Gordon Taylor: What Obama should do about the resolution to commemorate the Armenian genocide

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Taylor is a former teacher in Turkey and the author of Fever and Thirst: An American Doctor Among the Tribes of Kurdistan. Academy Chicago Publishers, 2005.]

Talking heads agree: Barack Obama will be tested soon after taking office. One of his lesser problems--thorny enough, however, to become a major issue--is the nonbinding resolution, pending in Congress seemingly forever, which officially labels as genocide the series of expulsions, massacres, forced marches, and deliberate acts of mass starvation which, beginning in 1915, virtually wiped out the Armenian community in Asiatic Turkey. Turkey, long an ally of the United States and a nation which, because of its unique strategic importance, exerts influence far out of proportion to its size, has for years stubbornly fought against the use of this label. Despite recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the National Assembly of France, as well as by many other European nations, nothing is likely to change the Turks' attitude soon.

Already Ahmet Davutoglu, chief foreign policy advisor to the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has come to Washington and warned Barack Obama against supporting a genocide resolution by Congress. Turkey and Armenia have in recent months made important steps toward reconciliation, and Davutoglu has warned that this process would be endangered by a genocide resolution. In other words,"It's not a good time." Of course, it's never a good time to tell unpleasant truths to Turkish nationalists.

Barack Obama, however, has renewed a pledge, previously made to the Armenian-American lobby, to support such a resolution. Clearly Obama will face a difficult choice. On one side will be historical truth as confirmed by millions of documents, eyewitness reports, and photographs, plus Armenian political pressure. On the other side will be semantic nitpicking ("Was it really 'genocide'?""Did the Ottoman authorities authorize murder, or just removal?"), and massive political, bureaucratic, and diplomatic pressure from pro-Turkish forces.

Of these, the hardest to resist will be pressure by the Turks and their friends in the State Department and the military-industrial complex. Every year, as part of a relationship which goes back more than half a century, Turkey's generals purchase millions (often billions) of dollars' worth of high-technology weapons from the United States. They are good customers, and they can afford to be. The Turkish Armed Forces and their pension funds comprise the third-largest capitalist enterprise in Turkey. They retain vast holdings in steel, cement, construction, arms production, and a dozen other areas. They even write and submit their own defense budgets, which the Turkish Parliament approves without question. This keeps the process pleasantly free of civilian oversight, and since they own their own defense plants [non-unionized], the Turkish Army makes a tidy profit on items that they have ordered for themselves with Turkish taxpayers' money.

The Turks, of course, are famously nationalistic. The Armed Forces website even goes so far as to include a special link on its homepage to a series of documents purporting to disprove the Armenian Genocide. In a showdown over a Genocide Resolution, the Turks will call in their chits. Virtually every major arms contractor in the United States, and many minor companies as well, will line up with the Turkish government in their perennial attempt to prove that, with regard to the Armenians, two plus two equals zero."It's not a good time," they will argue. And once again, Congress will probably go along.

There is, fortunately, a way to avoid this outcome. It means standing up for historical truth, of course. But also it involves an acknowledgment that truth is rarely pure and never simple. Finally, it requires drastically rewriting a genocide resolution that is at present far too wordy and full of special pleading.

First, we must acknowledge the fact that Turkey, too, is a nation largely composed of refugees. Many of Turkey's citizens, like Armenians (and Greeks), descend from people who fled from massacre and invasion to an alien land. Turkey's highest-ranking soldier, Chief of Staff General Ilker Basbug, comes from a family who were refugees from Monastir, or Bitolya, in the forested mountains of Macedonia. Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Republic, was born in what is now Thessaloniki, in Greece. Millions more came from Bulgaria, Albania, and the Caucasus, to name but a few. Turks are tired, understandably, of hearing about the deaths of Christian refugees when so many Muslims also died in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. This fact must be recognized.

Second, the genocide resolution pending in Congress is simply inadequate. It is too long, too certain about uncertain facts, too absorbed in minutiae. It stipulates, for example, the figure of 1.5 million Armenians as casualties of the Genocide, a figure that is impossible to confirm and is, in fact, disputed by historical demographers. Later, it spends far too much time justifying use of the word 'genocide' by citing past Presidents and others who have used the word. Such details are unnecessary.

