Monday, October 15, 2007

Saying Nothing Versus Saying No

Would the harm that will be done---and may have already been done---to the American effort in Iraq and to the welfare of our staunchest allies there, the Kurds, by angering Turkey, justify the House of Representatives in voting down House Resolution 106, should it reach the floor? That is a profoundly difficult question.

On one hand, although one can quibble with small details, the facts recited in the Resolution are generally well established and the official failure to use the word "genocide" rather than "mass killings" can only be explained as a craven effort to curry favor with a Turkish government that has never owned up to official responsibility for the deliberate slaughter and forced deportation of over a million Armenians. (Exactly why the modern Turkish government is so hostile to acknowledging genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire is not entirely clear, but there are other examples of national pride persisting in this way.)

On the other hand: the Resolution is purely symbolic; outside pressure is less likely to lead Turks to come to grips with their own history than are internal processes; it's not as though the Congress is willy-nilly passing resolutions condemning all genocides, such as those committed by the Chinese Communist Party that still rules the world's most populous nation; and it's hard to ignore the fact that the key movers of Resolution 106 represent districts with substantial numbers of Armenian-American voters.

To be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with U.S. citizens of Armenian descent exercising their First Amendment right to petition their government for even symbolic redress of what they rightly regard as a historical injustice. I'm merely suggesting that the representatives in Congress may be acting out of conventional political motives. But I'm certainly not endorsing the view that I have seen expressed by some conspiracy theorists: That opponents of the Bush Iraq War strategy are pushing Resolution 106 now precisely with the aim of baiting Turkey into withholding tactical support, thus crippling the war effort and leading to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

All that being said, I do not see how a member of Congress could in good conscience vote against Resolution 106. The Resolution is factually accurate. To vote against it would be the equivalent of voting against a resolution condemning the Holocaust, Pol Pot or the other well-documented genocides of the last century. There may be (indeed, I think there probably are) sound reasons of realpolitik for using procedural tactics to avoid having to take a vote on Resolution 106 (although Speaker Pelosi seems determined to bring it to the floor). But once it's there, the calculus shifts.

The same logic has broader application. If one is asked the question, it may be hard to deny that the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards support terrorism, but that does not mean the question needs to be asked. Or closer to home, it may be inappropriate (on a certain view of the relation between a central university and its units) for a university President to un-invite an extremely unpopular speaker, but that doesn't mean the President cannot try to cajole others into not issuing the invitation in the first place. What I appear to be tentatively endorsing here, is a radical extension of what Alexander Bickel somewhat problematically called the "passive virtues"---the notion (for Bickel with respect to the Supreme Court but in my conception all over the place) that it may be appropriate to manipulate the agenda in a somewhat unprincipled fashion so as to avoid having to make substantively dangerous decisions.

Posted by Mike Dorf