Sunday, April 4, 2010

Obama and the Denial of Genocide

Obama and the Denial of Genocide

Stephen Zunes

Huffington Post

March 11, 2010


The Obama administration, citing its relations with

Turkey, has pledged to block the passage in the full

House of Representatives of a resolution passed this

past Thursday by the Foreign Relations Committee

acknowledging the 1915 genocide by the Ottoman Empire of

a 1.5 million Armenians.  Even though the Obama

administration previously refused to acknowledge and

even worked to suppress well-documented evidence of

recent war crimes by Israel, another key Middle Eastern

ally, few believed that the administration would go as

far as to effectively deny genocide.


Following the committee vote, Secretary of State Hillary

Clinton announced that "We are against this decision,"

and pledged that the administration would "work very

hard" to prevent the bill from coming to the floor.

Despite widespread support for the resolution by House

Democrats, she expressed confidence that the

administration would find a means of blocking the

resolution, saying, "Now we believe that the U.S.

Congress will not take any decision on this subject."


As candidates, both Clinton and Barack Obama had pledged

that their administrations would be the first to

formally recognize the Armenian genocide. Clinton

acknowledged that this was a reversal, but insisted that

circumstances had "changed in very significant ways."

The State Department, however, has been unable to cite

any new historical evidence that would counter the broad

consensus that genocide had indeed taken place in the

waning years of the Ottoman Empire. The official excuse

is that it might harm an important rapprochement between

Armenia and Turkey. However, there is no indication the

Armenian government is at all concerned about potential

negative fallout in their bilateral relations over a

resolution passed by a legislative body in a third



More likely, the concern is over not wanting to

jeopardize the cooperation of Turkey, which borders

Iran, in the forthcoming enhanced sanctions against the

Islamic republic.


Back in 2007, a similar resolution acknowledging the

Armenian genocide also passed through the House Foreign

Relations Committee.  Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi

promised that she would allow it to come for a vote.

With 226 cosponsors - a clear majority of the House -

there was little question it would pass.  However, in

response to claims by the Bush White House and

Republican congressional leaders that it would harm the

"Global War on Terror," Pelosi broke her promise and

used her power as speaker to prevent a vote on the

resolution. She will also certainly buckle under

pressure from an administration of her own party.


The Historical Record


Between 1915 and 1918, under orders of the leadership of

the Ottoman Empire, an estimated two million Armenians

were forcibly removed from their homes in a region that

had been part of the Armenian nation for more than 2,500

years. Three-quarters of them died as a result of

execution, starvation, and related reasons.


According to Henry Morgenthau, U.S. ambassador to the

Ottoman Empire during that period, "When the Turkish

authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they

were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race;

they understood this well, and, in their conversations

with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the

fact." While issuing a "death warrant to a whole race"

would normally be considered genocide by any definition,

this apparently isn't the view of the Obama



The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the

Crime of Genocide, signed and ratified by the United

States, officially defines genocide as any effort "to

destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical,

racial or religious group, as such." The earliest

proponent of such an international convention was

Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish lawyer who originally

coined the term "genocide" and identified the Armenian

case as a definitive example.


Dozens of other governments - including Canada, France,

Italy, and Russia - and several UN bodies, as well as 40

U.S. states, have formally recognized the Armenian

genocide. The Obama administration does not, however,

and is apparently determined to prevent Congress from

doing so.


Congress has previously gone on record condemning

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for refusing to

acknowledge the German genocide of the Jews.  Congress

appears unwilling, however, to challenge Obama's refusal

to acknowledge the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians.

While awareness of anti-Semitism is fortunately

widespread enough to marginalize those who refuse to

acknowledge the Holocaust, tolerance for anti-Armenian

bigotry appears strong enough that it's still considered

politically acceptable to deny their genocide.


The Turkey Factor


Opponents of the measure argue that they're worried

about harming relations with Turkey, the successor state

to the Ottoman Empire and an important U.S. ally.

However, the United States has done much greater harm in

its relations with Turkey through policies far more

significant than a symbolic resolution acknowledging a

tragic historical period. The United States

clandestinely backed an attempted military coup by

right-wing Turkish officers in 2003, arming Iraqi and

Iranian Kurds with close ties to Kurdish rebels in

Turkey who have been responsible for the deaths of

thousands of Turkish citizens. The United States also

invaded neighboring Iraq. As a result, the percentage of

Turks who view the United States positively declined

from 52 percent to only 9 percent.


Generations of Turks have been taught that there was no

Ottoman genocide of the Armenians, but that there were

scattered atrocities on both sides. Indeed, most Turks

believe their country is being unfairly scapegoated,

particularly when the United States refuses to label its

treatment of American Indians as genocide or acknowledge

more recent war crimes.  As a result, some argue that a

more appropriate means of addressing the ongoing Turkish

denial of historical reality would be through dialogue

and some sort of re-education, avoiding the patently

political device of a congressional resolution that

would inevitably make Turks defensive.


