Istanbul on the Potomac

There’s North Korea. There’s Syria. There’s Iran. And there are always the Palestinians and most of the obscure nations south of Egypt, full of ISIS and al-Qaeda wannabes – and then there’s Turkey. No, really – Turkey may be a member of NATO and an ally, but Turkey is still a worry, and Turkey has been lurking in the background in odd ways. There was President Trump’s former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn – fired for being a jerk and a liar, but there was a connection there. His attorney suggested that he had a whole lot of juicy stories to tell, if the FBI and the House and Senate intelligence committees would grant him immunity, from what, no one was sure. No one took him up on that – it could wait – but at the time Joy-Ann Reid had this to say about Flynn:

Here is a man who was forced out as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014 for his apparent belligerence, rashness, and fondness for crank conspiracy theories. He then sought income from Russian state-run TV and the Turkish government, where according to the former head of the CIA, Jim Woolsey, he took a meeting to discuss illegally renditioning a U.S. green-card holder who the Turkish autocrat would very much like to have sent to him.

Woolsey said that Flynn and the Turks were talking about kidnapping the guy, so Woolsey walked away from the Trump crowd, and there’s more:

Flynn is known to have communicated with the Russian ambassador, and to have lied about it. If his name showed up unmasked in the monitored communications of foreign entities that could well be because he was the subject of a FISA warrant, and a national security probe. Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general, told the White House, including Vice President Pence, that Flynn was at risk of being blackmailed by the Russians. It was his former staffer at DIA who was among the two, or perhaps three people, including a former [House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin] Nunes staffer said to have rummaged around in the sensitive files he had access to as a top National Security Council staffer to try and find backup for Trump’s false claims about President Obama wiretapping Trump Tower.

That didn’t work out. Nunes has since recused himself from these matters, but something else became clear:

Former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn has registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent for his lobbying work linked to the Turkish government, according to paperwork filed Tuesday. Just weeks after Flynn was ousted from the Trump administration, the early Trump supporter and campaign adviser registered with the Justice Department’s Foreign Agent Registration Unit for lobbying that his firm  – Flynn Intel Group In. – did on behalf of Inovo BV, a Dutch consulting company owned by a Turkish businessman with ties to Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Flynn’s firm took on the Inovo job late in the campaign, in late August, and was paid $530,000 for consulting work on behalf of the company during the final stretch of the presidential campaign…

Flynn registered because his work “could be construed to have principally benefited the Republic of Turkey.”

Flynn was working for Turkey and this had to be done:

“Under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, U.S. citizens who lobby on behalf of foreign government or political entities must disclose their work to the Justice Department” according to the AP. “Willfully failing to register is a felony, though the Justice Department rarely files criminal charges in such cases.”

Of course Flynn wasn’t the only one with this problem:

Paul Manafort, facing mounting questions about his work for pro-Russian interests in the Ukraine, may be belatedly registering as a foreign agent.

Manafort, a onetime campaign manager for Donald Trump, has been in talks with the government about registering under the Foreign Agents Registration Act for some of his past political work, according to a statement from his spokesman, Jason Maloni.

“Mr. Manafort received formal guidance recently from the authorities and he is taking appropriate steps in response to the guidance,” the statement said…

Manafort worked as a political consultant for ousted Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russia figure who was driven from office.

Manafort was working for Putin’s guy all along, and getting well paid to do that, and there’s that third fellow:

A former adviser to Donald Trump who is at the centre of an FBI investigation was exhibiting “strongly pro-Kremlin” ideology almost two decades ago, his former employer has told the Guardian.

Carter Page, who was reportedly being monitored by the FBI last summer because of suspicions about his ties to Russia, was hired in 1998 by the Eurasia Group, a major US consulting firm that advises banks and multinational corporations, but left the firm shortly thereafter.

The account of Page’s abrupt departure from the Eurasia Group suggests that concerns about Page and questions about his links to Russia were known in some professional circles for nearly two decades and long before Page joined Trump’s successful presidential campaign.

Carter Page may or may not register, retroactively, as a foreign agent of the Russia government – it seems the Russians found him useless – but he’s a minor figure, and all of these Russians connections may never be untangled, or amount to much. That’s not true with Turkey. Flynn may be gone, but Trump, with his Towers in Istanbul, is connected, and now, the Washington Post’s Carol Morello reports this:

President Trump called to congratulate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday after a referendum greatly expanding his powers, despite a more circumspect State Department response to Sunday’s vote, which international election observers declared unfair.

