Don’t Go Cold on Turkey

Mark R. Parris
Mark R. Parris Former Brookings Expert

March 3, 2007

Once again, a resolution has been introduced in the House of Representatives asserting that the forcible deportation and massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in 1915 was “genocide.” But this time around the resolution, sponsored by Reps. Frank Pallone, Adam Schiff, George Radanovich and Joe Knollenberg (and over 170 co-sponsors), appears likely to pass. The result will be a train wreck with an important, longstanding American ally: Turkey.

It may never be the right time for one nation to pass legislation on another’s history or morality, but there could be no worse time than now. It’s a particularly sensitive moment in Turkish politics: A new president will be picked by parliament in late April (coinciding with Congress’s likely decision on a resolution) and elections for a new parliament will follow by November. Based on current polling, Turkey by year’s end could for the first time have a president, government, parliament and most municipalities under the control of a party — Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AK Party — inclined to loosen the strict barriers set up by Ataturk between religion and state. One does not have to share secular fears of AKP’s alleged “secret agenda” to Islamicize Turkish society to appreciate the strains this would generate in Turkish political life over the weeks and months ahead. Nor does it take much imagination to realize that, in such circumstances, Turkish politicians will compete with one another, should a resolution be passed, to show they cannot be pushed around by the U.S. Congress.

Turkish domestic politics isn’t the only issue, however. This year will highlight the country’s pivotal geography and relevance to U.S. strategic goals. As we struggle to find our footing in Iraq, for example, Turkey can either help or make our task much harder. Our forces in Iraq rely heavily on Turkey’s Incirlik airbase for resupply. Turkish military intervention in the north, either to pre-empt cross-border terrorism by Turkish Kurdish PKK terrorists, or to stop Kirkuk from becoming part of the Kurdish federation, would complicate Gen. David Petraeus’s already daunting assignment.

Then there is Iran. Will Turkey align itself with Washington and the West in efforts to ratchet up pressure against the Islamic Republic — a major trading partner and ally against the PKK? Or will the Turks join Russia and others favoring a less-confrontational approach? And as the U.S. tries to forge a new alignment in the Middle East to roll back Iranian influence and restart Israeli-Palestinian talks, a Turkey that has both bulked up its influence in the Muslim world (particularly among Sunni Arabs) and kept its close relationship with Israel, will be an asset.

Turkey has quietly emerged as the prize in a new great game over who will develop and bring to world markets the vast oil and gas resources of former Soviet Central Asia. Experts know that Turkey will in the years ahead become one of the world’s major energy hubs, supplied by new pipelines that will crisscross Anatolia. The question is whether this will happen according to Moscow’s or Washington’s vision of where those pipelines should run, and whose product should fill them. Ankara will likely make some of the key decisions this year.

Turkey goes into this defining year with its anchors to the West drifting or under strain. NATO, for decades the bedrock of Turkey’s Western identity, particularly for its influential military, has lost luster as its mission has blurred. The European Union’s ambivalence toward Turkey since formally beginning the accession process in October 2006 has soured many Turks on the project. Despite laudable garden-tending by senior officials on both sides, U.S.-Turkish relations haven’t recovered the depth or breadth they had in the ’90s; polls show anti-Americanism remains high in the Turkish “street.” The winners have been Turkey’s ultranationalists, whose vision of a Turkey that “goes it alone” and increasingly resorts to violence is chilling.

Some will interpret this analysis as realpolitik that simply postpones the moment when Turkey must deal with its pre-Republican history. That ignores the reality that Turks in growing numbers — among them Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk — are speaking out in favor of a more candid debate on the events of 1915. Most fear their voices will be drowned out by the tsunami of nationalist outrage that a resolution will generate.

In the past, U.S. congressional leaders have repeatedly bowed to the findings of administrations of both parties that a genocide resolution would adversely affect vital American security interests. Given the equities America now has at stake in and around Turkey, those findings remain as valid as ever.

The U.S. has a lot of hard work to do in Turkey’s neighborhood. In some cases, American lives will literally be at stake. Whatever the challenge we face in this troubled region, our success will be far more certain if we can work with Turkey, rather than having to work around it. The responsible choice for Congress’s current leadership is to join their predecessors in concluding that passage of an Armenian genocide resolution does not serve American interests.