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US-Turkish visa spat: A fight for basic freedoms

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Moves by the United States and Turkey that largely ban travel of their nationals between the two countries is about more than two long-standing NATO allies having a spat amid shifting alliances in a volatile part of the world. It is a fight between two leaders, US President Donald J. Trump and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, confronted with the limitations and fallout of their shared desire to redefine or restrict basic freedoms.

The spat erupted when the US embassy in Ankara announced this weekend that it was suspending the issuance of non-immigrant visas as part of a reassessment of the “commitment of the government of Turkey to the security of U.S. mission facilities and personnel.” The embassy stopped short of banning travel by all visa holders.

Hours later, the Turkish Embassy in Washington went a step further by declaring that it had suspended all visa operations for US citizens, effectively banning all US passport holders from travelling to the country. “This measure will apply to sticker visas as well as e-Visas and border visas,” the embassy said. Turkey’s currency plunged in the wake of the announcement in early morning trading on Asian markets.

The spat is the latest escalation of tensions in a relationship that has been fraying for several years  as a result of increasingly authoritarian policies adopted by Mr. Erdogan, differences over the conflict in Syria, US cooperation with Syrian Kurds, the separate indictments in the United States of an Turkish-Iranian businessman on charges of busting sanctions on Iran and 15 Turkish security guards for involvement in a street brawl, and Turkish allegations of US interference in its domestic affairs.

The latest spat highlights the risks of Mr. Trump’s empathy for authoritarian and autocratic leaders that contrasts starkly with a stress on basic freedoms and the rule of law adopted by his predecessors. Mr. Trump last month described relations with Turkey as “the closest we’ve ever been.”

The spat amounts to the White House getting a taste of its own medicine of ignoring abuse of human rights by some of its closest allies. As a result, US nationals and government employees have become the victims of seemingly arbitrary crackdowns for political rather than national security reasons that violate basic freedoms and make a mockery of the rule of law.

The spat erupted after Turkey indicted in the last year two Turkish nationals working at US diplomatic missions in the country and detained at least a dozen other US nationals, including a Christian missionary, on charges of having ties to Fethullah Gulen, an aging Turkish preacher who has lived in exile in Pennsylvania for the past two decades.

Mr. Erdogan blames Mr. Gulen, the leader of one of the world’s richest Islamic movements and most far-flung education systems, for having last year engineered a failed military attempt to remove him from office. Some 250 people died in the attempt in which dissident Turkish tank commanders fired at the Turkish parliament building in Ankara.

The indictment of the Turkish nationals and arrests of Americans were part of a massive crackdown on government critics that involved the firing up to 150,000 public servants, arrest of tens of thousands, curbing of press freedoms and granting the president wide-ranging powers. Mr. Erdogan has repeatedly justified the crackdown as a legitimate response to the failed coup.

The targeting of Turkish nationals employed by the US government appeared to be a crude attempt to persuade the Trump administration to extradite Mr. Gulen, who has denied having any association with the attempted coup.

The administrations of both Mr Trump and President Barack Obama have rejected Turkish extradition requests because Turkey had provided insufficient evidence to substantiate it’s claim that the preacher was responsible for the failed coup.

Mr. Erdogan also wants the release of Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian businessman with ties to Turkey’s ruling elite, who was arrested in Miami last year for helping Iran evade sanctions.

Mr. Erdogan last month suggested that he would be willing to swap Andrew Brunson, the detained missionary who ran a small Protestant church in the coastal city of İzmir, for Mr. Gulen. “‘Give us the pastor back,’ they say. You have one pastor (Gulen) as well. Give him to us. Then we will try (Mr. Brunson) and give him to you,” Mr. Erdogan said.

