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Turkey’s integration into the global economy was sealed last week by a billion-dollar offer by the American private-equity firm KKR for a local shipping company. Days later, Turkish troops shelled Kurdish villages in northern Iraq and prepared an incursion against Kurdish rebels, a measure that would undermine Turkey’s economic standing. Whether Turkey will fling away its newfound prosperity in a fit of national pique is hard to forecast, but that has been the way of all flesh. Europe plunged into World War I in 1914 at the peak of its prosperity for similar reasons.
News accounts link Turkey’s threat to invade northern Iraq with outrage over a resolution before the US Congress recognizing that Turkey committed genocide against its Armenian population in 1915. American diplomats are in Ankara seeking to persuade the Turks to stay on their side of the border. Why the Turks should take out their rancour at the US on the Kurds might seem anomalous until we consider that the issue of Armenian genocide has become a proxy for Turkey’s future disposition towards the Kurds. “We did not exterminate the Armenians,” Ankara says in effect, “and, by the way, we’re going to not exterminate the Kurds, too.”
Nations have tragic flaws, just as do individuals. The task of the tragedian is to show how catastrophic occurrences arise from hidden faults rather than from random error. Turkish history is tragic: a fatal flaw in the national character set loose the 1915 genocide against the Armenians, as much as Macbeth’s ambition forced him to murder Banquo. Because the same flaw still torments the Turkish nation, and the tragedy has a sequel in the person of the Kurds, Turkey cannot face up to its century-old crime against the Armenians.
Shakespeare included the drunken Porter in Macbeth for comic relief; in the present version, the cognate role is played by US President George W. Bush, who has begged Congress not to offend an important ally by stating the truth about what happened 100 years ago. The sorry spectacle of an American president begging Congress not to affirm what the whole civilized world knows to be true underlines the overall stupidity of US policy towards the Middle East. It is particularly despicable for a Western nation to avert its eyes from a Muslim genocide against a Christian population.
It offends reason to claim that the Turkish government’s 1915 campaign to exterminate the Armenians was not a genocide. Documentary evidence of a central plan is exhaustive, and available to anyone with access to Wikipedia. It was not quite the same as Hitler’s genocide against the Jews, that is, the Turks did not propose to kill every ethnic Armenian everywhere in the world, but only those in Anatolia. But it was genocide, or the word has no meaning. To teach Turkish schoolchildren that more Turks than Armenians died in a “conflict” is a symptom of national hysteria. Hysteria, however, does not occur spontaneously in countries with Turkey’s record of national success. One must dig for the root cause.
Turkey’s tragedy is that the 11th Seljuk conquerors of the Anatolian peninsula became masters of a majority Christian population, a cradle of Greek culture for two millennia, in which the oldest and hardiest ethnicity, the Armenians, held fast to the Christian religion they adopted in 301 AD. Even after the forced conversion of Anatolia to Islam, the Ottoman Turks comprised a minority. Turkey, so to speak, was ill-born to begin with, and the Armenian genocide touches upon a profound and well-justified insecurity in the Turkish national character.
After the loss of the European part of its empire in the Balkans, in the midst of World War I, the Ottoman Empire feared for its hold upon Anatolia itself, and decided to settle the long-unfinished business of conquest with a conscious act of genocide. But the Turks lacked the resources to do so in the midst of war, and Turkey’s military leaders enlisted Kurdish tribes to do most of the actual killing in return for Armenian land. That is why Kurds dominate eastern Turkey, which used to be called, “Western Armenia.” The Armenian genocide, in short, gave rise to what today is Turkey’s Kurdish problem.
Commentators close to the Bush administration allege that Democrats in Congress are exploiting the Armenian issue in order to sabotage America’s war effort in Iraq. Ralph Peters writes in the October 14 New York Post, for example, “The Dems calculate that, without those [US] flights and convoys [through Turkey], we won’t be able to keep our troops adequately supplied. Key intelligence and strike missions would disappear. It’s a brilliant ploy – the Dems get to stab our troops in the back, but lay the blame off on the Turks.”
I am shocked, shocked to learn that the Democratic Party is engaged in politics. Col Peters, though, misses the big picture. With or without the Armenian resolution, conflict had to erupt with Turkey. Far more threatening to Turkey than the resolution on Armenian genocide was the 75-23 vote in the US Senate last month in favor of dividing Iraq into Sunni, Shi’ite, and Kurdish zones. Republicans as well as Democrats supported this resolution, and with good reason. I have advocated the breakup of the Mesopotamian monster named “Iraq” for years, and do not think this step can long be withheld.
