On Turkey and the Armenian Genocide, the Obama Administration Needs to Sing a New Song

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Taner Akçam is associate professor of history and the Kaloosdian/Mugar Chair in Armenian Genocide Studies, at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Clark University (Worcester, MA). A leading international authority on the Armenian Genocide, he is the author of "A Shameful Act: the Armenian Genocide and Turkish Responsibility." He is coordinating a workshop at Clark to examine the "State of the Art of Armenian Genocide Research" (April 8-10).

What is the difference between the Obama and Bush administrations?  Nothing, it seems, when it comes to facing history and recognizing historic wrongdoings.  They both sing the same old song.

The White House appears poised to reject House Resolution 252, which the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed last week (March 4), an unusual move in a long history of failed resolutions in “recognition of the Armenian Genocide.”  Congressional hearings, resolutions in sub-committees, bold campaign promises, and quiet assurances all come to the same predictable conclusion when Turkey flexes its muscles and openly threatens American interests in the region.  Members of Congress reliably agree to step back, not because they don’t believe the Armenians were victims of genocide but because of perceived national interests in the Middle East.

According to the old song, facing history is a moral response rather than an understanding that addressing historic wrongs is actually in the real national interests of the region.  Two arguments seem forever in conflict:  National security versus morality or, in other phraseology, realists versus moral fundamentalists.

Turkish realists are very much concerned about national security.  In 2007, a Turkish Court convicted two Turkish-Armenian journalists, Arat Dink, son of assassinated journalist Hrant Dink, and Sarkis Seropyan, for using the term “genocide” and sentenced them to a year in prison.  The Turkish court stated that:  “Talk about genocide, both in Turkey and in other countries, unfavourably [sic] affects national security and the national interest.”  The ruling stated further that the Republic of Turkey is under “a hostile diplomatic siege consisting of genocide resolutions... The acceptance of this claim may lead in future centuries to a questioning of the sovereignty rights of the Republic of Turkey...”  Due to these national security concerns, the court declared that speech about genocide in 1915 is not protected.  The court found that “the use of these freedoms can be limited in accordance with aims such as the protection of national security, of public order, of public security.”  The realists here in the United States should understand that their actions are consistent with the undemocratic rulings of the Turkish court.

For decades, the Turkish state treated any acknowledgment of 1915 as genocide as an attack on its national security.  The state organized witch hunts against intellectuals and scholars who made any reference to it.  Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize winning author, and Hrant Dink were put on trial, dragged from courtroom to courtroom.  Hrant Dink’s assassination in 2007 was an inevitable result of this campaign.

The U.S. Government and Congress need to acknowledge that Turkey is using the pretext of national security to limit freedom of speech, a basic democratic right.  Indeed, returning to the history now in dispute, let us recall that Armenian demands for equality and social reform in the declining years of the Ottoman Empire were also treated as threats to the state.  The mantra of national security became a pretense for their massacre and deportation.  Today the demand for an honest account of history is being handled in the same way:  as a security problem.

The irony is that criminalizing historical inquiry in the name of national security is not only an obstacle to democracy, but also leads directly to real security problems for Turkey and the entire region.  This “self-fulfilling prophecy” can be shown in the Armenian genocide of the past and in the Kurdish problem today.  The present-day Kurdish problem arose from their democratic demands for social reform, which were classified as a threat to security.  As long as Turkey continues to regard moral principles and national security as mutually exclusive, and refuses to come to terms with the past for national security reasons—indeed, as long as Turkey's national security is defined in opposition to an honest historical reckoning—international problems will persist.

If one knows the Middle East, one easily recognizes that historical injustices and persistent denial of these injustices by one or another state or ethnic-religious group are major stumbling blocks.  History and historical injustices are not merely academic issues from the past; the past IS the present in the Middle East.  For realpolitik to succeed in the region, it is necessary to interrogate the acknowledgement of historic wrongs into a policy of national security.

The United States must change its policy toward the recognition of the Armenian genocide and reevaluate what constitutes security for Turkey.  During the nineteenth century the French concept of “Bon pour l’Orient!” [“It is good enough for the East”] legitimized French colonialism and provided justification for demeaning the countries they colonized and for acts they committed there.  The United States must rid itself of this classic colonial patronization.  If democracy and facing history is good for the United States then the same should hold true for Turkey.

Congress and the White House should be suspicious of the national interest canard as a reason to reject the genocide resolution.  Such an argument runs counter to American values and legitimizes the Turkish state’s campaign against intellectuals.  We need to start singing a new song that doesn’t support authoritarian and denialist regimes in the Middle East.  Security in Turkey and the United States must integrate facing history and democratization.

Obama came to Washington on a platform of change.  My question again:  What is the difference between Obama and Bush administration?  Could the answer be the acceptance of the genocide resolution and the promotion of democratic change in the Middle East?

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Arnold Shcherban - 3/19/2010

except that Democrats along with Obama
express more PRETENSE of caring for common Americans and changing US foreign policy than Bush Administration did.
The double-party political farce called democracy (i.e. power of majority) in this country has been considered a joke in world's public opinion for decades by now.