As if we don't have enough problems dealing with the present, we now are in serious difficulties dealing with the past—about what happened nearly a century ago in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire.
When "the sick man of Europe" finally expired, Turkish generals and political leaders created a new nation, a new culture, and a new self-image as a civilized, decent country. Modern Turkey has become a crucial ally of the United States. Now the Turks are enraged because the Democratic leadership in Congress has chosen this time to brand Turkey with the terrible crime of genocide.
The Turks acknowledge that Armenians were massacred, but so, too, they say, were many innocent Turks. The key question is whether there was a systematic attempt to eliminate every Armenian because of ethnicity or religion. Large numbers survived—which is more than can be said of the Jews under the Nazis.
The weight of opinion among historians outside Turkey is to mark the deaths as genocide. This is the judgment of some 22 countries, including many in the European Union, which Turkey wishes to join. It is an argument about history, but it has moral reverberations today when ethnic cleansing is a plague. In Iraq, the Shiites wage ethnic war against Sunni Muslims and Iraqi Christians, driving out at least half of Iraq's entire Christian minority of 2 million people. In Lebanon, Hezbollah and Syria have combined to eliminate Maronite Christians and their western allies. In Bethlehem, the home of the Church of the Nativity, the former Christian majority has been reduced by Muslim extremists to less than 2 percent. In Nazareth, the radical Muslim mayor sought to build a mosque in the parking lot of the Church of the Annunciation (an effort halted by the Israeli government).
Taboo topic. The Turks have not handled their history very well. They closed state archives; they have punished people for raising the subject. This has cost them credibility. But how wise is it for Congress, at a particularly sensitive time, to get into the business of rewriting history with respect to crimes committed nearly a century ago by an empire that no longer exists? Few Americans would place the Armenian disaster on a list of pressing issues. Similar legislation has been defeated in the past, including in 2000 when Bill Clinton was president. Eight former secretaries of state, three former secretaries of defense, and Clinton have all come out against the congressional exercise in branding.
We need good relations with Turkey. We need the Incirlik Air Force Base in southeastern Turkey and passage through the Habur Gate on the Iraq border to supply our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq and, maybe one day, to withdraw those forces. Some 70 percent of our supplies, one third of our fuel, and all of our armored personnel carriers come through Turkey. And we already have one nasty little crisis brewing: The Turks are threatening to move into northern Iraq to deal with the Kurdistan Workers Party, a terrorist organization that recently crossed the border to murder nearly 30 soldiers, police officers, and civilians.
There is a lot at stake. Support for America by the Turkish public is down to only 11 percent, and right-wing nationalism and radical Islam within Turkey are reviving, inflamed by xenophobic comments from Europe's leaders unwilling to admit Turkey to the European Union. Turkey, let us not forget, is the only Muslim nation that has long been grounded in the West, has membership in NATO, and has bilateral ties to the United States. Now Turkey may seek alternative affiliations, either with its Islamic neighbors or with Russia, so we are on the verge of provoking an irreparable breach with this Muslim country and with the Muslim world, reinforcing those who believe that coexistence of western and Muslim countries is hopeless even for this western-oriented, secular Muslim democracy. Turkey is remarkable because it is secular even as it is Muslim; because it is western oriented yet attached to the Islamic world; because it is committed to democracy and economic reform under the leadership of an openly religious Muslim party. It is a bridge to cross the growing schism between the West and the Islamic world.
Modern Turkey must deal with the Armenian tragedy. A joint international commission with access to archives would be a good starting point—better at this time than an ill-considered resolution. We must find the restraint and wisdom to find a more appropriate time to address the issue of atrocities perpetrated by long-dead rulers of a long-defunct empire instead of beating up on modern Turkey, which did not exist at the time of the massacre. It's only a little more relevant than Muslims beating up on England for bad things done in the Crusades—or Europeans on the United States for its crimes against the American Indians.