27 November 2013

Iran and the New American Plan for the Middle East

This is my 200th post.

It falls on a momentous event, namely the international accord on Iran's nuclear ambitions.

This provides me with the opportunity to retrace my starting hypothesis and use it to explain the new agreement from a contrarian perspective.

First, let me ask a question.

For as long as remember, we have been told that the US will never do anything against Israel's and Saudi Arabia's wishes. For the former, we are given have a mixture of explanations, ranging from AIPAC's power and the prevalence of the so called Israel firster politicians to a genuine desire to protect Israel, a vulnerable island in the middle of an Arab sea.

For the latter, we are usually offered one word, oil.

Last week's agreement with Iran was vigorously and vociferously opposed by both Israel and Saudi Arabia and they failed miserably. How did that happen?

All the commentary I read suggested that the US is now charting a whole new course in the region. But no one was sure why. Moreover, no one offered a framework that explains both the old and the new.

Let me give it a try.

Starting Point: Rethinking the Arab Spring

When I started this blog, my goal was to provide an explanatory framework for seemingly contradictory events, actions and statements in the larger Middle East. I was especially concerned about the Arab Spring and the attempts to present it as a spontaneous revolution. The yearning for more freedoms might have been genuine. But the fact that, in key instances, the "Spring" was brought forward by traditionally oppressive institutions, gave me pause. And it made me doubt the spontaneity and the revolutionary nature of the upheaval.

A long time ago, I learned from Thomas Kuhn that when an explanatory framework cannot provide answers to all your questions, it might be best to look for a framework that does. The mainstream Spring narrative could not explain why the US trained and equipped Tunisian and Egyptian armies stood by complacently and allowed the autocratic rulers of their respective countries to be deposed within a short period of time. In Egypt, the man who earned the nickname of Mubarak's Poodle for his obedient suppression of people, ordered his troops to protect the protesters against Mubarak's thugs.

When the New York Times reported that the Egyptian army was working closely with the Muslim Brotherhood from the beginning of Tahrir events, I knew that I needed a new perspective.

It was clear that the US was somehow involved especially since I knew that these armies would not act in a manner to jeopardize their relationship with Washington. It is not just the money they have been getting from the US; there is also the equipment, training and privileged relations with American armed forces, including long term exchange and cooperation structures.

But why would the US support an Islamist regime and ostensibly put the security of its closest ally in the world, Israel, in jeopardy?

The American Plan for the Middle East

What if, I said, the US was attempting a massive nation building exercise in the region in order to bring stability to it.

From an American perspective, this begs two questions.

One, why would you want to stabilize the Middle East in the first place, if you are not actually dependent on their oil? The US does import quite a bit of Saudi crude but it does not have to. Contrary to what you might read in corporate media, between Canada, Venezuela and its own oil production, the US does not need other sources. In fact, with the expansion of dubious practices like fracking, very soon, it is likely to be fully energy-independent.

That's why I never understood "X country in the Middle East is important because of US dependency on oil" type of arguments to explain America's blind devotion to Saudi Arabia or, for that matter, its determination to invade Iraq.

In my eyes, the mark of a superpower is not its military might. Its dominant position in areas that are critical for the economies of other powers is much more important. What makes the US a superpower is its dominant position in capital, technology and energy.

Consequently, as far as I am concerned, the real importance of the region stems from what it represents to other rising superpowers like China and India. A little over 70 percent of the world's oil and gas supplies move through this region. Whoever controls their distribution controls the current and future energy needs of China and India and of course, the European Union.

There is no other way of explaining the Iraqi misadventure and the bogus weapons of mass destruction pretext that led to it. Even Wolfowitz later admitted that WMD line was just to get public support for the invasion. What a Wall Street oil analyst said at the time is much closer to the real reason: "Think of Iraq as a military base with a very large oil reserve underneath."

The second question is, how do you go about stabilizing the Middle East? The two main sources of instability are the Palestinian and Kurdish statehood questions. The first one inspires most of the Jihadis to join the fight against the US. It functions as a limitless source of suicidal terrorists. The second creates massive internal frictions, if not civil wars, in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, as the contiguous Kurdistan is composed of parts of these countries.

These are the two most intractable ethnic problems in the world. How do you solve them?

