For once I find myself agreeing with Howard Berman.
The über-liberal Chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee came out strongly in favor a of a non-binding resolution calling upon the United States to condemn the Turkish slaughter of nearly 1 million Armenian Ottoman citizens during the First World War as a genocide.
I have been arguing the same thing for years. Ever since reading Franz Werfel’s epic The 40 Days of Musa Dagh in the 1980s I have been deeply taken with the terrible tragedy which befell the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire in the second decade of the 20th Century.
Berman’s committee narrowly passed the resolution last week and since then U.S-Turkish relations have been convulsed in uproar. The Turks, partners in a corner of the world where the United States has vital strategic interests, have been loathe for generations to embrace the notion that a genocide took place. Official Turkish historiography claims that the events of 1915-16, are clouded in confusion brought on by the fog of war and there has never been a paper trail linking the Ottoman Empire to any planned extemination policy.
The evidence, however, is overwhelming.
Reports from contremporary German military observers, from then-U.S Ambassasdor Henry Morganthau Jr. and the oral testimony of the survivors themselves, make it clear that the Turkish government of the time was involved in a systematic attempt to wipe out the Armenian presence in the Turkish heartland.
Why have the Turks of every stripe then – from the secular government of Kemal Ataturk inthe 20s and 30s to the Islamic leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan today resisted the demand to acknowledge Turkish complicity in the slaughter?
The simple answer revolves around the financial cost of acknowledging the genocide. Just as Germany paid a very high premium in reparations to the State of Israel in the wake of the Holocaust, the Turks are well aware that the descendants of the murdered Armenians, who are successful and politically active in the U.S. and other Western countries, could instigate an endless stream of litigation against future Turkish governments, extending for decades both reparation and land claims.
But the more important reason for this continued resistance is the psychological cost of acknowledgement. The stain on national honor, as any modern German will tell you, is not something that anyone finds easy to assimilate. The fact of a genocide, perpetrated within one’s own borders and upon your own country’s citizens no less, is a taint that every Turk will carry with him and opens up the possibility of an endless inquiry into why and how successive generations refused to accept the Turkish involvement in the slaughter.
Governments all over the world, valuing their diplomatic relations with Turkey have been loathe to rock the boat with that country and only a handful – 20 at the last count – have passed resolutions acknowledging the genocide. The list of governements who have passed resolutions can be found here.
The United States has been particularly squishy on the issue and every administration from Richard Nixon’s onward has refused to push for a Congressional resolution. During the Bush administration, the effort to bring the resolution to the house floor was deeated by a bi-partisan effort, which involved both Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. The Obama admninistration has followed suit, recognizing that the U.S -Turkish entente is too valuable to displace right now, despite a pledge Barack Obama made during his electoral campaign to present exactly such a resolution to Congress.
The realpolitik arguments against a Congressional resolution are actually quite strong. We can’t forget that two wars are taking place in the region and Turkey, as a secular democracy and America’s strongest regional NATO ally, plays a significant role in both. For instance, 70 percent of ordinance and supplies to U.S. forces in Iraq pass through Turkey and any withdrawal of U.S. troops will also necessarily involve the country. This is the reason Nancy Pelosi did not take the resolution to the House floor in 2007 – the last time it passed the HOR Foreign Affairs Committee. She simply didn’t have the votes to push it through.
Enter Howard Berman. He claims, and I believe correctly, that the Turks are actually more dependent on U.S. goodwill than the other way around. With $12 billion in trade between the two countries and U.S. pledges to protect Turkey in the event of an attack from Iran, there can be little doubt that the Turks also have a great deal to lose. Domestic support for a Congressional resolution is also high. As of this date, 43 U.S. states out of 50 have already passed resolutions acknowledging the genocide, indicating widespread public support for the measure.
However, more important than any of this, is the necessity to set history straight. The 20th century genocides, beginning withthe extermination of the Herero in South-West Africa by the German army in 1904, leading through the Ukrainian enforced famine of the 1930s , the Holocaust, the Cambodian slaughters of the late 1970s and the Rwandan massacres of the 1990s, need to be all thoroughly documented so that we can understand how such catastrophes could befall humanity. Turkish archives need to be opened and investigated and the causality of this horror must finally begin to be understood. For there is no guarantee that such an event could not befall Turkey and/or our civilization once again.
In the end, narrow contemporary interests and concerns should not be allowed to stand in the way of our validation of a historical event so significant in the history of mankind. It will ultimately be to Turkey’s and the United States’ mutual benefit to finally and officially acknowledge this enormous crime against humanity. We need to look beyond our immediate political and diplomatic concerns to finally give an international memorial to the hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children who perished at the time. This is so that at the very least, their suffering will have meant something and their murder will have left an indelible impression that time cannot erase.