All Writings
March 9, 2010

Reassessing the Genocide Resolution

Ankara, Turkey

Once again, as has happened every spring for years running, the debate over whether the ethnic clashes against the Armenians in the break up of the Ottoman Empire amounted to genocide has made it into the US political arena for Congress to weigh in. The recent resolution adopted by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs-to officially recognize actions against the Armenians in 1915 as genocide committed by the Ottoman Turks-has less to do with the US government's pursuit of historical accuracy, than political theater that has come at a strikingly inopportune time.

Genocide is a serious label, and requires not only moral authority from those who use it but a deep comprehension of the historical context in which these events occurred. Armenians have every right to demand official inquiries about the terms and conditions in which hundreds of thousands of their ancestors were killed, but this is not the task of US Congress, who has neither the moral standing to codify armed clashes of a century ago without proper inquiry nor the right to be selective about human rights offenses for political points. Every effort should be made by President Obama and the remaining House Representatives to prevent the resolution from reaching the House floor.

Beyond the very serious damage that such a resolution could inflict on US-Turkish relations, should it pass the full House, congressional interference at this juncture could severely erode the very moral argument used justify the resolution. Turkey and Armenia have only recently concluded two protocols calling for closer ties, open borders, and most importantly, the creation of a commission to examine the historical evidence of the tragic events. Not only will this vote undermine the reconciliation process between Turkey and Armenia, but it threatens the US-Turkish relationship at a time when Turkey is playing a critical role aiding the US and the Middle East peace process.

Sadly, this resolution was politicized at the outset, thereby diminishing much of its moral tenet. Had the purpose been for the US to champion human rights and officially condemn any large scale atrocities in times of war, then why was there no debate about massacres in Sudan, Rwanda, Algeria or the Balkans? The fact that it was supported by a powerful lobby and sponsored by many members of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Committee Chairman Howard Berman from California, and Donald Payne and Albio Sires from New Jersey, each of whom represent relatively large Armenian constituencies, takes this debate out of the moral realm and into the political one. Beyond this matter, Howard Berman and the Foreign Relations Committee failed to address the pressing issues behind what such a resolution would invite forth, mainly the land disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the issue of reparations for descendants of the victims, none of which can be treated in isolation. However large the political benefit these members of Congress may garner this election year by pushing this resolution, it is not in US interests, as the end result will hurt the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process and severely undercut Turkish-US cooperation should it come to fruition. Such a serious resolution requires the application of the highest moral review and investigation, not a politically convenient act which is considered an insult to Turkish identity. If genocide was in fact committed, it should be left to an international investigative tribunal, not politicians who need to be reelected every two years.

Turkey has been a loyal friend of the United States for more than a half century, and continues to support American efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Arab-Israeli peace process. It is a modern secular democracy, and has made great strides in remaining open and progressive. Why then should the United States Congress hold the descendants of the Ottomans responsible for the deeds of their fathers perpetrated a century ago? Since Turkey vehemently rejects the term genocide, what judgment should then be passed, and by whom, that will not tarnish the present generation of Turks? This generation had nothing to do with past events and, in fact, condemns the atrocities committed during that heinous war, regardless of who the perpetrators were. What then gives the United States' House of Representatives the moral authority to pass judgment, when domestic political interest shamelessly dominates their motives? The argument against the resolution by the full House should be based on moral grounds, and the members must not act as judges and jurors when Turkey and Armenia have agreed to establish their own joint committee to unravel what in fact happened.

At a time when America still suffers from a lagging global image after years of hawkish foreign policy and two ongoing wars, the United States Congress must support what Turkey and Armenia have agreed to do to resolve their conflict and help facilitate a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial dispute. Even the Jewish lobby, in the wake of a series of diplomatic rifts between Turkey and Israel, acted quietly in favor of the Turks, resulting in a close margin in the vote. As much as Prime Minister Erdogan's recent statements have not fared well with the Israeli public, the Israeli diaspora is keen on maintaining the strategic nature of its relationship with Turkey as well as Turkey's relationship with the West.

But more importantly, the Turkish government who acted out fervently against the US government following the resolution must come to grips with the separation of power in the United States. Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton have come out strongly against the resolution-albeit last minute-yet they cannot control the votes or the agenda of Congress. Under no circumstance should Prime Minister Erdogan cancel his upcoming visit to the US, as he should use this opportunity to present his case and prove that Turkey is capable of handling the disputes with Armenia without US congressional intervention.

It is by no means certain that this misguided resolution taken by Pelosi and Berman will pass in the full House should it come to a vote. Furthermore, it is unlikely these sponsors will even bring the resolution to the floor unless they are certain it has a substantial chance to pass. This represents a keen opportunity for Democrats and Republicans alike to find a common area of interest and work in unison for the best interests of the US, Turkey, and the future of Turkish-Armenian relations.