Thursday, October 18, 2007

Turkey, Congress and the Armenian Genocide

I have been watching the ongoing nervous dance between Ankara, the White House and Capitol Hill over the question of the Armenian Genocide with some interest. On many levels, the whole thing smacks of political theater; however, especially on the international stage, political theater can have serious consequences for both the actors and audience. To bring readers up to speed, the House of Representatives, lobbied enthusiastically by the Armenian-American community, has been toying with the notion of passing a resolution recognizing the massacres and ethnic cleansing that took place against Armenians in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire as a genocide. The Turkish government, understandably sensitive about the issue, and viewing the resolution as an official slap in the face from a close ally, has voiced considerable protest, warning that the bill's passage could jeopardize the logistical support that Turkey gives U.S. forces in Iraq. Faced with such an environment, the bill's once overwhelming support has waned (though not vanished) and it remains unknown whether the measure will ultimately pass.

This is one debate in which I am genuinely sympathetic to both sides, and have a difficult time forming a concrete opinion. On the one hand, the Armenians were unquestionably victims of a genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks. No remotely serious person who is acquainted with history, and whose view is not filtered through particularly strident Turkish nationalism, can or should deny that for so much as half a second. The Turkish government maintains that the killings that took place were simply the inevitable byproduct of quelling "civil unrest" in a time of war. That a modern democratic government would make such claims is disgusting. As many as 1.5 million Armenians were systematically driven from their homes, gathered into camps and massacred. If the term "genocide" does not apply to such events, then the word has no meaning. The Turkish people owe it to themselves to examine their past with a less skewed lens, and in so doing scrub some soot from their national consciousness. Furthermore, for the United States Congress to bow to the pressure of those who would paper over the crimes of history for the sake of political convenience imparts upon it a moral stain.

Still, principle's sweet nectar must at times be drunk diluted by reality's brine. Whatever the sins of Turkey's past, the fact is that Turkey, though too often overlooked, is strategically indispensable to U.S. and Western interests. It is one of our oldest Muslim allies, the only Muslim country in the Middle East that could presently be called a democracy, a member of NATO, a friend to Israel, and a critical supply route for U.S. forces in Iraq. It is also going through a political realignment that makes its future international posture somewhat plastic. The is precisely the last time that Turkey needs a rhetorical slap in the face by the U.S. Congress.

Events in recent days only leave more cause for worry. The Turkish Parliament has, with much fanfare, authorized Turkey's army to strike at Kurdish militant bases across the Iraqi border. Clashes with militants on Turkey's side have led to a mounting death toll, and there is real reason to believe that Turkey may become more than a side player in Iraq quite soon. The possibility that such incursions could escalate - quickly - into the broader regional war that has been the nightmare of U.S. planners for some time is not remote. At the very least, Turkey's intervention would create serious problems in the one area of Iraq that the United States counts on to remain relatively calm. Were such actions to be coupled with a reduction of logistical support for the U.S. military, it would be a strategic disaster for the United States, end what remaining chance Turkey has to enter the E.U., and lead to a decisive rupture with the West that would seriously harm everyone involved.

In this climate, then, I take pause at the notion that Congress would proactively decide, with no strategic purpose and for no more than rhetorical gain, to remind Turkey of a part of its history that it would just as soon forget. Thus, reluctantly, with lowered eyes and a soft voice, I would counsel against this resolution.

1 comment:

Jeb Koogler said...

This is brilliant, Matt. Your thoughts also mirror my own.