03 September 2007
OMER TASPINAR email@example.com
It’s a common joke in Washington. American foreign policy boils down to essentially two noble endeavors: damage control and crisis management. It looks like relations with Turkey will soon need both. As if there was a shortage of problems in Turkish-American relations, we are soon likely to witness a new crisis of unprecedented proportions. Everyone I talk to in Congress unanimously agrees, “This is the year for the Armenian genocide bill.”
What people need to understand in Turkey is that this bill is purely about American domestic politics. It has very little to do with the deterioration in Turkish-American relations over the last few years. Yes, Turkey’s traditional friends in Washington -- not the most joyful group, mind you: the pro-Israel lobby, the Pentagon and defense companies -- are disappointed with Turkey’s lack of support for the Bush administration’s Middle East policy. But, Turkey is certainly not alone in this camp. The whole world is angry with the Bush administration.
The real problem is elsewhere. First, there is something that Ankara and the Turkish Embassy in Washington are stubbornly refusing to understand: Turkey has already lost the “genocide” battle. There is simply no one -- except people with a vested financial or political interest -- who believe Turkey’s side of the story. Whether “the events of 1915” amount to “genocide” or not is not even debated in the West. This is one of those situations where perception becomes reality. Turkey can blame the nefarious Armenians and all kinds of anti-Turkish lobbies for this situation, but the fact of the matter is that suppressing free debate on this issue and accusing academics organizing conferences does not help the slogan “leave history to historians.”
The second problem is that this year’s genocide resolution comes at a time when American politics is extremely polarized. I’ve never seen such hatred between Democrats and Republicans during my 10 years in Washington. The Democratic Speaker of Congress Nancy Pelosi and President Bush are barely on speaking terms. There is certainly no mood to do favors or exchange quid pro quos. In the past, when things got rolling on the genocide front, Ankara could always rely on the president to give a call to the speaker of the house to bring some “geostrategic” sense to the legislative branch. The war in Iraq and the current climate of polarization in American politics has drastically changed this picture. Civility is out the window and no one is in the mood to compromise.
Add to this the fact the formidable Armenian lobby has the numbers to pass the resolution, largely thanks to a multitude of congressmen who would probably not be able to show Turkey’s place on the map. Moreover, Pelosi represents a California constituency that has regularly contributed to her campaign over the years. This is after all a game of “legalized corruption” at which the Turkish-American community needs to get much better.
All this amounts to the fact that the Armenian resolution is very likely to pass this year, which brings us back to “damage control” and “crisis management.” There is no doubt the Bush administration will be in an extremely difficult situation once the resolution passes. Yet, there is a silver lining: in case Turkey manages to strike the right tone in its response, relations between Ankara and Washington can unexpectedly improve after the resolution. In my humble opinion, Turkey needs to be measured in its reaction. The Armenian bill is after all a non-binding resolution with no impact on American policy.
Yes, it will probably become politically impossible to avoid a partial restriction of [air base] Incirlik’s use -- ideally in a creative way, because of “environmental” reasons having to do with EU harmonization laws, for instance, but instead of mobilizing massive anti-American demonstrations, Ankara should rapidly come back to the negotiating table in order to test the limits of damage control in Washington. After such a disastrous development in relations with Turkey, it may become simply impossible for the Bush administration to postpone concrete action against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). After all, you sometimes need to hit rock bottom to bounce back. This could be one of those instances, proving that there is life after death. Who knows, it may even prove to be a good thing for Turkey to get the resolution monkey off its back. We will have to wait and see.