According to accounts by both Trump and Erdogan, the two also discussed the U.S. missile strike on a Syrian air base in response to the April 4 chemical weapons attack on civilians in Idlib province. Trump thanked Erdogan for Turkey’s support of the retaliatory action. The leaders agreed that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should be held accountable for the chemical attack that killed at least 70 people, and they talked about the ongoing campaign to counter the Islamic State.

They didn’t discuss the other matter:

Trump’s comments differed in tone from those of the State Department, which urged Turkey to respect the basic rights of its citizens and noted the election irregularities witnessed by monitors with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The United States is a member of the OSCE.

“We look to the government of Turkey to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all its citizens,” said the department’s acting spokesman, Mark Toner, noting the objections of the Turkish opposition and the monitors.

The whole thing was a bit disturbing:

The juxtaposition of the differing responses underscored the awkward situation faced by many U.S. and European officials in responding to the disputed results of the referendum, which changed Turkey from a parliamentary democracy to one led by an executive president with strong central powers. It passed by a slim margin, 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent.

Turkey kind of got rid of its democracy, undemocratically:

OSCE observers said the campaign did not meet international standards for democracies, noting that virtually all Turkish media failed to cover the opposition, creating an “uneven playing field.”

Erdogan lashed out in response at what he called a ­”Crusader mentality in the West.”

Erdogan has the media in his pocket now, and the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins explains what that meant:

Fifteen years ago, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was the hope of the Islamic world. He was an Islamist, of course, but that was part of his appeal. As the mayor of Istanbul, one of the world’s great cities, Erdoğan had governed as a charismatic and smart technocrat. He’d served time in prison, in 1999 – for reading a poem that seemed to celebrate militant Islam – but his jailers had been the country’s rigid, military-backed secular leaders who, by then, seemed as suited to the present day as dinosaurs. When Erdoğan became Prime Minister, in 2003, every leader in the West wanted him to succeed. In a world still trying to make sense of the 9/11 attacks, he seemed like a bridge between cultures.

On Sunday, Erdoğan declared himself the winner of a nationwide referendum that all but brings Turkish democracy to an end. The vast new powers granted to Erdoğan – wide control over the judiciary, broad powers to make law by decree, the abolition of the office of the Prime Minister and of Turkey’s parliamentary system – effectively make him a dictator. Under the new rules, Erdoğan will be able to run for two more five-year terms, giving him potentially another decade in power, at least. With a vote by the now truncated parliament, he would be able to run for yet another term, one that would end in 2034. By then, he’ll be an old man.

Donald Trump can only dream of dissolving America’s pesky Congress, always messing up his stuff, and making himself the one who decides what’s constitutional and what’s not, but he must like that guy’s style:

The voting took place in a government-created atmosphere of violence, intimidation, and fear. Turks campaigning against the referendum were attacked and even shot at. For much of the past year, Erdoğan’s government has been working to stamp out what remained of the democratic opposition to his rule. Since July, some forty thousand people have been detained, including a hundred and fifty journalists. A hundred thousand government employees have been fired, and a hundred and seventy-nine television stations, newspapers, and other media outlets have been closed. Many opposition leaders are in jail.

Trump can’t even put Hillary Clinton in jail, and although he’s called the press “the enemy of the people” nothing’s been shut down. On the other hand, there’s this:

 It did seem hard, in the lead-up to Sunday, to imagine that Erdoğan would allow himself to lose. (He did not even permit international observers to monitor the vote.) In the end, to solidify his position, Erdoğan was compelled to strike an unlikely deal with the MPH, an ultra-nationalist party that had previously opposed him. Without the ultra-nationalists, who can’t be expected to be enduring Erdoğan allies, the referendum vote may well have failed. Not that it will matter much now – the margin may have been close, but you can expect Erdoğan to exercise his new prerogatives fully. “It means the country is totally split,” James Jeffrey, a former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, told me. “Half the country loves him, and half the country loathes him.”

Late in the campaign, Trump hired Steven Bannon, and the ultra-nationalist alt-right Breitbart crowd in America’s MPH also splitting America in two, and as Trump cleverly used the evangelicals, Filkins shows that Erdogan did the same:

The secret to Erdoğan, I think, is that his Islamism has always been a diversion; what he cares about is not so much the power of his religion as power for himself. This has been true at least since the beginning of his second term as Prime Minster. It was then, in 2007, that his government opened the first in a series of investigations aimed at rooting out what he described as a vast, secret cabal – dubbed “Ergenekon” – composed of the secular élite that had historically dominated Turkey. As it turned out, Ergenekon was just another name for the democratic opposition and members of the military who regarded Erdoğan with suspicion.

