Analysis

Summary: It is no great secret that many people in Turkey did not favor the election of Barack Obama as the new U.S. President due to his support of defining the tragic fate of Ottoman Armenians during World War I as “genocide.” American foreign policy would greatly benefit from Turkish assistance and cooperation beyond the obvious issues of Iran, Iraq, and the Caucasus. In the Turkish-Armenian relationship, history is being used as a political weapon to settle scores. Turkey has shown great progress on the path toward reconciliation, but there are two more steps the Turkish government could take to warm the relationship once and for all.

Don’t Legislate History
The perils of domestic expediency
by Soli Ozel*

It is no great secret that many in Turkish government positions of influence and responsibility did not favor the election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency. Turkey has a traditional preference for the Republican foreign policy establishment because it is presumed that it better appreciates Turkey’s strategic importance. Obama’s position on the question of Armenia played an important part in this preference. Then-candidate and now President-elect Obama is committed to recognizing the tragic fate of Ottoman Armenians during World War I as “genocide,” as are Vice President-elect Joseph Biden and newly appointed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Nancy Pelosi, U.S. speaker of the house, already unsuccessfully tried to pass Resolution 106 in the House of Representatives (HR106) last year. After warnings by the Bush administration about the possible consequences of such a move, including the closing of Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, the bill was never brought to the floor because members did not want to alienate Turkey at that particular moment, potentially putting in peril U.S. troops stationed in Iraq. As I argued in my last On Turkey piece “Committed to Change, or Changing Commitments? Turkish-American Relations Under a New U.S. President,” Turkey will
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Offices Washington, DC • Berlin • Bratislava • Paris Brussels • BelgraDe • ankara • BuCharest

be a potentially significant partner for the United States as the Obama administration puts its foreign policy priorities in place. Most of the items topping the American foreign policy and security agenda would greatly benefit from Turkish assistance and cooperation for resolution. The usefulness of Turkey would go beyond the immediately obvious issues of Iran, Iraq, and the Caucasus. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan , Turkish prime minister, recently concluded an official visit to India just a few days before the atrocious terrorist attacks in Mumbai. The Turkish press reported that the Pakistani Prime Minister called his Turkish counterpart Erdoğan following the Mumbai attacks, asking Turkey to use its good offices. Turkey already does this between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Afghanistan, if the Obama administration could find a way out of the cul de sac in which NATO finds itself, Turkey’s historical ties to that country could afford it a prominent position in the thankless task of nation-building. It is worth noting, that in addition to troops, the Turkish government and a Turkish community foundation are operating six female schools in Afghanistan, and the Turkish International Cooperation & Development Agency (TIKA) has also invested in hospitals and other facilities.

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Soli Ozel teaches at Istanbul Bilgi University’s Department of International Relations and Political Science and is a columnist for the Turkish daily Sabah. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).

Analysis

Yet, as Ian Lesser draws attention to in his latest On Turkey piece, “Turkey and the Global Economic Crisis,” the overload in the Obama administration’s agenda may impede the consolidation of a closer, more communicative, and coordinated policy between the two partners. Domestic political pressures may create a situation whereby Turkish-American relations would be derailed before they have been firmly put back on the right track. The single most important development would involve, not surprisingly, the controversial issue of an Armenian Genocide Resolution. Equally critical would be the U.S. President’s annual letter of April 24 defining what happened to Ottoman Armenians as “genocide.” Turkish-Armenian relations took a turn for the better in the wake of the August 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia. Building on secret talks in Geneva, Serzh Sargsian,the Armenian president in an op-ed written for the Wall Street Journal, invited his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gül to Yerevan to watch a soccer game between the two national teams. The “soccer diplomacy” paid off and the two sides have come together on numerous occasions since September 6, 2008. The Turkish public was overwhelmingly in favor of warming relations despite particularly provocative statements by the political opposition in parliament. Apart from the goal of having more influence as a regional power, which necessitates open relations with Armenia, an important reason for Turkey’s démarche was the desire to thwart the consideration of another resolution. Amberin Zaman, in her piece “As Turkey and Armenia inch toward reconciliation both sides talk the talk, but can they walk the walk?” reported that Turks showed remarkable flexibility on the matter, such as the nature of the historians’ committee first suggested by Prime Minister Erdoğan, and no longer insist on linking an amelioration of relations between Ankara and Yerevan to the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. A willingness to establish diplomatic relations and/or open the border is quite apparent as conditions mature. There is also little doubt that Armenia would benefit immensely from such an opening both economically and politically. Western interests would be well served if Armenia becomes a participant in the politics of the South Caucasus once its conflict with Azerbaijan is resolved and its relations with Turkey normalized. Yet, on the Armenian side, there appears to be a hardening of the position that belies the accommodating rhetoric. Reportedly, the Armenian Diaspora, which is heavily invested in the labeling business, warns Armenian authorities against selling out the national cause just when, with such a sympathetic team in place, the long,

