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Open letter to Obama

March 11, 2009 Leave a comment

Turkey’s Today’s Zaman carries a letter to the president in Monday’s paper from a group of intellectuals. The letter, in essence, calls for a sea-change in how the U.S. conducts foreign policy:

Improving relations between the United States and Middle Eastern nations is not simply a matter of changing some policies here and there. For too long, US policy toward the Middle East has been fundamentally misguided. The United States, for half a century, has frequently supported repressive regimes that routinely violate human rights, and that torture and imprison those who dare criticize them and prevent their citizens from participation in peaceful civic and political activities. US support for Arab autocrats was supposed to serve US national interests and regional stability. In reality, it produced a region increasingly tormented by rampant corruption, extremism and instability.

This has, in fact, been a critique of U.S. policy across the globe for most of the second half of the twentieth century. The letter goes on to explore the consequences of supporting those Arab autocrats, and calls for Obama to help force them from power by cutting off their lifelines. One of the central points the signers raise is the importance of working with democratically-minded reformers, regardless of their other convictions. It’s a call that rings especially true in Turkey, where a moderately Islamist party has driven a push toward rule of law, reforms, and EU membership:

In many countries, including Turkey, Indonesia and Morocco, the right to participate in reasonably credible and open elections has moderated Islamist parties and enhanced their commitment to democratic norms. We may not agree with what they have to say, but if we wish to both preach and practice democracy, it is simply impossible to exclude the largest opposition groups in the region from the democratic process.

There has not been such a moderation in the case of, say, Hamas–something the writers unfortunately do not address, although one that’s perhaps too complicated for the medium.
The list of signers is interesting. It includes intellectuals from Egypt and Turkey; Seth Green of Americans for Informed Democracy; Rabbi Michael Lerner of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. Liberal Professor Richard Bulliet of Columbia also appears, but is interestingly near to Professor Francis Fukuyama, whose gradual slide leftwards is perhaps continuing. Maybe history isn’t over after all, huh?

–David Graham, Trinity ’09 and Editor

Obama going to Turkey; speech site still unclear

March 11, 2009 Leave a comment

Turkey will be a stop on President Obama’s forthcoming European tour, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in Ankara on Sunday. The Washington Post’s Scott Wilson has the story here.

Obama’s stop in Turkey… partly fulfills Obama’s pledge to engage the Muslim world in a substantive way within his first 100 days in office.

But Turkey will not the site of the major speech he promised in a Muslim country. Speculation has swirled on where that speech might be held since he made the promise, prior to the election. Some have guessed Indonesia, on the basis of his background there; others have suggested that he might like to make it closer to the Middle East. In any case, aides will apparently take longer to sharpen the speech for the time being:

As past administrations have found, Turkey is a useful partner because of its placement and politics:

As a non-Arab Muslim nation, Turkey is well-placed to serve as a key administration ally on those issues. Governed by a moderate Islamist party, Turkey has managed to accommodate religious and secular values in its democratic system, something other governments in the Arab Middle East have been unable to achieve with the same success.

The other interesting angle here, and one that the Post buries, is the symbolic importance of the American president visiting Turkey as part of a European tour. The nation’s EU bid remains stuck in limbo, stalled by EU requirements and staunch French opposition to Turkey joining the union. By making this visit now and not as part of a Middle Eastern or Central Asian tour, Obama is surely sending a message, consciously or not.

–David Graham, Trinity ’09 and Editor

Is it possible to exit Guantanamo gracefully?

February 12, 2009 Leave a comment

Following President Obama’s announced plans to shut down Guantanamo within a year, the ability, or lack thereof, of Saudi Arabia and Yemen to successfully reform terrorists (two former detainees at Guantanamo have appeared in a recent video released by Al Qaeda) has been seriously questioned. While this issue has received a good deal of press coverage, the plight of the many prisoners who have already been declared innocent also stands to present a substantial challenge to the new administration.

Joshua Kurlantzick, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace addressed this issue in a lengthy article in Abu Dhabi’s The National, focusing on the specific case of 22 Uighar detainees. Uighars make up a substantial Muslim Turkic population in western China, where they regularly suffer abuse at the hands of the Chinese government out of fear of a possible separatist movement. The Uighars, however, are among some of the most pro-American Muslims in the world. These 22 prisoners were picked up in Afghanistan and shipped to Guantanamo, where, despite having been proven innocent by the Pentagon in 2005, they remain locked up:

They remained there because, in those intervening years, Washington realised the real problem with the Uighurs, one that will confront Barack Obama as he tries to figure out how to close Guantanamo Bay: What do you do with men you’ve branded as terrorists, once you realised they’re not?

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