Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Voting on "Armenian Genocide"

I just got back from spending a few days in the Near East, interviewing various worthies on the state of play in their countries, and in particular on how they view the United States. I was struck in particular by the situation in Turkey, where literally every single person I talked to, from cab drivers to CEOs of huge companies, mentioned the issue of the forthcoming vote on whether the U.S. should declare the slaughter of Armenians in the late phases of World War I to be an official "genocide." The reaction from the Turks to this forthcoming vote, which has barely hit the radar screen of anyone in the U.S. outside the Armenian-American community and those whom they lobby, was unadulterated horror. Congressmen preparing to vote on whether the United States shall officially declare the World War I-era Turkish massacres of Armenians a genocide should consider how such a -- let's face it -- purely symbolic vote is likely to impact real American interests in the Middle East.

Should Congress make such a declaration, the consequences for American interests in Turkey and the surrounding neighborhood (including Iraq and Iran) could be momentous. Turkey is a longtime ally of the United States, a member of NATO since 1952 (with NATO's second biggest Army), and a stalwart participant in the global war on terror. It is also a bellwether in the underlying cultural struggle that defines that war. A historically pro-Western Muslim country, Turkey straddles many of the world’s critical geopolitical and cultural fault lines: it is both European and Middle Eastern, both multicultural and fiercely nationalist, both liberal and ruled by moderate Islamists (the AKP). Each of these tensions within Turkish society is fiercely contested, however. There are stark debates about whether Turkey should orient toward secularism, liberalism and the West, or instead look East, including perhaps to Iran. How the United States (and the European Union) treat Turkey has a material impact on this question. Insofar as Turkey sees itself as being rejected or insulted by the West, the more likely it is to turn away from the West, something Joschka Fischer has perceptively stressed.

My research in Turkey entailed meeting with people from a diverse swath of Turkish society, to better understand the underlying dynamics of change in Turkey and its neighborhood, including the European Union to the West; Iraq, Syria, and Israel to the south, and the Caucasus and Iran to the East. I met people from across the political spectrum, including Kemalist-nationalists, liberals living with official protection because of personal threats from Islamists, pro-democratization activists, Turkish professors of political science, and others.

My purpose in visiting to Turkey was to explore how the United States is viewed in Turkey. With stunning consistency, the first response by Turks to this line of inquiry was to refer to the upcoming vote in the Congress on the Armenian matter. Regardless of their political stance, the Turks I spoke with universally regarded it as horrific that the United States should so much as consider a bill regarding the Armenian genocide. To be sure, it was unsurprising to hear Kemalists, who have always denied the notion of an Armenian genocide, denounce the bill. What was remarkable, however, was to hear anti-Kemalists, many of whom themselves recognize the 1915 massacres as a "genocide," worry that the passage of such a bill would only create a nationalist backlash within Turkey, strengthening the hands both of those who seek to deny the genocide, and of those who seek to turn away from the West.

Many Americans, and many in Congress, feel an understandable desire to stand in solidarity with the historical injustices perpetrated on Armenians. In contemplating the Armenian genocide bill, however, Congressmen should recognize that a vote in favor of declaring these injustices a "genocide" would be almost universally interpreted within Turkey as an unprovoked, unnecessary, and unpardonable affront to Turkey’s national honor. As one leading Turkish businessman, a thoroughly Westernized liberal, put it, "Imagine how the United States would react if China passed a bill demanding that the United States make reparations to African-Americans." Another informant, a professor of management at the American University, suggested that were the Armenian genocide bill to pass, it might no longer be safe for Americans to travel within Turkey. (The murder last month of the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink by a nationalist fanatic suggests that such worries are not idle.) A sizable majority of those I spoke with believe that should the genocide bill pass, everything about the United States-Turkish strategic relationship would be up for renegotiation, including U.S. basing rights in Turkey and Turkey's active cooperation with the United States in counterterrorism. It is worth asking what the United States gains by knowingly provoking such potential reactions.

To understand why many Turks might react so violently to the passage of this bill, one must appreciate the anxieties many Turks have about the territorial integrity of their country. Not only did Turkey lose nearly two thirds of its territory after World War I, it was also left with large, regionally-based ethnic minorities, several of which today continued to harbor armed separatist movements. Some in Turkey consider the United States to be conspiring with these forces, either out of inattention, or (some mutter) because of an active desire to weaken the Turkish state. For example, for more than a decade and at the cost of tens of thousands of lives, Turkey has been fighting its own "war on terror" against the Kurdish People's Party (PKK), an organization the U.S. State Department designates as a terrorist organization. A major military challenge for Turkey is that the PKK uses northern Iraq as a staging area for its insurgency in southeastern Turkey, something the United States has largely turned a blind eye to, for fear of alienating our only friends Iraq, the Kurds. In Turkey’s eyes, however, American passivity in the face of Turkey's #1 terrorist threat betrays the rhetoric of a "global war on terror." Should the PKK become more aggressive, or if an independent Kurdistan emerges in Northern Iraq, a Turkey outside American influence might not hesitate to intervene militarily in Iraq, both to quash the PKK and perhaps to renew its historical claims on Mosul.

I don't have a position on whether the tragedies and atrocities of 1915 amount to "genocide" -- a matter best decided by historians than by politicians in foreign countries. But even assuming it was a genocide, the United States should still ask what it has to gain by passing a resolution declaring it so. This gain should then be weighed against whatever harm such a vote might do to American national interests in Turkey and the Middle East. Insofar as American national interests involve having Turkey on our side in the war on terror, oriented toward the West, and committed to a moderate form of Islam, should the United States take the risk of alienating this key regional ally just to make a symbolic point about horrors that took place nearly a century ago?

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

While you make a compelling point about America's national interest in this matter, I think you're somewhat disingenuous in passing the buck on whether the slaughter was, in fact, a genocide. You have a PhD in history, so you're fairly well credentialed as a historian. You've probably read a fair amount about that period. So c'mon -- have historians called it a genocide or not? My money and reading of the historiography is on genocide.

purpleprose said...

In all honesty, I cannot say. I am not a historian of Armenia or Turkey or the Ottoman empire. However, the answer is probably empirically answerable, and yet even so may be complex and thus unsatisfying to political activists.

Start with the definition of genocide: "genocide means acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." Seems clear, right? Well, what if there are no documents that show that "destroying" the Armenian population was part of the explicit agenda -- only documents calling for the destruction of those deemed to be undermining the Ottoman war effort, with implementation details left to the locals? Depending on how that question goes (and this is an empirical questions about which I have no knowledge of the evidence), many historians could argue in perfectly good faith either that this means it WAS a genocide, or that it WASN'T a genocide. Intent is very hard to prove when you're talking about collective action, and it usually comes down to what standard of "proof" you want to lean on.

Be the historiographical issues as they may, the question of the vote in Congress actually has nothing to do with the historical record as such. How many of those voting will have any detailed knowledge of what took place in eastern Anatolia in the teens? The reason for the Congressional vote today is entirely political, and should be judged as such. That's what this post was about

purpleprose said...

Just to give you an idea of how narrow the strict legal definition of genocide is, check out how the International Court of Justice just absolved Serbia of any responsibility for genocide in Bosnia. And here's a case where the evidence is probably less murky than in the case of the Ottoman-Armenian situation.