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October 19, 2007, Friday

Losers in the congressional saga

This is what happens when you try to poke your finger in the eyes of an ally in the middle of a war -- or, more precisely, wars.
I’m talking about the dramatic twist brought about the position taken by the Democratic leadership of the US House on the infamous “Armenian genocide” resolution last week. Madam Pelosi, who seemed jubilant after last week’s Committee on Foreign Affairs vote, shifted gears on Wednesday. Although as late as Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” she expressed a strong desire to bring the controversial resolution to the floor in November, she now offers a more ambiguous approach. Does she have any choice other than canceling or postponing the move? Given the public pressure, no. Can she be completely trusted? No. Turkey’s and Bush administration’s trouble with Madam Pelosi will most likely continue. However, it was interesting to watch how recent developments took the initiative from her hands.

Supporters of the Armenian resolution were confident they would get away with it this time. They were ready to confront the Bush administration’s objections and the pro-Turkish lobby’s efforts. But their calculations failed when Ankara seemed determined to take extraordinary actions, the prospect of which alarmed US media. It’s not often that Turkey climbs into the headlines of American television and newspapers. Ankara’s ability to make life difficult for US troops, especially in Iraq, by an incursion into northern Iraq in pursuit of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) or by obstructing crucial deployments of US provisions from İncirlik air base has been brought to the surface. Thanks to the shortsightedness of Madam Pelosi and some of her friends, the US Congress, which is not necessarily a popular institution with the American media, put itself in the position of risking American interests for a non-priority issue. The basic line by prominent commentators was, “Why in the hell are we putting our troops in danger for the sake of a genocide which took place 90 years ago? See, not only in US Congress but also in the US media there is almost a consensus that the events of 1915 amounted to genocide. But many people find it nonsense to alienate a unique ally to declare that at any official level.

The Republican Bush administration blew it by losing or at least disenchanting many allies with the decision to go to war with Iraq. Now, when many Americans were expecting the Democrats to change the course of America’s standing in the world, some of their top congressional leaders, including Steny Hoyer and Tom Lantos, have seen fit to step over an indispensable ally, Turkey. What poor logic! Aren’t there Democratic leaders who have better reasoning than this? I’m sure there are. First and foremost is the leading presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton. Although as a populist politician she also co-signed a similar resolution in the Senate, Clinton should be among the last people who would like such a resolution to pass. I assume she is smart enough to see that, if and when she becomes president, she must secure Turkey’s support to enable withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, a Democratic priority. Given US and Turkish public and official reaction to the provocative move by Congress, she would put her political weight -- most likely privately so as not to alienate potential Armenian voters and sponsors -- against the measure. Once the resolution is put on the backburner it will be increasingly difficult to bring it up again in 2008, simply because of presidential politics.

I have always seen genocide declarations in the US Congress as an issue of image with little to no legal implications for Turkey. Powerful Armenian groups at this time might once again fall short of fulfilling their ultimate dream. But they succeeded in hurting Turkey’s image because the issue of the genocide allegations was elevated to such a high profile before the American public. On the other hand, Armenian-Americans also struck a blow to their own image. They are now seen as less loyal Americans because they put Armenian ethnic interests before the US. Above all, the image of Congress has suffered the most. Poor-reasoning, flip-flopping and hypocrisy are evident.

Should Turkey be happy with where we are now? Well, the battle might have been won but the outcome of the larger war is still uncertain. Sooner or later a similar resolution will pass, because the prevailing American position is as follows: It’s not the right time to insult Turkey, let’s do it when we make sure vital US national security interests would not be harmed. People usually highlight the bad image of the US in Turkey. But Turkey’s image in the US, although still in a comparatively better shape, is not pleasant either. Therefore it will be increasingly difficult to build on strategic partnerships given these negative public perceptions.

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