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US Denial of the Armenian Genocide

It continues to boggle the mind what the Democratic leadership in Congress will do whenever the Republicans raise the specter of labeling them "soft on terrorism." They approve wiretapping without a court order. They allow for indefinite detention of suspects without charge. They authorize the invasion and occupation of a country on the far side of the world that was no threat to us and then provide unconditional funding for the bloody and unwinnable counter-insurgency war that inevitably followed.

Now, it appears, the Democrats are also willing to deny history, even when it involves genocide.

The non-binding resolution commemorating the Armenian genocide attracted 226 co-sponsors and won passage through the House Foreign Relations Committee. Nevertheless, it appears that as of this writing that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — in response to pressure from the White House and Republican congressional leaders that it would harm the "Global War on Terrorism" — will prevent the resolution from coming up for vote in the full House. Call It Genocide

Between 1915 and 1918, under orders of the leadership of the Ottoman Empire, an estimated two million Armenians were forcibly removed from their homes in a region that had been part of the Armenian nation for more than 2,500 years. Three-quarters of them died as a result of execution, starvation, and related reasons.

Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during that period, noted that, "When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact..." While issuing a "death warrant to a whole race" would normally be considered genocide by any definition, it apparently does not in the view of the current administration and Congress of the government he was representing.

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, signed and ratified by the United States, officially defines genocide as any effort "to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such." Raphael Lemkin was the Polish Jewish lawyer who originally coined the term "genocide" in 1944. The earliest proponent of an international convention on its prevention and the punishment of its perpetrators, Lemkin identified the Armenian case as a definitive example.

Dozens of other governments — including Canada, France, Italy, and Russia — and several UN bodies have formally recognized the Armenian genocide, as have the governments of 40 U.S. states. Neither the Bush administration nor Congress appears willing to do so, however.

Ironically, Congress earlier this year overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for refusing to acknowledge the German genocide of the Jews. That same Congress, however, appears quite willing to refuse to acknowledge the Turkish genocide of the Armenians.

While awareness of anti-Semitism is fortunately widespread enough to dismiss those who refuse to acknowledge the Holocaust to the political fringe, it appears that tolerance for anti-Armenian bigotry is strong enough that it is still apparently politically acceptable to refuse to acknowledge their genocide.

The Turkey Factor

Opponents of the measure acknowledging the Armenian genocide claim argue that they are worried about harming relations with Turkey, the successor state to the Ottoman Empire and an important U.S. ally.

In reality, however, if the Bush administration and Congress were really concerned about hurting relations with Turkey, Bush would have never asked for and Congress would have never approved authorization for the United States to have invaded Iraq, which the Turks vehemently opposed. As a result of the U.S. war and occupation of Turkey's southern neighbor, public opinion polls have shown that percentage of the Turkish population holding a positive view of the United States has declined from 52% to only 9%.

Turkish opposition was so strong that, despite the Bush administration offering Turkey $6 billion in grants and $20 billion in loan guarantees in return for allowing U.S. forces to use bases in Turkey to launch the invasion in 2003, the Turkish parliament refused to authorize the request. Soon thereafter, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, in an interview with CNN in Turkey, expressed his disappointment that the Turkish military had not taken its traditional "leadership role" in the matter, which — given its periodic military intervention in Turkish governance — many Turks took as advocacy for a military coup. Furthermore, in testimony on Capitol Hill, Wolfowitz further angered the Turks by claiming that the civilian government made a "big, big mistake" in failing to back U.S. military plans and claimed that the country's democratically elected parliament "didn't quite know what it was doing."

The United States has antagonized Turkey still further as a result of U.S. support for Kurdish nationalists in northern Iraq who, with the support of billions of dollars worth of U.S. aid and thousands of American troops, have created an autonomous enclave that has served as a based for KADEK (formerly known as the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK), which Turkey considers a terrorist group. KADEK forces, which had largely observed a cease fire prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the resulting consolidation of the quasi-independent Kurdish region, have since been emboldened to launch countless forays into Turkish territory at the cost of hundreds of lives.

Since almost all House members who oppose this non-binding resolution on the Armenian genocide were among the majority of Republicans and the minority of Democrats who voted to authorize the invasion, antagonizing Turkey is clearly not the real reason for their opposition. Anyone actually concerned about the future of U.S.-Turkish relations would never have rejected the Turkish government's pleas for restraint and voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq nor would they vote to continue U.S. funding of the pro-KADEK separatist government in northern Iraq.

Why a Resolution Now?

Another bogus argument put forward by President Bush and his bipartisan supporters on Capitol Hill is that Congress should not bother passing resolutions regarding historical events. Yet these critics have not objected to other recent successful congressional resolutions on historic events: recognizing the 65th anniversary of the death of the Polish musician and political leader Ignacy Jan Paderewski, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the American Jewish Committee, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz extermination camp in Poland, or commemorating the 150th anniversary of the first meeting of the Republican Party in Wisconsin, just to name a few.