To solve the Palestinian problem, the US needs to convince Israel to work in earnest towards a two-state solution. In essence, it is a move to save Israel as a Jewish state. Without a two-state solution, within a little over a decade Arabs will be the majority in the combined Israeli and Palestinian territories, leaving Israel with two equally unpalatable solutions. Accept a Palestinian government to run the country or turn Palestinians into second class citizens.

But it is a well-known truism that no American president can push Israel. The evangelicals are solidly behind Israel (awaiting the return of Jesus to the Holy Land), the Republican Party is utterly devoted to the Likud-wing of Israeli politicians and the Democrats are either too afraid of AIPAC (which is completely aligned with Likud) or genuinely supportive of Israel's conservative politicians. Papa Bush tried to nudge Israel by threatening to withhold loan guarantees and paid a price for it.

When you look at the issue this way, it appears that Israel could only be pushed towards solving the Palestinian problem, if the situation in its own neighborhood dictated a different approach than allowing ever larger settlements in Palestinian territory and hoping the problem would go away miraculously by itself.

As for the Kurdish problem, the US needed to push Turkey towards making peace with the PKK. And gently move them to form an alliance with Iraqi Kurdistan. Grabbing some land from Iran and Syria would come later and that would be a bonus, as it would weaken these two regional troublemakers. Fortunately for the US, pushing Turkey is a lot easier than pushing Israel.

What else do you need in this stabilizing mission? Since the Jihadis are mostly the product of ultra-conservative Wahhabi and Salafist schools, you need an alternative brand of Islam, one that emphasizes worldly achievements over the the next world, like economic success, education, a sense of duty to one's nation and a peaceful social conservatism.

Enter Turkey

After the Iraq debacle, the Obama Administration knew the US could no longer hope to become a regional actor. Too much bad blood in every sense of the term. Military bases with oil reserves underneath was no longer a viable option for stability. So they looked for a stand-in. There is only one country in the region that can challenge Iran. Turkey. As luck would have it, it was perfect for the job, as it had several other trump cards up its sleeve.

One, Turkey already had several pipelines going through its territory, including a major one from Iraq. And, having no significant oil reserves of its own, it really, truly, desperately wanted to be the energy hub for the region. So, they had an excellent incentive to work with the US.

Two, as the heir to the former Ottoman Empire, it has the same cachet (and the accompanying love and hate relationship) in the region, as Britain does in Commonwealth countries. But, at the time, Turkey, after 60 years of carrying NATO's and America's water, did not look like a credible actor. Worse even, it was one of the first six countries to recognize the state of Israel in 1949 and until the 1973 oil crisis, it was the only Middle Eastern country to have a diplomatic presence in Israel. The Turkish and Israeli armies and security agencies cooperated closely and since 1996 they had a mutual defense agreement in place.

In short, Turkey looked like an American agent in the Middle East. Even its Islamist government could not change that perception. However, if something could be arranged to make Turkish PM Erdogan like he was standing up to Israel (and therefore to the US), the love part of the Ottoman legacy might be actualized.

In 2009, the man who, until then, never made any statement about Israeli occupation or lifted a finger for the Palestinian cause, stood up in Davos and accused Shimon Peres of being a child killer and stormed off their joint panel. Within minutes, he was the new hero of the Middle East. (In fact, his posters were up within two hours which prompted some Turkish journalists to wonder how this could have been done without preliminary preparation.)

Turkey's third asset was its largely pragmatic Islamist government. Economically, it was very successful. At the time, it avoided overtly religious social policies and maintained a commitment to secular system. The AKP government with its this-worldly emphasis and economic success could be very nicely presented as a model for Muslim countries. You know, democracy, economic prosperity and a reasonable dose of piety.

The final trump card in the deck was a preacher by the name of Fethullah Gulen. And as I mentioned recently, he was (and still is) living in the US. His school of thought appears to be the only coherent Islamist philosophy that could stand up to Wahhabi and Salafist schools. He emphasizes education, economic success, a Calvinist sense of duty to one's society, allegiance to a nation (as opposed to a wider religious community) and a fairly moderate (next to the Salafists) understanding of what a Muslim society should look like. (Essentially, he wants women to cover their heads but wants them as educated as men and has no real problem with women being in the labor market.)

Initial Success

If you have been reading this blog or following events in the Middle East, you might know that the arrangement of using Turkey as America's stand-in was a resounding success initially.

Turkey and Israel maintained what I call the Kabuki theater (for a more detailed discussion go here, here, here, and here). As a result, Erdogan (and the AKP) became the darling of Arab streets.

