Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Obama should use the Armenian genocide issue to undermine Erdogan

A would-be op-ed:

Obama, Erdogan and politics of Armenian genocide
by Emil Sanamyan

U.S. priority in Turkey should be to prevent its "putinization"
Photo via
This coming April 24, President Barack Obama should keep his pre-election promise to recognize the Armenian genocide, not just because he made the promise or because this happens to be the centennial of this atrocity, but because it would be a politically prudent decision that is in America's and Turkey’s long-term interest. 

On April 24 2009, hours before Obama issued his first statement on the Armenian Genocide as president, the then U.S. ambassador to Ankara James Jeffrey had an interesting conversation with Turkish politician Devlet Bahceli. Bahceli has for two decades been the leader of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), Turkey’s third largest and known among other things for its particularly hard line on the so-called Armenian issue. But in that conversation, revealed through Wikileaks, Bahceli encouraged the newly elected U.S. president to finally use the words “Armenian genocide.”

"Whatever the U.S. is going to say, let it be said now," Bahceli suggested, "the US and Turkey were on a mutually-detrimental cycle, in which the months leading up to the April 24 Day of Remembrance fuel debate over whether it will be this year that the US president will utter the word "genocide.""

Jeffrey's analysis of the comments was that "Bahceli's challenge to the US to finally put the Armenian genocide issue to rest reflects a wide perception that genocide is being used as a political tool: a large swathe of Turkish society believes that the U.S. intends eventually to declare the events of 1915 to constitute genocide, but maintains the fiction of debate as leverage in negotiations with the Turkish government." At the same time, Jeffrey went on, "Bahceli's challenge is also undeniably self-serving; the MHP stands to benefit most at the polls from the emotional reaction that a U.S. recognition of an Armenian genocide would bring. He would lead the charge to trash relations with the U.S. were we to use the term "genocide.""

Obama then and in subsequent years did not use the term “genocide” for several identifiable reasons: one of his initial priorities as president was to dispel the notion that he would be a “bleeding-heart liberal” in his foreign policy choices; he wanted to build a relationship with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and did not want to benefit his political rivals; and, finally, Obama used that issue as leverage to encourage Turkey to normalize relations with Armenia. None of this reasoning holds today.

Obama is concluding his final term and has long lost the need to prove himself to his doubters, with the potentially groundbreaking deals with Cuba and Iran the most recent evidence of an emboldened foreign policy by the president. The effort to normalize Armenia-Turkey ties, publicly led by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, petered out long before the end of Clinton’s appointment. And, arguably, Armenia-Turkey inter-government ties are worse today than they were before that diplomatic effort.

Efforts to repair the relationship with Erdogan have failed quite dramatically, seen particularly in the lack of constructive cooperation in Syria and Iraq against ISIS, leaving U.S. to rely on Iran to achieve some modicum of stability, as well as in Turkey’s refusal to support Western sanctions against Russia. But most worryingly, Erdogan has moved Turkey in authoritarian direction, muzzling much of the opposition and seeking to formally consolidate his powers as president after elections in June.

Today, the nationalist MHP and not much less nationalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) are probably as anti-American as Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), but they – along with more liberal Democratic Party of Peoples of Turkey (HDP) that already recognizes the Armenian genocide – are the only forces capable of preventing an AKP super-majority in the Turkish parliament that, through Erdogan-planned constitutional reform, can very well lead to the sort of presidential power that Vladimir Putin enjoys in Russia. This is a recipe for new problems both inside Turkey and its neighborhood.

Certainly, recognizing the genocide would be far from a panacea that cures Turkey’s authoritarian drift. But this move, sensitive as it is for Turkey, will help undermine Erdogan’s authority ahead of elections, making him the first Turkish leader to lose the century-old battle over the “Armenian issue.” Just perhaps, this will help dilute the AKP majority in the new parliament, taking some time out of Erdogan’s political clock and giving his domestic opponents another opportunity to regroup.

And for Obama’s legacy, this will be an opportunity to check off another one of his pre-election promises, while breaking another taboo in U.S. foreign policy.

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