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CSIS MEMORANDUM Board of Trustees, Advisers, and Friends -
From: John J. Hamre
Date: March 4, 2010 (Number 320. Two pages.)
Re: Steady patience rather than frozen hostility
Every spring Washington experiences two annual events—the cherry blossoms and the annual Armenian genocide resolution in the Congress. Cold weather is delaying the cherry blossoms, but not the annual Armenian genocide debate. It is a crucial question for our ally, Turkey, and a complex matter for any Administration.
The Armenian “question” refers to the horrible slaughter of Armenians back during the time of the First World War as the Ottoman Empire was disintegrating. (A fair number of Turks and Greeks living in Turkey suffered terribly, too.) The Armenian diaspora set itself to ensure that the world would never forget this tragedy. Armenia itself was locked into the deep freeze of the cold war inside the sphere of control of the Soviet Union. And Turkey became an essential ally to NATO and the West. All of this caused U.S. governments to keep control of the annual Armenian genocide issue so that it would not disrupt crucial relations with important allies.
This changed dramatically with the end of the Cold War. Tensions below the surface no longer needed to be contained. Turkey has remained an important ally, but it sees the world through a different prism. Sometimes that has been awkward, but invariably we have worked out our crucial differences because it is such an important ally in the region.
During the past 15 years the annual Armenian genocide resolution would come up in the Congress before April 24, which commemorates the tragic history for Armenians. Each year Turkey would voice its outrage at being singled out, and force the U.S. Government into an awkward process to recognize the history but deflect the resolution. Everyone ended up unhappy through this process.
In recent years the Government of Turkey has sought to find a new way forward concerning Armenia. The annual genocide debate anchors everyone in the past and offers no plausible way forward. Working quietly with the Obama Administration, Turkey decided to open a new direction for constructive relations with Armenia. Last year when the genocide resolution started to gain momentum, the Obama Administration encouraged Turkey and Armenia to use diplomatic channels to create normal and constructive relations. Part of this entailed an honest review of the past, but the primary focus was to build a pathway for collaboration between Armenia and Turkey going forward. Unlike the annual genocide resolution process which left everyone unhappy, this new approach offered a constructive way forward for Armenia and Turkey.
Diplomacy is tough, and progress has been achingly slow. This entire region is plagued by so-called “frozen conflicts”—once-violent disputes between countries and ethnic groups that that have now settled into frozen non-cooperative relations. Decades and decades of animosity and
cynicism are frozen in place. None of it can be fixed easily or quickly because movement on one issue can compromise other important interests.
The Obama Administration is frustrated with the slow pace of negotiations, and is pressuring Turkey by taking a passive posture as this year’s genocide debate begins. That may seem like a plausible tactic, but it is playing with matches in a room filled with tinder. A friend of mine from Turkey asked me “how many people in America will follow the genocide resolution debate?” I said that aside from the aggrieved American Armenian community, virtually no one. “In Turkey, I guarantee you that 90% of the public will focus on it every day.” My American friends who know Turkey far better than do I tell me that passage of the resolution would spiral American-Turkish relations to even more dangerous low points at a time when the United States needs Turkey’s continued help in stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan and in keeping a channel open to Iran in efforts to forego its development of nuclear weapons.
A year ago I thought the Obama Administration was quite right to help promote a new way forward on this long-simmering controversy. We do need a process that results in constructive ways forward for all parties, and to end the tactical skirmishing over the past. I tell my Turkish friends that the judgment of history is set. The world knows that Armenians suffered horribly in those days of decay and disarray. But we won’t build a new future for this region by reinforcing the frozen conflicts of history. There was no plausible way this complex problem could be resolved diplomatically in a year. It will take hard, sustained diplomacy. And a good deal more patience. But the choice is between charting a difficult way ahead or remaining stuck in a bitter frozen past.
I am always grateful for your feedback. Please drop me a note at

John J. Hamre

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