N & P: Truculent Times Edition

Friday, September 4, 2020

These are truculent times. People's fuses are running short, a by-product of too much stress and, in some cases, maybe too much screen time as well. Now that I'm teaching full-time online, and all of my meetings are screen-based as well, I'm making more of an effort than usual to give myself large chunks of time offline either outside or on my balcony or couch with a book. 

Last weekend, I had the refreshing experience of reading Phuc Tran's Sigh, Gone. The book arrived in the mail on Friday afternoon and by Sunday night I'd finished it. Sigh, Gone  reminded me a bit of Elif Batuman's work through the connections it makes between overcoming feelings of social isolation, sorting out one's own psychological garbage, and engaging the big ideas found in classical literature. 

Sigh, Gone isn't one of the "great" books that both Tran and Batuman valorize so much, but it is quite powerful. Given the times, especially, it was nice to read something so absorbing and smart.   

Okay, that's enough propaganda for this week. Now let's read some news. 


From the world of sport, I have something of a retraction to make. Last week I awarded, it seems prematurely, the Mehmet Okur award to Enes Kanter, by virtue of the fact that he is the last remaining Turk in the NBA playoffs. Apparently, I forgot about former Piston legend (and current Milwaukee Buck) Ersan İlyasova. Even in my own blog posts I had referred to him on multiple occasions. So, it remains to be seen who will win the award. Sorry to all the Gülenists out there. 

İlyasova during his Piston heyday

Actually, İlyasova has an interesting back story, which appears to include both post-Soviet Central Asia and Turkey, in addition to Motown. 

Speaking of Turkey, there was an interesting editorial in the NYT this week about Ankara's recent tensions with Greece in the Mediterranean. The editorial argued that, absent a positive US role in NATO, increased friction among the alliance's own members is a greater possibility. 
In an earlier era, the United States would have stepped in to separate feuding NATO partners, as it did when Greece and Turkey almost went to war in 1996. President Trump did make a call to Mr. Erdogan urging him to negotiate, but that had no effect — the United States under the Trump administration is not regarded as a viable go-between, especially with Mr. Trump in campaign mode. Britain, too, has retreated from European affairs now that it is out of the European Union. 
This editorial hits upon what I think is a really underrated value of NATO: the manner in which it locks certain countries into an alliance with one another.
While the case of Turkey and Greece can hardly be held up as an example of perfectly harmonious relations, the fact that these two countries--both NATO members since 1952--have not gone to war over the past seven decades should be seen, at least in part, as a victory of sorts for the alliance. 

Whether it is Turkey and Greece, Romania and Hungary, or Germany and France, NATO has an importance to international stability that extends well beyond the alliance's original purpose as a bulwark against Moscow. This is because a number of countries that might be called "traditional rivals" are, all tensions aside, nevertheless bound to work together within it.  


For Turkish president Tayyip Erdoğan, however, getting along with neighbors may not exactly be the number one priority. Instead, his leadership style seems best attuned to starting fights and getting people angry with one another--developments which help him to keep winning, politically. Whether it means jumping into a dispute with Greece, or converting museums back into mosques, these actions feed his base and take people's minds off of other problems, like the pandemic and the economy. 

Remind you of anyone? 

The day after running the editorial on Turkey, the NYT produced another editorial a relating to Russia which focused mostly upon so-called "foreign election meddling." 
The Senate Intelligence Committee, in its final report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, urged the intelligence community to be more forthcoming with information for lawmakers as a way to help tame the deluge of misinformation and propaganda polluting American democracy.
Hmmmm....this is what I think: "Meddling" is a broad term. If Moscow is screwing around with American ballot boxes, that's one thing. If, however, Americans are just too intellectually flaccid to realize that the crap they read on Facebook isn't necessarily real, then maybe that's on us and our education system. "Misinformation and propaganda" should be expected from an adversary, and being vulnerable to this is part of the price of living in an open society. There's no good excuse for Americans' being so poorly informed that they're incapable of making a counter-argument. 
One day it would be interesting to see what, if any, kompromat the Kremlin has on DJT. There could be something, but I don't think this necessarily has to be the explanation behind his policymaking vis-a-vis Putin. George Will has described the president as "a weak person's idea of a strong person."  So, to extrapolate the analogy, I could believe that, for DJT, Putin may well constitute a model of sorts, someone he appears to genuinely look up to. 
Maybe there are some incriminating Polaroids out there, but who knows, really? Blackmailing someone usually depends upon that person having a sense of shame, embarrassment, or fear of consequences, so it's frankly difficult to say in this case. Either way, I don't think it would actually require blackmail for DJT to act the way he does toward Putin and Russia.   
The Russian government denies involvement in the poisoning of Alexei Naval'nyi, about which I wrote a few thoughts last week

“I’d speak carefully about accusing the Russian state. After all, there are no charges and there’s no reason to accuse the Russian state,” Interfax quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying. 
“We certainly wouldn’t want our partners in Germany and other European countries to rush to any judgments, we would prefer to be in dialogue,” Peskov told reporters.  

Well, of course it makes sense to not rush to judgment. And, no matter how much this might look like a Kremlin hit-job, we don't know what happened. Even if it was the case that someone in an official position in Russia was behind this, that doesn't mean that Vladimir Putin himself or anyone in the Kremlin was necessarily involved. 

Then again, if there was ever a time for someone ruling Russia to try do something like this, it would seem like that moment would be now. No matter what you might think of our current president or the Democrats, it seems pretty likely that Putin is never going to find a more...let's say "accommodating"... counterpart in the White House than right now. Whenever DJT leaves--whether it's January 2021 or four years later--it seems hard to imagine that whoever replaces him, Republican or Democrat, would be anywhere close to as friendly to the current Kremlin leadership (assuming it's still around four years from now). 

So, with an election coming up in two months, I could see how it might make sense to take care of certain matters during a time when the White House reaction is likely to be much more muted


I would also keep this in mind, frankly, with respect to Moscow's interactions with its neighbors--especially in the Baltic region. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have been members of NATO since 2004. Maybe I'm just a particularly cold-blooded person, but if I were running the Kremlin I would see this as possibly my last chance to drive a real wedge into NATO. Maybe send some "little green men" across the border to Narva, Estonia, a city that's 90% ethnic Russian? Then bank on the US president preferring to "cut a deal," as opposed to invoking Article 5?  

I don't think something like this would happen in the next two months, but if DJT loses in November and we know that a new administration is coming in at the end of January, well...if you were ever going to take that chance, there would likely be no better time to do it.       
Are you a Turk across empires? Order a copy today, then get another one for your library.

More commentary, photos, and links can be found in the Borderlands Lounge. 

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