Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Dangers of the Armenian Genocide Resolution

The Dangers of the Armenian Genocide Resolution

The European Union has told Turkey that in order to become a “true democracy” worth joining it, it must acknowledge responsibility for the 1915 Armenian “genocide,” even if the Republic of Turkey as such did not exist until 1923.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has now decided to bring to a vote a non-binding resolution declaring the events of 1915 in Eastern Anatolia a “genocide.” Despite its moralistic claims, this is a dangerous—indeed, in the present circumstances, a highly irresponsible—assault on U.S. national interests in Iraq and elsewhere.

The issue is both clear in terms of whose interests are at stake and complex as to the events themselves. For many Armenians in the U.S. (concentrated in California—Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., was the bill’s sponsor), the issue is hate for everything Turkish and an attempt to rewrite history for emotional fulfillment. For Armenians in Armenia, it is the hoped-for beginning of a process leading to compensation, including financial, from Ankara, and a welcome diversion from their domestic difficulties.

Central to the issue is the definition of events during World War I in the Ottoman Empire. A few key facts are clear. One is that many hundreds of thousands (over a million, according to the Armenian lobby) Armenians in Eastern Anatolia died at that time, of exhaustion and famine as well as killed by Kurdish villagers and Ottoman soldiers. It is also a fact that the Armenian community and its leadership in Anatolia at the time took arms against the Ottomans, in open alliance with the latter’s traditional enemy, Russia. Invading Russian troops and Armenian irregulars, whose occupation of the city of Van was the immediate cause of the deportation of Armenians, also engaged in indiscriminate violence, albeit on a smaller scale, against the mostly Kurdish population of the area; and all that during a war in which the very fate of the Ottoman Empire was being decided.

Whether the Ottoman authorities were guilty of “genocide” in a legal sense is doubtful, since the term itself did not exist in international law until after World War II; in a moral sense, doubts could also be raised, since if “genocide” means intentional destruction of a specific group because of its nationality, religion, race, etc., the survival of the Armenian community of Istanbul, outside the conflict area, is hard to explain. But leaving all this aside, there is one reality that cannot be ignored. That is that whatever happened in 1915 happened under the Ottoman Empire, not under the Turkish Republic, established in 1923. Thus contemporary Turkey is no more responsible for the events of 1915 than Russia is for Stalin’s annexation of the Baltic states or the Federal Republic of Germany for the pre-1914 colonial abuses of the Wilhelmine Empire.

In regional terms, any form of open American support for Armenian claims against Turkey would only encourage Yerevan to persist in its destabilizing role.

Not only does Armenia continue to occupy a large part of Azerbaijan’s territory, much beyond its admittedly legitimate claims to the Nagorno-Karabakh region, but is serves as the cat’s paw of Moscow, the former colonial power in the Caucasus and still the main threat to its stability.

The main problem, however, is still Turkey. Turkish nationalism, on the rise as it is and now with a disturbing new element of anti-Americanism, reaches hysterical levels when the Armenian issue is mentioned. Although most elites may not share it yet, it is unlikely that they could control a wave of anti-Americanism if the U.S. House of Representatives considers the proposed resolution. And it cost the French billions in lost or cancelled contracts with Turkey when the lower house of their parliament passed a resolution last year making it a crime to deny that genocide occurred.

France had no strategic interests in Turkey, nor is Paris known for its traditional pro-Turkish sympathies. The United States, however, has a vital interest in a friendly Turkey, a NATO ally of long standing, Israel’s only friend in the region, and a neighbor of Iran, Syria, and Iraq. The latter is particularly important now.

As it is, Ankara has a legitimate complaint against our main Iraqi allies, the Kurds, for their inaction or implicit tolerance of the terrorist PKK organization, which is safely ensconced in Iraqi Kurdistan. So far, the Turks have demonstrated, most of the time, an admirable patience with PKK terrorist attacks across the border, but a less than friendly Turkish military could not be counted on to continue on that path. Nor could Ankara be expected, if it is insulted by Washington, to stand by if Kirkuk, with its large Turkoman minority, is annexed by the Iraqi Kurds. Are those likely consequences worth paying for the sake of the emotional satisfaction of the Armenian lobby?

The answer is clearly negative, which is why Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and now George W. Bush all opposed such attempts. The House leadership does not seem to mind doing damage to our relations with the only democratic and secular Muslim state in the region at a crucial time. Although the intended measure is non-binding, and thus it avoids a presidential veto, that does not make it harmless or intelligent.