on accurate media reporting or Western assistance
Q: Fools? Could you be more pessimistic?
A: That is the way a lot of Turks speak. The current demonstrations are the first sign of hope. The main opposition is the historic Ataturk party. I was in Istanbul in the last election and heard on television the speech of that party’s leader after that party’s defeat. He said they lost because the voters were stupid. The current leader raised hopes but wasn’t able to deliver.
Q: How is this important in the context of the Middle East?
A: Not at all really in terms of the larger picture. This is not changing international issues.
Q: But isn’t Turkey supposed to be a model secular state in the Islamic world?
A: It was in the republican, Ataturk era but that is long gone. A lot of people have an outdated view of Turkey
Q: What might this mean for the future of Turkey?
A: Probably nothing. Either slower or faster Islamization is still Islamization. There is little or no chance of getting rid of Erdogan or of Obama changing policy. There has been much discussion of whether the Turkish economy will continue to do well or will crash. So far it has done acceptably to keep Erdogan as popular.
Q: What if the White House were to reconsider? What would be a helpful policy?
A: There are people in the State Department who are very unhappy with what’s been happening in Turkey, as you can see in the embassy reporting. There were high-ranking officials who wanted Obama to take a tougher line toward Erdogan, keyed to breaking away from his pro-Muslim Brotherhood policy in Syria. Up to now, U.S. Syrian policy has been made in Turkey. But Obama kept to his pro-Erdogan line. The government renewed the exceptions to Iranian sanctions for Turkey. If Erdogan goes to Gaza it will really throw a pie in Obama’s face and show he has no respect for U.S. interests but that this costs him nothing. Note that Erdogan has disregarded the supposed détente with Israel and broke all his commitments despite the fact that these were made as direct promises to Obama! But he paid nothing for this behavior.
Q: Can the U.S. be of any help in Syria, as Obama administration officials – and John McCain – meet with some leaders of Assad’s opposition?
A: This is a big question. Remember that the Obama Administration courted the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship until it had to change course because of the rebellion. Then it backed the Muslim Brotherhood—this is easy to document—and as soft on the Salafist radicals. Now they have awoken too late trying to find non-Islamist moderates. Just as in Turkey, the Brotherhood types refuse to be flexible or listen to the United States but they still get the goodies. McCain understands nothing. He meets with the Free Syrian Army which probably has less than five percent of moderates among the armed rebels affiliated with it. (The outside commanders are defected Syrian army officers; the overwhelming majority of soldiers and commanders within the country are Muslim Brotherhood types.) The civil war will go on for years, wreck Syria, kill tens of thousands of people, create two repressive regimes, and be a big strategic mess. I prefer the rebels to Assad but the margin isn’t huge. This is a tragedy but it has become like the Iran-Iraq war. Neither side of good for U.S. interests and when it does finally end, watch out for more instability!
The problem is gloomy because it has involved so much Western wishful thinking. Every time I’m interviewed by a Western journalist they claim that these radical Islamist regimes will inevitably become moderate despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Q: What do the National Security Agency surveillance leaks — Edward Snowden on the run – look like to you, from afar?
A: As I’ve written, the main angle I have tried to show is that this is not the way to handle a counterterrorist policy. It really looks as if terrorism is an excuse for gathering information on U.S. citizens. This NSA approach is like the TSA approach to airport security: pretend that everyone needs surveillance rather than using profiles to focus on the likely threats.
About Barry Rubin
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist for PajamasMedia at http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan)