The Armenian Resolution: Pure GrandstandingHistorians/History
House Resolution 106, first proposed when the Democrats took over control of Congress back in January 2007, was just voted out of the Foreign Affairs Committee last week and, according to Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), will pass before Congress adjourns next month. H.R. 106 puts the government of the United States on record as affirming that the Ottoman Empire pepetrated “genocide” on its Armenian subjects, killing at least 1.5 million of them between 1915 and 1923; furthermore, it “calls upon 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….”1
The Republic of Turkey recalled its ambassador, Nabi Sensoy, and “warned the vote threatens its strategic partnership with the U.S.” 2 A senior Turkish general officer said that passage of this resolution could permanently harm U.S.-Turkish military relations.3 Yet the Democrats are plunging ahead with this legislation, willing to risk further alienating our major ally in the Islamic world at a time when our list of allies there has grown quite thin and just when we need them most. Why?
For one thing, the bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), represents the district with the highest concentration of Armenian-Americans in the country (California’s 29th, which includes Glendale, with the largest Armenian-American population of any city in America: 85,000, or about 40% of the urban headcount4 ). The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, of course hails from California herself and knows full well the political power of the Armenian-American lobby. (And over in the Senate, Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (D-NY) has co-sposored the resolution,5 despite the fact her own husband, while in office, opposed it.)
No doubt the resolution, in no small measure, is aimed at further embarrassing the Bush Administration (“See, the same folks who brought you Gitmo and Abu Ghrayb support what the Sultan did to the Armenians!”), even as the Democrats claims that it has primarily an apolitical, utilitarian cast. According to Rep. Schiff, “How can we take effective action against the genocide in Darfur if we lack the will to condemn genocide whenever and wherever it occurs?"
This logic is really quite unconvincing. Must Congress pass a resolution retroactively condemning slavery in the Old Confederacy before we are morally justified in opposing modern human trafficking? But even giving Mr. Schiff and the Democratic leadership the benefit of the doubt and not chalking up their fervent support for H.R. 106 to anything as crass as making political hay, or raking in Armenian-American campaign contributions, we are still left with a major problem.
The whole basis of the bill—the “genocide” alleged—is historically unverifiable as such.
Of course, questioning the Armenian “genocide” is a politically-incorrect sin today, on a par with questioning global warming. After all, we are continually told that the “consensus” of experts—historians or scientists, respectively—supports each claim, er, unvarnished truth. H.R. 106 has no fewer than 14 points alleging to corroborate historically the genocidal nature of the very real Ottoman massacres of Armenians around, and after, World War I.
But in fact there are a number of problems with the received “truth” about what happened to Armenians in the late Ottoman Empire. There is a scholarly consensus of about 1.2 million Armenian deaths (although the Armenian groups claim more, and the Turks considerably fewer). But just how and why that many Armenians were killed—and whether it constitutes “genocide”—is still being hotly debated by historians, contrary to what the House Democrats think. Genocide is “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political or cultural group.” To prove that the Ottoman Turks committed genocide, one must adduce evidence of just those points. The three legs upon which the genocide claim usually rests are: 1) the post-WWI Ottoman courts which tried some government officials for the massacres; 2) the alleged depredations of the Teskilat-i Mahsusa (Ottoman “Special Forces”); and 3) the memoirs of one Naim Bey. 6 However: the original Ottoman legal documents no longer exist; no one has ever proved the involvement of the Ottoman Special Forces in the killings; and the “memoirs” of Naim Bey—who allegedly provided evidence that Ottoman officials ordered the “genocide”—are suspect at best and may have even been forged.
No one can deny that hundreds of thousands of Armenians were killed: Western sources, and Armenian eyewitness survivors, attest to that fact. But to this day no one has found the Ottoman “smoking gun” that proves, beyond the shadow of a doubt—and don’t we want a rather high bar of proof for something as serious as genocide?—that the authorities in Istanbul ordered the “deliberate and systematic destruction” of the Armenians in the eastern part of the Empire.7 Perhaps those records are tucked away in some dark corner of the Basbakanlik, waiting to see the light of day. But the few Western scholars who can read Ottoman Turkish tend to shy away from this topic; and those who do study the Armenian question either cannot work in Ottoman, or are not given access—all of which tends to back up what Zbiginew Brzezenski said recently: “I never realized the House of Representatives was some sort of academy of learning that passes judgment on historical events….;” and whether what happened to the Armenians “should be classified as genocide or a huge massacre is, I don’t think, any of its business.”8
Steny Hoyer tried to reassure the Turks by telling them that this resolution is “not about your government.” The Majority Leader, unlike some in the press,9 seems to realize that it was not the Turkish government that killed Armenians—it was the old Ottoman imperial one. And one might reasonably wonder why the modern Turks are so paranoid about claims of genocide being perpetrated by their predecessor regime. However, that scimitar cuts both ways: one might also ask why the Democrats in Congress are so eager to pass a meaningless, toothless resolution condemning a government that hasn’t existed for 85 years— in the process estranging us even further from one of our few close allies in the Muslim world—when the historical record fails to support their opportunistic legislation?
6 See Guenter Lewy, “Revisiting the Armenian Genocide,” Middle East Quarterly (Fall 2005), http://www.meforum.org/article/748; also Edward Erickson, “Armenian Massacres: New Records Undercut Old Blame,” Middle East Quarterly (Summer 2006), http://www.meforum.org/article/991
9 For example: Matt Welch, in an editorial in the “L.A. Times” this past spring, wrongly opined that “the genocide is taboo…[because] it occurred at the time of the founding of modern Turkey under Kemal Ataturk….” http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-op-welch22apr22,0,4862327.story?coll=la-opinion-center