19 October 2007
Oct 18th 2007
A congressional vote in Washington that could jeopardise Turkey's path westwards
THE Turks are a proud, prickly people, easily offended by criticism. That much is clear from the row over a resolution, passed by a committee of the United States House of Representatives on October 10th, calling the slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 genocide. The full House has yet to vote on the resolution. But Turkey has reacted angrily, recalling its ambassador. It is talking of cutting military ties and even denying the Americans use of the Incirlik airbase that is vital for the supply of their troops in Iraq (see article).
As such threats demonstrate, Turkey is not just an angry ally. It is also a vital one, with a population of 75m and the world's 19th-biggest economy. It is a strategically important hinge between Europe and Asia; it has the biggest army in NATO after America's; it forms a crucial energy corridor to the West; and it borders on such awkward places as Iran and Syria as well as Iraq. Moreover, it is a rare example in the Muslim world of a lively, secular democracy. Yet internal tensions are exacerbated when clumsy outsiders intervene.
This year has seen a series of clashes between the army and secularists on one side and the mildly Islamist Justice and Development (AK) government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the other, culminating in a big AK win in the election in July. Mr Erdogan is trying manfully to keep Turkey on the path towards membership of the European Union, even though many Europeans have become openly hostile. He also wants to preserve good relations with America despite renewed fighting with guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), some based in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. This is a bad moment for America to pick a fight over something that happened 90 years ago, before modern Turkey even existed.
That is not to deny it is a good idea for countries to face up to their past, especially when it was as violent as that of the Ottomans in the early 20th century. Germany has been admirably open about admitting the sins of the Nazi period; Japan has been less candid. It would be good for modern, democratic Turkey to come to terms with the terrible treatment of Armenians in the first world war (as also, in later times, of other minorities, including Greeks, Alevis and Kurds). In recent years, there have been encouraging signs: a few historians' conferences, an attempt to improve relations with Armenia, growing acceptance of the Kurdish language and occasional talk of amending Article 301 of the penal code. This makes “insulting Turkishness” a criminal offence and is used to shut down discussion of the Armenian genocide.
But the adoption of a highly political resolution in America's Congress is the worst possible way to encourage more steps in the right direction. Rather, it would serve only to fan the flames of Turkish nationalism and leave liberals within Turkey who want more open debate about the past even more exposed. Those in Congress who are pushing this resolution have little interest in Turkey or even Armenia, but a lot in the wealthy Armenian-American constituents who are lobbying them. It is telling that many Turkish Armenians, and even the Patriarch of the Armenian church of Istanbul, have not welcomed the House resolution.
One blunder after another
Recognising the damaging repercussions in Turkey as well as for Turkish-American relations, the Bush administration has been fighting to stop the resolution's passage. It has mustered all eight living former secretaries of state, both Democrat and Republican, to argue against it. This is testimony to the strategic importance of Turkey. But it also reflects the especially sensitive time. This week the Turkish parliament gave its approval for a possible cross-border military incursion into northern Iraq to root out PKK terrorists based there.
That would be another blunder. The Turks' frustration over northern Iraq is understandable. In the past two weeks alone, some 20 Turkish soldiers have been killed by the PKK. Repeated requests to the Iraqis and local Kurdish authorities to clamp down on the group have been ignored. Yet an invasion would not only upset the most stable region of Iraq but also be unlikely to work, as even some Turkish generals recognise. It would be better for the Americans to do more to counter the PKK in northern Iraq—and for Turkey to renew its earlier efforts to improve the lot of Kurds in its south-east.
Keeping Turkey on its pro-Western course is vital, not just for Iraq, but for the sake of all Turks, including the country's own big Kurdish population. Recent rows have helped to turn Turkish public opinion sharply against both the European Union and the United States, a situation that countries such as Iran and Russia are all too ready to exploit. Pressure to scrap Article 301 and allow open debate in Turkey should continue. But the House resolution is not the way to do it.