Thomas Friedman was traveling in Turkey last month from where he wrote columns for the New York Times. I want to look at his column entitled 'Letter from Istanbul, Part 2' (published on June 18).
It is based on four questions allegedly asked of him by Turks he met. According to Friedman "these questions will tell you all you need to understand about the situation here [in Turkey]." When a journalist with a record of biased reporting tells you he has "all you need to understand" all kinds of warning flags should go up, and so we are going to go at him in a very critical fashion. Also, I too have recently traveled in Turkey (in May of this year) and talked to a lot of Turks. So I too can claim insight into "the situation here."
Friedman’s four questions:
1. Do you think we are seeing the death of the West and the rise of new world powers in the East?
2. Would you mind not quoting me by name because the Turkish government would retaliate against me?
3. Is Israel backing the PKK as the Erdogan government claims?
4. Do you think Obama will punish Turkey for its negative vote on Iran sanctions in the Security Council?
In his response to these questions Friedman tells us that 1. Turkey is a rising economic powerhouse that is "entitled to play an independent geopolitical role. But how Turkey rises really matters – and [Prime Minister] Erdogan definitely has some troubling Hugo Chevez-Vladimir Putin tendencies. 2. I never visited a democracy where more people whom I interviewed asked me not to quote them by name for fear of retribution by Erdogan’s circle–in the form of lawsuits, tax investigations or being shut out of government contracts. The media here is rampantly self-censored."
My response to Friedman on 1 and 2: Well, who has Thomas been speaking to? All of the folks he describes are probably secular Turks, all of whom seem to be prospering. I too met many Turks who were critical of the present government’s sympathy for Islam. None of them described any real fear of retribution or desire for anonymity when I told them that I would take their opinions back to the U.S. Is their occasional retribution? No doubt there is, but that is not particularly Turkish, Islamic, or a function of Erdogan’s governing style. It is what happens wherever parties and factions compete for power.
The real goal is to minimize it. In fact, if Friedman had bothered to compare the number of such cases reported under this government against those that happened under previous secular oriented or military governments he would find a decline in the such occurrences. The comparison with Hugo Chevez (who is trying to reform a country that was utterly ruined by a U.S. backed, corrupt plutocracy) and Vladmir Putin (who runs a sham democracy) are ridiculous. To be fair Friedman must really compare apples and apples. So, to the extent that any Turkish government is or has filed punitive lawsuits, conducted tax investigations, or shut businesses out of government contracts, you would want to compare it to, say, the United States under George Bush Jr. I think present day Turkey would come out looking pretty good given such a comparison. And as for media self-censorship. Particularly when it comes to the Middle East, the U.S. media takes first prize in this category.
Friedman continues: 3. Prime Minister Erdogan is indulging in conspiracy theories when it comes to Israel and the PKK. He describes Erdogan’s accusation that there is a connection here as "an insane notion."
My response: Not so fast, Mr. Friedman. The BBC has reported (along with video proof) that Israeli mercenaries are training Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq and Seymour Hersh has reported the same in the New Yorker magazine. There is every reason to believe that this military training is going on with the approval of the Israeli government . These Kurds might be used against Iran or Turkey or both. What is "insane" is to think that the PKK is not benefitting from such training.
And 4. Friedman on possible U.S. "punishment" of Turkey. He advises that the U.S. should "draw red lines" for the Turks but otherwise let "Turkish democrats" take the lead in the on-going struggle for Turkish identity.
My response: I would remind Mr. Friedman that the "drawing of red lines" usually alienates the party they are aimed at, almost never inhibits behavior, and often is a step toward increased conflict. Also, the majority of democrats in Turkey are the ones who elected Prime Minister Erdogan. The other Turks, the ones Friedman mistakes for the "Western" democrats, have often backed military coups.
Friedman adds to all this his judgment that Prime Minister Erdogan is supporting "one of the most radical forces in the region" (he means the legally elected government of Palestine – Hamas) because his Justice and Development Party is slipping in the polls. He also tells us that such support of Hamas has "alarmed moderate Muslim forces in Turkey."
I am sorry Thomas, I saw no sign of this. In fact if there is one thing that unites both secular and religious Turks, it is their near unanimous dislike of Israeli brutality and support for its victims.
Finally, Thomas Friedman declares that Turks are now fighting for the soul of their nation and that battle is about to be "joined in a much more vigorous way." He asserts that secular and moderate Islamic forces now realize that their Prime Minister is out to remake Turkey in an Islamic fundamentalist way.
All this is gross exaggeration. Prime Minister Erdogan is not a dictator, Turkey is not on the road to fundamentalism a la Iran, and the government’s opposition to Israel is principled and popular. Mr. Friedman most likely went to Turkey with preconceived ideas and spoke mostly to those who would tell him what he wanted to hear. I guess he figured that was "all he needed to understand the situation."
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