Genocide: An inconvenient truth

The Armenian genocide bill has been attacked by both the right and the left -- and it may make matters worse. But it's necessary.

Published October 16, 2007 2:00PM (EDT)

It was the first holocaust, one of the worst crimes of the 20th century. In 1915, during World War I, the ruling political party under the Ottoman regime ordered the extermination of its Armenian subjects. At least 800,000 and as many as 1.5 million men, women and children were murdered or died of disease, starvation and exposure. The details of the genocide, as laid out in books like Robert Fisk's "The Great War for Civilization" and Peter Balakian's "The Burning Tigris," are harrowing. Lines of men, women and children were roped together by the edge of a river, so that shooting the first person caused all the rest to drown. Women were routinely raped, killed and genitally mutilated. Some were crucified. Children were taken on boats into rivers and thrown off.

The genocide was not carried out by the Republic of Turkey, which did not exist yet, but by the ruling party in the final years of the collapsing Ottoman regime. To this day the Turkish government has never acknowledged that what transpired was a monstrous and intentional crime against humanity. Instead, it claims that the Armenians were simply unfortunate victims of a chaotic civil war, that only 300,000 to 600,000 died, that Turks actually died in greater numbers, and that the Armenians brought their fate on themselves by collaborating with the Russians.

Most historians reject these arguments. The definitive case that what took place was a genocide has been made by Turkish historian Taner Akcam, who in the 1970s was sentenced to 10 years in prison in Turkey for producing a student journal that deviated from the official line. He sought asylum in Germany, and now is a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota. In his 2006 book, "A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility," Akcam offers overwhelming evidence that leaders of the ruling political party, the Committee of Union and Progress, planned the Armenian holocaust. There was no military justification for the genocide: Some Armenians did fight against the Ottomans, but relatively few. In fact, Akcam argues, the genocide was driven by the Ottoman thirst for revenge after devastating military defeats, the desire to end foreign interference by the great powers, and above all by the strategic purpose of emptying the Turkish heartland of Christians to ensure the survival of a Muslim-Turkish state. Akcam argues that had the Armenians not been exterminated, Anatolia, the heart of what is now Turkey, would probably have been partitioned after the war by the victorious (and rapacious) great powers. The modern state of Turkey was thus built in large part on the intentional destruction of an entire people -- a moral horror that combines elements of America's destruction of Indians and Germany's extermination of Jews.

The International Association of Genocide Scholars, the leading body of genocide researchers, accepts that the destruction of the Armenians fits the definition of genocide and has called on Turkey to accept responsibility. Leading U.S. newspapers, including the New York Times, accept the genocide description. Twenty-three nations, including Argentina, Belgium, Canada, France, Italy, Russia and Uruguay, have also formally recognized that what transpired was genocide.

For decades, Armenian-Americans and human rights advocates have tried to persuade the U.S. government to officially recognize that the mass killings constituted a genocide. But strategic and national security considerations have always stopped Washington from doing so. For decades, Turkey has been one of America's most important strategic allies -- first as a bulwark against the USSR during the Cold War, then as a key partner in George W. Bush's "war on terror." The only officially secular state in the Muslim world, it is the most politically moderate, economically advanced nation in the region. A NATO member, with close ties to Israel, home to a U.S. base through which most of the supplies to American forces in central Iraq are flown, it is an indispensable U.S. strategic asset.

For these reasons, Washington has never wanted to offend Ankara -- and if there is one sure way to do that, it's by bringing up the Armenian genocide. Although there has been some progress in opening up the subject, it remains explosive in Turkey. Those who assert that the genocide took place can be arrested under a notorious law (still on the books) that makes "insulting Turkishness" a crime. (Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk was convicted of violating this law.) In January 2007, the leading Turkish-Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink, was murdered because of his outspokenness on the issue, and state security officials were clearly involved. The genocide denial is not confined to official discourse: Most ordinary Turks, who have been taught a whitewashed official version of the slaughter, also deny it. Akcam and other historians say that because many of the Young Turks who founded the modern state were involved in the campaign, and the state was constructed on a mythical foundation of national unity and innocence, to bring up the Armenian horror is to threaten Turkey's very identity.

No American administration has ever dared to cross Turkey on this subject. But that may finally change. Last week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, defying pleas from the Bush administration and a letter signed by all living secretaries of state, voted 27-21 for a resolution that would make it official U.S. policy to recognize that the slaughter of the Armenians was an act of genocide. The resolution is nonbinding, but after years of bitter lobbying, it is the closest the U.S. government has yet come to acknowledging the genocide. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has indicated that she will bring it to a vote before the House, which is expected to pass it; the bill's fate in the Senate is less certain.

