Obama and the Denial of Genocide

The Obama administration, citing its
relations with Turkey, has pledged to block the passage in the full
House of Representatives of a resolution
passed this past Thursday by the Foreign Relations Committee
acknowledging the 1915 genocide by the Ottoman Empire of a 1.5 million
Armenians. Even though the Obama administration previously refused to
acknowledge and even worked to suppress well-documented evidence of
recent war crimes by Israel, another key Middle Eastern ally, few
believed that the administr

The Obama administration, citing its
relations with Turkey, has pledged to block the passage in the full
House of Representatives of a resolution
passed this past Thursday by the Foreign Relations Committee
acknowledging the 1915 genocide by the Ottoman Empire of a 1.5 million
Armenians. Even though the Obama administration previously refused to
acknowledge and even worked to suppress well-documented evidence of
recent war crimes by Israel, another key Middle Eastern ally, few
believed that the administration would go as far as to effectively deny

Following the committee vote, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced
that "We are against this decision," and pledged that the administration
would "work very hard" to prevent the bill from coming to the floor.
Despite widespread support for the resolution by House Democrats, she
expressed confidence that the administration would find a means of
blocking the resolution, saying, "Now we believe that the U.S. Congress
will not take any decision on this subject."

As candidates, both Clinton and Barack Obama had pledged that their
administrations would be the first to formally recognize the Armenian
genocide. Clinton acknowledged that this was a reversal, but insisted
that circumstances had "changed in very significant ways." The State
Department, however, has been unable to cite any new historical evidence
that would counter the broad consensus that genocide had indeed taken
place in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. The official excuse is
that it might harm an important rapprochement between Armenia and
Turkey. However, there is no indication the Armenian government is at
all concerned about potential negative fallout in their bilateral
relations over a resolution passed by a legislative body in a third

More likely, the concern is over not wanting to jeopardize the
cooperation of Turkey, which borders Iran, in the forthcoming enhanced
sanctions against the Islamic republic.

Back in 2007, a similar resolution acknowledging the Armenian
genocide also passed through the House Foreign Relations Committee.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi promised that she would allow it to
come for a vote. With 226 cosponsors - a clear majority of the House -
there was little question it would pass. However, in response to claims
by the Bush White House and Republican congressional leaders that it
would harm the "Global War on Terror," Pelosi broke her promise and used
her power as speaker to prevent a vote on the resolution. She will also
certainly buckle under pressure from an administration of her own

The Historical Record

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.

to Henry Morgenthau, U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during that
period, "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, this apparently isn't the view of the Obama administration.

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." The earliest proponent of such an
international convention was Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish lawyer who
originally coined the term "genocide" and identified the Armenian case
as a definitive example.

Dozens of other governments -
including Canada, France, Italy, and Russia - and several UN bodies, as
well as 40 U.S. states, have formally recognized the Armenian genocide.
The Obama administration does not, however, and is apparently determined
to prevent Congress from doing so.

Congress has previously gone on record condemning Iranian president
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for refusing to acknowledge the German genocide of
the Jews. Congress appears unwilling, however, to challenge Obama's
refusal to acknowledge the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians. While
awareness of anti-Semitism is fortunately widespread enough to
marginalize those who refuse to acknowledge the Holocaust, tolerance for
anti-Armenian bigotry appears strong enough that it's still considered
politically acceptable to deny their genocide.

The Turkey Factor

Opponents of the measure argue that they're worried
about harming relations with Turkey, the successor state to the Ottoman
Empire and an important U.S. ally. However, the United States has done
much greater harm in its relations with Turkey through policies far more
significant than a symbolic resolution acknowledging a tragic
historical period. The United States clandestinely backed an attempted
military coup by right-wing Turkish officers in 2003, arming Iraqi and
Iranian Kurds with close ties to Kurdish rebels in Turkey who have been
responsible for the deaths of thousands of Turkish citizens. The United
States also invaded neighboring Iraq. As a result, the percentage of
Turks who view the United States positively declined from 52 percent to
only 9 percent.

Generations of Turks have been taught that there was no Ottoman
genocide of the Armenians, but that there were scattered atrocities on
both sides. Indeed, most Turks believe their country is being unfairly
scapegoated, particularly when the United States refuses to label its
treatment of American Indians as genocide or acknowledge more recent war
crimes. As a result, some argue that a more appropriate means of
addressing the ongoing Turkish denial of historical reality would be
through dialogue and some sort of re-education, avoiding the patently
political device of a congressional resolution that would inevitably
make Turks defensive.

