Streetwise Professor

October 20, 2019

Howdy Doody Dilanian Reports All the “News” the Intelligence Community Wants You to Believe

Filed under: Military,Politics,Turkey — cpirrong @ 4:11 pm

The conventional wisdom in the US is that Turkey’s president Erdogan totally pwned Trump over Syria. The most extreme example of this is a Tweet by NBC’s Ken Dalanian, aka the Howdy Doody to the CIA’s Buffalo Bob Smith:

You wouldn’t know it from the US media, especially from reporters like Dilanian who are nothing but conduits for what the anti-Trump elements in the intelligence community (i.e., pretty much the entire intelligence community) wants you to hear, but the view from Turkey is somewhat different.

A Turkish friend tells me that the boastful Erdogan’s mien changed notably after Vice President Pence’s visit last weak. Whereas Erdo was at his chest thumping best (or worst) prior to that, he has been restrained and sheepish since. Moreover, there are many in Turkey who claim that Erodgan is (in the words of my friend) “Trump’s dog” and that Trump is the actual president of Turkey.

Now, there may be some sample selection bias here. My friend’s father was a leader of the May 27, 1960 coup against the proto-Erodgan (Menderes) and was on the tribunal that sentenced Menderes to hang. My friend is an ardent Kemalist and has a social network that is rooted in Rumelian Turkey and in the CHP. So what he sees (on Facebook, for instance) or hears (from friends and colleagues) is not necessarily representative of Turkish opinion.

It is interesting to note, however, that things look very different to many Turks than they do to American journalists. So don’t take the vaporings of the likes of Ken Dilanian at face value, and keep in mind that he (and most of the rest of the media claiming to report on views of those in the defense and intelligence communities) is essentially the ventriloquist’s dummy–and the ventriloquists are carrying out guerilla warfare against Trump.

Another Howdy Doody report illustrates how intense this war is:

A review launched by Attorney General William Barr into the origins of the Russia investigation has expanded significantly amid concerns about whether the probe has any legal or factual basis, multiple current and former officials told NBC News.

. . . .

Durham has also requested to talk to CIA analysts involved in the intelligence assessment of Russia’s activities, prompting some of them to hire lawyers, according to three former CIA officials familiar with the matter. And there is tension between the CIA and the Justice Department over what classified documents Durham can examine, two people familiar with the matter said.

In other words, Barr and Durham have many in the intelligence community shitting themselves.

Well it’s about ‘effing time.

“Concerns about whether the probe has any legal or factual basis.” LOL. Just who is concerned, Howdy? Your IC buddies? Good!

How many times during the Mueller probe did we hear “if Trump has nothing to hide, why should he fear an investigation?”

What’s the expression? Oh yeah. Turnabout is fair play. And payback is a bitch.

As if Barr or Durham (amazing isn’t it how their like are characterized as “career federal prosecutors” when investigating Trump or other Republicans, but not when they are investigating Democrats or deep staters?) would engage in baseless probes.

So things are heating up. And this means that the stream of leaks to the likes of Ken Howdy Doody Dilanian will build into a torrent in the coming weeks. Ignore their content, and take them as a positive signal that some people are afraid, very afraid.

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June 23, 2019

You Should Have Been Careful What You Asked For, Recep. You Got It.

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Turkey — cpirrong @ 6:07 pm

I ask for very few things in life, because I am a firm believer in unintended consequences, as summarized by the adage: “Be careful what you ask for–you might get it.”

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should have heeded this adage when he asked for–and got–a rerun of the Istanbul mayoral election. I guarantee he hadn’t bargained for the way his wish was granted–a humiliating loss to CHP (pronounced “jay hey pay”) candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu.

İmamoğlu had won by a mere 14,000 votes in the 31 March election that Erdoğan claimed was tainted by fraud (in a first where the opposition allegedly won by fraud, rather than the party in control): he won by over 700,000 votes today. Meaning that by insisting on a mulligan, Erdoğan succeeded in increasing his opponent’s margin of victory by a factor of a mere 50. That takes talent!