The spat constitutes a serious deterioration of US Turkish relations at a time that Turkish-backed rebels are battling Islamic militants in Syria’s Idlib province. The fighting aims to drive back Al-Qaeda-linked forces and prevent the emergence of a Syrian Kurdish entity on Turkey’s border in the wake of a recent Iraqi Kurdish vote for independence. It also comes as Turkey has forged closer ties with Iran to confront Kurdish moves and has stepped up co-operation with Russia in Syria.

Turkey is not the only country to detain US nationals or green card holders. Ola Al-Qaradawi, a 55-year-old research assistant and daughter of controversial Qatar-based religious scholar Yousef al-Qaradawi who has a green card, and her husband, Hossam Khalaf, have been held in solitary confinement since last year. Their only crime appears to be that she is related to a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The United States has no consular obligations but Congressman Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the powerful House Armed Services Committee, has taken up their case.

Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who came to power in a military coup in 2013 that toppled the country’s first and only democratically elected president, has gone much further than Mr. Erdogan in brutally cracking down on opponents and freedoms.

In a rare break with apparent US neglect of abuse of human rights among its allies, Mr. Trump has cut military aid to Egypt, citing legal restrictions imposed on non-governmental organizations. The real reason was more likely Egypt’s relations with North Korea.

The Trump administration has suggested that it would review its aid decision if Egypt breaks off diplomatic relations with North Korea. Acting on US intelligence, Egyptian authorities seized in August a boatload of $23 million worth of rocket-propelled grenades shipped from North Korea and destined for Egypt. Egypt has denied that it was the intended end-user.

To be fair, the repressive policies of Messrs. Erdogan and Al-Sisi as well as Mr. Trump’s attitudes towards authoritarianism and autocracy and his efforts to redefine basic freedoms in the United States enjoy the support of segments of their populations.

As a result, the plight of US nationals and government employees in Turkey is unlikely to persuade Mr Trump to return to the more assertive advocacy of basic rights and the rule of law of his predecessors. It does, however, demonstrate that tacit endorsement of authoritarian or autocratic rule is not without risk for US citizens as well as foreign nationals employed by the US government.

Moreover, it suggests that lack of respect for human rights and the rule of law constitutes a slippery slope that ultimately could put US national security interests at risk on a far larger scale. That has been evident since the 2011 popular Arab revolts that has heralded an era of often volatile and violent transition in the Middle East for which no end is in sight. It is a convoluted and bloody process of change that poses multiple, often unpredictable challenges, many of which are exacerbated rather than alleviated by autocratic and authoritarian rule.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Americas

Trump: The Symbol of America’s Isolation in the World

Mohammad Ghaderi

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The president of the United States, who came to power in 2016 with the slogan of “Reviving Washington’s Power”, has become the messenger of failure and defeat of his country in the West Asian region and in the international system. The U.S. numerous military and political defeats in countries such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon were so outstanding that there’s no way Trump can brag about his achievements in the region.

On the other hand, many Democrats in the United States, and even the traditional Republicans, have been criticizing the President’s costly and barren foreign policy in West Asia. In such a situation, Trump attempts to attribute this failure to the country’s previous administrations and condemn them over what is happening in today’s world, especially in the West Asian region, and he blames Obama for Washington’s constant and extensive failures in this area.

Besides, Trump’s other projections about the hard conditions of the U.S. in West Asia are noteworthy. In his recent remarks, Donald Trump said that if he wasn’t at top of the U.S. political and executive equations, Iran would capture the Middle East (West Asia)! This is while Islamic Republic of Iran created stability in the West Asian region, and besides, has stood against the long-term, medium-term, and short-term and destructive goals of the United States and its allies in the region.

Trump’s strategic weakness in the West Asia is an important issue which can’t be easily overlooked. Of course this strategic weakness did exist during Obama’s presidency, but the truth is that it reached its peak during Trump’s presidency. And in the future, this weakness will bring severe blows to the United States.

The fact is that the strategic calculations of the United States in the West Asia region have all failed. And many of the pre-assumptions that Washington called them “strategic propositions”, have never turned into reality for some reasons, including the vigilance of the Resistance movement in the region. This is the reason why America is so confused in confronting the equations of West Asia.

