Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Positive Signs Abroad

Although the domestic political stalemate continues, political developments in other countries could open some avenues for successes for President Obama. These successes may not mean so much for his popularity at home, which is slipping despite the improving economy due to political setbacks like the IRS scandal and the reports of the NSA's invasion of our privacy, but they could mean more than the results of all the Beltway bickering.

Iranian Election
Iran elected a new President Sunday, and the result may bring an improvement in that country's relations with the (non-Shiite) rest of the world.  Hassan Rouhani is a cleric and friend of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, but he is still considered a relative moderate.  His name is familiar to the US as the negotiator we encountered during the Presidency of Mohammed Khatami, the other moderate cleric President in the history of post-revolutionary Iran.  During Khatami's presidency, there was a noticeable warming of relations with the US and there was some increased tolerance of civil liberties.  Expectations during that period for more dramatic change, in the form of government away from the theocracy, or for major agreements with other countries, were not fulfilled then and are unlikely now, as well--for example, his Presidency will not lead to some sudden end in the nuclear program Iran has maintained, as it is a policy of state and has considerable popular support.  I do think his election will allow for a lessening of tensions and should reduce the likelihood of actual hostilities.

The Iranian voters gave Rouhani just over 50% of the vote in the contest with five other approved candidates.  By gaining an absolute majority, he avoided the need for a runoff, and that was probably the most impressive aspect. The Iranian voters are looking principally for an improvement in the economic situation, which has been abysmal, with the end of the Ahmadinejad Presidency leaving a very bad taste.  In order to make much difference, though, he will need to gain some relaxation in the economic sanctions, and that will mean some well-chosen concessions on the nuclear program.

A New Chapter in Italy
When I  last posted on Italian politics, the parliamentary elections had proven inconclusive and the shape of the agreement to form a new government was unclear.  Since then, local elections (which succeeded in marginalizing the rising influence of the iconoclastic Five Stars insurgency of comedian/politician Beppe Grillo) clarified the political reality, and a center-left agreement was formed at the end of April. 

The new Prime Minister, Enrico Letta, is from the moderate-left Democratic Party, which finished (narrowly) first in the national elections, but he also traces his political development to the Partito Popolare, the successor to the Cold War Christian Democratic party which gathered its more progressive elements.  Though only 46, he boasts a long career in the Italian and European Parliaments and experience in several cabinet roles.  He is known as a deal-maker and a moderate. Letta needed support from members of Silvio Berlusconi's center-right party, but not from Berlusconi himself.  The aging clown appears to be near the end of his string; his sentence for tax fraud was recently upheld and, though he can still appeal, I suspect his party is going to learn to go on without him.

Letta has signaled a change in course from the technocratic, non-partisan government in place before the elections.  He has apologized to the youth of the country for his economy's failure to produce jobs for them, and has promised to reverse the austerity policy which has been largely imposed on Italy as the price to fund its debts.  The challenge for Letta will be to make good on those promises, though he seems to have the international political momentum on his side. Though his government could fall (if he loses the support of the center-right), his party could gain ground.

Arms to Syria
It's hardly a positive development that the US is providing arms to the Syrian rebels; more guns would not seem to be the prescription for a nation in the middle of a bloody civil war. Further, the reasons for the US' change in policy are all bad news:  after extensive study, the administration made a determination that chemical weapons had been used against rebel areas by the Bashar government, and the purpose of the change is to prevent the rebels' complete destruction.  The entry into the fighting of the Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite faction, has reinvigorated the Syrian government's military, and it has been retaking hard-won rebel territory.

Still, the direct entry of US involvement could be a game-changer; we will give the rebels anti-tank weapons, a key request they have made (anti-aircraft weapons, though, would be too risky to give to the rebels, with their Islamic fundamentalist allies). The objective is to force the Syrian regime to the negotiating table, something it has not been willing to do as long as it felt it would ultimately win the war.  So, the paradoxical aim of providing more arms is to bring the blood-letting to an end. 

From the US' perspective, the perils of getting involved in another middle Eastern mess should be readily apparent:  Syria is a little like Iraq in reverse, with the tyrannical minority regime in this case being Shiite and the disenfranchised majority being Sunni, and like Iraq, there is little chance that the bitterness and widespread violence will cease anytime soon, regardless of the chances of a political settlement to end the raging conflict (and I wouldn't rate those too highly, either).  The key for the Americans is drawing a clear line for our involvement and sticking to it.  If President Obama fails to do that, he will be reviled by his own party for failure to keep to his principles.

Uppance Coming for Erdogan?
I am a strong supporter of the idea of the nation of Turkey as an emerging positive force in the world, a country that has risen in economic and political status in recent decades, is now a player in both Europe and the Middle East, and has been breaking new ground when it comes to the democratic process in the world of Islam.  Prime Minister Erdogan has broken ground, as well, being the first democratically-elected Prime Minister to have successfully challenged the traditionalist and military elite which has exercised a virtual veto on politics since World War II.  Erdogan's achievements have been decisive enough that I think it is unlikely that the country can revert to the Cold War status in which unsatisfactory civilian governments were frequently overturned by military coups.

Nevertheless, Erdogan now finds himself the object of a popular rebellion in its largest city, Istanbul (not to be confused with the country's capital, Ankara).  The government had announced a deal to develop the one park in the most developed part in the city, and there was an outcry against it.  The protests drew a variety of supporters and the crowds grew.  Then the Erdogan government decided to take action against the protesters.  Many were arrested, many were injured, and a couple were even killed in the violent repression of the protests by the Turkish riot police.

Some of the worst repressions occurred while Erdogan was visiting abroad on affairs of state, but he spoke out against the protesters, essentially calling them the equivalent of the Sixties' "unwashed bums".  Then, when he came back, he did not retract his negative comments about them, though other leaders of his party were more conciliatory.  His tactics were to agree to meet with the leaders of the protest movement (I'm not sure who they were, really; there was an "Occupy Wall Street" improvisational character to the protests), and then to send in the troops to clear the park.

A lot of the protest was about restrictions on individual freedoms--some proposed limits on buying alcohol, for example--and a general feeling among various parties that Erdogan, who has been elected by progressively larger majorities, was becoming hubristically overpowerful.  The danger here is the classic "tyranny of the majority", as Erdogan can demonstrate huge assemblies of supporters anytime he wants to do it.

This may not lead to the political downfall of Erdogan--he has proposed a referendum on the park development, and he can probably win it, whatever side he backs; or if he doesn't choose sides on that, he can probably still win national elections--but his government will never again bear the sheen of one that protects the people's liberties.  He will be a partisan of the Islamist faction of Turkey.

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