The Armenian Holocaust -
A Question Of Scruples
By Tanya Goudsouzian
The politics of morality have long dominated American rhetoric during elections, and in justifying what to others seem questionable foreign crusades. Most daunting has been coordinating these moral sentiments with strategic economic interests. For two decades, the Armenian-American community has laboured tirelessly to urge the United States Congress to recognise a tragic -- and much debated -- chapter in Ottoman history. These efforts have habitually been undermined by the State Department, whose interests primarily lie in avoiding unnecessary complications in US-Turkish relations. However, during the past few weeks, Anatolia's grizzly past has returned to haunt Washington's Capitol Hill, only this time in a way that may bring results.
The tragedy in question dates back to the early 20th century, when the Ottoman Empire was the sick man of Europe. Nationalist ideas and irredentist aspirations were rampant among minorities, most notably the Armenians and the Greeks. The triumvirate, which took control of the Ottoman government in 1908, launched its Turkification policy in a last-ditch attempt to coalesce a crumbling empire; but it was also the start of what many claim was a brutal campaign to obliterate restless minorities. Between 1915 and 1923, some 1.5 million Armenians perished and more than 500,000 were exiled from their homes, according to widely accepted Armenian estimates disputed by the government of the modern republic of Turkey.
These figures contend that before 1914, over two million Armenians lived in Turkey, but by the end of 1923, the entire population of Anatolia and western Armenia had been wiped out. Turkish statistics, on the other hand, suggest the death toll to have been around 300,000 Armenians, as well as thousands of Turks -- a consequence of dire wartime conditions and efforts to quell internal unrest. What Turkish officials now dismiss as mass deportations, the Armenians -- backed by a number of countries, including Belgium, Cyprus, France, Greece and Russia -- recognise as systematic massacres targeting an entire race; or to put it more succinctly: genocide.
Protesters near the US consulate in central Istanbul demand the closure of Incirlik airbase. Banners read in Turkish "Genocide bill is hostility against Turkey" and "America, look at your history."
(photo: Reuters)
What Turkish officials now dismiss as mass deportations, the Armenians -- backed by a number of countries including Belgium, Cyprus, France and Russia -- recognise as genocide
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Despite intense pressure exerted by a delegation from the Turkish Parliament and its local lobby team led by former congressmen, the United States House International Relations Committee voted overwhelmingly on 3 October to pass the Armenian Genocide Resolution (H.Res.398). With over 145 co-sponsors, the resolution was set to be considered by the full US House of Representatives as early as 17 October. "This resolution is intended to help those involved in US foreign policy to better utilise the American record on the Armenian Genocide to help prevent similar atrocities again being committed," Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The Turkish camp begs to differ, vehemently. "I want to insist on one point: genocide did not happen," stressed Mehmet Ali Irtemqelik, a Turkish parliamentarian, during the debate. "Inevitably, if this resolution is adopted, it will be impossible not to have our [US-Turkey] relationship affected," he added. Soon afterward, Turkey issued a warning that the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline running between Turkey and Iraq, officially closed since Iraq invaded Kuwait 10 years ago, would be restored to full capacity should the resolution be passed. Turkish Energy Minister Cumhur Ersumer announced that technical teams had already started work on the pipeline in anticipation of just such an outcome. There is talk that a Turkish ambassador may even be sent back to Baghdad for the first time since the Gulf War. Turkey also warned that it might withdraw permission for US and British planes to fly patrols over northern Iraq from airbases on Turkish soil. "Taking the Incirlik airbase under maintenance offers Turkey an opportunity to send a message to a big state without cutting the dialogue," said former Premier Tansu Ciller, head of the opposition True Path party.
Officials in Ankara deny that Turkey's manoeuvring vis-¦-vis Iraq is related to the US draft bill, but at the same time, it is obvious that it will not please the US. American feathers are being ruffled, with more and more countries defying the UN sanctions. Turkey says that it has lost $30 billion in trade because of the sanctions, including $1.5 billion specifically because of the closed pipeline. Perhaps, then, the controversy surrounding the pending draft resolution on the alleged Armenian genocide has merely been made good use of by Turkey. It should be remembered that the draft bill may not even pass, since it does not have the backing of President Bill Clinton and will not be debated in the Senate. One consistent opponent of the resolution, Rep. Dan Burton (Republican-Indiana), argues vaguely that it would even create difficulties for Armenia if it does pass. Last week, Turkey stopped issuing tourist visas to Armenians trying to cross the border between the two countries.
"Armenia has offered to establish relations with Turkey without preconditions. Turkey has rejected these offers by setting preconditions on the normalisation of relations," said the ANCA's Hamparian. "Turkey spends millions of dollars each year lobbying to deny the genocide. It blockades US relief aid to Armenia. And at times it has threatened to 'teach Armenia the lessons of 1915'," he added. "The Turkish government has quite inappropriately interfered in the American political process, using threats of retaliation and attempting to dictate to US legislators how they should understand their own history," said Hamparian. More generally, Microsoft has been threatened with serious reprisals if it does not amend entries related to "genocide" and "Armenia" in its new online encyclopaedia, Encarta.
The Armenian camp believes it is simply seeking to formalise what has already been made clear by widely accepted evidence. "When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race," wrote Henry Morgenthau, then US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. "They understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact." The US National Archives contain thousands of pages documenting the "premeditated extermination of the Armenian people." It was in part due to American intervention and humanitarian assistance that the full plan was not carried out. An organisation known as Near East Relief, chartered by an act of Congress, contributed some $113 million between 1915 and 1930 to deliver aid to survivors.
In modern times, however, the US is Turkey's key NATO ally and the two countries have maintained strong diplomatic and military relations since the Cold War. Turkey has benefited from US intelligence-gathering operations in the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq. It is also a major US arms purchaser, but it has recently stated that it may withdraw from negotiations to buy 145 attack helicopters in a $4.5 billion tender with a US firm.
"Study the past, divine the future" goes an old adage. Armenians seek to prevent a repeat of a terrible episode in their history, while Turks are reluctant to tarnish their own. Americans, for their part, seem unwilling to compromise their strategic interests. Soon, American decision-makers will have to appraise the value of justice.
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