Failure to acknowledge the genocide, however, is a tragic affront to
the rapidly dwindling number of genocide survivors as well as their
descendents. It's also a disservice to the many Turks who opposed the
Ottoman Empire's policies and tried to stop the genocide, as well as the
growing number of Turks today who face imprisonment by their
U.S.-backed regime for daring to publicly concede the crimes of their
forebears. For example, Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist who won the
2006 Nobel Prize for literature, was prosecuted and fled into exile to
escape death threats after making a number of public references to the

Some opponents of the resolution argue that it is
pointless for Congress to pass resolutions regarding historical events.
Yet there were no such complaints regarding resolutions commemorating
the Holocaust, nor are there normally complaints regarding the scores of
dedicatory resolutions passed by Congress in recent years, ranging from
commemorating the 65th anniversary of the death of the Polish musician
and political leader Ignacy Jan Paderewski to noting the 150th
anniversary of the first meeting of the Republican Party in Wisconsin.

The Obama administration insists that that this is a bad time to
upset the Turkish government. However, it was also considered a "bad
time" to pass the resolution back in 2007, on the grounds that it not
jeopardize U.S. access to Turkish bases as part of efforts to support
the counter-insurgency war by U.S. occupation forces in Iraq. It was
also considered a "bad time" when a similar resolution was put forward
in 2000 because the United States was using its bases in Turkey 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.

deniers of the Armenian genocide, it's always a "bad time."

While the passage of the resolution would certainly lead to strong
diplomatic protests from Turkey, it is dubious that there would be much
of a rupture between Ankara and Washington. When President Ronald
Reagan, a major backer of the right-wing military dictatorship then
ruling Turkey, once used the term genocide in relation to Armenians,
U.S.-Turkish relations did not suffer.

The Obama
administration, like administrations before it, simply refuses to
acknowledge that the Armenian genocide even took place. As recently as
the 1980s, 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." Even more recently, Paul Wolfowitz, who served as deputy
secretary of defense in President George W. Bush, 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 Obama "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 the consequences of the failure to realize a just
resolution." Therefore, if Obama really doesn't want Congress to pass
such a resolution, all he needs to do is make an executive order
acknowledging the genocide. Despite whatever excuses one wants to make,
failure to do so amounts to genocide denial.

Genocide Denial

Given the indisputable record of the Armenian genocide, many of those
who refuse to recognize Turkey's genocide of Armenians, like those who
refuse to recognize Germany's genocide of European Jews, are motivated
by ignorance and bigotry. The Middle East scholar most often cited by
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.

Not every opponent of the current resolution explicitly denies that
there was genocide. Some acknowledge that genocide indeed occurred, but
have apparently been convinced that it's detrimental to U.S. security to
state this publicly. This is still inexcusable. Such moral cowardice
is no less reprehensible than refusing to acknowledge the Holocaust if
it were believed that doing so might upset the German government, which
also hosts critical U.S. bases.

Obama is not the first Democratic president to effectively deny the
Armenian genocide. 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. President Jimmy Carter
also suppressed a Senate effort led by Bob Dole, whose miraculous
recovery from near-fatal wounds during World War II was overseen by an
Armenian-American doctor who had survived the genocide.

Interestingly, neoconservatives - quick to defend crimes against
humanity by the Bush administration, the Israeli government, and others -
are opportunistically using Obama's flip-flop on this issue as evidence
of the moral laxity of Democrats on human rights.

Hitler, responding to concerns about the legacy of his crimes, once
asked, "Who, after all, is today speaking of the destruction of the
Armenians?" Obama is sending a message to future tyrants that they can
commit genocide without acknowledgement by the world's most powerful

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 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 contributed to the
delay in deploying international peacekeeping forces until after the
slaughter of 800,000 people.

As a result, the Obama
administration's position on the Armenian genocide isn't simply about
whether to commemorate a tragedy that took place 95 years ago. It's
about where we stand as a nation in facing up to the most horrible of
crimes. It's about whether we are willing to stand up for the truth in
the face of lies. It's about whether we see our nation as appeasing our
strategic allies or upholding our longstanding principles.

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