The mere fact that the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed it, however, was taken by the Turks as a gratuitous insult. As it has done every other time this subject has come up, Ankara -- and the country at large -- reacted with fury. Furious demonstrators took to the streets, shouting invective against the United States. Just-elected President Abdullah Gul said, "Unfortunately, some politicians in the United States have once more dismissed calls for common sense, and made an attempt to sacrifice big issues for minor domestic political games ... This unacceptable decision of the committee, like similar ones in the past, has no validity and is not worthy of the respect of the Turkish people." Turkey's ambassador to the United States warned that the resolution's passage would be a "very injurious move to the psyche of the Turkish people"; he was immediately recalled after the vote to show Ankara's extreme displeasure. Turkish officials warned that if the full House voted for the resolution, U.S.-Turkish relations would be gravely damaged, perhaps for decades. Considering that in a Pew global poll taken in June, a staggering 83 percent of Turks said they had a negative view of America, and an even more staggering 77 percent said they viewed the American people unfavorably, any further deterioration in relations would indeed be grave. The head of Turkey's military warned that if the House passed the bill, "our military ties with the U.S. will never be the same again."

There is no doubt that the controversy comes at a delicate time, because of both internal Turkish politics and the situation in Iraq. The vote could trigger a Turkish response that would be highly injurious to American interests, not just in Iraq but throughout the Middle East. Turkey could close Incirlik Air Base, through which 70 percent of air cargo for U.S. troops in Iraq passes, and refuse to cooperate with Washington on the war.

But the most dangerous consequence would be a Turkish attack on northern Iraq. In a piece of exquisitely bad timing, the committee vote took place against the background of a mounting drumbeat of war talk from the Gul administration, which is under heavy domestic pressure to smash Kurdish militant group the PKK. Just days before the vote, Kurdish militants killed 13 Turkish soldiers near the Iraq border, one of Turkey's heaviest recent losses in the decades-long war. Turkish anger at the U.S. is largely based on Turks' correct belief that the U.S., desperate to preserve good ties with the Kurds, is unwilling to confront the Kurdish guerrillas. A major Turkish invasion of northern Iraq could destabilize the only calm part of the country, pit two U.S. allies against each other, threaten the American project in Iraq and destabilize the entire region. The U.S. has been leaning heavily on Ankara not to invade; the genocide vote could tip Gul over the edge.

Given these geopolitical concerns, heightened by the fact that the U.S. is at war, it's not surprising that some Republicans have accused Democrats, who have taken the lead on the bill, of endangering national security. (Some right-wing bloggers have accused Democrats of using the bill as an underhanded way to sabotage the war.) But opposition to the bill has come not only from the right but from the left. Writing in the Nation, Nicholas von Hoffman mockingly asked, "What's next? A resolution condemning Napoleon's invasion of Egypt and the slaughter visited on the Egyptians at the Battle of the Pyramids?" Von Hoffman attacked the bill's sponsors for self-righteous hypocrisy. British commentator Simon Tisdall made a similar charge in the Guardian, writing, "Imperial delusions die hard -- and once again the U.S. Congress is trying to legislate for the world."

Most Turkish academics toe the official line on the horrific events of 1915. But even some of those who accept that a genocide took place believe that passing the bill now is a bad idea. Yektan Turkyilmaz, a graduate student at Duke University, has the distinction of having been arrested by the Armenian KGB because his research led them to assume he was a Turkish spy. In fact, he is part of a new generation of Turkish scholars who reject their country's propaganda about what happened to the Armenians. In a phone interview from Duke, Turkyilmaz said, "This bill strengthens the hand of the extremists in Turkey, the xenophobes, the extreme nationalists. Yes, Turkish society has to face its past, to prevent any sort of repetition in the future. If I believed that this bill would force the Turkish government to acknowledge the truth, I would support it. But it won't."

For his part, "A Shameful Act" author Taner Akcam acknowledges the force of these pragmatic arguments -- but rejects them.

"Look, we can make a list of reasons why this resolution will make matters worse," Akcam said in a phone interview from his office at the University of Minnesota. "First, it explicitly politicizes the problem. Second, it makes a historic problem a diplomatic fight between the United States and Turkey. Third, it increases the aggressive attacks of the Turkish government against those inside and outside the country. Fourth, it increases the animosity and hatred against Armenians generally in Turkey. Fifth, it can never solve the problem. It aggravates the problem.

"OK, so we've made this list," Akcam went on. "But what is the answer? Whoever is against the resolution must show an alternative to the Armenian people. Unless you give an alternative policy, saying 'Shut up and stop' is not a policy. The Armenians don't have any options. As long Turkey criminalizes the past, as long as Turkey kills journalists, as long as Turkey drags its intellectuals from court to court, as long as Turkey punishes the people who use the G-word, as long as Turkey doesn't have any diplomatic relations with Armenia, as long as Turkey threatens everybody in the world who opens the topic of historical wrongdoing, it is the legitimate right of a victim group to make its voice heard."

