October 18, 2007

October 18, 2007 | Commentary on Europe

Armenian folly

A long-smoldering dispute between Turks and Armenians over events nearly a century old has finally erupted into full flame in the charged atmosphere of Washington politics in the shape of the Armenian Genocide resolution. The nonbinding resolution passed the House Committee on Foreign Affairs last week by a vote of 27-21, following several unsuccessful attempts going back to 2000. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pledged to make sure the resolution reaches the floor of the House. If it passes, it will send shock waves throughout American policy in the Middle East.

Maybe the problem is that the dead never really leave us. The Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Turks took place almost a century ago, but the ghosts of the estimated 1.5 million Armenians who lost their lives in one of the most brutal ethnic-cleansing campaigns in history will now haunt American efforts to create a stable and viable Iraq.

It is deeply regrettable, but rather than help right a great historic wrong, the Armenian genocide resolution will now stand as an egregious example of special-interest politics distorting a larger national-security issue.

During World War I, most of Turkey's Armenian population was driven out of Anatolia and into the desert of Syria. There, most of them perished from heat and thirst as they struggled to reach the area of present-day Armenia.

What is wrong, one might ask, with officially acknowledging the suffering and the destruction of these people? In one sense, nothing. The history of the 20th century will not be complete until Turkey recognizes, as Japan and Germany have, the horrors of past regimes.

Indeed, had Turkey many years ago accepted responsibility for the sins of the past, we would not be where we are today.

The historical evidence of the genocide is solid and documented by contemporary eyewitness accounts of foreign diplomats - which in fact at the time caused considerable international uproar. However, Turks even today tend react violently to any discussion of the Armenian genocide, disputing everything from the methods to the numbers. Turks have not been good advocates for their own cause and have created sympathy in Europe and in the United States for the small, impoverished Armenian nation next door to the east.

Nor did Turkey do itself much good in the opinion of many Americans, when its parliament denied the United States the use of its airbases for the invasion of Iraq. In Congress in particular, the argument that Turkey is too valuable an ally to offend was severely undercut.

But the problem is that the Armenian genocide is the past -- and this is the present. As Rep. Tom Lantos correctly stated,"We have to weigh the desire to express our solidarity with the Armenian people... against the risk that it could cause young men and women in the uniform of the United States armed services to pay an even heavier price."

In the present, the Armenian genocide resolution will affect U.S. relations with Turkey, which, with all our ups and downs, remains a vital strategic ally for the effort it Iraq.

It is through the Incirlik airbase in southeastern Turkey and through supply routes via Turkey into northern Iraq that a majority of American supplies and reinforcements flow.

At this point in time, stabilizing Iraq has to be the priority. In addition to denying the United States the use of these bases, Turkey is considering a military incursion into northern Iraq to attack Kurdish extremist strongholds, a move the U.S. government strongly opposes.

American Armenians have pressed for the recognition of past wrongs for a long time. They are understandably elated, but must pause to consider the potential harm this will cause to the country that is now their home and which has enabled them to become one of its most prosperous ethnic communities.

Meanwhile congressional liberals are shamefully taking advantage of a historic tragedy to achieve what they could not do otherwise, i.e. severely hamstring the Bush administration's efforts in Iraq - using Turkey as the tool. California is home to the largest Armenian community in the United States. The California congressional delegation, including Mrs. Pelosi, has spearheaded the effort to pass the genocide resolution.

Their strategy is clever, as well as totally unconscionable on so many levels. Liberals of conscience, such as Mr. Lantos, ought to distance themselves from this blow to the national interest. It serves neither Armenians nor Americans.


Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: Europe

First appeared in the Washington Times