Turkey signed up many pipeline projects and appeared to be on the verge of realizing its dream of becoming the most important energy hub in the world. It pursued a policy of "zero problems" with its neighbors.

After the "Spring", Egypt made the transition to an elected government. The new Muslim Brotherhood administration was extremely careful not to offend Israel and went to great lengths to express its dedication to Camp David accords and regional peace. The Egyptian army seemed like a decent security guaranty for Israel in case President Mursi lost his way and turned against Israel.

Hamas began to make conciliatory noises. It moved its HQ to Doha, Qatar and Khaled Meshaal seemed genuinely interested in a reconciliation with al Fatah. And even in an eventual peace with Israel.

Another "Spring" movement took off  in Syria and that one seemed to be moving in the direction of partitioning the country according to a certain Pipelineistan logic. It was also poised to repeat the Kurdistan formula that worked so well in Northern Iraq.

Turkish government grudgingly announced a peace initiative with its Kurdish population and their largest organization, the PKK.

Iran became gradually more isolated in the region, with only the Hezbollah and Syrian President standing by it. Extensive sanctions seemed to contract its economy, jeopardizing its domestic stability.

When Israel finally decided to go back to the negotiating table, from where your humble blogger stood, it all made perfect sense.

The American plan was working.

The Saudi Wrench

Except, some people were not happy with that plan. Starting with the Saudis. They were fine with Turkey acting as a stand in. But that was not enough. Turkey was not capable of resolving what they perceived as the most pressing and important problem in the region, namely the Sunni-Shia rivalry. Only the US could destroy one side and make the other side victorious.

So, they urged the Obama Administration to bomb Iran into a giant parking lot, as the favorite neocon saying goes, and to put boots on the ground to overthrow the al Assad government in Syria. Even though they had the help of an unusual (and normally very persuasive) ally in making their case, the US did not budge. They had a working plan and they wanted to stick to it. The Saudi alternative was nothing but risk with no upside in terms of ending turmoil in the region.

The Saudis also did not like this democratic and economically vibrant Turkish model rubbish. Worse still was the idea of a moderate Islam. The new Brotherhood government in Egypt seemed to align themselves with the Turkish government and together they appeared to have taken the upper hand in Syria. The House of Saud and the House of Wahhab could not tolerate something like this. They also hated the Muslim Brotherhood with a passion, as they suspected them (if you can believe this) radicalizing the Saudi youth.

So, they decided to take the matter in their own hands and approach the Egyptian military. The Supreme Commander General al-Sisi was well known to the Saudi Royal family as he was Egypt's military attache in Riyadh for a long time. Normally, the Egyptian army's ties to the US are too important for them to take this bait. But the Saudis came back with an offer General al-Sisi could not refuse. $12 billion dollars in funds, a promise to give some more and a possibility of backing General Sisi as president. As the old adage goes, everyone has a price and this was al-Sisi's.

With the Brotherhood on the run, they no longer had any presence in Syria. Instead, the Hezbollah moved in to help al-Assad and suddenly the rebels were losing ground. Saudi Arabia increased its support for hardcore Jihadis and they gradually sidelined the Free Syrian Army to take the de facto leadership of the Syrian uprising.

Israel lost all interest and incentive to work with Palestinians towards a peace agreement. They met several times with absolutely no progress. Instead Netanyahu announced new settlements.

As for Turkey, it was the biggest loser in this process. Erdogan's harsh rhetoric against the Egyptian army turned him into a meddlesome villain for those Egyptian who welcomed the coup d'etat. Its relations with Saudi Arabia (source of a lot of incoming hot money) faltered. With al-Assad winning battles, Syria began to look like it could turn a major problem in the near future.  Moreover, Syrian Kurds seemed capable of resisting both the government and the Jihadi rebel forces. With massive help from Barzani, they moved to control their own region.

That left Erdogan with only undesirable choices. Pressuring Barzani to stop helping Syrian Kurds could lead to al-Assad remaining in power and making life difficult for Turkey for years to come. Working with Syrian Kurds would require working with the PKK in Turkey as they are closely aligned. This in turn could lead to bigger demands from Ocalan in exchange for his cooperation. Maintaining his covert support for Jihadis has a terrible PR price as these fanatical fighters relished their own horrendous actions so much that they put them up on Youtube.