Under such circumstances, the only way before the President of the United States is to leave the region and confess to his defeat; an issue that many American analysts and strategists have noted. It shouldn’t be forgotten that in spite of his campaign slogans for stopping the military intervention in the region, the current president of the United States has intensified conflicts and created constant security crises in West Asia.

The direct, perfect, and comprehensive support of Donald Trump for takfiri terrorists reflects this fact. Trump started his support for ISIL since the beginning of his presence at the White House in early 2017, and he stood for the terrorists until the fall of ISIL in Syria. Even now, Trump is attempting to revive terrorist and takfiri groups in Iraq and Syria.

Despite passing half of his presidency, Trump has claimed that the defeat in Yemen, Syria and Iraq was Obama’s legacy. There is no doubt that Obama and his two secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, played a major role in creating terrorist and takfiri groups (especially ISIL), and committed bloodshed in Syria and Iraq.

There is also little ambiguity in the strategic, operational and even tactical defeat of the Obama administration in the battlefields of Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. However, Trump can’t deny his share in this defeat, and pretend as if he’s the messenger of the victory of the United States in these scenes! The fact is that Trump completed the military and political defeats of the United States in the West Asia region. Today, the United States is defeated in the battlefield, and can well see that its pieces had failed in these wars.

On the other hand, the White House has lost the political arena of the region. The failure of the United States in the Lebanese and Iraqi elections, on the one hand, and the popular support for the resistance groups in Yemen and Syria, has left Trump and his companions disappointed in the region. In such a situation, attributing the recent and ongoing defeats of the United States to the Obama administration is completely expectable, and at the same time, unacceptable!

Finally, we can see that just like Obama, George W Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan and Carter, Trump is stuck in this strategic miscalculation in the West Asian region. Undoubtedly, in his last days in power, Trump will also understand that there’s no way he can overcome this strategic weakness through Saudi and Emirati petrodollars.

However, it seems that the scope of Trump’s defeat in West Asia would be wider than the previous presidents of the United States. Undoubtedly, in the near future, Trump, John Bolton, Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley will become the symbols of failure in the US foreign policy, especially in the West Asia. In other words, the president of the United States and his companions at the White House will have to admit to defeat in the West Asian region at a great expense, and this is exactly what frightens the American authorities.

first published in our partner Tehran Times

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Weather and White House Turmoil as Elections Loom

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Hurricane Michael wreaked havoc as it traversed the Florida panhandle.  The first Category 5 hurricane to hit the area since 1881 when records began, its 155 mph winds (only 5 mph short of Category 6) felled massive trees, blew away houses, collapsed buildings and left devastation in its wake.  Relatively fast moving at 14 mph, it was soon gone continuing as a Category 3 into neighboring Georgia and then further up its northeasterly path.  It seemed to signify a stamp of approval for the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on holding earth to a 1.5 degree Celsius warming issued a couple of days earlier.  We are at one degree now so storms can only be expected to get worse.

In northeastern Turkey, a 300-year old stone bridge disappeared overnight.  Villagers convinced it had been stolen called in the police.  Further investigation concluded it had been washed away by a flash flood caused by a sudden summer thunderstorm further upstream — clearly far more intense than in the previous three centuries.

Ever more powerful hurricanes, monsoons and forest fires point to a proliferation of extreme weather events that experts relate to global warming.  Yet President Donald Trump and his administration remain obdurate in climate change denial.

Thins are certainly warming up in the White House.  Nikki Haley announced her resignation in an amicable meeting with the president.  A staunch defender of many of Mr. Trump’s most egregious foreign policy changes, the UN Representative will be leaving at the end of the year to pursue opportunities in the private sector.  So said the announcement.  An astute and ambitious politician she has probably reassessed the costs versus benefits of remaining in a Trump administration.  Some tout her as a future presidential candidate.  Should she be successful she will be the first woman president, who also happens to be of Indian and Sikh ancestry.

