Wrong Time for Armenian Genocide Bill

By Matt Stone

Demonstrating a predictable lack of strategic foresight, the U.S. Congress plans to renew its obsession with the Armenian genocide tomorrow, when the House Committee on Foreign Affairs will hold its mark-up session for the Armenian Genocide resolution. In 2007, the resolution -- which "[calls] upon the president to ensure that the foreign policy of the United States reflects appropriate understanding and sensitivity concerning . . . the Armenian Genocide" -- passed out of committee but never reached a vote on the House floor, following a strong pushback effort from the Bush administration. The supporters of this year's iteration hope the Obama White House will prove less resistant to its foreign policy being held hostage to Congress's parochial interests.

While there is little doubt outside of Turkey that genocide was perpetrated against the Armenians in the 1910s, the resolution threatens to undermine U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and South Caucasus at exactly the wrong time. Turkey and Armenia are currently in the midst of a slow-going rapprochement, an effort broadly opposed by the Armenian diaspora in the U.S., but supported by the Obama administration. Meanwhile, Washington needs Ankara onside with regards to Iran, especially as the U.S. pushes for a new sanctions resolution in the U.N. Security Council, where Turkey holds a non-permanent seat. The Armenian Genocide resolution would scuttle both efforts.

Turkish-Armenian rapprochement has progressed in fits and starts for more than two years, but it appears to have again stalled. Since signing two protocols in October 2009 that outlined the path toward normalizing diplomatic relations and opening borders, the two neighbors have made little tangible progress. Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian has made it clear that the country's parliament will not ratify the protocols until Turkey does so first. For its part, Turkey has belatedly linked ratification of the agreements to progress in resolving the stalemated conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian province seeking independence -- with Armenia's support -- from Azerbaijan. Ankara had long conditioned normalizing ties with Armenia on a resolution of the dispute, but agreed to forgo the demand in signing last October's agreements. Ankara reversed course once again in response to vocal opposition to the agreements from nationalists at home and longstanding ally Azerbaijan abroad. Armenia rejects the renewed linkage, rightly pointing out that neither protocol mentions Nagorno-Karabakh.

The smart money is now on a breakdown in the process. However, Turkey and Armenia have surprised in the past. In September 2009, most analysts believed the process had ground to a halt, only to be proven wrong weeks later when the two governments signed the protocols at a ceremony in Zurich. With Armenian Remembrance Day approaching on April 24, Turkey may again feel the need to demonstrate progress in order to reduce the likelihood of President Barack Obama using the word "genocide" in his statement on that day.

In this context, the Armenian Genocide resolution is a unilateral provocation, not a constructive application of pressure. It is driven by a domestic constituency that would broadly prefer to see the incipient Turkish-Armenian rapprochement fall apart. Ankara knows this and views it as brinksmanship on the part of Yerevan -- which, truth be told, has far less sway over the Armenian diaspora than Ankara claims. But if the resolution were to pass in the House, Turkey would likely walk away from the process altogether, feeling betrayed by its Armenian interlocutors.

More importantly, the resolution has the potential to undermine U.S. efforts to halt Iran's uranium enrichment and other nuclear activities. Turkey has proven a fickle partner in this endeavor, positioning itself as a potential broker between Iran and the West by cultivating ties to Tehran, often to the befuddlement of the U.S. and Europe. However, the passage of the Armenian Genocide resolution would give the Turks even less incentive to work with its NATO allies on Iran, especially in the U.N. Security Council where the P5+1 need nine votes to pass another round of sanctions. Given Turkey's cordial relations with Iran, a Turkish vote for the next round of sanctions would send a clear signal to Tehran that its policies have left it more diplomatically isolated than ever. However, if Congress pushes forward on the Armenian Genocide resolution, Turkish support for stronger Iranian sanctions would prove even more fleeting than they have to date.

Given its strategic location, Turkey has a stake in a number of other U.S. foreign policy goals: political reconciliation and normalization in Iraq, the reunification of Cyprus, European energy security, security stabilization of the South Caucasus, and the Arab-Israeli peace process, among others. For the most part, Turkey under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party has not worked at cross-purposes to U.S. interests in the neighborhood. But a domestically self-serving resolution on the Armenian genocide would further complicate the bilateral U.S.-Turkish relationship to the detriment of the Obama administration's foreign policy in the region. The resolution is a luxury at a time when the U.S. needs its leaders to show a statesman-like grasp of the national interest.

The exercise of foreign policy is, ultimately, an exercise in prioritization. The U.S. has more important considerations in the Middle East and the South Caucasus than shadowboxing with the past.
Matt Stone, a Washington-based energy consultant, is an adjunct policy fellow in International Studies at the University of Arizona
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