Akcam dismisses the argument that the time was not yet ripe for the resolution. "You can use the timing argument forever and ever. Who will decide when the timing is right?"

But Akcam argues that a long-term solution requires much more than a U.S. resolution. He says two steps are necessary: Turkey and Armenia must establish normal relations, and Turks must learn that confronting their history does not threaten their Turkish identity, but strengthens it. This means that Turks should look at the conflict not as a zero-sum game in which any Armenian gain is a Turkish loss, but as a necessary part of the process of becoming a democratic nation. It's an approach to resolving bitter historical grievances called "transitional justice," and it has been effective in helping resolve historical grievances between Germany and the Czech Republic, within South Africa and in other places.

The Armenians, too, need to rethink their approach, Akcam said. In the new paradigm, the Armenian diaspora would present its policy not as being totally against Turkey, but for a new democratic Turkey. "Until now this was a conventional war between Turkey and Armenian diaspora, and congressional resolutions were the effective weapon in this conventional war," Akcam said. "What I'm saying is we should stop thinking in these conventional ways."

The U.S. could play an important role in helping both parties break the impasse, Akcam said, but it is hampered by its lack of credibility in the Middle East. He points to what he calls a "stupid distinction between national security and morality. If you follow the whole discussion in Congress, on the one side you have the moralists, who say that Turkey should face what it did. This doesn't convince most of the people in the Middle East because we know that these are the guys torturing the people in Iraq, these are the guys killing the Iraqi civilians there, these are the guys who haven't signed the International Criminal Court agreement.

"On the other side are the realpolitikers," Akcam went on, referring to the Bush administration and the foreign-policy establishment, like the secretaries of state who signed the letter opposing the resolution. "They say the bill jeopardizes the national interests of the United States, Turkish-U.S. relations, interests of U.S. soldiers in Iraq."

Akcam argues that both elements must be present to have an effective foreign policy. "The fact is that realpolitik, the U.S. national interest in the Middle East, necessitates making morality, facing history, a part of national security. The basic problem between Turks and Armenians is that they don't trust each other because of their history." Akcam's point is that unless the U.S. is willing to look unflinchingly at the region's history, and try to broker deals that address legitimate grievances, it will not be able to achieve its realpolitik goals.

"If America really has a strong interest in its national security and the security of the region, it should stop following a national security concept that accepts human rights abusers," Akcam said. "It doesn't work, it makes things worse in the region. And it supports perpetrators who have committed crimes in the past and are committing crimes today."

In the end, the debate over the Armenian genocide bill boils down to two questions: Is it justified, and is it wise? The answer to the first question is an unambiguous "yes." It is both justified and long overdue. The Armenian genocide is a clear-cut case of genocide, and the fact that the U.S. has avoided calling it by its rightful name for decades is shameful. Crimes against humanity must be acknowledged. Hitler infamously said, with reference to the Poles, "Who, after all, is today speaking of the destruction of the Armenians?" Historical memory must not be sold away for a few pieces of silver. No one would countenance allowing Germany to deny its guilt for killing 6 million Jews. Why should Turkey be let off the hook for a slightly earlier holocaust that took the lives of as many as 1.5 million Armenians?

The second question is trickier. As opponents argue, and even supporters like Akcam acknowledge, the bill may backfire in the short run. That outcome could be acceptable, as long as it doesn't backfire in the long run. Which raises the central question: What policies should the U.S. adopt to prevent the resolution from having long-term negative consequences?

It comes down to a question of moral credibility, something the U.S. is in notably short supply of in the Middle East. One of the stranger reversals wrought by Bush's neoconservative foreign policy has been the rejection by much of the left of a morality-based foreign policy. Angry at the failure of the neocons' grand, idealistic schemes, some on the left have embraced a realism that formerly was associated with the America-first right. But by throwing out morality in foreign policy because of the neocon debacle in Iraq, these leftists are in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The problem with Bush's Middle East policy hasn't been that it's too moralistic -- it's that its morality has been flawed and incoherent.

As Akcam argues, what is really needed are not just moral congressional proclamations, but actions that back them up. Of course the U.S. cannot and should not resolve all the problems of the world. But like it or not, we are the world's superpower, and we have the ability to use that power for good as well as ill. What is needed is active U.S. engagement to broker fair resolutions to the festering conflicts in the region -- between Turks and Armenians, Turks and Kurds, and Israelis and Palestinians. If the resolution was part of a new U.S. approach to the Middle East, one in which we acknowledged and acted to redress the historical injustices suffered by all the region's peoples, not just by our allies, the Armenian genocide bill could stand as an example not of American grandstanding but of American courage.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

MORE FROM Gary Kamiya

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Iraq War Middle East Nancy Pelosi