The rap singer Kanye West visited the president in the Oval office.  A ten-minute rant/rap praising him was followed by a hug for which Mr. West ran round the wide desk that had been seemingly cleared of all paraphernalia for the performance.  He is one of the eight percent of blacks voting Republican.  Sporting the Trump trademark, Make-America-Great-Again red hat, he claimed it made him Superman, his favorite superhero.  And some suggested it was all further proof the place had gone insane.

A little over three weeks remain to the U.S. midterm elections on November 6th.  Their proximity is evidenced not by rallies or debates rather by the barrage of negative TV ads blasting opponents with accusations of shenanigans almost unworthy of a felon.  A couple of months of this and you lose any enthusiasm for voting.  Perhaps it is one reason why nearly half the electorate stays home.  Given such a backdrop, the furor over ‘Russian meddling’ in elections appears to be a trifle misplaced.  Others call the whole business a ‘witch hunt’ and state flatly the U.S. does the same.

The old idiom, ‘put your own house in order’ is particularly apt when we realize the beginning of this affair  was a Democratic National Committee email leak showing ‘the party’s leadership had worked to sabotage Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign’.  It resulted in the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Always fair, aboveboard elections?  Not bloody likely, as the British would say.  Given the rewards, it’s against human nature.

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The hot November for Trump is arriving

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Political turmoil in the United States has become extremely unpredictable. The turn of events became worse with an op-ed at the New York Times on September 5. Former White House strategist Steve Bannon described it as a coup against Donald Trump.

The reality is that the president faces domestic problems in his second year in office. This has rarely happened in the US political history. The issue is of great importance with regard to the approaching mid-term congressional elections in November. Republicans have the majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate, but they feel the risk of losing the majority in both houses due to Trump’s record.

Indeed, a feeling has emerged among some American politicians that their country is heading in the wrong direction because of Trump’s policies. Even former President Barack Obama has joined the election campaigns by breaking his promise not to get involved in political affairs.

The situation is not also good for Trump internationally. Disagreement with the European Union – a traditional ally of the United States – over trade and political issues, trade war with China, increasing tension with Russia, exit from international treaties such as the Paris climate agreement and the 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement Iran, have all made Trump to look dangerous in the eyes of the world. All these issues have made the situation unfavorable for Trump and his government at home and abroad.

But what is the answer of the president of the United States to these criticisms? The answer to this question is one word: economy. However, Trump is proud of his economic record.

According to statistics, the Labor Department published on September 8, US employment growth in August has beat market expectations, the non-farm payrolls increased by 201,000 from the previous month. Analysts were expecting growth of about 195,000.

The unemployment rate for August remained low at 3.9 percent. The average hourly wage rose 2.9 percent from the year before. That’s the highest level since June 2009. The latest figures are increasing speculation that the Federal Reserve will raise its key interest rate this month. The US economy expanded 4.2 percent in the April-to-June quarter, and is expected to grow more than 3 percent in this quarter.

But the economy cannot keep the president of the United States from the edge of criticism. Trump is in a difficult situation and worried about the result of the election and possible control of Congress by Democrats.

Issues such as the confessions of Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen on bribing women for having affairs with Trump and Russia’s possible involvement in the 2016 presidential election could possibly lead to his impeachment and his dismissal from power.

The US constitution says that the impeachment of the president should be endorsed by representatives from both chambers of Congress – the House of Representatives and the Senate. Democrats now have 49 seats in the 100-member Senate, and if they get 51 seats in the November election, they will still need at least 15 Republican senators to impeach Trump.

Still, if Democrats win the November election, even if this victory does not lead to Trump’s impeachment, it can put further pressure on him and cripple his government. According to a CNN poll, decrease in Trump’s popularity even among his supporters shows that the days following the November election will be hard times for Trump and his government.

First published in our partner MNA

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