Nancy Pelosi and the Armenians

There is something peculiar about the way the political class in the United States thinks. At a recent meeting on U.S. foreign policy that I attended, a speaker noted that Americans are "results-oriented." I believe that he is correct but he should have noted that the generalization does not apply to politicians. Politicians are image-oriented and are not interested in results, particularly when the results are bad.

The Armenian Genocide resolution, which is sailing through Congress, is a great image builder for some politicians who want to register their disapproval of mass slaughter, but it is a terrible result. It comes at the worst possible time as the U.S. is trying to convince Turkey to show restraint and not invade northern Iraq and one has to wonder why the United States should be involved in this at all. If Speaker Nancy Pelosi carries out her pledge to bring the resolution before the entire House of Representatives next month, it is almost certain to pass as 226 out of the 435 Congressman have already signed on to it. The resolution accomplishes precisely nothing apart from alienating the Turkish government and people from the United States. It is non-binding on the White House and State Department and it essentially documents a tragedy that took place nearly one hundred years ago, carried out by the Ottoman Empire, which no longer exists, and implemented by politicians and military officers who are long since in their own graves. One wonders if a congressional resolution condemning Uzbekistan for Tamerlane's slaughter of two million residents of Baghdad in the fourteenth century is coming up next or possibly an indictment of Italy for Scipio Aemilianus' destruction of the city of Carthage in 146 BC. It is particularly ironic that the U.S. Congress believes it can seize the moral high ground regarding mass killing in light of its collaboration in the destruction of Iraq.

Turkey has been a parliamentary republic since 1923, though one has to note that its military has intervened in the democratic process more than once and the Turkish definition of republicanism is heavily flavored by a sense of nationhood that does not always permit in practice much in the way of minority rights. Turkey was the only Muslim nation that was a founding member of NATO, it fought bravely by the side of the US in Korea, and has been a staunch ally up until the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Within NATO, Turkey's army is second in size only to that of the United States. Turkey is the strategic key to a stable Middle East. It is the only Muslim country that has a genuinely close relationship with Israel and it cooperates with Tel Aviv in many areas. It is also a bridge to Europe for the Islamic world and a role model of how relatively open pluralistic politics and a free media can actually work within the framework of Islam. Turkey is also home of the large US airbase at Incirlik near Adana, which is responsible for 70 percent of all air shipments into Iraq. Thirty per cent of all fuel supplied by road to Iraq enters through the port of Adana. All of the new bomb proof Mine Resistant Ambush Protected personnel carriers that are being supplied to U.S. forces are flown into Iraq over Turkish airspace. Incirlik Airbase hosted more than 3,000 flights of C5 and C17 transports going to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2006 as well as 3,800 missions by K-135 tankers. If the use of Incirlik were halted by the Turkish government, it would have a major impact on US military operations in the region.

Currently, less than 10 percent of Turks view the United States favorably and that percentage is likely to decline further given the events of the past week. In the late 1980s the favorable percentage was closer to 90. What has happened in the intervening time to change that? Congressional grandstanding by Pelosi and company is partly to blame, but most of the decline in Turkish support for the U.S. is a result of the Iraq war and also the inability or unwillingness of the Bush Administration to do anything about the terrorists who are using Iraq's Kurdish region as a base of operations.

From the Turkish point of view, the United States is completely hypocritical. The United States became a great power through its genocide of the red Indians and is hardly in a good position to point the finger at others. It currently is fighting a self-declared and self-defined global war on terrorism in which it claims the right to attack terrorists anytime and anywhere. It publicly states that its goal is to end all terrorism everywhere in the world. An apparent exception appears to be NATO ally Turkey, which has been plagued by Kurdish terrorism for more than 20 years. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President Bush have both promised to stop the terrorist group the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) from using its havens in northern Iraq to stage attacks inside Turkey but they have done nothing, largely because they do not want to put pressure on the government of the Kurdish region, which is admittedly the only stable part of Iraq. Turkey has repeatedly warned that the failure to act against the terrorists might lead to intervention by its own armed forces. More than 30 Turkish soldiers and civilians have been killed by the PKK over the past two weeks and the Turkish public and the army General Staff are both demanding a military response.

Given Ankara's concerns about Washington's lackadaisical attitude towards terrorism, the genocide vote will likely transform the United States into "public enemy number one" for many Turks. There has been a great deal of speculation as to why the genocide resolution came up now and why some congressmen who normally would have voted against it changed their minds. Pelosi is definitely influenced by the large numbers of wealthy Armenians in her own district and more generally speaking in key blue states like California and New Jersey. This is ethnic politics at its finest, where the national interest takes a back seat to long simmering animosities and events that took place long ago and far away. The argument that the resolution is being promoted to force Turkey to establish diplomatic relations with neighboring Armenia is a complete red herring as the problem between the two countries goes back to Armenia's seizure of Nagorno-Karabakh from neighboring Azerbaijan in 1988-1994. The Turks regard the Azeris as fellow Turks and have refused to regularize relations while the enclave continues to be largely in Armenian hands. The political animosity between Turkey and Armenia therefore has nothing to do with the events of 1915 and will not be resolved by accusing the Turks of genocide.

More curious still is the actual voting in the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the resolution. Normally, the Israel first crowd lines up to protect Turkey as Ankara has been a reliable Muslim ally to Tel Aviv. Outspoken Abe Foxman, who heads the Anti-Defamation League, has vacillated on whether or not to support any official recognition of the Armenian genocide. Groups like B'nai Brith International and the Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs have refused to endorse recognition. Foxman in particular has been criticized by other Jews who object to his constant citing of the Holocaust while wavering over the Armenian claim to having had a similar experience. In Congress, the House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos of California is so close to Israel that he often acts for that country as a spokesman. Lantos has ambitions to become Secretary of State in a Hillary Clinton administration, so it is possible that he is attempting to establish his credentials as a statesman and an independent voice, but he always looks to Israel's interests first and it may be that the Israel lobby is concerned by the increased Islamic manifestations in Turkey and is delivering a warning shot to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Seven out of eight Jews on the Foreign Affairs Committee followed Lantos's lead by voting in support of the resolution. One other theory is that diminishing Turkey's regional role will enhance the need to rely more on Israel, making it perforce the "indispensable" U.S. ally in the Middle East and a third possibility is that pressuring the Kurds will speed the break-up of Iraq, which could be construed as being in the Israeli interest. If any of those arguments is driving the genocide resolution process the end result will be bad for the United States and not necessarily good for Israel. Embroiled in Iraq without any easy way out and heavily dependent on the supply line passing through southern Turkey, Washington has much more to lose than to gain by turning Ankara into an enemy.