And one thing led to another:

At the time, the Ergenekon prosecutions made a certain sense: in Turkey, the secular élite and its allies in the military had such a history of repression that much of the world seemed prepared to believe Erdoğan, or at least to give him the benefit of the doubt. But the trials – which began the dismantling which continues to this day, of the secular democratic opposition – were a farce.

It was divide and conquer:

Since then, Erdoğan has used one trumped-up enemy after another to justify his drive for absolute power. In 2013 came the Gezi Park protests, where Turkish police cracked down on peaceful demonstrators, killing several people and injuring thousands more. Then, last July, Erdoğan beat back an attempted military coup against him, and then exploited the crisis to neutralize any remaining opposition.

Anyone could see where this was heading:

For years, Erdoğan’s critics attributed to him a damning quotation that, they said, revealed his true intentions. “Democracy is like a train,” Erdoğan was said to have remarked. “You get off once you’ve reached your destination.”

That’s a warning, and the Guardian’s Liz Cookman adds this:

It’s not that long since Turkey was championed as a democratic beacon in the Middle East. In just a few years, hyperbole, deliberately fanned fear and paranoia have fueled the country’s descent into Islamism and the sort of Big Brother state its people had hoped it had left behind…

Turkey now silences dissent by arresting opponents and has been accused of using torture and violence, including rape. Widespread purges have seen thousands dismissed from their jobs due to loosely evidenced accusations of supporting the group the government holds responsible for last year’s failed coup attempt. They have been left without employment or financial support – suicides have followed. Turkey’s newest accolade is that it’s the world’s largest imprisoner of journalists.

She draws a parallel:

Trump has voiced his support for the use of torture. And his similarities with the Turkish leader do not end there. Both use the rhetoric of patriotism to the point of nationalism, are vocal against abortion and are infamous for their tendency to objectify women and misunderstand feminism. They have both granted their sons-in-law important positions and both have a particularly thin skin when it comes to criticism, especially when it comes from comedians and journalists.

Erdoğan and Trump have publicly supported each other’s stance on the media in the past. Anyone who has spent time in Turkey will recognize Trump’s denouncement of negative coverage in outlets such as the New York Times as “fake news”.

We may be heading for an Istanbul on the Potomac, and there was that first-week phone call:

President Donald Trump reiterated US support for Turkey as a “close, long-standing” partner, during a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday.

It was the two leaders’ first conversation since Trump took office in January.

Trump welcomed Turkey’s efforts in the battle against ISIS, according to a White House readout of the conversation, and spoke of both countries’ commitment to fighting terrorism “in all its forms.”

The conversation lasted 45 minutes, local media reported.

But areas of ongoing tension were notably absent from the readout, including the latter’s extradition request for exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen and US support for Kurdish groups in Syria.

Michael Flynn would work on that:

Erdogan demanded the US hand over Gulen, whom he blamed for the coup attempt, but the Obama administration asked for proof of his involvement.

Trump praised the Turkish leader’s handling of the coup in a July interview with the New York Times.

“I give him great credit for being able to turn that around,” he said.

Erdogan was Trump’s kind of guy – like Vladimir Putin, strong and in control – but Trump did have to cut Erdogan’s man, Michael Flynn, loose. Trump has now been forced to become a centrist.

That’s comforting, but Brian Beutler says think again:

Donald Trump’s recent policy reversals, and reports that he’s exasperated with right-wing advisers like chief strategist Steve Bannon in favor of moderates like son-in-law Jared Kushner, have given rise to a media depiction of the president as a burgeoning centrist. By declining to label China a “currency manipulator,” to shutter the Export-Import Bank, or to replace Janet Yellen when her Federal Reserve chairmanship expires, Trump has moved “toward the economic policies of more centrist Republicans,” according to The Washington Post. “Trump is, if not behaving normally, at least adopting normal positions,” writes Post columnist Ruth Marcus, who cites Trump’s declaration that NATO is “no longer obsolete” in addition to other flip-flops.

Don’t believe a word of it:

It is strange, for instance, to describe the combined law enforcement policy of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, economic policy of adviser Gary Cohn, and foreign policy of Trump’s Twitter feed and the military generals in his good graces as “centrism.” Trump has instead taken the three-pronged fusionism of standard movement conservatism – pro-corporate economic policy, religious right-wing social policy, and hawkish foreign policy – and stripped away any pretense of concern for racial equality and inclusiveness. Describing that kind of platform as “centrist” is both inaccurate and a gift to reactionary forces in society.

It is also strange to reflexively applaud a president for serially violating campaign promises – or to assume that the new positions are good, simply because the old ones were bad. The instinctual feeling of relief overtaking the political establishment is understandable – even appropriate – but the reasons are being misdescribed, and wrongly attributed to a rational process supposedly happening in Trump’s mind.