There is rejoicing in the streets of İstanbul, and elsewhere in Turkey, especially in places like İzmir. But there is no joy in Mudville, er, the massive (as in 3.2 million square feet) presidential palace in Ankara, which is symbolic of Erdoğan’s sultanic pretensions. So far, over 8 hours after the polls closed, he has been silent. Only his hapless and comically uncharismatic candidate in İstanbul, former prime minister Binali Yildirim, has made a monotone concession speech.

Erdoğan has straddled Turkish politics like a colossus for almost 20 years. This is his first major defeat, which raises questions about his future.

In the near term, İmamoğlu’s control of government in İstanbul will allow him to uncover and publicize the massive corruption of AKP/Erdoğan rule there. Further, money the the lifeblood of politics, and the CHP victory will allow it to sharply reduce the flow of this lifeblood to AKP’s pockets.

Over the longer run, there is now a credible personality to oppose Erdoğan. The national CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (who was almost lynched by an AKP mob near Ankara recently) is not a threat, for many reasons. He is deemed an elitist, and worse, he is Alevi, a religious group that is scorned by most Turks.

İmamoğlu’s biography has eerie parallels to Erdoğan’s. Both are from the Black Sea region who moved into national politics in İstanbul. Erdoğan gained considerable sympathy as a result of his jailing 20 years ago: denying İmamoğlu victory in March gained him considerable sympathy too. Both figures have a common touch. Unlike many in the CHP, İmamoğlu is not viewed as a hard-core secularist, or anti-Islam. Indeed, his name denotes a Muslim heritage. (An ardent secular Turk I know says he is glad that is not HIS name.)

Meaning that Erdoğan like faces the biggest political threat in his life, and it comes at a time when Turkey’s economy is teetering, and its international position is fraught.

Top at the very long list of Erdoğan’s foreign policy headaches is his testy (to say the least) relationship with the US. Matters are coming to a head here, with Erdoğan swearing that Turkey will cross a US red line, and buy S-400 SAMs from Russia.

I have been wondering for some weeks whether Erdoğan’s chest thumping on this issue has been driven by his need to look tough before a largely anti-US Turkish electorate in the runup to the rerun of the İstanbul election, and that he would back down once the results are in. He has backed down before after claiming he would never concede to Trump (on the issues of the American missionary and the NSA employee imprisoned in Turkey). It’s hard to know how the crushing defeat will affect his calculations. Will he realize that in his weakened domestic situation he can’t afford to confront the US? Or will he figure that he can’t afford to look weak now?

I don’t know, but I do know that as consummate a domestic politician as Erdoğan has been, internationally he has been a disaster for Turkey. Turkey has alienated the US and Europe, has bungled in Syria, and is at odds with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Turkey literally has no friends or allies now, except for Qatar, which is itself isolated in the Arab world. Given this record, I think it is highly likely that Erdoğan will make the wrong choice.

We should see within days. He is to meet Trump at the G-20 this week. Perhaps Trump will offer him a face-saving way out of the dilemma he has put himself in. Whether Erdoğan is wise enough to take it is another matter.

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April 28, 2019

Erdogan: Cruisin’ For a Bruisin’

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Turkey — cpirrong @ 7:18 pm

I don’t believe it is an exaggeration to say that Turkey is ruled by a lunatic–Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His increasingly autocratic rule is putting Turkey at serious risk of an economic and geopolitical crisis.

Erdogan dreams of Turkey becoming the dominant power in the Middle East, a modern day version of the Ottoman Empire, including an explicit Islamic orientation–a decisive break with the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who eschewed imperial ambitions, and who was avowedly secularist, and indeed, harshly anti-Islam. (Which is one reason Erdogan despises him.)

These ambitions have led Erdogan into some foreign policy disasters, most notably in Syria. At the outset of the Syrian civil war, Erdogan was supporting the rebels and foursquare behind attempts to overthrow Assad. In this he failed utterly. But in the attempt, he (through his intelligence services) provided support to the most radical Islamist elements in Syria–including ISIS.

