Friday, March 5, 2010

The Morning After

Newly-appointed Turkish Ambassador to the United States Namik Tan
PHOTO from Hurriyet Daily News

Though with less of a majority than expected, the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday again passed a resolution recognizing the mass deportations organized by the Ottoman Committee for Union and Progrss (CUP) as genocide. By a vote of 23-22, the non-binding resolution now waits to be moved to the House floor for a vote by the entire 435-member body, though it is unclear whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will do so.

For the first time since the protocols stalled, the Obama Administration has expressed its open opposition to the resolution, asking Pelosi, a long-time supporter of Armenian "genocide recognition," not to put the resolution to a House vote. The White House and Department of State's reticence in the past two months has largely been interpreted in Ankara as pressure to ratify the protocols, though the Turkish Foreign Ministry continues to maintain that it will not be pressured and that it is hopeful the resolution will not clear a full House vote. This is what happened in 2000, 2005, and 2007. Despite similarities to past efforts, as April 24 and a floor vote lingers on this particular resolution, other issues will also play a role, including Turkey's position on Iran and its relations with Israel (apparently Israel was not asked to deliver U.S. Jewish organizations this time around). Washington and Ankara are treading treacherous new ground, though the close vote, the renewed opposition from the Administration, and the continued reliance on American air force bases in Turkey make a resolution unlikely this time around. The full House has passed the resolution before -- once in 1975, and another time in 1984.

Following yesterday's vote, Ankara recalled its ambassador to Ankara, sent diplomats to Moscow to seek Russian support, and re-stated its demand that Swiss and American mediators attach a written guarantee to the protocols that the Armenian Constitutional Court's decision will not affect the operation of the rather naively conceived, and still quite vague historical commission between Armenian and Turkish historians the protocols would set up. (From the beginning, the Turks wanted the historical commission to examine the events of 1915 while the Armenians viewed the commission as a means to discuss the ex-poste facto results of what the Armenian state considers genocide. For more on this point, see past posts, including Nigar Goksel's analysis in an interview with the Institue for Policy Studies' Balkans Project.)

For polar views in the United States on the issue, see 60 Minutes' recent broadcast in which the American news magazine speaks with Armenian historians who claim the Nazis used the Armenian genocide as a blueprint for the Shoa, a claim that Yigal Schleifer correctly points out is "even harder for Ankara to swallow." The piece earned a good deal of scorn in the Turkish press and sparked a campaign by Turkish Americans. For American arguments against the resolution, based largely on geo-strategic reasons, see this statement in The Hill authored by members of the Congressional Caucus on Turkey. Defense contractors, anxious not lose business with Turkey, are also opposed to the resolution, as are a large number of military experts concerned with maintaining access to U.S. air bases in Turkey, through which 70 percent of all supplies going into Iraq currently pass. For another view, see American Turkey expert Henri Barkey's op/ed in the Washington Post in which Barkey discusses the problems with politicizing genocide.

For American diplomats, journalists, and scholars of Turkey, and I suspect, of Armenia, navigating countering, complex narratives of the events of 1915 have long been problematic. (For an example, see historian James R. Russell's response to a 2001 piece in the New York Review of Books by former Economist correspondent Christopher de Bellaigue. Bellaigue has a new book, Rebel Land: Among Turkey's Forgotten Peoples, in which he considers the narratives of 1915 as they continue to influence the politics of Turkey.) Although both Turkey and Armenia agree horrible atrocities were committed, the numbers killed, the level of organization by the Ottoman State, and the intent of the mass deportations that led to the massacre of thousands on thousands of Armenians are in dispute, and not only between Turks and Armenians, but among Turks themselves. Neither citizenry is monolithic, though competing narratives are very much entrenched in the politics of both countries, and in Armenia's case, in its construction as a nation-state. Apart from basic questions about geoolitics and the U.S.-Turkey relationship, a critical question the U.S. Congress must ask is whether a resolution labeling 1915 "genocide," notwithstanding its historical and legal validity, will help Turks and Armenians come to terms with history and move forward for the mutual benefit of Turks and Armenians. The answer here seems clear, though it seems to matter little in Washington, where nuance is too often forsaken for lobby-driven politics.

UPDATE I (3/5) -- Ambassador Tan is on his way back to Ankara. And, for another perspective, see Stephen Kinzer's op/ed in The Guardian.

UPDATE II (3/6) -- The Washington Post is quoting an anonymous U.S. official saying that the Obama Administration and House leaders have reached an agreement that Thursday's resolution will not reach the House floor, consigning it to the fate of past resolutions that cleared the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

No comments: