The Region: From Paris and Ankara to Foggy Bottom

In France itself and Turkey today there may be more modest revolutions in the offing, brought about at the ballot box.

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
'Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven!" thus wrote the English poet William Wordsworth of the French Revolution. In France itself and Turkey today there may be more modest revolutions in the offing, brought about at the ballot box. Back in 1789, Wordsworth continued, "Oh! times, In which the meager, stale, forbidding ways/Of custom, law, and statute, took at once/ The attraction of a country in romance!" Romanticism, however, is not on the side of these potential changes. On the contrary, they are revolts of pragmatism against revolutionary romanticism. Though Wordsworth had that point covered, too, describing a moment, "When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights." In broad structural terms, though of course I don't mean socially or culturally, France's system somewhat resembles Arab dictatorial regimes. An essentially conservative government uses nationalist and demagogic rhetoric along with focused privileges to maintain power. "Progressive" foreign policy rhetoric and state-supported antagonism toward foreign scapegoats (coincidentally, also largely the United States and Israel) covers the regime's reactionary nature and the nation's stagnation. The elite and media damp down criticism and extol the status quo. To put it a different way, France retains many aspects of a monarchy. On foreign policy, especially, decisions lie in the hands of the president and permanent bureaucracy, with little input from parliament and scant criticism in the media. THE MAIN factor about Nicolas Sarkozy's election is that it shows French voters recognize the situation's seriousness and the need for real change. The two key questions now are how hard Sarkozy will try to change things and how much he might succeed. He faces big problems. For example, he must work through the entrenched and highly privileged bureaucracy which is going to resist his efforts and probably sabotage them. In addition, Sarkozy has to challenge a welfare state which does provide benefits for much of the population and thus people don't want to give them up. What he most needs to do is shake people out of the complacency that things are basically just fine in France and what is needed is more of the same. In many ways, foreign policy is easiest to alter. By largely words alone, Sarkozy could take a stance in the Middle East fairer to Israel and a global strategy less hostile to the United States. Even if he greatly disappoints the higher expectations, it is hard to see how his administration will not be a relatively big improvement. THE SITUATION in Turkey is very different, of course, but also hopeful. After several years of self-destructive bickering, the opposition finally seems to have figured out that it must unite or face long-term exclusion from power as Turkey becomes increasingly Islamic-oriented rather than secular. Finally, the nomination of a ruling party politician as president sparked a political revolt. Now everything comes down to the July 22 parliamentary elections. It is important to remember that Turkey's 10 percent minimum threshold for getting any seats has skewed results. The ruling AKP party has won big time while getting only about one-third of the votes. By splitting the rest, more than a half-dozen other parties ensured that almost all of them would get nothing. There has been a major debate, inside and outside Turkey over whether the AKP wants to set up an Islamist state. A reasonable analysis is that there were different views within the party and the weaker the opposition the further it would go down that road. (Incidentally, both the United States and the Europeans have been very tolerant - many Turks in opposition think too tolerant - of the AKP.) Nevertheless, the European Union has frozen the consideration of Turkey's membership for other reasons, largely related to Cyprus. Sarkozy opposes Turkey's entry into the organization and it is starting to look as if this will never happen. At any rate, Turkey itself may be about to reverse course. PERHAPS, IN Wordsworth's words, Reason is going "to assert her rights." Still, in the region itself, chances don't seem high of that happening. Every day, the growing ambition of Iran; the boldness of radical Islamists, terrorists, and Syria; and the obvious inability and disinterest of the Palestinian leadership in any type of peace with Israel become increasingly more apparent. Many in the West seem to understand this more but there is still an enormous gap between situation and perception. Here's an example from the May 16 US State Department briefing, regarding the Gaza Strip: QUESTION: Do you think that President [Mahmoud] Abbas does enough to calm the situation down? MR. CASEY: We believe that President Abbas is committed to the path of peace and committed to reforms in the Palestinian Authority that are necessary to move that process forward... QUESTION: Do you think he's doing enough to stop the missile attacks from Gaza into Israel? MR. CASEY: It's awfully hard for Palestinian security forces to do anything about that if they're engaged in ongoing hostilities or battles within the Palestinian community. IN OTHER words, let's pretend Abbas wants and might bring about peace and reforms. So if only Hamas and Fatah would enforce their partnership agreement, no doubt, Fatah would crack down on terrorism. Actually, Palestinian politics always resemble the French revolution's worst days of terror and guillotining. Wordsworth had the decency to feel terrible about having once been cheerleader of such a bloody movement. He later wrote: "Long after the last beat/Of those atrocities.../Such ghastly Visions had I of despair,/And tyranny, and implements of death." The writer's latest book is The Truth About Syria. He is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center at IDC Herzliya.