The Syrian debacle contributed to a serious breach with Europe which has all but eliminated the prospects for Turkish accession to the EU. In particular, his cynical unleashing of waves of Syrian refugees into Europe, and his threats of sending even more, thereby blackmailing the EU into providing Turkey financial aid, have left Turkey friendless in Europe.

Even worse, from a geopolitical perspective, has been his picking fight after fight with the US. The list is long. The extended standoff over an American minister he had imprisoned. His rapprochement with Iran in Syria (which in effect was a concession of his failure to achieve his objectives there), and generally cooperative relationships with Iran, including most notably helping the Islamic Republic circumvent US sanctions by exchanging Turkish gold for Iranian gas. His strident opposition to Israel. His cooperation with another American pariah–Venezuela–which Turkey is helping evade sanctions by agreeing to refine Venezuelan gold. His burning desire to destroy America’s Kurdish allies who have been the only effective local force in the battles against ISIS, said desire driven by Erdogan’s burning hatred of the Kurds in Turkey. This desire to attack Kurds in Syria has led to standoffs (with the serious risk of escalation) with US troops working with them. And last, but by no means least, an agreement to purchase S-400 surface-to-air missile systems from Russia despite the information this could provide the Russians about US F-35 aircraft–which Turkey wants to purchase.

Some of these things–canoodling with Iran, opposing Israel–were not a problem with the Obama administration. They are a big deal with Trump.

The real lunacy is that Erdogan is risking a confrontation with the US at a time when his economy is teetering–in large part due to his mismanagement. The lira dropped significantly last summer, and although it has recovered (a) it is still substantially below the level of 2017, (b) has been dropping steadily since topping out in December, and (c) is poised for another drop due to Erdogan’s inveterate hostility to higher interest rates–well, to interest rates period, which he calls “the mother and father of all evil.” The Turkish Central Bank has been playing games to conceal how weak its reserve position is. These include borrowing dollars from Turkish banks via swaps, putting the dollars as on-balance sheet assets, but treating the swaps as off-balance sheet.

The Turkish economy is in recession, has heavy external indebtedness (which makes its low reserve position all the more dangerous), and has an economic management team that is universally considered to be greatly out of its depth. Erdogan did not help matters when he declared:

The main issue is interest rates. As interest rates are brought down, inflation will fall. The real problem is interest rates. I’m also an economist.

Not only is he not an economist (as his getting the Fisher effect exactly backwards shows), I don’t even think he’s ever even stayed at a Holiday Inn Express. Combining his economic stupidity with his autocratic behavior is a recipe for disaster.

Given this fraught economic situation, Erdogan courts disaster by continuing to pull Uncle Sam’s beard. He is very likely to need the US’s help to stave off economic crisis, and on the flip side, if sufficiently provoked the US could smash the Turkish economy with a mere flick of its fingers.

Erdogan also has domestic political problems. After prevailing in a surprise national election last summer that cemented his changes to the constitution creating a presidential system, his AKP party suffered some stunning losses in local elections last month, most notably a (narrow) loss in Istanbul. Erdogan is attempting to get a do over in the Istanbul election, claiming systemic voting abuses–in a city his party controlled at the time of the election. It is something akin to the Chicago Democratic machine blaming a loss on nefarious Republican voter fraud.

There are many reasons for Erdogan’s near panic over Istanbul. It will give his CHP opponents a highly visible platform and power base, in a city that is widely viewed as the launching pad for Turkish national leaders. (Erdogan was mayor there before becoming prime minister, then president.) Perhaps even more importantly to Erdogan, CHP control of Istanbul threatens to undermine his vast patronage system there (which will undercut his power), and also threatens to expose equally vast corruption (of which Erdogan has already been very credibly accused in the past).