On top of all that domestic situation in Turkey took a turn for the worse and Erdogan seemed incapable of controlling the agenda for the first time since he came to power.

The New American Plan

Let's assume that my working hypothesis is valid and the US has been trying to bring stability to the Middle East. And for that it created a situation where Israel felt pressured to solve the Palestinian problem and Turkey was given enough incentive to handle the Kurdish statehood issue.

What would they do if some regional powers worked to circumvent this plan by promoting a regime change in one of the key countries in that plan?

If I were the American decision makers, I would go and find another country that represents even higher stakes for the actors who destroyed my plan.

If you read my post on Iran, you know that the dynamic duo Rouhani and Zarif were clearly aided and abetted by the White House in their effort to bring Iran into a whole new setting. After three decades of isolation, Washington changed the narrative completely. The media were mostly positive and accepting, despite articles by neocons. And Netanyahu was sidelined and ostracized.

When France (to please both Saudi Arabia and Israel) sort of sabotaged the nuclear talks in Geneva, both Kerry and Obama dismissed Netanyahu's demands for further sanctions. And they quickly renegotiated with Zarif to agree to a partial (if temporary) lifting of the sanctions.

If Saudis and Israelis were unhappy about the Brotherhood government in Egypt and the leverage it provided to the US, a rapprochement between Iran and the US should scare the living daylights out of them.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Netanyahu quietly shelved recent plans for more settlement building in Palestinian territory in an effort to placate the US. When that did not happen, he gave the go ahead again.

But now it is too late, Iran is back as the regional power and they have a direct line to the White House. Despite the sound and fury I expect Israel to return to the peace talks with some renewed urgency.

I also expect Turkey to begin assisting the Syrian Kurds and return to the peace initiative with Ocalan. The Minister of Foreign Affairs already announced that Turkey would no longer tolerate Jihadi arms shipments. I expect them to grab the olive branch Rouhani held recently.

Iran does not pose an immediate security threat to Turkey. But an Iran in strategic partnership with the US could easily undermine Turkey's rising regional power status. Iran could also influence pipeline locations and damage Turkey's aspiration to become the region's energy hub.

To be sure, the American overture towards Iran is very cautious. They are making sure that no one reads it as a full-fledged support. But they are using it to signal to their stubborn allies that they could make life difficult for them.

After all, they really don't need the oil.

16 November 2013

Darkening Horizon For Turkey and Its Ruling Party

Most analysts agree that, in recent years, Turkey's rise to prominence has been spectacular. And most of them give the credit to Turkey's ruling Islamist party, the AKP.

The list is long. The GNP per capita tripled in less than a decade. The infrastructure was expanded and modernized. The government invested heavily in education and R&D. Turkey now ranks 18th among the top 20 countries in the world in terms of research output. It created a booming export economy ($153 billion in 2012). When the world economies were mired in deep crisis after 2008, Turkey grew by 9.2 percent in 2010 and 8.5 percent in 20111.

Until recently, it was the fastest growing economy in Europe and one of the fastest in the world.
Hence, Turkey has been meeting the “60 percent EU Maastricht criteria” for public debt stock since 2004. Similarly, from 2002 to 2011, the budget deficit decreased from more than 10 percent to less than 3 percent, which is one of the EU Maastricht criteria for the budget balance.
Nominally, it is the 17th economy in the world (15th by Purchasing Power Parity). Symbolically, Istanbul has 37 billionaires (ranking fifth in the world after Moscow(84), NYC(62) and London (43) and Hong Kong (43)).

Domestically, the change was even more dramatic. It is no longer a country where the army was so powerful that, after three coups (in 1960, 1971 and 1980), it could topple a duly elected government by simply issuing a memorandum. In the last four years, the elected government finally rose above the military and effectively placed them under civilian tutelage.

Internationally, Turkey underwent an equally profound transformation. From a second-tier country desperate to join every club (NATO, EU and even CENTO), it turned into a country that was courted by other clubs. After waiting for 54 years to join the EU (it first applied as an associate member in 1959) it is now sending subtle signals that it may no longer be interested to get in.

Moreover, in the same time frame, Turkey has become a regional superpower and an indispensable actor in the Middle East. After eclipsing post-Iraq war Iran, it has established itself as the leading power broker in the region and the only country capable of challenging all regional actors. It has also emerged as the main regional partner of the US, besides Israel. (If you were to believe this humble blogger, it has been doing the US' bidding in the Middle East).