Failure to acknowledge the genocide, however, is a

tragic affront to the rapidly dwindling number of

genocide survivors as well as their descendents.  It's

also a disservice to the many Turks who opposed the

Ottoman Empire's policies and tried to stop the

genocide, as well as the growing number of Turks today

who face imprisonment by their U.S.-backed regime for

daring to publicly concede the crimes of their

forebears. For example, Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish

novelist who won the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature,

was prosecuted and fled into exile to escape death

threats after making a number of public references to

the genocide.


Some opponents of the resolution argue that it is

pointless for Congress to pass resolutions regarding

historical events. Yet there were no such complaints

regarding resolutions commemorating the Holocaust, nor

are there normally complaints regarding the scores of

dedicatory resolutions passed by Congress in recent

years, ranging from commemorating the 65th anniversary

of the death of the Polish musician and political leader

Ignacy Jan Paderewski to noting the 150th anniversary of

the first meeting of the Republican Party in Wisconsin.


The Obama administration insists that that this is a bad

time to upset the Turkish government.  However, it was

also considered a "bad time" to pass the resolution back

in 2007, on the grounds that it not jeopardize U.S.

access to Turkish bases as part of efforts to support

the counter-insurgency war by U.S. occupation forces in

Iraq. It was also considered a "bad time" when a similar

resolution was put forward in 2000 because the United

States was using its bases in Turkey to patrol the "no

fly zones" in northern Iraq.  And it was also considered

a "bad time" in 1985 and 1987, when similar resolutions

were put forward because U.S. bases in Turkey were

considered important listening posts for monitoring the

Soviet Union during the Cold War.


For deniers of the Armenian genocide, it's always a "bad



While the passage of the resolution would certainly lead

to strong diplomatic protests from Turkey, it is dubious

that there would be much of a rupture between Ankara and

Washington.  When President Ronald Reagan, a major

backer of the right-wing military dictatorship then

ruling Turkey, once used the term genocide in relation

to Armenians, U.S.-Turkish relations did not suffer.


The Obama administration, like administrations before

it, simply refuses to acknowledge that the Armenian

genocide even took place.  As recently as the 1980s, the

Bulletin of the Department of State claimed that

"Because the historical record of the 1915 events in

Asia Minor is ambiguous, the Department of State does

not endorse allegations that the Turkish government

committed genocide against the Armenian people."  Even

more recently, Paul Wolfowitz, who served as deputy

secretary of defense in President George W. Bush, stated

in 2002 that "one of the things that impress me about

Turkish history is the way Turkey treats its own



The operative clause of the resolution simply calls upon

Obama "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 documented in the United

States record relating to the Armenian Genocide and the

consequences of the failure to realize a just

resolution."  Therefore, if Obama really doesn't want

Congress to pass such a resolution, all he needs to do

is make an executive order acknowledging the genocide.

Despite whatever excuses one wants to make, failure to

do so amounts to genocide denial.


Genocide Denial


Given the indisputable record of the Armenian genocide,

many of those who refuse to recognize Turkey's genocide

of Armenians, like those who refuse to recognize

Germany's genocide of European Jews, are motivated by

ignorance and bigotry. The Middle East scholar most

often cited by members of Congress as influencing their

understanding of the region is the notorious genocide-

denier Bernard Lewis, a fellow at Washington's Institute

of Turkish Studies.


Not every opponent of the current resolution explicitly

denies that there was genocide. Some acknowledge that

genocide indeed occurred, but have apparently been

convinced that it's detrimental to U.S. security to

state this publicly. This is still inexcusable.  Such

moral cowardice is no less reprehensible than refusing

to acknowledge the Holocaust if it were believed that

doing so might upset the German government, which also

hosts critical U.S. bases.


Obama is not the first Democratic president to

effectively deny the Armenian genocide. President Bill

Clinton successfully persuaded House Speaker Dennis

Hastert to suppress a similar bill, after it passed the

Republican-led Foreign Relations Committee by a vote of

40-7 and was on its way to easy passage before the full

House. President Jimmy Carter also suppressed a Senate

effort led by Bob Dole, whose miraculous recovery from

near-fatal wounds during World War II was overseen by an

Armenian-American doctor who had survived the genocide.


Interestingly, neoconservatives - quick to defend crimes

against humanity by the Bush administration, the Israeli

government, and others - are opportunistically using

Obama's flip-flop on this issue as evidence of the moral

laxity of Democrats on human rights.


Adolf Hitler, responding to concerns about the legacy of

his crimes, once asked, "Who, after all, is today

speaking of the destruction of the Armenians?" Obama is

sending a message to future tyrants that they can commit

genocide without acknowledgement by the world's most

powerful country.


Indeed, refusing to recognize genocide and those

responsible for it in a historical context makes it

easier to deny genocide today.  In 1994, the Clinton

also refused to use the word "genocide" in the midst of

the Rwandan government's massacres of over half that

country's Tutsi population, a decision that contributed

to the delay in deploying international peacekeeping

forces until after the slaughter of 800,000 people.


As a result, the Obama administration's position on the

Armenian genocide isn't simply about whether to

commemorate a tragedy that took place 95 years ago. It's

about where we stand as a nation in facing up to the

most horrible of crimes. It's about whether we are

willing to stand up for the truth in the face of lies.

It's about whether we see our nation as appeasing our

strategic allies or upholding our longstanding principles.




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