Erdogan is not the type of man who will trim his sails in the face of such fierce headwinds. He will more likely redouble his confrontational efforts, both internationally and domestically, despite his extremely weak economic situation. This is not wise, and will not end well. A bad end to Erdogan is hardly something that should be rued, but his bad end will also mean serious and extended misery for the Turkish people, and a serious potential for even more instability in the Middle East.

This last prospect may be the only thing that saves Erdogan. The potential for turmoil may be the only reason why the Trump administration does not give Erdogan the brusin’ he has been cruisin’ for, not just recently, but since 2003.

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October 27, 2018

When You Strike at a King, You Must Kill Him

Filed under: Military,Politics,Turkey — cpirrong @ 6:44 pm
Ralph Waldo Emerson penned those lines in a letter to Oliver Wendell Holmes more than 150 years ago: in the last 27 months, a latter day sultan, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has put them into practice.  In the aftermath of the July, 2016 coup that failed to topple him, Erdogan has ruthlessly cracked down on anyone he or his minions even suspected were involved in, or even supported, the coup.  The military and civil service have been purged, and Turkey lives in fear.  Anyone with the even remote ties to the Gulenists whom Erdogan believes were behind the coup is at risk of losing his/her job, and even his/her liberty.  People struck at Erdogan, failed to kill him, and he is taking his revenge.

Today, Erdogan is taking advantage of the Khashoggi killing to strike at a monarch–in this case, an actual monarch, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (and by extension, his father, King Salman).  One wonders if Erdogan is paying proper heed to Emerson’s warning, or whether he is merely an arrogant chancer who is failing to recognize that MBS will respond as ruthlessly to an existential threat as Erdogan did to his own.

Erdogan imagines himself the leader of world Islam, and views this as his chance to strike at his main rival for that distinction.  Indeed, MBS (or his creatures) committed a blunder by killing Khashoggi, and on Turkish soil no less.  But despite this blunder, Erdogan’s success is far from certain.

Turkey is only months past a near collapse of its currency, and its economy: only a climb down in the Brunson conflict with the US bought Erdogan some breathing room. (At the cost of considerable ridicule within Turkey, I might add, given Erdogan’s boasts that he would NEVER let the American pastor go.)  But the fundamentals that led to the crisis over the summer–not merely huge debts, unfavorable foreign balances, and most notably, Erdogan’s impetuosity, arrogance, and economic idiocy–remain.  Turkey is still divided.  Although Erdogan won an election that effectively granted him an imperial presidency, it was by a narrow margin.  Turkey’s position in Syria is problematic.  And crucially, its relationship with the US is still fraught.

If Erdogan truly tries to go so far as to threaten MBS’s and King Salman’s preeminent position in Saudi Arabia, MBS will have no compunction about responding in kind.  And they have weapons at their disposal.  No not military–there is no common frontier, and regardless, the Saudis have proven themselves to be militarily inept (something KSA shares with most Arab militaries).  But economic?–Definitely.  It is well within Saudi capability to launch a speculative attack on the lira.  And the KSA has other financial weapons it can wield.

Indeed, the Khashoggi affair shows how ruthless the Saudis can be when confronted by even a rather trivial challenge.  Think of how they will respond if they really feel threatened.   Turkey’s currency and economy are an Achilles Heel that they could readily strike.

Further, the United States could squash Turkey financially like an overripe grape.  Even modest US measures, like tariffs on Turkish metal imports into the US, greatly exacerbated the swoon in the TRY–think of what would happen if Trump really put his mind to it.  This is not something that the US would want to do, given that Turkey is a Nato member, and has some strategic value to the US.  But KSA has strategic value too, arguably greater than Turkey’s, and if Erdogan overplays his hand with Saudi Arabia, and/or continues to be a pain on issues like the US support for Syrian Kurdish forces, Trump could bring a world of hurt onto Turkey and Erdogan.

