Posted by: sean | July 28, 2007

Final resolution

The New Republic has an interesting piece out now about the battle in the US Congress about the Armenian genocide. The fight is over a piece of legislation that officially recognizes the Armenian genocide committed by the Ottomans in 1915.

From my research and the work of my colleagues who are specialists on the Armenian genocide, the historical record is pretty indisputable. Some of the details may not be, but the existence of the genocide itself seems fairly clear cut. This being said, I’m really wary of legislating history, particularly as it is done in Turkey and much of Western Europe. (In Turkey it is against the law to speak of the Armenian genocide, whereas in France, it is illegal to deny the Shoah, and Bernard Lewis has already been taken to court for denying the Armenian genocide.)

These questions should be debated in academic conferences and journals by historians, not in the halls of Capitol Hill by lobbyists. In any case, the Armenian question is very important to the US, given its strategic importance for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan:

Strange as it may be to find a World War I massacre on the 2007 Washington agenda, even more bizarre is the possibility that it may precipitate an international crisis. At one March House subcommittee hearing, Adam Schiff got a rare opportunity to grill Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Angry over the Bush administration’s opposition to the Armenian genocide resolution, Schiff pressed Rice: “Is there any doubt in your mind that the murder of a million and a half Armenians between 1915 and 1923 constituted genocide?” Schiff even pointedly appealed to Rice’s background in “academia.” But the ever-disciplined Rice wouldn’t bite. “Congressman, I come out of academia. But I’m secretary of state now. And I think that the best way to have this proceed is for … the Turks and the Armenians to come to their own terms about this.”

What Rice didn’t say is that the Turks, should their lobbying firepower fail to stop the genocide bill from moving forward, have an even mightier weapon to brandish: the war in Iraq. As they did in 2000, the Turks are hinting they will shut down Incirlik, a far more dire threat now that Incirlik supplies U.S. forces occupying Iraq. Administration officials also fear Turkey might close the Habur Gate, a border point through which U.S. supplies flow into northern Iraq. In an April letter to congressional leaders, Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates bluntly warned that a House resolution “could harm American troops in the field [and] constrain our ability to supply our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

That prospect may even be dragging U.S. troops themselves into the Turkish counteroffensive. Or so says Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat and lead co-sponsor of the genocide resolution. “[The Turks] have had American soldiers call members of Congress and say, Don’t vote for this, because I am going to be threatened in Iraq,'” Pallone says. (A Turkish embassy spokesman denied knowledge of this.)

Of course, this is probably just a lot of Turkish bluster. Before France passed its own Armenian legislation, the Turks had threatened that the bill would cause relations between the two countries to be suspended, among other things. In the end though, nothing happened. I suspect that the Turks know what side their bread is buttered on and would find that the smug satisfaction of punishing the US for calling them on their genocide denial would be far outweighed by the consequences of pissing the US off in Iraq. For instance, the US is currently in a delicate balancing act between the Iraqi Kurds and Ankara, and if Turkey were to make the US an enemy, I imagine that Ankara wouldn’t appreciate the consequent shift in American policy in Kurdistan.  

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