US-Turkey Relations: Confronting Security Challenges and Historical Memory


With Scott Paul, Steve Clemons, and Mindy Kotler already weighing in, I’d like to add my two cents into the mix on this latest Armenian genocide resolution — first, to reference the extent of our strategic interdependency so we do not take Turkey’s backlash lightly; and second, to offer some perspective on confronting a nation that has yet to confront its own past. I just noticed the New York Times had a couple good pieces on this today (on security and historical memory) but I figured I’d post some of my own thoughts.
On the issue of a strategic relations, I doubt Turkey was accorded the weight it deserved when the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted on this resolution, just as I think most European countries have undervalued Turkey’s potential entrance as an EU member. This is most articulately expressed by Rajan Menon and S. Enders Wimbush in a recent security studies journal piece:

If Turkey, a key friend and ally, turns away from the United States, the damage to American interests will be severe and long lasting. Turkey remains exceptionally important to the United States, arguably even more so than during the Cold War. Turkey is the top of an arc that starts in Israel and wends its way through Lebanon, Syria, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran. It abuts, or is proximate to, countries pivotal to American foreign policy and national security, whether allies and friends, adversaries, or loci of instability.

The authors go on to describe how pivotal Turkey is to US and European interests in the Eurasian region including: protecting shipping lanes and energy markets, balancing of Russian influence, maintaining Caucus stability, offering a model of moderate Islamic democracy, creating any conceivable political settlement in Iraq, supporting counterterrorism operations with intelligence and bases, and extending the future cohesion of NATO and its mission in Afghanistan. The entire article is well worth a read.
On the second issue of historical memory, I think it’s worth swallowing our own hubris for a moment to reflect on our own history.
The United States is also guilty of silence on historical crimes against humanity. Though Virginia issued a statement of regret earlier this year, the US federal government has never issued a statement of apology for slavery. And a statement of apology to Native Americans has been advanced by the valiant efforts of people like Sam Brownback but I don’t believe it has ever received the full support of the US government.
My point is this — it is not an easy task for a nation to reconcile with its bloody history let alone initiate a national dialogue on it. (The work Charles Tilly pioneered reminds us that nation-building has inherently and historically been a very bloody process). Our nation is over 200 years in the making and is still grappling with historical crimes that provided the conditions for its possibility. There is an evolution in the process of every nation’s ability to process and deal with its historical legacy as Japan is just beginning to do. But a nation that feels under siege or contending with existential threats, as Turkey often feels today, is far less likely to address these issues than to bury them. And condemnations from allies are much more likely to play into the hands of ultra-nationalists, a potent force that still possesses the ability to commit further crimes against humanity.
While it has been poorly applied in the past, in this case our decisions should be informed by our own historical trajectory. Sequencing seems to be an essential element in grappling with our dark past and if we were condemned and forced by our allies to face our historical crimes during times of duress, say during the Great Depression or World War II, I doubt we would have fared so swimmingly.
We did issue an apology to Native Hawaiians 100 years after overthrowing their kingdom and disenfranchising a population. And we did issue an apology for Japanese internment in 1988 after we had climbed out of the gale of a turbulent history.
When Attaturk built the country of Turkey, he did so out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire and went to great lengths to remake Turkish identity and sever the bonds of history that he believed would retard Turkey’s modernization — this bonds ranged from its language to its Islamic culture to its history books. Re-threading those ties is no simple matter.
I am an unabashed admirer of Orhan Pamuk‘s writing (especially My Name is Red) and was shocked when he was put on trial for even mentioning the Armenian genocide to a newspaper. But Pamuk was eventually acquitted, though on a technicality, and under the AKP party, the civilian government has tried to water down the national security laws that provide the power base for militant nationalism. And I think even Pamuk would acknowledge the complexities that bedevil a Turkey’s national acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide. Certainly Ararat, the first major film made by an Armenian director about the genocide in 2002, depicts the struggles of Armenians to wrestle with their own personal trauma of memory leave alone the interminable challenge of a nation to deal with its bloody foundations.
To put it succinctly, I don’t think issues of national historical crimes can be attended to until a shared, coherent national consciousness has reached some semblance of solid ground and as Turkish identity has recently been in wild flux — caught between the Middle East and Europe, between militant secularism and democratic Islamism, and between an urban and rural bases of economic and political power — it was unconstructive and irresponsible for the House Foreign Affairs Committee to issues the reprimands it did.
–Sameer Lalwani


4 comments on “US-Turkey Relations: Confronting Security Challenges and Historical Memory

  1. p.lukasiak says:

    call me a cynic, but I think that Turkey’s hard line on this resolution isn’t about the resolution — its about US protection for the Iraqi Kurds who are engaging in/facilitating terrorist attacks in Turkey.
    Basically, Turkey wants to make sure that when Turkey retaliates against the Iraqi Kurds, that any US criticism will be muted. Bushco is being put “on notice” — raise a fuss when Turkey makes a major move against Iraqi Kurds, and lose access to Turkey as part of the US military supply route.


  2. sona says:

    Just an afterthought – the genocide of the Armenians occurred during the Ottoman rule that Attaturk fought against to reinvent Turkey that was not Ottoman. Lantos is not particularly bright and certainly is no foreign affairs strategist. It would have been so much wiser to engage in quiet diplomacy to put the responsibility of the Armenian genocide to the brutal remnants of the Ottoman Sultans which it was. Attaturk’s Turkey has never been guilty of it. Santos, in his hubris of ignorance, does not know this but is ignorance really forgiveable in people beholden to taxpayer funding?


  3. rollingmyeyes says:

    Tch, consider their attitude if the American Army has to fight its way out of Iraq! It doesn’t seem so abstract then, does it?


  4. JohnH says:

    If I were a Turk, I would be deeply concerned. Apart from silence on its own historical crimes against humanity (slavery, etc.), the US has a clear track record of overlooking the most egregious human rights behavior when conducted by its friends and allies while louding condemning enemies for human rights abuses, real or imagined. By criticizing Turkey, does this suggest that the only Muslim democracy in the Middle East is becoming an enemy? Are they are becoming a less reliable partner for the distribution of Persian Gulf and Caspian Basin oil?


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