Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Idealism vs. Realism: Turkey

Christopher Beam's article from this week's New Republic is an example of excellent analysis of a complex foreign policy issue. It illustrates that even when all the facts are agreed upon, there are often multiple, legitimate to proceed.

At issue is the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Turks between 1915 and 1923 (some would argue longer). As Beam writes, the matter is settled history for everyone except Turks: The Young Turks of the World War I-era Ottoman Empire rounded up and executed several hundred Armenian intellectuals on April 24th, 1915, and proceeded to kill upwards of a million others over the next eight years. It is often considered the world's first genocide.

Turks deny this as a matter of national pride, again bringing up the puzzling (to me, anyway) concept of collective guilt. I understand a government's long-term accountability for past actions, but not a group of people who were not even born at the time. Turkish denial of its history is all that drags many of them into complicity with those actions.

The problem is, Turkey has repeatedly threatened foreign governments with retaliation should they publicly say the genocide even happened. And they followed through in the case of France. This seems incredible when one considers the likelihood of a Western government denying the Holocaust.

But here's the rub: Turkey is of strong strategic importance to the West, and not just for crass economic reasons. Turkey is the long-standing proof that an Islamic country can be secular and democratic (though not without its problems), something especially important now. America wants to further that example by ensuring Turkey's entry into the E.U. They are in a vital position next to not just Iraq, but a potential future Kurdish imbroglio.

So: There was an Armenian genocide, and our continued refusal to call it such in public is an insult to the memory of those who died, and Armenians who still live. And as Beam points out, defying Turkey would re-establish some much-needed moral authority.

But there are significant risks as well, and I believe there is no cut-and-dried answer.

What would I do? This may seem like a bit of a punt, but it's more an admission that I don't know all the facts. Briefly, I think I would work to get as much of the rest of the world on board and call it genocide, if I'm reasonably sure that doing so would not do serious long-term damage to Turkey's direction in the world. This would not just give moral authority, but would set a good example of leading the rest of the world on same.

If odds are that doing so would carry a good risk of sending Turkey away from secularism, I would reluctantly hold against the greater evil, and not feel one bit good about it.

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