Like swallows returning to Capistrano, Congress’s annual determination to debate the history of the Ottoman Empire is a sign of spring. The Turkish government’s approach to the American Jewish community to help sink the proposed Congressional resolution officially recognizing the horrific killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in the early 20th Century as genocide is a similar ritual. Unlike the swallows, however, both Congress and the Turks are out of their habitat.
During the flowering of Turkish-Israeli political and security relations, it was easy for representatives of the “organized” Jewish community to speak on behalf of its Turkish friends and against the resolution. As the Turkish government began to slide-and then rush-away from its relationship with Israel and slide- and then rush-toward new accommodations with Syria and Iran, the Jewish community has become less inclined to use its organizational skill on behalf of the agenda of a country that is less inclined toward the Western side of the great divide. It doesn’t help that the Turkish “request” for “help” has begun to sound more like a threat of damage yet to come.
It is tempting under the circumstances for the Jewish community to “lie low,” not support the resolution but not actively oppose it either. It is probably equally tempting for the Turkish government to start looking for someone to blame if the resolution passes-guess who?
To the extent that either side believed opposition to the resolution was a test of loyalty, or tied it to extraneous issues, they made a mistake. The Armenian resolution-driven largely by the Armenian American community-should be opposed and defeated. But the reasons stand without regard to the (increasingly difficult) behavior of the Turkish government and without regard to (increasingly difficult) Turkish-Israeli or Turkish-American relations.
The Congress of the United States is not the place to debate the history of other people in other times. It would be unacceptable for Brazil to pass a resolution condemning 19th Century American slavery, or Latvia to pass one on the War of 1812. The failings of our history and the resolution of our wars are our responsibility-and those of the Ottoman Turks have to find redress by their heirs. Particularly now.
The Ottoman and Soviet Empires are gone; Turkey and Armenia are independent countries. Their governments have to find whatever understanding and accommodation are possible. Meddling by Congress-particularly when Turkey has fallen out of political favor-won’t help.
Turkey and Armenia have, in fact, made tentative-and reversible-steps toward bilateral relations, but the protocols they signed last autumn show signs of fraying and neither parliament has completed the ratification process. Switzerland was the mediator for the protocols, and perhaps could be of assistance. The U.S. government might also have a role to play, but passage of the Armenian resolution by Congress would make it impossible for the State Department to offer help. We recall that after Turkey invited Hamas to Ankara, its offer to mediate between Israel and its neighbors was no longer welcome in Jerusalem.
It’s another good reason to oppose the Armenian resolution when it comes before Congress later this week.