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Lawrence Davidson Discusses Turkey, Russia and the Autocratic Age

Davidson offers insights on the complexity of politics in Turkey, and provides context for Russia’s current relationship with the US.

In this interview, Daniel Falcone interviews Lawrence Davidson, a progressive activist and academic who has written several notable works on US foreign policy and the Middle East. Davidson offers some insights on the complexity of political matters in Turkey, and additional far-reaching global concerns, as well as providing context for Russia’s current relationship with the US.

Daniel Falcone: What do you see as the US interest in Turkey and Russia? Can you tell me about how our relationship is with each country in the context of a post-Cold War world while also addressing how human rights in Turkey remain a major concern?

Lawrence Davidson: US interest in Turkey has always been based on its geographical proximity to Russia/Soviet Union. During the Cold War, the US maintained airbases and intermediate missile launchers, as well as intelligence listening posts in Turkey (most of them are still there). Turkey’s readiness to cooperate in this endeavor paved its way into NATO.

There was really no secondary interest for the US either in democracy or human rights in Turkey. Today, the European Union does show such interest as a basis for Turkey’s admission to that group, but that is a European affair.

US attitudes toward today’s Russia seem to be a knee-jerk carry-over from the Cold War. For instance the precipitous expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe could not help but be seen as a provocation by Russia — essentially an act of encirclement against a state that had just voluntarily given up both its empire and its anti-capitalist ideology. Again, there is no evidence that concern for civil or human rights in Russia or Russian democracy played any role in the expansion of NATO eastward.

Richard Falk was in Turkey during the coup and later wrote that he was interested in media coverage to see how it might be presented to Western audiences by CNN International and BBC. He remarked that this type of “passive witnessing contrasted with existential fears produced by F-16 military jets flying continuously over the city at low altitudes, causing ear-splitting sonic booms, strongly reminded [one] of the ordeal faced by the people of Gaza often traumatized by the sound of sonic booms from overflying Israeli jets and Syrians huddled in ruined cities.” Do you think that people in Turkey, sympathetic to human rights and critical of Erdoğan, make this intersection with Gaza? And what are your thoughts on a balanced position on Turkey? Is it suggestive of condoning human rights violations?

I am not sure how many Turks pay attention to or are aware of conditions in Gaza. They would know more about conditions in next door Syria, but again, what they know would come to them through a government influenced media.

Certainly, for most of them, the experience of active military engagements in Istanbul and other cities would be a traumatizing event. I would think that most citizens would just want the turmoil over with and would accept either side as winner to achieve an end to the violence and disruption of their lives.

When it comes to the attempted coup in Turkey, people with humanitarian concerns are in a difficult position. Turkey’s elected government, whatever its faults, can only be seen as the more legitimate alternative to a military takeover. However, there are no mistaking Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies. So what do you do? The only consideration that readily comes to mind is that civilian governments are usually more open to pressure to act in a civilized way than are military ones.

The recent events in Turkey have also been very difficult for media outlets and people on the left to contextualize. On the one hand, progressive liberals want to support say, students and professors in Turkey that are being affected by the increased size of the state. And on the other hand, the activist left remains skeptical of the West’s opportunistic interest in Turkey and their audacity to present themselves as honest brokers while they cynically uphold Turkey as a member of NATO and threaten Russia with aggressive geopolitical posturing. What do you make of this?

Again, we are in a bad position. Erdoğan has taken advantage of the failed coup to launch a massive purge of not only the military, but of the government bureaucracies and educational institutions. He will push for changes in the Turkish constitution and we may end up with a civilian dictatorship instead of a military one. Most of the mass media in the US will follow the government line and adopt a watch and wait position while mildly scolding the Turks to be mindful of their democratic traditions. But this doesn’t mean much.

The other day on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” commentator Fareed Zakaria remarked of Erdoğan’s “Putinism” as more egregious than the other threat related to “Islamism.” According to his op-ed in The Washington Post, Zakaria defines “Putinism” as “nationalism, religion, social conservatism, state capitalism and government domination of the media.” At best, this to me sounds a lot like the definition of an American corporation that must profit by law in conjunction with receiving massive federal subsidies while acting in secret, and totally out of public or citizen control. At worst, it sounds like an invented term in order to call Putin defiant of Western orthodoxy, while irrational and anti-democratic. How do you suggest that those on the left in America criticize our own conception of international norms, but at the same time remain critical of corrupt heads of state?

Well, that is the level of awareness that most Americans simply do not possess. Our form of government is based on competing oligarchies embedded within which are lots of little “Putins.” Mr. Trump is an exception to the rule only in the way he fails to hide his disdain for the way the game is supposed to be played. In Turkey and Russia, the number of oligarchical groups are less and the “Putins” stand out more.

Americans have to become aware that governmental forms stand on continuum running from anarchy to totalitarianism. Our corporate style “democracy” is on that continuum and so is Zakaria’s “Putinism.” Close examination might show that they are not all that far apart.

Back in the late 1990s, Professor Noam Chomsky referred to our interests in Kosovo as the “new military humanism.” Do you see any parallels potentially in regards to Turkey with our actions in Kosovo? In other words, it seems that while human rights abuses occurred there, it was not our reason for intervening and never is. Can you comment on this?

We are not going to intervene in Turkey militarily or otherwise. And, where we do intervene, as we did belatedly in the Balkans — the reasons were not primarily human rights or democracy. In that case, there was growing concern that the civil wars were spreading both north in the direction of Bulgaria and Romania and south in the direction of Macedonia and Greece. Eastern Europe has always been an area of factionalized minorities and when Yugoslavia went, the whole region threatened to unravel. NATO intervened to stop that unraveling process.

Unfortunately, the message that US foreign policy seeks to spread democracy and protect human rights is primarily for domestic consumption — a form of internal propaganda sustaining an idealized image of the country in the mind of its own citizens. However, the ideal does not shape foreign policy.

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