So Erdogan must tread very carefully indeed, and keep Emerson’s injunction in mind.  And what are his odds of knocking off MBS, or even damaging him all that severely?  Not great, given the nature of the Saudi regime, MBS’s obvious willingness to use all measures necessary against internal opponents (who can disappear with far less attention than Khashoggi did in Istanbul), and its economic and geopolitical leverage.

But one should never underestimate Erdogan’s arrogance.  Given this arrogance, it is quite possible that he will ignore Emerson, overplay his hand, and be the ultimate loser in this Game of Thrones.

 

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August 12, 2018

As the old adage says, Erdo: Be careful what you ask for.  You might get it.  

Filed under: Economics,Turkey — cpirrong @ 6:40 pm
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is clearly insane, by the doing/saying-the-same-thing-repeatedly-and-expecting-different-results standard.

Apparently not content with the mere 22 percent drop in the TRY on Thursday and Friday which was attributable completely to his overheated, boneheaded economic rhetoric and his egging on a confrontation with the US, today he gave not one, not two, but three speeches that put his economic idiocy and bullheadedness on display.  And the markets reacted immediately, with the lira breaching 7 to the USD in early Asian trading.

Among the howlers:

Speaking in the northeastern city of Trabzon on Sunday, Erdogan warned business executives to not “rush to banks to withdraw foreign currency.”

He added that businesses should “know that keeping this nation alive and standing isn’t just our job, but also the job of industrialists, of merchants.”

“We are working day and night for alternative markets.”

Just what alternative markets is he talking about? Presumably steel and aluminum, which Trump imposed higher tariffs on on Friday.  But those aren’t the markets that matter now: it’s the currency and capital markets that matter, and every word out of Erdoğan’s mouth freaks out those markets even more.  Not least because talking about metals indicates a complete failure to grasp the true nature of the situation.

Importuning “industrialists and merchants” to take one for the team is futile.  They have already conceded, after taking brutal losses for heeding his earlier call.  The fact that Erdoğan seems oblivious to the fact that his previous nostrums have been disasters only convinces further those at home with money and those in the financial markets that he is utterly clueless–as do his continued imprecations against evil interest rates.

His chucklehead finance minister (whose main attributes appear to be that a) he is Erdoğan’s son-in-law, and b) he is less of a chucklehead than Erdoğan’s son) gave a don’t worry-be happy-everything will work out great talk to a group of assembled business leaders.  A Turkish friend said that Berat (not Borat!) Albayrak’s clownish performance was met by long faces from the assembled bankers and industrialists.

Erdoğan’s other stock response is that Turkey’s economic fundamentals are sound, but the country is being subjected to an economic attack from the US, and that he will fight back.  Arguendo, assume it is true that the US has targeted Turkey.  What is the best response, especially when someone like Trump is doing the targeting? Defiance is foolhardy, though perhaps emotionally gratifying in the short run, both to Erdoğan and his fervent followers.  A prudent leader would execute a tactical withdrawal in the face of overwhelming odds, and live again to fight another day.  You don’t fight battles you can’t win.  And again, Erdoğan’s apparent willingness to do so just stokes the panic.

Erdoğan says that he will find other allies.  Like who, exactly?  Speculation is that Russia, Qatar, and/or China might contribute financial support.

The first name makes me laugh.  Russia has its own issues right now, to put it mildly.  Its access to capital markets is extremely limited, and its currency is also under pressure.  Qatar is still battling an economic embargo with its Arab neighbors.  China’s own financial situation is somewhat tenuous now, and although it has shown a willingness to throw money down ratholes (cf. Venezuela) it is doubtful that it will stump up the tens of billions of dollars necessary to rescue Turkey from the brink, especially in the very limited time–maybe even hours–available.

And all of these candidates will no doubt think twice, and then think again, based on uncertainty of how Trump would react to their riding to the rescue of his current target.

Nope.  Erdo is on his own here.  And that’s the irony of all this.  Erdoğan asked for supreme power in Turkey.  He got it.  Now he owns all of it: the bad as well as the good.  As the old adage says, Erdo: Be careful what you ask for.  You might get it.

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