What is needed, I submit, is the distillation of a complicated history into the fewest possible words, and the forthright assertion, without apology, that the events of 1915 did indeed amount to the Armenian Genocide. Above all, this genocide resolution should aim for commiseration and understanding. Otherwise it will become a piece of propaganda made to order for a particular constituency, an act as important as the declaration of National Cribbage Week.

All the above is prelude to the following post, a draft resolution I have written which recognizes the suffering of the Armenian Genocide and calls for an understanding of the event's terrible context. It is unapologetically the work of an amateur, one who wrote it without input (or interference) from either of the parties involved. I have tried to make it as succinct as possible. Read it if you will; comment if you must. If you like it, link to it or send it on. Any Commenter who insists on reciting past grievances or abusing others' ethnicity will be summarily thrown out into the cyber-void. Please remember that this is an attempt to soothe a quarrel and move on, not to provoke the same self-destructive behavior that has led us to this impasse.

[Cross-posted at The Pasha and the Gypsy]

Draft Resolution (The Armenian Genocide of 1915)

Be it resolved, etc.

(1) By this act, the Congress of the United States recognizes the unique heritage of suffering borne by its citizens of Armenian descent, specifically those forced migrations and mass killings committed by authorities of the Ottoman Empire, beginning in 1915, that have come to be known throughout the world as the Armenian Genocide.

(2) While we recognize that signal event in the history of twentieth century, the Genocide of the Armenians, the Congress of the United States calls not only for renewed study of this terrible episode but for acknowledgment of, (a) the historical realities that foreshadowed it, and, (b) the context in which it took place. In this spirit we affirm the following: that no nation holds a monopoly on virtue, victim-hood, or villainy; that the prelude, conflict, and aftermath of World War I brought suffering and death to uncountable multitudes in Anatolia, the Balkans, Greece, and Trans-Caucasia; that the war-aided dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, continuing throughout the nineteenth century and up to 1922, brought desperation, death, and exile to millions of Muslims as well as to Greek Orthodox, Assyrian, and Armenian Christians; and that many descendants of those refugees-from Anatolia, Bulgaria, Rumania, Macedonia, Crete, Greece, Albania, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Thrace, Circassia, Chechnya, Daghestan, Georgia, Kurdistan, and Trans-Caucasia-are now citizens of the Republics of Turkey, Greece, Armenia, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, and thus bear their own heritage of suffering.

(3) The Congress of the United States, with this Act, appeals also for reconciliation. We applaud the Republics of Armenia and Turkey for their recent efforts at rapprochement, and we call upon the current Administration to take all appropriate measures to assist them in this quest. Finally, to those two great nations, Armenia and Turkey, we express our best wishes for Peace and Friendship in the future, and for a renewed appreciation of their common Anatolian heritage.

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    More Comments:

    Gordon Taylor - 11/17/2008

    I'm certainly sympathetic to the points of view expressed in these comments, especially the question "Doesn't Obama have something better to do?". Obviously he does, and it is a valid question whether an historical question like this should even take up the time of a legislative body.

    However, it will not be forgotten. No matter how we may wish it away, sooner or later, like a corpse that refuses to sink, this thing just keeps coming up. And it is simply not true that there are no "smoking guns" in the historical record. Taner Akcam has settled that question for all time, as far as I'm concerned.

    I wrote this little piece because I wanted to help get past this sorry episode. I agree: I don't want Obama to get entangled in this thing. But he will, sooner or later. And when that happens, he'll need something thoughtful and even-handed to use. That's what I wanted to produce.

    Jeremy Alan Perron - 11/15/2008

    Not to mention I didn't vote for Obama so he could send hard threats to the Ottoman Empire.

    Tim R. Furnish - 11/14/2008

    Much of this article is sensible, but the crux of the issue is unresolved: whether the undoubted mass killings of Armenians should be defined as "genocide." Mass killins by themselves are not necessarily "genocide," and as I have argued before (on HNN) I think the Turks have a good point that sans any "smoking gun" of documentation proving that the Ottoman government ordered systematic mass murder of Armenians, the term "genocide" is a dicey and objectionable one.
    And why even kick this political football? The President-elect has better things to do, and just how will such a resolution help those who died almost a century ago, anyway?