Saturday, March 20, 2010

Lobbies, genocide and fickle friends

From Ian Williams
Middle East International 18 March

Thou shalt not kill/ But need’st not strive/ Officiously to keep alive, the Victorian poet modernised the Sixth Commandment. The Israel lobby seems to have used his revised version in dealing with the ‘Armenian Genocide’ resolution in the House Foreign Relations Committee which passed 23-22 on 4 March, causing the recall of the Turkish ambassador to the US and jeopardising the recently concluded Turkey-Armenia accord. The affair said much about the power of lobbies in Washington, the cynicism of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the irrationality of some national phobias.

The Turkish lobby is growing in the US. Turkish-American organisations have increased in number and roped in the pan-Turkic commonwealth, bringing support from Uighur, Kazakh, Uzbek, Azeri and other groups. Turkey has also been able to summon discreet assistance from military/security lobbies because of its pivotal role in NATO. However, its most substantial weapon has always been the ability to call on AIPAC, whose concern for Israel has outweighed human rights considerations. That did not work this time.

The Armenians, on the other hand, can rely on their own well-heeled, well-established lobby based on their longstanding and successful community, and have often been able to seek help from the Greek lobby – rarely loath to tilt at Turkey – and, of course, from human rights groups.

One had hoped for a more sophisticated reaction from Erdoğan’s government, given the strenuous efforts it has made at rapprochement with the existing Armenian state. It was, after all, the Ottoman Empire, not the Turkish Republic, that undoubtedly carried out mass killings in the old Armenian heartland. Neither the Soviet Union nor the French Republic took the rap for crimes committed under their monarchies, and Ankara carefully expunged many of the Ottoman links in its reinvention of Turkishness. Indeed, reportedly, many of the killings were actually carried out by ‘Mountain Turks’, or Kurds.

The use of the term ‘genocide’ also tends to cloud issues. Mass murder is reprehensible, whether carried out in the name of ethnic, religious, class or any other nomenclature, and sterile arguments about whether the massacres of Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia – and Armenia – count as genocide reduce mass murder to small print for the sake of a convenient handle. It is never completely clear: any Balkan Muslim who lived in Belgrade was fairly safe, as similarly was any Armenian in Constantinople.

In any case, support for Turkey on the issue has long been an embarrassment to pro-Israel representatives. Israel has not stinted in its evocation of genocide, yet in the past, its supporters have lobbied for votes on Turkey’s behalf. This time, despite approaches from the Turks, they decided not to intervene and allowed a free vote.

It would be nice to think that AIPAC had acquired a conscience. However, this is almost certainly another case of hubris. There is little doubt that this was conceived as a warning to Ankara – on a par with humiliating the Turkish ambassador to Israel (MEI II/6 p 18). It is inept and clumsy, but then so is the Israeli government. It sends out such conflicting signals you can almost forgive the lobbyists.

To be fair, while some of the legislators might have wanted to ‘punish‘ Turkey for Erdoğan’s presumption, others welcomed an opportunity to vote with their consciences. They had been opposing the resolutions not because they thought Armenians had not been massacred, but because they had been told it was good for Israel. Yet it was always difficult to base support for Israel on genocide but disclaim Armenian invocations of it, not least since the Armenians, like most such ethnic lobbies, followed the AIPAC blueprint in campaigning.

Rep Tom Lantos and the Anti-Discrimination League (ADL) publicly wrestled with their consciences over the contradictions between combating genocide and helping Israel. Abe Foxman of the ADL told the Jewish weekly Forward: “No Armenian lives are under threat today or in danger. Israel is under threat and in danger, and a relationship between Israel and Turkey is vital and critical, so yeah, I have to weigh [that].”

In the end, however, Israel needs Turkey more than vice versa. Ankara should forget about the resolution, even if it remembers the fickleness of its expedient friends.

Some might see paranoia in invoking the Israel lobby in this context. For those who have not read AIPAC’s own boasts about its effectiveness, it is worth remembering its successful pressure 20 years ago on a dozen senators to ‘unsign’ Bob Dole’s Senate Resolution on the 75th anniversary of the Armenian massacres. That so riled him that he came out batting alongside Baker and Bush against the loan guarantees that Yitzhak Shamir wanted to build settlements.

The previous big battle of the lobbies, often forgotten, was Ronald Reagan’s victory over AIPAC in selling early-warning planes to the Saudis. He marshalled the military-industrial complex and the oil lobby against AIPAC.

If well-heeled lobbies can overcome public opinion on vital issues like healthcare, gun control or banking reform, we should not be surprised that the lobbies predominate on foreign-policy issues on which the electorate range from neutral to ignorant. It is small comfort that it is not only the Middle East – just think of the US’ Cuba policy, which flies in the face of its allies, the electorate and now even most of the Cuban-American exiles. It’s no way to run an empire.

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