Daily Briefing

Why Erdogan and Putin turned against the West

Turkey Elections
Recep for sultan. Source: AP

Good news from the Middle East. Now there’s a lede you weren’t expecting. Is this about Syria? Iran? Yemen? None of the above. I’m talking about Saudi Arabia.

As of yesterday, Saudi women are allowed to drive cars. Why they weren’t before is not immediately clear to Western observers, though self-evident to the kingdom’s conservatives: Female brains are too small, you see; and anyway, women behind the wheel might have to interact with other participants in traffic. The shame would be unspeakable.

But Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud, the crown prince and de facto ruler, is on a course of modernization. MBS, as he is known, knows this is just a first baby step. After all, what does it help women to be able to drive, if they still need permission from a male “guardian” (such as dad or hubby) to travel, or to do almost anything?

Incidentally, I once overheard a conversation between women about the hair-raising situations that can occur when male cops pull over female drivers. And that was in allegedly progressive California! To the ladies in Saudi Arabia: Drive slowly, don’t get pulled over.

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Elsewhere in the Middle East, in the successor state to the former Ottoman superpower, the news is worse. Yesterday’s elections in Turkey may or may not have been clean, but the results are clear enough: Recep Tayyip Erdogan won.

That is big and ominous news for NATO (in which Turkey is a member), for the EU, and for the whole world, thanks to Turkey’s strategic location and role. But it’s also hugely personal for many people in Germany, because some four million Turks live here. (Here is how that came about.) So the split in Turkish society also runs through families, and even entire towns in Germany.

Erdogan’s personal journey, incidentally, mirrors that of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, in at least one sense. Years ago, both were keeping an open mind about pursuing a Western path for their countries. Then they felt dissed by the West and turned sulky, authoritarian, anti-Western and downright dangerous.

Like Hungary’s Viktor Orban or the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Erdogan and Putin are also reminders of how democracies die: slowly and, in the initial phases, often with the explicit consent of the demos (i.e., the electorate). Thus it happened in the original home of democracy, Athens, after it lost to Sparta. And so it happened in the early 1930s.

Sixteen of the 28 member states of the EU met yesterday in Brussels, in preparation for this week’s full EU summit (dubbed the “save Merkel” summit). Merkel, remember, is under pressure to engineer a “European” solution to the refugee crisis by the weekend, or face her interior minister rebelling against her. Early indications after last night’s statements are that Europe will fail to find a solution, in turn causing Merkel to fail.

Italy, the crucial country for Merkel right now, wants to rip up the existing EU regime on refugees (called “Dublin,” after the city where it was agreed years ago). Fine, but what should replace Dublin? Nobody has any idea, except that it should involve tighter external borders, especially in the Mediterranean, and some sort of “welcome centers” in Africa, to keep people from crossing in the first place.

But remember: Those centers cannot look like Guantanamo, and certainly not like Dachau, and not even like the gruesome island camps that Australia runs. Pictorial evidence of Europe’s inhumanity would be too much to bear for the EU’s sensitive souls.

What is needed is somebody who is able to think strategically and out of the box. Somebody like Gerald Knaus, the founder of a think tank called the European Stability Initiative. It was Knaus who thought up the deal signed in 2016 between the EU and Turkey. It is far from perfect but still in force, despite numerous predictions of imminent collapse. Gerald, where are you now?

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It is no secret that Germany is a laggard in the digital revolution everybody is talking about. Part of the reason is the German mentality, as expressed even in the way Germans talk about the revolution, and in the ways German companies wilfully nip any spontaneous innovation in the bud.

But at least the Germans now have an “initiative.” A new association has formed to get some organic intelligence into the quest for Artificial Intelligence (AI). This association has already produced a nine-point plan. It contains all the usual buzzwords, including “engagement” and “innovation.” What could possibly go wrong now?

But that’s not what they’re talking about at the proverbial water cooler in my German office building. (Germans don’t have water coolers, by the way; they have well-organized kitchenettes.) The only subject here is of course the shot. You know, that shot. Against Sweden on Saturday, by the new national hero, Toni Kroos. Tomorrow, my colleague John Blau will analyze what Kroos could teach Chancellor Merkel about her tenuous situation right now. So check in on our home page then. For now, enjoy knowing that Germans have a new word for “great.” It is no longer großartig, but Kroosartig.

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