Home Cyprus Refusing to call Cyprus occupied isn’t sophisticated. It’s stupid.

Refusing to call Cyprus occupied isn’t sophisticated. It’s stupid.

By Michael Rubin

It has now been almost 50 years since the Turkish army invaded Cyprus, occupying and ethnically cleansing a third of the country. Turkish justification that their invasion was necessary to protect Turkish Cypriots rings hollow for three reasons.

First, the Greek junta in Athens fell within days, ending any threat Turkish Cypriots might have felt. Second, Turkey’s land grab occurred after the crisis had passed while Turkey, Greece, the United Kingdom, and both Cypriot Greeks and Cypriot Turks negotiated peace in Geneva. Third, Turkey subsequently flooded the occupied zone with Turkish settlers from Anatolia, essentially making Turkish Cypriots a minority twice over in their own land.

National security adviser Henry Kissinger cast moral clarity aside to excuse Turkey’s aggression. At the time, he calculated Turkey’s size and geographic position, making it a more important defense partner, and he was willing to throw Cyprus under the bus to appease Turkey’s rulers. Kissinger’s calculations have not aged well.

Turkey today is a liability to NATO, not an ally. The Eastern Mediterranean, meanwhile, only grows in economic and strategic importance. It would be near impossible for the United States to supply Ukraine, for example, without the Port of Alexandroupoli. International efforts to supply humanitarian assistance to Gaza, meanwhile, rely upon the Cypriot port of Larnaca and the diplomatic troubleshooting of Constantinos Kombos, Cyprus’ wunderkind foreign minister.

Yet, even as Cyprus steps up and punches above its weight to become an indispensable ally, the State Department insults it by refusing to officially recognize Turkey’s illegal half-century occupation as an occupation. Instead, the State Department twists itself in a knot to describe the occupied region as “the Area Administered by Turkish Cypriots.” That is akin to describing Russian-occupied Donetsk and Luhansk as “the Area Administered by Russian Ukrainians.”

Such word games never work. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s fiat that the State Department should call “rogue regimes” “states of concern” did not advance peace with either Iran or North Korea; rather, by suggesting a brain tumor was, in fact, just a headache, her sleight of hand simply whitewashed malign behavior. The same held true with Obama-era Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who decreed that the U.S. government should call “terrorism” “man-made disasters.” The Obama administration’s subsequent decree that the Pentagon should not refer to “great power competition” with China did not end that country’s threat. Simply put, the United States is strongest when it calibrates its foreign policy to reality.

Privately, American officials say the State Department’s reluctance to call Turkey’s presence in Cyprus an occupation stems from continued fear of antagonizing Turkey. Many Turks, regional officials, and Americans say Jeff Flake, the former Arizona senator who now serves as U.S. ambassador in Ankara, has drunk the Turkish Kool-Aid and acts more like a Turkish lobbyist to Washington than as a man willing to consider a broader strategic picture. Others refer to Turkey’s role in NATO as reason to soft-pedal reality to avoid any tantrum from Turkey’s mercurial leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

This, too, is an invalid concern. Consider recognition of the Armenian genocide. For decades, American officials promised to recognize the genocide only to renege on their pledge for fear of Turkish backlash. To his credit, President Joe Biden kept his word. Turkey’s response? Crickets. When Biden called Erdogan’s bluff, he exposed the Turkish leader as a paper tiger. To label Turkey’s presence in Cyprus as occupation would be no different. Recognizing reality always strengthens foreign policy.

The same is not true for the opposite. To prioritize diplomatic sensitivities over reality encourages irredentists to double down on aggression. Today, the Cyprus crisis peaks with northern Cypriots walking away from reintegration talks.
It is time to right a 50-year wrong. The State Department must snap out of its conceit that rhetoric can erase reality. Cyprus is occupied. Period. It is time to say as much and make ending that occupation the basis of Washington’s Eastern Mediterranean strategy.

Michael Rubin is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is director of policy analysis at the Middle East Forum and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

The article appeared in the Washington Examiner on April 24. 2024


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