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For Bush and Congress, Threats from Turkey are Scarier than from China

Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2007

As the New York Times reports today, the House resolution to condemn as genocide the 1915-17 massacre of Armenians in Turkey is losing steam. Under pressure from the Bush administration and the Turkish government, more and more Representatives are backing off, acquiescing to the argument that the non-binding resolution could have a devastating impact on relations with Turkey.

The measure is largely symbolic, partly a nod to the Armenian population in the U.S., and partly a rebuke to Turkey, which still has laws against referring to the killings as a "genocide." The Turkish government has threatened serious damage if the measure passes, and one Turkish general was quoted as saying: "our military relations with the U.S. would never be as they were in the past."

Increasing the leverage, Turkey's parliament authorized its government to launch incursions into Kurdish Iraq, to pursue Kurdish PKK rebels that have been attacking Turkish troops. This is not as shocking as it sounds since the U.S. recognizes the PKK as a terrorist group, but the timing, and fears that Turkish soldiers in Iraq could be disastrous to Kurdish stability have helped Congress to change its mind.

From a strictly realist standpoint, the decision should be easy. Turkey is a strategic ally, and passing the resolution would damage that relationship without any geo-strategic gain. This is probably why all eight living former secretaries of state signed a letter urging Nancy Pelosi to drop the subject. Of particular concern is logistical support for Iraq, including an airbase used by U.S. forces.

Another tenant of realism however is the belief of Thucydides that "the strong do what they can, and the weak do what they must." With this in mind, it is worth asking how credible are Turkey's threats about severely damaged relations.

Turkey is certainly important to the U.S., not only for the airbase, but as a secular Muslim state friendly to the U.S. But because of their relative levels of power, the U.S. is even more important to Turkey as a trade partner and ally. And despite domestic sentiments it is unlikely Turkey's government will take any drastic measures. Turkey simply cannot afford to spoil its relationship with the U.S. A good illustration of this is that Turkey has spent millions of dollars lobbying on Capitol Hill. If its threats were serious, why would Turkey waste the money making its case to Congress?

Since Congress is losing momentum almost hourly, it seems unlikely that the resolution will pass, or even be voted on. But if it were, it would be foolish of Turkey to react strongly. In the event that it passes, President Bush will condemn it, Turkey will condemn it, the Armenians will be happy, and life will go on.

In a completely contradictory story, President Bush and Congress as I write are holding an awards ceremony for the Dalai Lama, despite Chinese threats that sound quite familiar after hearing from Turkey all week. The Dalai Lama is set to receive a Congressional Gold Medal, with President Bush speaking at the event. China has said if the event goes forward, there will be "an extremely serious impact" on Chinese relations with the U.S.

In the New York Times yesterday, a Chinese communist representative from Tibet was interviewed saying: "If the Dalai Lama can receive such an award, there must be no justice or good people in the world."

Chinese opposition to the Dalai Lama is similar to Turkish opposition on the Armenia resolution -- driven by domestic politics and fears of stoking nationalist sentiments. But unlike Turkey, China's criticism is being carefully brushed aside with administration statements that China's concerns are understood but that the event is going forward.

In an even more stark contrast, CSIS China expert Charles Freeman told the Christian Science Monitor that Bush is likely going ahead with the ceremony because he does not want to be seen as "appeasing" China. As for Congress, there has been no mention of withdrawing the medal.

Why are threats from Turkey so much scarier than threats from China? Difficult to say for sure. But Iraq would be a pretty good guess.