Turkey is Washington's purest test of realism v. idealism

April 25, 2007
Source: The New Republic (Washington, D.C.)

By Christopher Beam

In recent years, President Bush has had no trouble using the word "genocide" - first in reference to Saddam, then to the killings in Darfur. The word connotes a moral imperative to intervene, perhaps because of its reductio ad Hitlerum quality--how can you stand idly by during a genocide? But, when discussing the million-plus Armenians killed in Turkey between 1915 and 1923, President Bush, like President Clinton before him, has avoided the word entirely.

That's because, unlike other questions of who killed whom that the United States has answered over last decades (Iraq, twice in the Balkans, Rwanda, Sudan), there is a strategic reason to stay mum about the Armenians: Turkey, a NATO ally of 50 years and a partner in the war on terrorism, would get mad. According to Ankara, only 300,000 died, and only because its government suppressed uprisings provoked by the crumbling Ottoman Empire. (Samantha Power dedicated the first chapter of her Pulitzer Prize-winning book on genocide to debunking this myth.) The Turks recognize the dispute and want "further study," but in the meantime, they really don't want to be known as perpetrators of genocide.

For years, U.S. presidents have obliged - a tradition Bush continued yesterday on the weirdly - named "National Day of Remembrance of Man's Inhumanity to Man," when, in a tribute to Armenians, he conspicuously omitted the word "genocide." But that may soon change. The House had been planning to mark April 24 by passing a resolution calling the murder of Armenians during and after World War I genocide. The measure, co-authored by California Republican George Radanovich and co-sponsored by 190 House members, is just the latest of many genocide bills supported by Armenian-American groups. But, unlike the others, this one has a good chance of passing. It has bipartisan support, and its language is purely symbolic: no restitutions, no requests for apology. Just a statement urging the president to call the killings genocide.

This has frightened Ankara, where it is a crime to "insult Turkishness" (apparently there's no greater insult than applying that label to killings perpetrated almost a century ago by the country's founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk). In the past week, Turks have been frantically lobbying members of Congress, urging them to oppose the resolution. The Embassy of Turkey took out a full-page ad in Monday's New York Times urging Congress "to examine history, not legislate it." And they are threatening to hamper U.S. efforts in Iraq.

We know they did something wrong, but they won't let us say it. The reasons for and against using the term "genocide" are perfectly clear: morally, we should; strategically, we shouldn't. This choice--between retaining a key ally and recognizing a distant crime--has become Washington's purest test of realism versus idealism.

The last time such a bill made it to the floor, in 2000, Dennis Hastert halted the vote at the request of Bill Clinton. It's likely President Bush will make a similar call to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi if she pushes for a vote. But, given that Pelosi was willing to fork the administration's eye by traveling to Syria, there's no reason to think she'd obey on Armenia, particularly given her history of advocacy on the issue. (Although, after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned in a joint letter last month that the bill could "harm American troops in the field," the House agreed to delay the vote till sometime after yesterday's commemoration.)

If defense hawks have their way, that vote will never happen. Congress shouldn't risk our valuable alliance with Turkey, they argue, in exchange for a few Armenian-American votes. Besides, the bill's opponents don't deny the importance of genocide. They simply consider preserving U.S.-Turkey relations more important than making a political statement about events that, while contemptible, have little bearing on our foreign policy.

They're right to be concerned: Last year, France passed a law making it a crime to deny the Armenian genocide (in other words, it's illegal there to not "insult Turkishness"), much like Germany and Switzerland's laws against Holocaust denial. Turkey responded by severing military ties with France. If the United States decides to affirm the genocide, the Turks have said they may dissolve American defense contracts and cut off cargo routes used to reach U.S. forces in Iraq. And, perhaps more importantly, the bill could alienate the only pro-Western secular democracy (albeit one that jails dissident authors) in the Muslim world.

Yet neither the idealists nor the realists have been entirely forthcoming. For one thing, many of the House members supporting the resolution have large Armenian-American constituencies, particularly in California and Michigan. Plus, the Democratic Congress has so far relished exposing the administration's hypocrisy; forcing Bush to confront his selective concern for genocide is a tempting symbolic zinger. On the other side, Turkey's strident denial of historical wrongdoing doesn't make life easy for realists. The Turks say it's wrong to sanction a historical perspective, but if legislating history is the problem, Ankara has been the biggest offender of all. Europeans cite this stubbornness as an obstacle to Turkey's admission into the European Union. It's only because other governments have continued to waffle on the genocide question that Turkey has been able to continue denying what is, to everyone but the Turkish government, settled history.

How Congress handles the bill should depend on two assessments: First, the realists need to consider whether Turkey's threats are credible. Turkish foreign minister Abdullah Gul has indicated that the resolution would complicate Turkey's close cooperation in stabilizing Iraq and stemming nuclear proliferation. It's true, Turkey initially offered to send 10,000 troops to Iraq and has since granted the United States billions of dollars in defense contracts. But the kindness goes both ways. Turkey is the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid, behind Israel and Egypt. In 2003, it received a onetime $1 billion aid package. President Bush requested $25 million in 2006. Despite recent tensions over the Kurds, Ankara doesn't want to jeopardize this mutually munificent relationship any more than Washington does.

Second, the idealists should decide what they gain by applying the "genocide" label to an episode already widely recognized as tragic. One possible reason--no laughing here--is moral authority. Since the invasion of Iraq, the United States has lost much of the respect it commanded in international opinion. An administration that has marshaled the word "genocide" so readily to justify its own actions should, at the very least, be consistent in applying it. Asking that Turkey face its past, especially when such a request hinders U.S. interests, would set a principled example for other governments.

Turkey's threats are salient only because of the prevailing silence about its genocide. Earlier this month, the United Nations delayed an exhibit at U.N. headquarters on the Rwandan genocide after Turkey objected to one sentence citing Armenian deaths. If enough countries forced Turkey to acknowledge these crimes, it wouldn't have the option of waxing indignant like it did with France and the United Nations. Coming from a staunch ally with mutual interests to preserve, an affirmation of the Armenian genocide would sound that much more powerful. The United States occupies this unique position: It's up to Congress to use it.

Christopher Beam is an editorial assistant at Slate.