There’s nothing rational here:

Trump really seemed to believe that the presidency was essentially omnipotent, and that, once inaugurated he could mow over all obstacles to unfettered rule. His hubris has been answered in humiliating fashion.

That may work in Turkey, but not here:

A review by The Los Angeles Times found that fewer than half of Trump’s 39 executive actions changed federal policy in any meaningful way. Two of the orders – the Muslim ban and Muslim ban redux – have been enjoined nationwide, notwithstanding Trump’s attempts to smear the judges who enjoined them. Trump was likewise forced to withdraw a federal hiring freeze because it exacerbated backlogs at Veterans Affairs hospitals and Social Security offices, and to reverse his politicization of the National Security Council by demoting Bannon.

The list goes on and on:

Where Trump has asked Congress to expedite controversial aspects of his agenda – Trumpcare, and funding for a wall along the southern border – Congress has responded by not doing them. Republicans in Congress have largely abetted Trump’s efforts to cover up the corruption that pervaded his campaign and now pervades his administration. But Trump has been unable to stymie a Senate investigation of ties between his advisers and the Russian intelligence elements that sabotaged Hillary Clinton’s campaign. When the White House attempted to conscript Congress into turning its investigative powers on his enemies, it boomeranged on them. Republicans and Democrats condemned Trump, and their partner in crime, Congressman Devin Nunes, had to relinquish control over the House Intelligence Committee’s own Russia investigation.

Trump told Fox Business Network that “it’s not too late” for him to fire FBI Director James Comey, who is conducting a third investigation of the Russian subversion operation. While this is true in a narrow technical sense, what Trump may not realize is that for all practical purposes it is almost certainly false – unless the White House believes that mass FBI resignations, or the appointment of a special prosecutor, or impeachment for obstruction, or some combination thereof, would be an improvement on the status quo.

Trump is also learning that while it is technically his prerogative to unthinkingly abuse U.S. allies and antagonize rival powers, the consequences of doing so are immensely constraining. The inherent power of institutions like NATO, combined with path dependency, loss aversion, and other inertial forces are for better or worse stronger than any president; the good news is, that includes Trump. Most presidents wouldn’t threaten to intentionally mismanage the Affordable Care Act in order to bring about its failure, but when Trump did, no less a player in Republican politics than the Chamber of Commerce warned him that he would be making a grave mistake.

It seems that Trump ran into wall after wall, because we have walls:

Trump’s “pivot” is really an outgrowth of the fact that he keeps bouncing off of these institutional constraints. Trump’s power-mad political instincts, reflected in Bannon’s central role in the administration’s early days, served him very poorly, so he has delegated governing to different people with different agendas. His economic adviser Gary Cohn – until recently the president of Goldman Sachs – is reportedly gaining clout, while the generals Trump placed in charge of the Defense Department and the NSC have taken the reins of foreign policy.

Insofar as Trump’s strongman tendencies and his erratic, id-driven decision-making process have been sources of widespread sleeplessness, this is a welcome development, and I believe some of the enthusiasm for Trump’s supposed “centrism” is really an expression of gratitude that his authoritarian inclinations are giving way to something more considered.

That would be those walls, but they may not be enough:

There is a lot of damage a praise-seeking president can do short of blundering us into World War III via Twitter. Trump ran afoul of the foreign policy consensus in Washington, only to win over the keepers of that consensus by bombing Syria. The problem is that the consensus itself is unwise, forged by corrupted institutions, dangerous even when someone like Barack Obama – a deeply deliberate, reluctant interventionist- is at the helm. I think the decision was a moral and strategic error, but even those who supported it shouldn’t take any comfort from the fact that Trump did something they liked. Yes, Clinton might have made the same decision – but not on a lark, and not in pursuit of cable news plaudits. It is frankly bizarre how many people are of the view that Trump is a dangerously erratic man, unfit for the presidency, but are thrilled to give him positive reinforcement for launching cruise missiles.

We could still have some sort of Istanbul on the Potomac, and things may be heading that way:

Unable to delegitimize competing institutions, Trump is seeking to empower them at the expense of his central campaign promises. This is an inherently stabilizing development, but praising Trump for it confronts us with a new set of problems. This especially true if, in our relief, we reinforce incentives for him and future presidents to lie to their supporters and encourage complacency with institutions that failed to stop Trump from becoming president in the first place.

Well, yes, America did elect him. Break out the baklava – layers of paper-thin filo filled with chopped nuts and sweetened and held together with honey – just like our government. It’s Istanbul on the Potomac.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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