These opponents of the resolution also claim that this is a "bad time" to upset the Turkish government, given that U.S. access to Turkish bases is part of the re-supply efforts to support the counter-insurgency war by U.S. occupation forces in Iraq. However, it was also considered a "bad time" when a similar resolution was put forward in 2000 because U.S. bases in Turkey were being used to patrol the "no fly zones" in northern Iraq. And it was also considered a "bad time" in 1985 and 1987 when similar resolutions were put forward because U.S. bases in Turkey were considered important listening posts for monitoring the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

For deniers of the Armenian genocide, it is always a "bad time."

The Bush administration, like both Republican and Democratic administrations before it, has refused to acknowledge that the Armenian genocide even took place. For example, under the Reagan administration, the Bulletin of the Department of State claimed that, "Because the historical record of the 1915 events in Asia Minor is ambiguous, the Department of State does not endorse allegations that the Turkish Government committed genocide against the Armenian people."

Similarly, Paul Wolfowitz, who served as deputy secretary of defense in President Bush's first term, stated in 2002 that "one of the things that impress me about Turkish history is the way Turkey treats its own minorities."

The operative clause of the resolution simply calls upon President Bush "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 documented in the United States record relating to the Armenian genocide, and for other purposes." Therefore, if President Bush really doesn't want Congress to pass such a resolution, all he needs to do is make a statement acknowledging the genocide. Not surprisingly for someone with a notorious lack of knowledge of history, however, he has refused to do so. Bush has only gone as far as acknowledging that what happened to the Armenians was simply part of "a horrible tragedy" which reflects "a deep sorrow that continues to haunt them and their neighbors, the Turkish people," even though Turkey has never expressed sorrow for their genocide.

Failure to pass a resolution calling on President Bush to acknowledge the genocide, then, amounts to an acceptance of his genocide denial. Genocide Denial

Given the indisputable documentary record of the Armenian genocide, it would appear that at least some of those who refuse to go on record recognizing Turkey's genocide of Armenians are, like those who refuse to recognize Germany's genocide of European Jews, motivated by ignorance and bigotry. Claims that it would harm relations with Turkey or that the timing is wrong appear to be no more than desperate excuses to deny reality. If the Bush administration and members of Congress recognized that genocide took place, they should have no problem going on record saying so.

One problem may be that members of Congress, like President Bush, are themselves ignorant of history. For example, the Middle East scholar most often cited by both Republican and Democratic members of Congress as influencing their understanding of the region is the notorious genocide-denier Bernard Lewis, a fellow at Washington's Institute of Turkish Studies. In France, where genocide denial is considered a criminal offense, he was convicted in 1996 following a statement in Le Monde in which the emeritus Princeton University professor dismissed the claim of genocide as nothing more than "the Armenian version of this story." The court noted how, typical of those who deny genocide, he reached his conclusion by "concealing elements contrary to his thesis" and "failed in his duties of objectivity and prudence."

This is not to say that every single opponent of the resolution explicitly denies the genocide. Some have acknowledged that genocide indeed occurred, but have apparently been convinced that it is contrary to perceived U.S. national security interest to state this publicly. This is just as inexcusable, however. Such people are moral cowards who apparently would be just as willing to refuse to acknowledge the Holocaust if the Bush administration told them that it might also upset the German government enough to restrict access to U.S. bases.

Though it has been Democratic members of the House, led by California Congressman Adam Schiff, who have most vigorously led the effort this time to recognize the Armenian genocide, opposition to acknowledging history has been a bipartisan effort. In 2000, President Bill Clinton successfully persuaded House Speaker Dennis Hastert to suppress a similar bill after it passed the Republican-led Foreign Relations Committee by a vote of 40-7 and was on its way to easy passage before the full House. Currently, former Democratic House leader Dick Gephardt has joined in lobbying his former colleagues on behalf of the Turkish government. And now, the current Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, despite having earlier promised to place it before a vote of the full House, appears ready to pull the bill from consideration.

Not only is this a tragic affront to the remaining genocide survivors and their descendents, it is also a disservice to the many Turks who opposed their government's policies at that time and tried to stop the genocide, as well as to contemporary Turks who face jail by their U.S.-backed regime for daring to acknowledge it. If the world's one remaining superpower refuses to acknowledge the genocide, there is little chance that justice will ever be served.

Adolf Hitler, responding to concerns about the legacy of his crimes, once asked, "Who, after all, is today speaking of the destruction of the Armenians?" Failure to pass this resolution would send a message to future tyrants that they can commit genocide and not even have it acknowledged by the world's most powerful countries.

Indeed, refusing to recognize genocide and those responsible for it in a historical context makes it easier to deny genocide today. In 1994, the Clinton administration — which consistently refused to fully acknowledge Armenia's tragedy — also refused to use the word "genocide" in the midst of the Rwandan government's massacres of over half that country's Tutsi population, a decision that delayed the deployment of international peacekeeping forces until after 800,000 people had been slaughtered.

As a result, the fate of the resolution on the Armenian genocide is not simply about commemorating a tragedy that took place 90 years ago. It is about where we stand as a nation in facing up to the most horrible of crimes. It is about whether we are willing to stand up for the truth in the face of lies. It is about whether we see our nation's glory based on appeasing our strategic allies or in upholding our longstanding principles.

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