Max Boot: The debate over Armenian genocide

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Boot is the author of The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power.]

The Turkish government is furious about a vote in the House International Relations Committee condemning as “genocide” the killing of some 1.5 million Armenians by the Turks in 1915.

The issue is an old and vexing one, and I confess to not being entirely in sympathy with either side. The Turks, for a start, are absurdly worked up about a mere piece of paper condemning actions taken not by the current government of Turkey or by its immediate predecessors but by another entity entirely—the Ottoman Empire, which ceased to exist in 1922 when it was replaced by a new Turkish state headed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The massacres of 1915 (which were indeed an attempted genocide—see Samantha Power’s powerful book, A Problem from Hell) were carried out by the Young Turks. Therefore, the current government in Ankara could very easily say: Yes, there were terrible acts committed by the Ottoman Empire in its waning days and we regret and disavow them. Now we want to work cooperatively with Armenians living in Armenia itself and in the Diaspora, and as a humanitarian gesture make some restitution where appropriate.

That would cost Turkey little and gain it much international support. But it does not seem emotionally possible given how high feelings run in Turkey over this issue. Instead, should this resolution go through, the Erdogan government is again threatening all sorts of dire consequences for the Turkish-American alliance. Since we need Turkish cooperation in all sorts of areas, especially in Iraq, we must tread lightly. My own view is that Congress should avoid passing a symbolic resolution that will do little or nothing to help Armenian victims or their descendants, but that will hurt vital American interests.

That’s not, of course, the way Armenians see it, and they form a powerful lobbying group that donates a lot of money to politicians especially in states like New Jersey, Michigan, and California. (It is no coincidence that legislators from those states are leading the push for the Armenian genocide resolution.)

While I disagree with them on the merits of this legislation, I sympathize with their grievances and respect their right to seek redress in Washington. That’s the way our political system works. It’s common, and completely innocuous, for various ethnic groups to get involved in lobbying. It’s only a scandal, it seems, when the lobbyists in question are Jewish. In that case, their activities are denounced in odious anti-Semitic tracts, most of them published by groups like the John Birch Society, the Lyndon Larouchites, and the Ku Klux Klan, but some of which appear bearing the imprimatur of supposedly prestigious institutions like Harvard University, the University of Chicago, and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

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