Food for thought

Instead of devoting a whole column to one topic, I want to discuss a few important issues that have caught the nation’s attention in the last couple of weeks. These range from German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s controversial visit last week to the current president’s motives in engaging in public discussion over hot issues such as term limits and constitutional amendments. I’ll briefly touch on the sensitive issue of the Ergenekon terror network when it comes to discussing it with our American friends.

German bait and tackle game

I believe the harsh remarks slung between Chancellor Merkel and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan were intentionally triggered and carefully choreographed by the German government. The goal was to provoke Turkey, especially its outspoken prime minister, who does not shy away from taking his gloves off when issues touch on national pride. Well it worked. A group of Turkish reporters were invited to Berlin to have a taste of the bitter slice of the so-called “privileged partnership” from Merkel’s own mouth before she embarked on a tour to Turkey.

Merkel, a professional with bait and tackle, used her fishing rod in several different creeks, from the issue of Turkish schools in Germany to the integration problems of the Turkish minority. We must admit that the bait worked. The planned escalation of rhetoric on the German side resulted in lowering expectations to almost nothing in Turkish public opinion. The ground was ripe for anything positive, no matter how empty in its substance. Even a small dove with a letter from a German kid did the trick.

It may have saved the day for Merkel, but it is simply a futile attempt in the medium to long term. The German policy of opposing Turkey on almost all relevant issues is quite shortsighted, and I must say this policy is simply not sustainable. What I hear from people involved in crafting long-term Turkish policy indicates that Turkey has already started putting its eggs in different baskets to diversify its foreign policy portfolio. Before Turkey rushes to a huge sell-off of German stakes, Merkel should reconsider what kind of future she is laying out for her nation.

US says your terrorist is my terrorist. Really?

We know that the US is closely following the Ergenekon terror trial, of a criminal gang that allegedly plotted to wreak havoc in Turkey to overthrow the democratically elected government in Turkey. The case was noted in an annual US international terrorism report. Yet its wording still lacks a strong tone and stands in sharp contrast with the European Union’s approach.

Puzzled by this dilemma, I spoke with Shari Villarosa, deputy coordinator for regional affairs in the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, back in March at the residence of the US deputy chief of mission in Ankara. She said she did not know why, but stressed that the US “would support transparent investigations and due process” in the case. While she described the case as an internal issue of Turkey, Villarosa disclosed that the US Embassy in Ankara is following the case more intensively than the office in Washington.

She was quite clear that the US considers any terror threat to Turkey as a threat to itself and hoped the opposite held true for Turkey as well. Villarosa mentioned the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and al-Qaeda as a threat to both but stopped short of saying the same of Ergenekon. It might be a cynical question, but I can’t help but wonder why the US does not consider Ergenekon as a grave terror threat to the stability and democracy of a key ally in a very troubled region while there is a growing body of evidence indicates that the Ergenekon network is staunchly anti-American and anti-NATO.
For instance, very detailed action plans against NATO facilities were found in a CD that was confiscated in the office and residence of Ergenekon suspect Hayati Özcan. And NATO is well known for its high proportion of American officers/officials. According to the indictment, the following information was also found on the CD: ID information, color copies of IDs, scanned digital versions of signatures of all officers and staff that work in the NATO base located in Şirinyer, İzmir, as well as pictures of buildings and facilities there and pictures of family members of some high-ranking commanders.

Pitfalls of the Orient for President Gül
I can’t help but notice that trips to the Orient simply do not work well for Turkish President Abdullah Gül as both his Pakistani and Indian trips looked like a recipe for disaster in terms of the public relations campaign on the domestic front.

In a presidential visit to India in February, he brought up his term limit issue out of blue. Before he raised the subject with the embedded journalists’ corps, the issue had long faded away in political discussion in the capital, certainly after both the ruling and opposition party heads said the term should be limited to five years even though there is vagueness in the new law allowing the president to be elected directly by the voters. It created a wave of rumors that Gül actually wanted to stay beyond the five-year term limit and inflamed conflicting political ambitions among potential contenders for the next round.

Well, he did this again last week when he embarked on a journey to Pakistan. He commented on the ongoing constitutional reform debate at home and warned his own supporters in the government to be careful in a press conference before boarding the plane. He continued to emphasize his differences with the government on the package while he was talking to reporters aboard the plane. We all remember when the president was involved in controversy during his Iraq trip last year, during which he called northern Iraq “Kurdistan” while speaking to a group of journalists. A majority of the journalists accompanying him insisted that he either referred to Kurdistan or directly used the word. I guess trips to the East might disorient the president’s media counselors, as they consistently fail to conduct damage control.

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