Washington should be squeezing Ankara, not the other way around.

Washington should be squeezing Ankara, not the other way around.

Washington should be squeezing Ankara, not the other way around.

A wartime lexicon.
Oct. 29 2007 11:36 AM

Divide and Conquer

The United States should be squeezing Turkey, not the other way around.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan with Iraq's President Jalal Talabani.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani

In the past century, the principal victims of genocide or attempted genocide have been, or at least have prominently included, the Armenians, the Jews, and the Kurds. During most of the month of October, events and politicians both conspired to set these three peoples at one another's throats. What is there to be learned from this fiasco for humanity?

To recapitulate: At the very suggestion that the U.S. House of Representatives might finally pass a long-proposed resolution recognizing the 1915 massacres in Armenia as a planned act of "race murder" (that was U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau's term for it at a time when the word genocide had not yet been coined), the Turkish authorities redoubled their threat to invade the autonomous Kurdish-run provinces of northern Iraq. And many American Jews found themselves divided between their sympathy for the oppressed and the slaughtered and their commitment to the state interest of Israel, which maintains a strategic partnership with Turkey, and in particular with Turkey's highly politicized armed forces.

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To illuminate this depressing picture, one might begin by offering a few distinctions. In 1991, in northern Iraq, where you could still see and smell the gassed and poisoned towns and villages of Kurdistan, I heard Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan say that Kurds ought to apologize to the Armenians for the role they had played as enforcers for the Ottomans during the time of the genocide. Talabani, who has often repeated that statement, is now president of Iraq. (I would regard his unforced statement as evidence in itself, by the way, in that proud peoples do not generally offer to apologize for revolting crimes that they did not, in fact, commit.) So, of course, it was upon him, both as an Iraqi and as a Kurd, that Turkish guns and missiles were trained last month.

And here, a further distinction: Many of us who are ardent supporters of Kurdish rights and aspirations have the gravest reservations about the so-called Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. This is a Stalinist cult organization, roughly akin to a Middle Eastern Shining Path group. (Its story, and the story of its bizarre leader Abdullah Öcalan, are well told in Aliza Marcus' new book Blood And Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence.) The attempt of this thuggish faction to exploit the new zone of freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan is highly irresponsible and plays directly into the hands of those forces in the Turkish military who want to resurrect Kemalist chauvinism as a weapon against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government, which it sees as soft on Kurdish demands. There's a paradox here, in that the uniformed satraps who claim to defend Turkish secularism are often more reactionary than the recently re-elected and broadly Islamist Justice and Development Party. The generals vetoed a meeting earlier this year between Abdullah Gul—now president of Turkey and then foreign minister—and the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq. This alone shows that they are using the border question and the PKK as a wedge issue for domestic politics.

This is enough complexity to be going on with, but Congress and the executive branch have been handling it with appalling amateurishness. The Armenian resolution is an old story. I can remember when it was sponsored by Sen. Robert Dole and stonewalled by President Bill Clinton. What a shame that we didn't get it firmly on the record decades ago. But now a House and a White House that can barely bring themselves to utter the word Kurdish are both acting as if nothing mattered except Turkish amour-propre.And, as a consequence, the United States and its friends are being squeezed by Ankara instead of—to put it shortly—the other way around. This is disgracefully undignified.

In 2003, the Turkish authorities, who had been parasitic on American and NATO support for several decades, refused to allow our bases in Turkey to be employed for a "northern front" in the removal of Saddam Hussein unless their own forces were allowed to follow us into Iraqi Kurdistan. The Bush administration quite rightly refused this bargain. The damage done by Turkey's subsequent fit of pique was enormous—nobody ever mentions it, but if the coalition had come at Baghdad from two directions, a number of Sunni areas would have got the point (of irreversible regime change) a lot sooner than they did. The rogue PKK presence was not then a hot issue; Turkey simply wished to pre-empt the emergence of any form of Iraqi Kurdish self-government that could be an incitement or encouragement to its own huge Kurdish minority.

So, let us be clear on a few things. The European Union, to which Turkey has applied for membership with warm American support, has insisted on recognition of Kurdish language rights and political rights within Turkey. We can hardly ask for less. If the Turks wish to continue lying officially about what happened to the Armenians, then we cannot be expected to oblige them by doing the same (and should certainly resent and repudiate any threats against ourselves or our allies that would ensue from our Congress affirming the truth). Then there remains the question of Cyprus, where Turkey maintains an occupation force that has repeatedly been condemned by a thesaurus of U.N. resolutions ever since 1974. It is not our conduct that should be modified by Turkey's arrogance; we do a favor to the democratization and modernization of that country by insisting that it get its troops out of Cyprus, pull its forces back from the border with Iraq, face the historic truth about Armenia, and in other ways cease to act as if the Ottoman system were still in operation.

*****

In Slate two weeks ago, I mentioned that security for Ayaan Hirsi Ali might have to be paid for partly by private subscription. Here are the details for all who may wish to contribute to this eminently deserving cause. Checks should be made payable to the Ayaan Hirsi Ali Security Trust and sent to the same trust in care of Bank of Georgetown, 1054 31st St., NW, Suite 18, Washington, D.C. 20007. The trust's tax identification number is 75-6826872. Those who prefer wire transfer should use account number 1010054748 and bank routing number 054001712. This appeal is a test of our seriousness in the face of theocracy and its assassins.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.