How to Handle the 'G-Word' with Turkey
By Jim Arkedis
President Obama's early-April trip to Turkey is an important reminder that America has allies that are both Muslim and (mostly) democratic. It will also prove a test of the new president's diplomatic mettle.
As the president's first trip outside North America, the visit highlights Turkey's rapidly ascending position in America's foreign policy. The United States needs Turkish support on a diverse and critical range of issues: supplying soldiers to Afghanistan; negotiating with Iran; mediating talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors; exporting oil from the Caspian region; and providing a military exit-route from Iraq.
But then there's the g-word, *genocide* - the one issue that could skunk Ankara's mood to cooperate. In 1915, modern Turkey's Ottoman predecessors massacred some 1.5 million ethnic Armenians and displaced some 500,000 more.Turkish governments object to the term "genocide," insisting that the chaos of the Ottoman Empire's breakup prevented any coordinated mass killing.
At issue is President Obama's pledge - when he was Candidate Obama - to "recognize the Armenian genocide" if elected. The other end of Pennsylvania Avenue hasn't let him forget it. In mid-March, Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) offered the latest incarnation of a bill to label the act as genocide, saying, "We applaud [Obama's] strong recognition of the Armenian genocide as a Senator, and look to him for continued strong leadership on this issue as President." The pressure mounts as the event's anniversary approaches on April 24th.
To the outside observer, these debates might seem like squabbling over a choice of words. After all, no one disputes the loss of life, and it happened a long time ago. But to modern Turks, the genocide debate is positively radioactive. Turkish society equates "genocide" with Nazi Germany.
The president is in a bind. If he fulfills his campaign pledge, he puts America's strategic partnership with Turkey in serious jeopardy: That could mean no Turkish troops for Afghanistan; no help in high-profile negotiations; no oil pipeline; and no transit through Turkey on the way out of Iraq.
How does Obama get out of this jam? Will the weight of near term strategic interests carry the day over his progressive values? The good news is that Obama administration can secure American interests and be on the right side of history. Here's how:
The first part is easy: As Woody Allen liked to say, 90 percent of life is just showing up. The maxim holds fairly true for the president's trip. His mere presence will confer a sense of strategic importance on Prime Minister Erdogan's government. President Obama will use the rare honor of addressing the Turkish parliament to shower praise on its members. He'll avoid any hint of the genocide debate - you wouldn't come to someone's house for dinner just tell them that the food sucked, would you?
The second part is not. The president must prioritize. Where does his administration need Turkish help most? American negotiators should capitalize on the feel-good nature of the trip and quickly secure deals on its highest priorities, like transiting US forces out of Iraq through Turkey, or a inking a commitment of Turkish troops for Afghanistan.
Inevitably, the genocide discussion will arise. Once back on American soil, the president should remain firm in his strong, progressive commitment and recognize the atrocity as he promised. Accordingly, he should expect to pay a diplomatic price - the Turks may blast him in the media, or possibly refuse further negotiations. But as long as the administration has already secured Turkish commitments on its highest priorities, the punishment should