This is such a rosy picture that people began talking about the Turkish Model.

But your contrarian blogger is here to argue that the glory days are fast fading and Turkey and its ruling party are entering a very difficult period.

The same forces that propelled them forward may now be reconsidering their support for the current team.

It's the Economy, Stupid

The main problem Turkey is facing is a serious possibility of sharp economic decline. There are several reasons for that.

The phenomenal growth I mentioned was primarily financed by two sectors: construction and real estate on the one hand and credit-based consumer spending. To give you an idea on the latter, the credit card debt that was 4.3 billion Turkish Lira in December 2002 climbed to almost 80 billion Liras in May 2013. Credit card use increased 20 times in the same interval and the annual transaction volume hit 450 billion Turkish Liras (the parity with dollars is roughly 2 to 1 so we are talking about $230 billion dollars). Consumer credits went from 2 billion liras to 216 billion liras, a 108-fold increase.

In the last ten years, Turkey's current account deficit increased 76 times to reach $53,6 billion. The net reserves of the Turkish Central Bank are roughly $40 billion, which means that the country does not have enough money to cover a single year deficit.

Construction/real estate is the other variable in the growth equation. The feverish rate of construction led one observer to call Turkey the biggest construction site on earth. There is also a real estate boom, or should we say, a real estate bubble like the ones we saw in the US before 2008 and Spain, Italy, Ireland, Greece and a number of other places. Banks made generous real estate loans and remained highly profitable as long as prices kept going up.

The current account deficit was financed with a constant flow of incoming capital, known as hot money. Not only did this provide fresh capital for the banks and construction sector, it also pushed up the Istanbul stock market. But since mid-May there has been a net capital outflow. Among emerging economies, Turkish stock market was the biggest looser with a drop of 22 percent on 22 May 2013. The bank stocks were hit hardest as they lost roughly 26 percent of their values. In total, the top ten companies lost $25 billion of their paper value. They have since recovered some of these losses but the trend remains downward.
Now Turkish assets are hovering around record lows again, with the lira's 17% decline making it one of the worst emerging-market performers, alongside India, Brazil and Indonesia. (...)
The losses magnify the imbalances in an economy dependent on imports and foreign capital, which analysts say leaves Turkey dangerously exposed to a hefty correction. 
"Were global liquidity to dry up or risk appetite turn sour, the economy would be forced into a sharp adjustment," the International Monetary Fund warned in its last report. A June report from Morgan Stanley ranked Turkey as one of five emerging markets most vulnerable to a withdrawal of foreign financing.
I would venture that the investors were also spooked by the rising jingoistic discourse and polarizing policies of the AKP and the growing authoritarianism of its leader, Prime Minister Erdogan.

It's Also the Politics, Stupid

With the economy seriously slowing down, with much smaller reserves than other emerging market countries, you would think the government would do everything in its power to create a stable political environment to pull foreign investors back in and the hot money flowing again.

Well, think again.

Just around the Gezi debacle, Erdogan decided to borrow a page from the Nixon-Rove playbook. Remember Nixon's Southern Strategy? Or Karl Rove's 50 percent plus one framework?

Basically, you do your best to polarize and divide up the electorate between "us" and "them" and you demonize one side by using the fears of the other side. You also act aggressively and when called on it, you claim to be the victim of, well, political correctness police, the effete liberal elite and the unpatriotic and godless elements in society.

You know. Them.

Since May, Erdogan has been attacking "them" at every chance he gets, using imaginative accusations that would make Bush's Brain blush. For days, he screamed at large rallies that Gezi protesters drank beer in a mosque. When the imam and muezzin of that mosque (civil servants in Turkey's strange separation of state and church) refused to corroborate these allegations, they were transferred to marginal mosques.

In his case, "them' also had a foreign component, usually in the form of an anti-semitic dog whistle like his strange crusade with the interest rate lobby. (Even though at times the anti-semitic undertone was more audible than a dog whistle, though some observers were more charitable than this blogger).

Lately, as a good Rovian, he has been introducing outlandish ideas hoping for a loud reaction, so that he could turn to his people with teary eyes and show the terrible hurt he experienced by their oh-so-mean outburst. (By the way, he cries publicly and as much as John Boehner).

As with the GOP of the last three decades, the strategy calls for him to be both the bully and the pearl-clutching perennial victim.

