Monday, October 15, 2007

Talking Turkey

Congress is threatening to pass a resolution proclaiming that the slaughter of a million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks was genocide. Offended, the modern Turks are up in arms, saying they may retaliate by refusing to allow the U.S. to funnel supplies through Turkey to Iraq. In addition, the Turks are peeved with us because PKK rebels based in our Kurdish protectorate in Iraq keep coming over the border to kill people and blow things up. The Turks are threatening to go into Iraq to do something about it. Turkish-American relations are a trifle on the tense side these days.
The Turks don’t have a good press in this country; when we think of the Turks most of us think of Jose Ferrer’s creepy Turkish colonel in Lawrence of Arabia or the nightmare jail in Midnight Express. And there are lots of Armenian-Americans who know the history because they heard it from elderly relatives who survived the horror. But bad press or not, I have to say the Turks have a couple of legitimate beefs here.
First of all, what is Congress doing wasting its time with resolutions like this? Which Congressional committee was it that produced this? The House Committee in Charge of Lecturing Other Countries About Their Past Crimes, was it? I guess we should be grateful Congress has solved all our problems so they can move on to Monday-morning quarterbacking other countries’ histories.
But wasn’t the death of a million Armenians genocide? Well, I wasn’t there. All I have to go on are the various historical sources. Some of them call it genocide, some of them don’t. Who cares what they call it? It seems fairly clear that it was a horrific slaughter of a defenseless population by a backward despotism. If you want to call it genocide, call it genocide. If the Turks don’t like that, they’ll argue with you. But it’s a historical argument, or maybe just a semantic argument. There’s no reason to turn it into a political argument. The debate is similar to the one about what happened to the Native Americans. Call that genocide, and a lot of patriotic Americans will get hot under the collar. The point is that the debate is best left to the historians, not the politicians. Imagine what would happen if the French parliament passed a resolution declaring what happened to the Cherokees genocide. You might well agree with them—but a lot of people wouldn’t, and the ensuing political dust-up would be pointless. You’d wonder whether the French parliament didn’t have anything better to do.
The House resolution is essentially a piece of mischief. If it’s not an underhanded way of undermining our campaign in Iraq (that’s the cynical view, and I’d hate to think it’s true), it’s certainly grandstanding to oblige some influential constituents of Nancy Pelosi. The proper purpose of a legislature is to pass the laws required for the functioning of our institutions and exercise oversight of the other branches of government. Somebody please explain to me how this resolution furthers any of that.
As for the PKK, they’re on our list of terrorist organizations, as well as the EU’s. They have carried out assassinations and bombings across Turkey, and if I were Turkish, I’d be peeved, too, by their ability to find safe haven in Iraq. We should make clear to the Iraqi Kurds that in exchange for our gift of their country to them, they are to exercise some responsibility and rein in the PKK.
None of the above is to take Turkey off the hook for any of its sins. Turkey has stupidly and stubbornly repressed Kurdish language and culture, and the Turkish army’s counter-insurgency campaign in southeast Turkey has been at times criminally brutal. Turkey is an imperfect democracy living under the constant threat of military intervention and nationalist extremism. But it is a working democracy which has shown signs of reform and liberalization, much more so than any other Muslim country, and as the best hope of demonstrating that Islam and democracy can co-exist, its legitimate interests deserve our support. The House resolution, whatever its truth value, is empty symbolism and thus a piece of irrelevant foolishness, and Turkey deserves what influence we can exert to prevent murderous attacks coming across its border from our Kurdish client state.

Sam Reaves

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