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.
Ground Wars and Star Wars: Trump in Hog Heaven?
Four weeks and counting the shutdown continues except the Trump-Congress tit-for-tat is fast approaching kindergarten level.
The Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is third in line for the office of President. The Democrats having won back the House she is a Democrat, and Donald Trump just canceled her morale-boosting trip, together with a congressional delegation, to the soldiers in Afghanistan. He was able to do that very simply by denying the use of the military aircraft scheduled to fly them there; he cited the shutdown. He even suggested they could fly commercial to Afghanistan, but disclosing plans to a war zone by such a high-level elected official has left some dismayed.
A day earlier, Ms. Pelosi had urged the president to postpone his State of the Union address, which is hosted by the House, again because of the shutdown.
Meanwhile some Federal workers are having difficulty buying groceries — some 800,000 either continue to work without pay or are just sitting at home waiting to return. Many, if they can, are taking on temporary jobs.
As the cost of the shutdown rises, so does the political cost. A new Marist poll finds 54 percent blame Trump for the shutdown while 31 percent believe the Democrats are the cause. But, cutting across party lines, 70 percent do not like the shutdown and agree it is a bad negotiating strategy. It looks like it might cost all incumbents, and Republicans are likely to suffer worse.
The latest shot fired is a threatened investigation by Democrats. It is alleged that Mr. Trump instructed his former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. The House Intelligence Committee will investigate the claims according to its new chairman Adam Schiff, a Democrat, adding that suborning perjury before this committee is the most serious charge to date against the president.
From ground wars to space wars: President Trump has now announced new missile defense plans. A layer of space sensors to detect missile launches anywhere on earth is the intent. “Our goal is simple: to ensure we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States — anywhere, anytime, any place.” Inevitably the new plan invites comparisons with Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” concept introduced in the 1980s but later shelved because of its inordinate cost after the Soviet Union dissolved.
The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Review notes four countries (China, Iran, North Korea and Russia) that could be possible threats with missiles capable of hitting the U.S. “We have some very bad players out there,” according to Mr. Trump, though it is almost impossible to imagine any of the four countries mentioned launching a missile strike. Given the consequences, including a nuclear winter to threaten the planet as a whole, it is difficult to envision circumstances leading to nuclear war. And Russia warns of a new arms race.
Naturally, Mr. Trump wants immediate funding for these plans. But the House holds the purse strings. Oops! It’s back to Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The game continues.
Nancy Pelosi and her dual approaches
In her remarks, the United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, asserted that Trump’s border wall campaign has nothing to do with border security. She said it’s one of the US President’s plans for energizing his conservative base, and in this way, he aims to distract the country from the various scandals dogging his administration.
“I don’t even know if the president wants the wall. I think he just wants a debate on the wall. And he’s having some difficulty with it,” Pelosi said during a press briefing at the Capitol.
“He keeps increasing the amount of money; increasing the amount of beds; increasing the obstacles to finding a solution — because I don’t think he really wants a solution,” Pelosi said. “I think he loves the distraction that this is from his other problems,” She added.
Pelosi, along with Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, noted that they disagree with Trump over building a physical border wall, which according to them, would be expensive and ineffective.
“Democrats and the president both want stronger border security. However, we sharply disagree with the president about the most effective way to do it … Most presidents have used Oval Office addresses for noble purposes. This president just used the backdrop of the Oval Office to manufacture a crisis, stoke fear, and divert attention from the turmoil in his administration,” said Schumer in answer to Trump’s recent remarks.
On the other hand, Pelosi is among those who are seriously standing against Trump’s impeachment. This dual approach taken by Pelosi towards the White House, and the fact that the House speaker and other Democrat leaders have argued against the serious consideration of Trump’s impeachment, may lead to conflicts inside the Democratic Party in the future.
“We have to wait and see what happens with the Mueller report. We shouldn’t be impeaching for a political reason, and we shouldn’t avoid impeachment for a political reason. So we’ll just have to see how it comes,” Said Pelosi.