Case in point: Two weeks ago, Erdogan arranged for four female AKP MP's to show up in Parliament wearing headscarves, a very popular issue with Islamists and a very sensitive one with secularists. Previously, they could not do this according to the bylaws on the books. He was hoping for the main opposition party to make loud noises as these female MPs entered to Assembly so that he could go to "his people" and tell them how these lovely Islamist women were being mistreated by jackboot militarists.

Instead, in a rare moment of inspiration, the main opposition party, CHP fielded their double amputee female MP, Safak Pavey to give a rousing speech.

That's Ms. Pavey on the right walking to the podium with her exposed prosthetic leg.

She was previously prevented by the AKP MPs from wearing trousers in the National Assembly, as they claimed that such an outfit would be against Parliamentary bylaws.

You can see the irony. And how Erdogan lost his touch. Rove would not have been happy with his new pupil.

This was followed by another political faux pas. A couple of weeks ago, Erdogan stated that he was going to authorize the regional governors to conduct raids to see if university students lived in a co-ed setting in privately rented apartments.

He was hoping that the core electorate of the AKP would rally behind him as the defender of morality, family values and various sacred things. It did not happen. Since what he suggested would be plainly illegal and unconstitutional, his speech was met with sarcasm and disbelief.

But it proved to be a turning point for the AKP.

A Power Struggle Within the AKP?

The AKP has always been an umbrella party. It is a large tent that covers a core Islamist group, social conservatives, small business owners, nationalists who also cherish their Muslim identity and economic opportunists in the best capitalist sense of the term.

The Islamist core is divided into hard core fundamentalists (but not in the Salafist sense), formerly pious-recently affluent folks and people who are "inspired by" Fethullah Gülen, the Islamist preacher who lives in a large compound in Pennsylvania on a special visa. He is the kind of Islamist whose Green Card application was supported by Graham Fuller, George Fidas and Morton Abramowitz. You draw your own conclusions.

The President Abdullah Gül and Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinç are among the founders of the party and are the most visible members of the fraction "inspired by" Fethullah Gülen. A couple of years ago, Erdogan floated the idea of a constitutional change to establish a presidential system. He wants a system closer to the Russian regime (as opposed to the US or French arrangements) where the President can dissolve the Parliament, presides over Cabinet meeting and appoints all rectors, ambassadors and half of the Constitutional Court judges. And he wants to be that President.

Erdogan assumed that Abdullah Gül would simply cede the presidency (as he gave up his Prime Minister post in the past), even though the Constitutional Court ruled that the President was eligible for a second and final term despite a constitutional amendment that shortened his mandate from seven years to five.

Instead, Gül signalled his intention to stay put by launching a full-fledged re-branding effort. He used to be known as a hardcore Islamist, more conservative and ideologically principled than Erdogan. His new image is a lot more centrist, open minded, tolerant and democratic.

Last October, he addressed the Parliament to urge them to pass democratic reforms, to extend liberties and to adopt a position of reconciliation towards Kurds. Since then, he kept pushing for more democracy and distancing himself from the government and the PM at every chance he got. Especially after the Gezi incidents, Gül's (and Arinç's) tolerant message which disapproved of police brutality stood in sharp contrast to Erdogan's vociferous law and order rhetoric.

In fact, Gül is now seen as the wise elder statesman and opinion polls show that a majority of the electorate prefer him over Erdogan as President. Even the opposition CHP stated (albeit hypothetically) that they would support him for president.

To sharpen the divide, Gül also advocated, rather publicly, a more peace-oriented foreign policy, especially towards Turkey's neighbors. And he favored continuity over Erdogan's seemingly impulsive foreign policy priorities: When Erdogan suggested to abandon the EU in favor of Shanghai Five, Gül became the voice of Turkey's longstanding European aspirations.

Moreover, the Gülen movement closed ranks behind Gül and used their considerable media muscle to support his re-branding effort. Pro-Gülen media organizations began criticizing Erdogan's policies while voicing support for Gül's more moderate alternatives. This is what they wrote about Erdogan's female MP stunt. Moreover, the co-ed story was leaked by their flagship newspaper Zaman, which happens to be the largest Turkish daily.

The movement was especially worried that the seriously flawed prosecution of Sledgehammer and Ergenekon cases reflected badly on them and turned the public opinion against them, as there is a widely held belief that the justice system has been infiltrated by pro-Gülen prosecutors and judges. The movement figured that supporting Gül's more democratic and centrist message would be mutually beneficial.

