Armenians were murdered, but the current Turkish regime shouldn’t be faulted for what happened more than 90 years ago.
October 15, 2007
Last Wednesday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee condemned mass murder in the Middle East. Quite right, you may say — except that this mass murder took place more than 90 years ago.
The committee approved a resolution, which could go to the House floor this week, calling on the president "to ensure that the foreign policy of the United States reflects appropriate understanding and sensitivity concerning issues related to human rights, ethnic cleansing and genocide . . . relating to the Armenian genocide."
Now, let’s be clear about three things : First, what genocide means ; second, whether or not the Armenians suffered one ; third, whether or not it was smart for a U.S. congressional panel to say so.
The term "genocide" is a neologism dating back to 1944, coined by Raphael Lemkin to describe what the Nazis had done to the Jews of Europe. The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide sets out a clear definition : Genocide covers "any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such" :
* Killing members of the group ;
* Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group ;
* Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part ;
* Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group ;
* Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
On this basis, did the Armenians suffer a genocide ? For my latest book, "The War of the World," I reviewed the available evidence, including not just the reports of Western diplomats and missionaries but also, crucially, those of representatives of Turkey’s ally, Austria-Hungary. It’s damning.
For example, according to Joseph Pomiankowski, the Austrian military plenipotentiary in Constantinople, the Turks had undertaken the "eradication of the Armenian nation in Asia Minor" (he used the terms Ausrottung and Vernichtung, which will be familiar to students of the Holocaust). There is also contemporary Turkish testimony that corroborates such reports.
Armenian males of military age were rounded up and shot. Women and children were herded onto trains, driven into the desert and left to die. The number of Armenians who were killed or died prematurely may have exceeded 1 million, a huge proportion of a prewar population that numbered, at the very most, 2.4 million, but was probably closer to 1.8 million. With good reason, the American consul in Izmir declared that the fate of the Armenians "surpasse[d] in deliberate . . . horror and in extent anything that has hitherto happened in the history of the world."
It is absurd, then, that Turkish politicians and some academics (not all of them Turks) insist that the issue is somehow open to debate, though there is certainly room for more research to be done in the Turkish archives. And it is deplorable that writers in Turkey can still be prosecuted for describing the fate of the Armenians as genocide.
Yet I remain far from convinced that anything has been gained by last week’s resolution. Indeed, something may well have been lost.
Relations between the U.S. and Turkey were once good. The heirs of Kemal Ataturk were staunch allies during the Cold War. Today, Turkey allows essential supplies to Iraq — around 70% of all the air cargo that goes to U.S. forces — to pass through Turkish airspace. Moreover, the regime in Ankara currently offers the best available evidence that Islam and democracy can coexist.
Now consider this : For years, a campaign of terrorism has been waged against Turkey by separatists from the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The Turks are currently preparing to launch cross-border strikes on PKK bases in the Kurdish region in northern Iraq. To say the least, this will not be helpful at a time when Iraq teeters on the brink of bloody fragmentation.
Does gratuitously bringing up the Armenian genocide increase or decrease our leverage in Ankara ? The angry responses of Turkey’s president and prime minister provide the answer. On Thursday, President Abdullah Gul called the resolution an "attempt to sacrifice big issues for minor domestic political games" — an allusion to the far-from-negligible Armenian American lobby, which has long pressed for a resolution like this.
The absurdity is that the genocide of 1915 was not perpetrated by today’s Turkish Republic, established in 1923, but by the Ottoman Empire, which collapsed at the end of World War I. You might as well blame the United States for the deportation of Acadians from Nova Scotia during the French and Indian Wars.
"If we hope to stop future genocides, we need to admit to those horrific acts of the past," argued Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat and a sponsor of the resolution. Really ? My sense is that all the resolutions in the world about past genocides will do precisely nothing to stop the next one.
And if — let’s just suppose — the next genocide happens in Iraq, and the United States finds itself impotent to prevent it, the blame will lie as much with this posturing and irresponsible Congress as with anyone.
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