WSJ Editorial: Congress should not pass a resolution condemning Turkey for the deaths of Armenians

Roundup: Talking About History

History is messy enough without politicians getting into the act. Tell that to the Members of the U.S. House of Representatives who are clamoring to have the final word on a painful chapter of Ottoman history.

A pending Resolution, co-sponsored by 226 Members, calls on the President to ensure that U.S. foreign policy "reflects appropriate understanding and sensitivity concerning ... the Armenian Genocide" in 1915 when Turks carried out "the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1,500,000 Armenians." The Resolution isn't binding, but Turkey can be forgiven for seeing an absence of "understanding and sensitivity" from America's elected representatives.

As a general rule, legislatures in far-off countries ought to think carefully before passing judgment on another people's history. When their sights turn in that direction, it's a fair bet that points are to be scored with powerful domestic lobbies. Playing with history often complicates the implementation of foreign policy goals, as well.

In this particular case, all of the above applies. The sponsor is Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California's 29th District, which has a lot of Armenian-American voters. His consistent championship of the genocide cause helped him first get elected in 2000 and later made his "name in foreign affairs," as the Los Angeles Times put it in 2005....

None of this is to deny that horrible massacres took place during World War I in the Ottoman Empire. Nor to say that the Turkish government has been eager to discuss the Armenian question in good faith. But this history is more complex than either the genocide crusaders or official Turkish deniers are willing to concede.

To briefly recap: On April 24, 1915, the nationalist Young Turk government ordered the Armenians of eastern Anatolia deported en masse to today's Syria and Iraq. The Turks feared the Armenians were in cahoots with their enemy, Czarist Russia, and fighting to carve their own state out of a collapsing Ottoman Empire. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians died on the trek, murdered by Turkish or Kurdish fighters and marauders or falling to disease, cold or hunger. The Ottoman War Crimes Tribunal, set up by the victorious allies after the war, estimated that 800,000 Armenians perished. Armenians use the figure of 1.5 million, practically the entire Armenian population of Anatolia at the time.

Was it genocide? Generations of historians, particularly in Turkey and Armenia, will be busy digging through archives and interpreting these events. Let them argue over what to call it. Politicians are paid to think about the future, not the past.

In October 1984, when Congress considered a similar Resolution, we wrote: "There can be little doubt that the Armenian repression was a terrible chapter in history and perhaps the Turks have been too insistent on denying guilt. But it was only one part of a global tragedy that claimed nearly 15 million lives. Dredging it up now in Congress, some 70 years after the event, may be a generous gesture toward Americans of Armenian descent but is hardly an appropriate signal to U.S. enemies." Or to its Turkish friends.
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