Saturday, July 16, 2016

France, Turkey, and the world

France and Turkey are perpetually in the news.

France, mainly because of terrorism, which is a specter that has haunted the country since even before my first-ever visit there, way back in 1986 when I was a high-school student. One of the most powerful images from my youth is that of French soldiers with machine guns patrolling the airport. I also recall Paris train stations whose garbage cans had been bolted closed to prevent jihadis from leaving bombs inside them, and regular French-language announcements at those same stations declaring that, if you leave your bag unattended, it will be confiscated and blown up ("on va le faire sauter").

Turkey, mainly because there's this perennially unresolved question about whether the country should become an EU member. I used to be pro; these days, I'm anti because I see Turkey as one of many bridges across which terrorism can enter Europe: why make that bridge even more easily crossable? Although Turkey has tried—somewhat—to be a secular state, it has always had jihadist factions banging at its door, and its government has always had an authoritarian streak whose psychology, while generally anti-al Qaeda in its stance, is the psychological cousin of the mentality of the jihadists.

On Bastille Day, which is basically "French Independence Day," France experienced yet another terrorist attack as 31-year-old Tunisian-born Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel commandeered a massive truck and drove it murderously along Nice's famous Promenade des Anglais, the street that abuts the Mediterranean, mowing down crowds of pedestrians, including women and children, resulting in a death toll that, at present, is close to 90 and may rise. Bouhlel was taken down by French police during a gun battle; the marksman who killed him is reportedly a markswoman, although this has yet to be confirmed. The terrorist's truck was loaded with heavy weaponry and explosives; the French president, François Hollande, has declared that France's state of emergency, due to end about now, will be extended another three months. Areas around Nice are on high alert, especially since there is an ongoing hunt for Bouhlel's probable accomplice(s). The usual hashtag-scented furor has erupted online; the usual debates about whether the terrorist represents "true" Islam have erupted as well.

When I woke up this morning—it's Saturday the 16th as I write this—Turkey is in chaos. Its military has staged a coup against President Recep Erdogan, who is perceived as a not-so-crypto theocrat trying to impose an Islamist agenda onto the country.** The military, which has a history of coup attempts, has decided that Erdogan must go, which has put the army in conflict with loyalist elements in Erdogan's government as well as the police, who are all Erdogan's men. It's a "Game of Thrones" scenario come to life; reports from news agencies and Twitter currently form a conflicting picture as to how successful the coup attempt has been. By some accounts, Erdogan is applying for asylum in Germany and/or flying out to London; according to other sources, the military's coup attempt has failed, and angry citizens (again, Erdoganistas) are attacking soldiers on the street. From what I gather, the soldiers have thus far shown remarkable restraint in not mowing down the citizens who are attacking them, but to be honest, I expect to be eating my words within the next 24 hours: I expect to hear news of civilians being shot. (Update: at least 60 people are dead, and 300-400 have been arrested.***)

So we live in very interesting times. The possibility of widespread race riots, or even an all-out race war, continues to increase inside the United States, a country that is blundering headlong into a presidential election touting two extremely unlikable candidates. Vladimir Putin seems finally to have fully assumed his KGB mantle* and is pulling the strings behind many, many world events. China continues its imperialist drumbeat in the South China Sea, even while it clandestinely violates UN sanctions regarding support for North Korea. These are interesting times, indeed, and I'm selfishly glad to be hunkered down here in Korea, where the situation is always tense, thanks to the North, but also always stable.

*I say this because, when he first became president, Putin immediately failed a leadership test during the tragic Kursk incident in 2000, which involved the sinking of a Russian submarine. During that incident, Putin did precious little, prompting the anger of the Russian people. I'd had high hopes that Putin would use his KGB skills to ruthlessly clean out the Russian government, purging it of the mafia elements that had infiltrated it like a cancer during the Soviet era. Putin has, over the years, returned to his spymaster roots, which is why I'm not surprised whenever I hear stories of dissident journalists who mysteriously die or disappear in Russia these days. It's also why I no longer dismiss as conspiracy theories those stories about Putin's far-ranging influence in places like Africa, Eastern Europe, and even East Asia. Like the judoka he is, Putin has managed all this with relatively little bombast and flamboyancy (unless you count all those photos of him engaged in topless fishing, or flying a bomber, or forcing a submission on the judo mat); he has learned and grown as a leader since the early days, although not in the direction I would have liked.

**Erdogan is, nevertheless, a generally popular leader.

***A handy-dandy guide for the perplexed regarding Turkey can be found here. It's also important to note, as some news articles do, that Turkey's military is not monolithic: it's been generally the younger elements of the military who have organized and staged this coup, while the older officers have expressed anti-coup sentiments.

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