Kurdish nationhood will be the likely outcome of Iraq’s breakup. Ethnic Kurds comprise a full fifth of Turkey’s population, and the existence of a Kurdish nation will exercise a gravitational pull upon Kurds in Turkey. Turkey fears with good reason for its national integrity. If the American Congress accuses the Turkey of genocide against the Armenians (as 22 countries already have), the Kurds will have a stronger argument for autonomy – despite the fact that the Kurds dominate eastern Turkey precisely because they slaughtered the Armenians. The Kurds may not deserve nationhood, but “’Deserves’ got nothing to do with it,” as Clint Eastwood’s character offered in the movie Unforgiven.
When the issue of Armenian genocide erupted, I immediately looked for news about the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature, and the only Turk with a global voice. Pamuk reportedly spent his prize money on a Manhattan apartment, suggesting that he has no plans to return to a homeland that threatened to jail him for mentioning the Armenian massacres to a Swiss interviewer. That speaks volumes about the Turkish frame of mind.
Pamuk’s novel Snow comes as close to a national tragedy as Turkey is likely to produce. Set in the eastern border city of Kars, it shows how Islam is filling the hollow spaces in the secular Turkish society created by Kemal Ataturk, the great modernizer who fashioned the post-Ottoman state. Young women hang themselves in protest against the proscription of Islamic garb, and young men turn to Islamist terrorism. The decaying mansions of the murdered Armenians of Kars look down upon the tragedy like a spectral chorus. In past essays I have recommended Pamuk’s work to anyone who seeks to understand Turkey (The fallen bridge over the Bosporus, Oct 31, 2006; In defense of Turkish cigarettes, Aug 24, 2006). To his own chagrin, Pamuk has become the conscience of his nation, and a nation that exiles its conscience becomes a danger to itself and others.
Iraq never has been viable as a national entity, not when the British Colonial Office cobbled it together out of former Ottoman provinces in 1921, nor when Saddam Hussein ruled it by terror, and surely not under the present American occupation. As the US Senate has had the belated wisdom to recognize, it will break up. The Ottoman Empire never was viable – at its peak half of its population was Christian – and its Anatolian rump, namely modern Turkey, may break up as well. Iran, the mini-empire of the Persians who comprise only half the population, may not hold together, nor may Syria, a witches’ cauldron of ethnicities ruled by the brutal hand of the Alawite minority.
America is not responsible for chaos in the Middle East. The Middle East has known nothing but chaos for most of its history. The colonial policy of the European powers after World War I left inherently unstable structures in place that must, one day, meet their reckoning. But America’s obsession with the surgical implant of democracy in the region forces it into a murderous game of whack-a-mole with a welter of armed ethnicities.
How should American strategy respond to violent expressions of existential despair by failing ethnicities? One approach was suggested by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius on October 14: “A starting point is [former Carter Administration National Security Advisor] Zbigniew Brzezinski’s new book, Second Chance, which argues that America’s best hope is to align itself with what he calls a ‘global political awakening’. The former national security adviser explains: ‘In today’s restless world, America needs to identify with the quest for universal human dignity, a dignity that embodies both freedom and democracy but also implies respect for cultural diversity.'”
I suppose Brzezinski means that America should avoid offending Turkish dignity when speaking about the Armenians, and do the same with the Armenians when speaking of the Turks. What makes the appeal to “cultural diversity” preposterous is that the self-expression of Seljuk Turk culture is the suppression of the Kurds, the self-expression of Sunni identity is to suppress the Shi’ites, and so on and so forth. Ethnic tantrums in response to perceived indignities are amplified by a sense of failure in the modern world that cannot be assuaged by American “respect.”
Live and let die, I propose instead. For the past seven years I have argued that the West cannot avoid perpetual conflict in the Middle East, and, rather than seeking stability, should steer the instability towards its own ends. Washington should forget about Turkish support in Iraq, allow the Mesopotamian entity to disintegrate into its constituent parts, while helping the Kurds maintain autonomy against Iraq. That would teach the Turks to bite the hand that feeds them. A pro-Western Kurdish state would strengthen Washington’s hand throughout region, with adumbrations in Syria and Iran as well as Turkey.
One should, of course, take Turkish interests into account. To restore its national dignity, Turkey should be encouraged to incorporate the Turkish-speaking (“Azeri”) minority of Iran, and so forth. Turkey ultimately may concede territory to an independent Kurdistan, but more than replace it by annexing portions of Western Iran. One cannot accord respect to failing nationalities; one can only let them fight it out. Breaking up Iraq will not foster stability. On the contrary, it will make the old instabilities a permanent feature of the regional landscape.
In the case of Iraq, the danger associated with partition stems from Iran’s influence among Iraqi Shi’ites. But Iran, as noted, is just as vulnerable to ethnic disintegration as Iraq, and Washington should do its best to encourage this. If, as I expect, the West employs force against Iran’s nuclear weapons development capacity, the ensuing humiliation of the Tehran regime would provide an opportunity to undo some of the dirty work of World War I-era cartographers. All this is hypothetical, of course; the little men behind the desks in Washington do not have the stomach for it.