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Washington Caved In to Turkey Over Armenia

October 27, 2000|JONATHAN CLARKE | Jonathan Clarke, a former member of the British diplomatic service, is with the Cato Institute in Washington. E-mail:

During the Balkan wars, the Clinton administration defended the need for American intervention on the grounds that inaction would undermine U.S. credibility. The argument was that, in tough times, an effective American role depended on the perception by friend and foe alike that the U.S. was equal to the challenge and would not buckle under pressure.

Very well. The extraordinary dangers inherent in the current Middle East tensions provide a paradigm moment for making good on this argument. Sadly, the opposite happened last week when the administration succumbed to a naked power play by Turkey by pressuring Congress to shelve the Armenian genocide resolution. The message for bullies and terrorism is clear: America understands your language.

The origins of the administration's embarrassment run deep. Naturally, who did what to whom, when and why is disputed, but there is a nonpartisan academic consensus that in 1915 and shortly thereafter about 1.5 million Armenians perished at the hands of the crumbling Ottoman empire. The eminent British historian Martin Gilbert has described this as genocide. Efforts have been underway in the U.S. to adopt this term as the official description.

These efforts culminated in early October when the House International Relations Committee passed the Armenian Genocide Resolution. The resolution's bipartisan sponsors regarded this as an innocuous affair, concerned with history rather than current foreign policy. In deference to Turkey's sensibilities, the resolution contained explicit language exempting the present-day Republic of Turkey from responsibility. The resolution then went to the full House for a vote.

The ferocity of Turkey's response took the administration by surprise. The array of threats was comprehensive: denial of military base facilities, curtailment of military exchanges, cancellation of weapons and commercial contracts, upgrading of Turkey's relations with Iraq and Iran, noncooperation over Caspian energy and threats against Americans in Turkey to the extent that the State Department had to issue an advisory.

The U.S. has important foreign policy business to conduct with Turkey, so a judicious response was in order. But the craven nature of the administration's response gives serious cause for alarm. Instead of curtly telling Turkey that the U.S. does not negotiate under duress, the administration dispatched a parade of former generals and ambassadors to Capitol Hill to plead Turkey's cause, much as if they were Turkish rather than American officials. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen wrote to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) warning of dire foreign policy consequences should the resolution pass the House. In the drama's final act, President Clinton personally prevailed on Hastert to withdraw the resolution from a vote that it would have comfortably won.

The U.S. is a forward-looking country anxious not to impale itself on the horns of inconvenient historical dilemmas. But the administration's actions have significant future implications, all damaging to U.S. interests.

To start with Turkey: A historic debate is underway there pitting modernizers who favor far-reaching political reform in preparation for Turkey's accession to the European Union against traditional Kemalists attached to a much more rigid vision of the Turkish state. In essence, as former French Ambassador to Turkey Eric Rouleau has written, the debate is about how to "convince the Turkish military to relinquish its hold on the jugular of the modern Turkish state."

Because Turkey's threats were focused on the military, the administration's capitulation will strengthen precisely those reactionary elements that obstruct Turkey's democratic evolution. It also will fuel the Turkish military's ingrained addiction to solving problems by force.

The damage is already palpable. In a letter of appreciation to Clinton, Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer adopted the style of a corporate chief thanking his Washington lobbyist for a job well done, crisply commenting that any repetitions of these "unfortunate campaigns" by the Congress are to be avoided. Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit crowed that the U.S. action was a testament to "Turkish power."

Turkey now knows that threats work in Washington. No need to expect progress on Cyprus any time soon.

The wider implications are even more serious. The Middle East is full of forces, some friendly, some hostile, with an interest in probing U.S. pressure points. Many, for example the perpetrators of the attack on the U.S. guided missile destroyer Cole, have a literally devastating agenda. The need for cast-iron American credibility has never been greater.

The administration's sell-out over the Armenian genocide sets an appalling precedent at precisely the wrong moment. Hopefully, the various parties are so preoccupied that they will miss this study in weakness. But don't count on it.

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