How to End a Genocide
It's almost April,
is gearing up for another performance of the "Armenian Genocide Resolution
Spectacular," a regular event since 1984. Here's the historical plotline:
the Armenian-American lobby gets a few U.S. congressmen to sponsor a resolution
recognizing the 1915 massacre of Armenians in what is now Eastern Turkey as a
"genocide." Then other members of the House are induced to support
it. (Members of the House may not be history buffs, but they understand the
importance of stroking a powerful domestic lobby.) Next, the Turkish government
is too important to be insulted like this. In response, the American
administration, recognizing that Turkey
is indeed a critical NATO ally whose Incirlik Air Base is vital to the Iraq mission, starts twisting
congressional arms to abandon the resolution. Offstage, the Israeli lobby,
generally keen to boost Turkish-Israeli relations (though less so this year),
works against the resolution. Finally, the House leadership reluctantly shelves
the whole thing and the curtain falls.
Before staging this
year's performance, however, Congress should note that hitherto frozen
relations between Armenia
are now showing signs of melting, and that this may be the first step toward
reconciling the Turkish and Armenian peoples. In September, Turkish President
Abdullah Gül attended a Turkey-Armenia football
match in Yerevan
at the invitation of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, who recently met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
in Davos. The two foreign ministers, Turkey's Ali Babacan
Eduard Nalbandian have also been meeting. Both have
made optimistic noises.
Progress has been
possible because the Armenians have focused on the concrete issue of opening
the Armenian-Turkish border—a vital matter to them since none of their other
neighbors (Azerbaijan, Georgia and Iran) can offer a viable trade route to the
West. Both sides have wisely avoided the genocide dispute, surely recognizing
it will have to be dealt with eventually but that developing economic ties will
make it easier to do so. Lingering in the background,
however, is the Armenian diaspora's passionate
insistence that there was a genocide—and its mirror
image in the fury of the Turkish people denying it. Right or wrong is not the
point. No Turkish government could contemplate opening the Armenian border with
this issue front and center, and Congress should recognize that a genocide resolution
would put it there.
In all probability,
Turkey and Armenia can only resolve the
genocide dispute if they recognize that "was it a
genocide?" may be the ultimate question, but it is not the most
important one today. To those aiming for reconciliation, two questions outrank
it: what common facts can Turks and Armenians be brought to accept, and is the
common ground sufficient for both sides to start binding up the wounds? To this
end, Erdogan's proposal to establish a joint
historical commission should be pursued. Though Armenia has rejected the idea so
far—largely because it is winning its argument on the world stage—the
government has softened its stance recently. If the aim is reconciliation,
persuading the Turks to abandon the blanket denial they are taught as
schoolchildren is what counts.
Progress is not as
implausible as it sounds. In the early days of the Republic, Kemal Atatürk, who was not
personally implicated, described the Armenian massacres as "shameful
acts." No ex-Ottoman officials were investigated, however, as Turkey needed
the newly minted heroes of its War of Independence to have no stain on their
characters. Today, Erdogan will accept an
investigation. In return, Armenia
must accept a reciprocal investigation into the Ottoman Armenians, who fought
with the sultan's Russian enemy, and their responsibility for massacres of
Turks and Kurds. Weaving together these two violently opposed historical
perspectives will take time and patience. As important as the final answer,
however, is the development of empathy across the divide.
Congress can help
keep the path to reconciliation open if it is willing to deny the
Armenian-American lobby the instant gratification of a genocide resolution.
Surely doing so would be far better than repeating the exercises of the last 25
years over and over again until a resolution finally passes and all the House's
leverage over Turkey evaporates, along with most of the good will in the
Turkish-American alliance, and maybe even the alliance itself. For its part, the
Armenian diaspora might even support reconciliation
if only as its second choice. Finally, good relations between Turkey and Armenia
would further U.S.
objectives in the Caucasus. The proposed
hydrocarbon corridor through the Caucasus from Central Asia looks much more
secure in the context of Turkish-Armenian friendship, and it might give Armenia the confidence to break with the status
quo in the longstanding Nagorno-Karabakh dispute with neighboring Azerbaijan.
Congress and others should recognize that this year holds real promise for the
beginning of reconciliation between the Turkish and Armenian peoples. If
nothing comes of it, Congress can always return to a resolution.
frequently on Turkish affairs and is a regular contributor to Newsweek.com.