However, Pelosi’s remarks were not unprecedented! When Pelosi was the House Minority Leader in the years between 2016 and 2018, she opposed the idea of impeaching Trump. Nancy Pelosi has made it clear that she has a conservative approach towards Trump. This is while with a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, Democrats can initiate impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump. The fact that some Democrat leaders have opposed Nancy Pelosi’s Minority leadership in the US House of Representatives is rooted in the same reason. In any case, it seems that Pelosi prefers scenarios such as “making a political deal with Trump” to “Confrontation with the President”. Nancy Pelosi argues that Democrats’ direct confrontation with Trump, and in particular the impeachment of the President of the United States, will lead to the anger of some American citizens, and the Democrats will be accused of posing a blow to the American political and social equations. However, it seems that some Democrats do not agree with Nancy Pelosi’s opinion! Politicians such as Bernie Sanders believe that Trump is not politically negotiable. They believe that any compromise reached between Democrats and Trump will hold a bad result for them in the US 2020 presidential election.
At any rate, there’s plenty at stake: Amid this crisis, Trump has come with the idea of declaring a national emergency at the border, a move that could free up wall funding without the Congress approval.
“If this doesn’t work out, probably I will do it. I would almost say definitely,” said Trump.
The US government shutdown, which is resulted from the disagreements over border wall funding, is still ongoing. Trump is demanding $5.7 billion for new wall construction; Pelosi and the Democrats have offered $1.3 billion for border security measures, but have opposed construction of any new physical barriers. In spite of this, Trump has previously claimed that he’s ready to hold the shutdown for months and even years! If Pelosi surrenders in the face of Trump’s demands, she would be regarded as a defeated figure inside the US political circles.
First published in our partner MNA
Trump is mocking Biden
News sources in the United States announced that Joe Biden, the U.S. former Vice-President (from 2009 to 2017), and a prominent figure in the Democratic Party will soon announce his run for the president in 2020. Biden has previously said that he’s “the most qualified person in the country” for being president.
Biden mentioned these words in a controversial interview which has attracted the attention of many American analysts. However, Biden’s final decision for participating in the presidential campaigns wasn’t clear. Eventually, a number of Biden’s followers, including his brother Frank Biden, announced his final decision to run for the general elections. Polls conducted in the United States indicate that Biden is currently more popular than other potential candidates of the Democratic Party in the upcoming elections.
Meanwhile, Biden is probably to face rivals such as Bernie Sanders, Senator from Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren, and even Hillary Clinton. During the 2016 presidential competitions, Biden was also scheduled to attend the in-party election competitions, but he changed his mind due to his son’s death and Hillary Clinton’s insistence on attending the presidential campaign. Biden’s remarks, however, show that he’s greatly interested in defeating Trump in the 2020 election.
However, we shouldn’t forget that Biden can’t really count on the current polls conducted among Democrat supporters! We can all remember that during the 2008 presidential elections and inside the Democratic Party, Obama had far less chance of reaching the final round of the elections than those like Hillary Clinton. But his successful speeches in states like Iowa and South Carolina led to Clinton’s final defeat and Obama’s victory.
Hence, the success of Biden’s rival candidates in states like Iowa and New Hampshire (where American in-party elections begin with them) can completely change the equations, and that won’t be to Biden’s advantage.
Accordingly, Trump’s position on Biden’s participation in the presidential competitions are noteworthy. In a phone interview with Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro, Trump called Joe Biden “weak”. He also claimed that he’s not worried about a potential challenge from the former vice president in the 2020 presidential race; “You know, a lot of people say Biden’s doing OK, but he was always a 1-percenter. He was a 1 percent guy. He ran two or three times, he never got above 1%, and then, Obama came along and took him off the trash heap, and he became the vice president. He’s weak. So, we’ll see what happens with him.”
Trump’s words came on the same day that Biden had told some top Democrats that he was definitely running for president. “If I’m walking, I’m running,” said Biden.
Trump’s literature on Biden’s presence in the U.S. presidential race, reflects the U.S. President’s dissatisfaction and anger with the country’s former Vice President and his candidacy. Obviously, Trump preferred figures such as Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren to be his potential rivals in the next general elections.
However, Trump knows well that Biden can challenge his position at the White House by maneuvering again on issues such as public medical health insurance plan. On the other hand, Trump attempts to turn the game into an emotional rivalry through using ugly words against Biden, and this is very much like Trump’s populist personality and approach. However, Biden now has his main focus on Democrats’ inner-party race, and he doesn’t consider direct competition with Trump until he has won his victory in the competition.
First published in our partner Tehran Times
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