There are some observers who believe that Gül may be creating his own political organization.

However, I am not entirely convinced that Gül needs to undertake such a drastic effort. Especially since all he has to do is wait. You see, Erdogan and 73 AKP MPs (of whom 18 are Cabinet members) cannot stand for re-election, as they will have reached their self-imposed term limits by the 2015 general elections. This is why Erdogan wants to be President as it enables him to bypass these term limits.

Simply blocking Erdogan's path to presidency would be enough to get rid of him and his most important lieutenants. So, all Gül needs to do is to work on his image as a moderate politician who believes in a multi-cultural country and make Erdogan look like an out-of-control-autocrat.

And the best way to do that is to give Erdogan enough rope with which he can hang himself.

The co-ed apartments statement provided just the perfect length.

After the (pro-Gülen) Zaman daily reported that Erdogan was contemplating to direct the authorities to conduct raids against mix-gender housing arrangements, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinç, as the spokesman for the government, denounced it as a fabrication. He suggested that Erdogan could not have meant what was reported since such raids would be illegal and unconstitutional. Within a short span of time, Erdogan retorted that he was planning such raids and that he meant every word.

In the past, when such public disagreements surfaced, Arinç always retreated. This time, he did not flinch. He went on TV and said that he stood by his views. He looked into the cameras and added that clearly there was a contradiction between the two statements but it was up to the PM to explain the discrepancy.

And that was that. Erdogan refused to talk about it any more but the damage was done. He stood there as an-out-of-control bully and Gül, Arinç and other "inspired by Gülen" politicians appeared as law-abiding, tolerant and democratic people.

The re-branding of Gül was complete and in the process, he let Erdogan to re-brand himself as a terrible autocrat.

There is one more thing.

Erdogan once suggested that Turkey was a democracy train that carries him to his destination (at the time, widely assumed to be an Islamist end point). This summer, during Gezi incidents, when a group of foreign investors met with Gül to express their concerns, he used the same metaphor but to highlight the difference:
While the Gezi protests were going on, during a meeting with representatives of foreign companies in Turkey, Gul indicated that Turkey’s democratic vocation is clear, saying that the necessary rails have been laid for it. He added, however, “If there is a problem with the locomotive, that locomotive can be changed.”
When asked if they could report this to their senior management, Gül said that they could quote him verbatim.

I don't think the message could be any clearer.

Is it Dusk or a New Dawn for Erdogan?

No one knows the answer to that, at least not with any certainty. Personally, I am not very optimistic about his chances for survival.

Besides his under-reported health issues, to succeed, he has to overcome a number of intractable problems. And with his diminishing regional political capital and tightening room of maneuver, I seriously doubt that he can tackle them.

Take a look at a sample of regional problems:

- In Syria, he aligned himself to the Muslim Brotherhood only to lose them after the Egypt coup. He refused to acknowledge my long held belief that Kurds are the sword to cut the Syrian knot. Instead, he backed the bloodthirsty Jihadis in an effort to weaken the PYD in Syrian Kurdistan. This support is coming back to haunt him and any opening towards PYD (and the PKK in Turkey) will be that much more difficult to negotiate. Yet, without them he has a huge problem in his Southeastern border.

- In Iraq, Turkey's other Southeastern neighbor, he made gas and oil deals with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and openly backed its leader Masoud Barzani. Now, Barzani is getting involved in Syrian Kurdistan and Erdogan is trying to backtrack by attaching new importance to Baghdad. But the Iraqi PM Nouri Maliki is clearly aligned with Iran. Forming an alliance with him will infuriate Saudi Arabia as the Kingdom is likely to see this as a betrayal against the backdrop of a sharp Sunni-Shiite divide in the region.

That would mean further loss of hot money coming from the Gulf and the peninsula.

- In Iran, his newly initiated efforts to placate the regime constitute a serious problem for the Saudis and the Israelis. Besides, if Iran manages to get the sanctions lifted, it could become a serious rival in the region. A rapprochement with Iran could also negatively affect Turkey's relations with Israel especially with Natanyahu fighting a loosing battle to demonize Iran and Avigdor Lieberman is back as Minister of Foreign Affairs. With Syria's simmering civil war and Lebanon and Jordan in jeopardy, regardless of what I called the Kabuki theater rhetoric, Israel remains a strategic partner Erdogan cannot afford to lose.