“The nature of the opening with Armenia... and what the United States stands to gain from it, ought to be communicated to Congress and the media.”
sought after goal of getting the resolution passed is within reach. If the Diaspora has its way and the U.S. Congress passes a resolution acknowledging the events of 1915 as “genocide,” the Turkish government would be under immense pressure to respond, possibly with retaliation. Even if relations get back on track, as they eventually must, precious time in a critical period will have been wasted in Turkish-American relations. Upon the passing of such a resolution it would be impossible to continue the détente between Armenia and Turkey, and the most likely outcome would be a hardening of Turkish public attitudes, something the nationalist forces would be delighted to exploit. As for the purported goal of such resolutions around the world, namely that this would force Turkey to take a critical look at its past, it will not materialize. In fact, a strong case can be made for the adverse effect of such resolutions on the openness of the debate concerning the Armenian question in Turkey. Turkey should not stand still waiting for the Armenian Diaspora to have its way and inflict damage, not only on Turkish-American relations, but sell short the interests of the Republic of Armenia and its citizens. The nature of the opening with Armenia, the political, economic, strategic, and humanistic dimensions of this initiative, and what the United States stands to gain from it, ought to be communicated to the U.S. Congress and the media. Ankara ought to make clear what it wishes to achieve with this opening and, if the blockage stems from Yerevan, share this information with all relevant parties. As relations improve, it would be a lot easier for Armenians and Turks to deal with the ghosts of the past and reach a common understanding on how to best approach this historical record. Currently, history is being used by some in the Diaspora, by Turkey-bashers around the world, and others as a political weapon to settle scores. There is no doubt that this strategy is far from being the best to achieve reconciliation between Turks and Armenians that would open the way to dealing properly and honestly with a

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Analysis

painful episode of their common history. Apart from its diplomatic openings and its efforts to communicate to the American public and political class, in its reconciliatory approach toward better relations with Armenia, Turkey could take one significant step. It is a matter of honor and decency for the Turkish government to go to the bottom of the assassination of the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink. Dink, who believed that Armenians were victims of genocide in 1915, fiercely opposed the politicization of and objected the passing of any legislation on the matter. As a result, he was neither a favorite of the Armenian Diaspora nor Turkish nationalists. Mounting evidence shows that this heinous murder took place because of the connivance, assistance, and, the outright participation of parts of the Turkish security establishment. This great believer of Armenian-Turkish reconciliation can then be honored with a simple monument dedicated to Turkish-Armenian friendship. It is not the U.S. Congress’ business of legislating history, especially when a resolution such as HR106 does not stand on solid ground either historically or legally. There is also, of course, the matter of whether states—many of which have plenty of skeletons in their own closets—should pass such judgments on other states. Turkey will ultimately deal properly with this history as its relations with Armenia are further normalized. Many of its independent scholars came up with original research and interpretations that all but buried the official version on the deportation and elimination of Anatolia’s Armenian population. They will continue to do good work and inform their own public as well as the outside world. Turkey’s future defense ministers, unlike Vecdi Gonul, who recently justified the elimination of the Armenian population from Anatolia with the expediency of homogenization of populations in the process of nation-building, will express regret that the nation actually lost its human richness during that bloody episode. Bullying Ankara will not help the cause of either justice or historical truth. In the meantime, to sacrifice the interests of the United States, Turkey, and Armenia on the altar of domestic political expediency would run counter to the deliberative and judicious style of doing business that the President-elect has so far displayed.

Soli Ozel, Lecturer, Bilgi University; Columnist, Sabah
Soli Ozel teaches at Istanbul Bilgi University’s Department of International Relations and Political Science. He is a columnist for the national daily Sabah and is senior advisor to the chairman of the Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association. Additionally, he is the editor of TUSIAD’s magazine Private View.

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting greater cooperation and understanding between North America and Europe. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working on transatlantic issues, by convening leaders to discuss the most pressing transatlantic themes, and by examining ways in which transatlantic cooperation can address a variety of global policy challenges. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany, on the 25th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Bratislava, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest.

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