Turkey and America are at loggerheads over a resolution that the president opposes
And so it passes. A few hours ago, the Foreign Affairs Committee in the US House of Representatives voted 27 to 21 in favour of a bill that finds the Armenian massacres of 1915 to be genocide. It passed a lot narrower than many expected – the very public objections of State Secretary Condoleeza Rice and several of her predecessors will have helped with that – but pass it still did. From here, the bill moves to a full vote in the House.
The Turks are angry. President Abdullah Gül has responded already, accusing the voting members of “sacrificing large-scale issues for small domestic political games”. At the vote, a Turkish parliamentary delegation expressed its sorrow; the Armenian delegation burst into applause. There have been small-scale protests outside the US Embassy in Ankara, and there are expected to be more tomorrow. Oh, and armed police guards have already appeared at Istanbul’s Armenian churches.
It is a victory for America’s pro-Armenian lobby. The slim Democratic majority means that it is likely, though by no means certain, that both houses of Congress will vote the bill through. President Bush has made his opposition clear, which scuppers the chance of any formal policy change for the moment. And in any case, the bill is non-binding. The United States will continue to not use the word “genocide” when referring to the events of 1915.
So why such vociferous Turkish anger? Part of it is down to the bill itself (avaliable here). Historically speaking, it is a crude effort. The first article of section two, in particular, is highly contested: “The Armenian Genocide … (resulted) in the deportation of nearly 2,000,000 Armenians, of whom 1,500,000 men, women, and children were killed, 500,000 survivors were expelled from their homes, and which succeeded in the elimination of the over 2,500-year presence of Armenians in their historic homeland.” Even those Western historians who refer to an Armenian genocide will tell you they can’t speak in specific numbers. No-one knows how many people perished; politicising history won’t help us find out.
But there are two other reasons for Turkey’s anger, rooted far beyond the content of the American bill. First, many Turks genuinely believe they could not have carried out such an atrocious act. “I cannot believe we were able to organise ourselves into doing it,” a friend once told me. “We can hardly organise the day-to-day workings of government.” Second, there is the very real issue of financial compensation to the descendants of those Armenians who were deported.
This evening, the tabloid Hürriyet‘s website carried an American and Turkish flag under the headline “Is this the end of a hundred-year partnership?” Of course it isn’t, and Turkey isn’t about to kick the United States out of İncirlik Air Base (usefully close to the Iraqi border) either. The US leadership knows precisely how sensitive the Armenian issue is, and it also knows how valuable Turkey is as an ally.
But that does not mean Turkey should just stand around grumbling to anyone who will listen. There are two things it can – and should – do. Firstly, it should unilaterally open diplomatic relations with Armenia, irrespective of that country’s continued occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh. Secondly, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should fulfil his earlier promise and appoint a delegation of Turkish, Armenian and Western historians to investigate what exactly happened in eastern Anatolia between 1915 and 1923. As Mr Erdoğan has said before, it is a question for historians, not politicians.
The Chairman of the House committee, Tom Lantos, described today’s bill as a “sobering choice” between the desire to condemn “this historic nightmare” as genocide against a possible greater risk to US troops. It will do neither; nor, it seems, will it have the happy side-effect of reigniting historical debate on the matter. It is the Turkish side that needs to take the initiative with that.