- In the general region, how could Turkey be crowned again the leader of the Sunni alliance without creating a host of other problems? There is a massive resentment in Egypt caused by his fiery rhetoric after the coup. Since the coup was orchestrated by the Saudis, the resentment is shared by them. If Erdogan disavows his early reactions and welcome General al-Sisi, the AKP's rank and file would rise up against him, as they see themselves the targets and victims of previous coups in Turkey.

Domestically, the situation is even more challenging for the embattled leader of the AKP.

To win elections convincingly, even the upcoming (March 2014) local elections, he needs to get the economy going again. In the short run, this means he has to find a way to get the hot money faucet fully open. But with Europe still mired in crisis, Russia sitting on the fence because of Syria, the only major source of foreign capital is the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia. They will not budge unless he changes his foreign policy in a certain direction.

Chicken and egg conundrum.

Also, to convince other foreign investors that Turkey is a stable country open for business, he needs to scrap his "interest lobby" rhetoric, appear more conciliatory and give up his Rovian polarization strategy. Without such steps, hedge funds and Western investors will simply go to other emerging markets.

Moreover, if he is to fight off the Gül-Gülen challenge, he needs an even more dramatic image make-over.

But re-branding Erdogan quickly might be very difficult. His polarizing image is too vivid and too fresh in people's minds. More importantly, the core groups that support him might be turned off by such a move. They don't see him as a polarizing autocratic politicians. To them he is their dragon slayer, their hero who stands up to the international "interest lobby" and their backstabbing partners inside the country.

As you can see, he does not have many straightforward options.

To use Gül's train metaphor, I would not be surprised if there was a change of locomotive in the next year or so.

Is it Irrelevant that Rob Ford is a Conservative Politician?

You might have seen some funny clips about the hapless Toronto mayor Rob Ford.

He is the overweight politician who has a weakness for legal and illegal substances.

He was shown swearing obscenities, shouting death threats, smoking crack cocaine and doing an assortment of stupid things while completely drunk. He is out of control and so far no one seems to have the power to stop him or push him out of the office.

If you haven't seen the clips and are curious, feel free to Google them, I will not provide any links.

To me, he is just another bully fallen on hard times. And like all bullies, he thought he was untouchable and he lied for a long time to cover up his aberrant and at times illegal activities.

Also typical were his insincere apologies when he was caught and his subsequent threats against witnesses.

So far, there is nothing of interest for this blog.

What got my attention was the simple fact that none of the international news outlets I read reported his political affiliation. Even if I knew very little about him (and I don't know much, though enough to score 14 out of 16 in this quiz), I could guess from his "cutting taxes" platform that he was a conservative politician.

And to me this is a very salient fact: like all conservative politicians Rob Ford is big on law and order. Yet here he was buying crack cocaine, buying marijuana, driving under influence, making death threats.

How is that not part of the story?

I realize that Toronto requires mayoral candidates to run as nonpartisan individuals. But his previous political affiliation should have been relevant.

The BBC said nothing. Reuters had several pieces on him but never mentioned his party. New York Times was also silent.

Canadian media outlets seemed to know his affiliation but did not usually report it unless it had something to do with other parties. For instance, Globe and Mail mentioned his assumed political identity in relation with Ontario Liberals' posture in the scandal, but even then, it used a vague language:
One MPP acknowledged that the party appreciates the awkward position in which the scandal-prone mayor places the opposition Progressive Conservatives, the party with whom he is most closely identified and aligned.
His otherwise long and detailed entry in Wikipedia was also less than direct. It said:
After Ford Sr.'s death, Rob has maintained political connections with the provincial PC party and the federal Conservative Parties. A picture of former Ontario Premier Mike Harris with Ford's father adorns the mayor's office.
It is quite possible that he was not officially a member of the Progressive Conservative Party (the most oxymoronic conservative party name in history) but by all accounts he was affiliated with them.

Why not mention it?

My pet peeve is that when it comes to conservative politicians, like diaper man David Vitter, the contradiction between their beliefs and their actions (family values vs having sex with prostitutes in diaper) is downplayed and the situation is presented as a human drama.

When it comes to liberal politicians like the execrable misogynist Bob Filner, the underlying hypocrisy becomes the cornerstone of the story.

Rob Ford is a conservative.