Stung by the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s October 10 approval of a resolution characterizing the massacres and deportations of Armenians by the Ottoman authorities during World War I as a genocide, Turkish politicians and journalists are unanimous that Turkey needs to react. But there is no consensus on how it should respond. Indeed, since the motion was approved, newspaper commentators have spent considerably more column inches criticizing the decision or trying to analyze why it happened rather than thinking through specific responses and their possible repercussions.
The only substantive measure that has been widely discussed is the possibility of Turkey abrogating the agreement whereby the United States currently uses the airbase at Incirlik in southeast Turkey to provide its forces in Iraq with non-lethal supplies. However, most of the advocates of abrogating the agreement appear to be more interested in punishing Washington for the motion than changing U.S. attitudes and policies (Radikal, October 12). Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the closure would have the support of the overwhelming majority of the Turkish people, including, according to a survey conducted by CNNTurk, of both Turkish employees at Incirlik and the local tradesmen who are dependent on the US presence at the base for their livelihood (CNNTurk, October 15).
On October 14, in an interview with the daily Milliyet, Turkish Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit described the approval of the motion as the United States “shooting itself in the foot,” and warned that it would harm bilateral military ties (Milliyet, October 14). However, on October 15, in his column in the same newspaper, Semih Idiz, who had recently returned from U.S., reported that the many people in Washington believed that the Turkish threats were mere bluff. Idiz called on the Turkish authorities to take concrete measures to prove the doubters wrong, although he did not specify what the measures should be (Milliyet, October 15).
Turkish school textbooks teach children to identify themselves not only with the present, but also with the past. The Turkish authorities have long suppressed open debate about what happened to the Armenians. As a result, few Turks are aware of the extensive evidence and eyewitness reports of the killings and deportations, but they are bombarded with photographs and accounts of the relatively small number of revenge massacres by Armenians against Muslims. Consequently, given the majority of Turks’ limited knowledge of what actually happened, from the Turkish perspective the resolution was regarded not just as a distortion of history but as a gratuitous insult.
The Turkish-U.S. Business Council has already announced that it has cancelled a planned conference in the United States. Turkish Foreign Trade Minister Kursad Tuzmen has declared that he has indefinitely postponed a scheduled trip to the U.S. (Turkish Daily News, October 15).
However, several columnists have noted that even if the Turkish authorities add substantive sanctions to such gestures of disapproval, the most long-lasting impact of the October 10 resolution is likely to be on the Turkish public’s perceptions of the United States (Ferai Tinc, Hurriyet, October 12). Sami Kohen, the doyen of Turkish foreign policy commentators, entitled his column in Milliyet on October 15 “How the U.S. lost Turkey.” He predicted that, regardless of any specific measures taken by the Turkish government, the greatest damage to the U.S. would be that Washington would no longer be able to count on Turkey as a reliable ally. Meanwhile, the ultranationalist Yeni Cag has announced that it will run a serialized analysis entitled “The U.S.: The Enemy that Appears to be a Friend” (Yeni Cag, October 15).
However, other journalists have concentrated more on trying to understand why they believe the U.S. has now turned against Turkey. Tufan Turenc in Hurriyet noted that even long-time supporters of Turkey had begun to have second thoughts about the country’s reliability after the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) hosted Hamas leaders in Ankara in 2006 (Hurriyet, October 15). Umit Enginsoy commented that Jewish Americans, who were once among Turkey’s leading supporters in Washington, had now turned against Ankara and that seven of the eight Jewish members of the Foreign Affairs Committee had voted for the October 10 resolution. While Milliyet observed that, with the exception of a statement by 460 Azeri NGOs condemning the resolution, none of what Turkey used to describe as its “sibling nations” in the Caucasus and Central Asia had reacted publicly and that the Azeri response was hardly surprising, seeing that 20% of the country’s territory is currently occupied by Armenia (October 15).
But, amid the outrage and fury, some members of the Turkish media are prepared to admit that those in the United States who believe that all Washington has to do is ride out the storm may have a point. Radikal newspaper observed that there was widespread public outrage when the French parliament passed a similar resolution in 2000, including a consumer boycott of French goods and the exclusion of French companies from Turkish military tenders. However, not only did the anger rapidly fade, it had little long-term impact on French interests. In 2000, when the resolution was passed, annual Turkish imports from France stood at $3.5 billion, dropping to $2.3 billion in 2001 before rising to $3.1 billion in 2002, $6.2 billion in 2004, and $7.2 billion in 2006 (Radikal, October 12).
However, even if the measures do not have any long-term impact, public feeling in Turkey is so strong at the moment that the AKP government will have to do something. The only question is whether it will implement substantive sanctions or whether it will restrict itself to symbolic gestures in the hope that the resolution can be prevented from ever coming before the full House.