Sunday, 19 December 2010

A Dangerous Waste of Time

The wisdom of the Founding Fathers in making sure that the House of Representatives has nothing serious to do with foreign relations is being demonstrated once again. It’s doubtful that most members can remember the capital of any neighbouring state let alone determine genuine national interest beyond the boundaries of their own district.


Now the House members are being asked to consider a resolution regarding events that happened almost 100 years ago in a part of the world they can find only with a satellite navigation system. Usually such resolutions are nothing but comic relief. However, this one poses a major problem for the United States. The resolution being considered includes very bad history and even worse foreign policy. If the House really wants to make even more trouble for the United States in an already troubled part of the world this resolution is the way to go.

Groups that say they represent the Armenian diaspora are trying, as they do every year, to get the House to pass a resolution labelling Ottoman Turkish actions in 1915 against the local Armenian population as genocide. They are trying to get the Democrat-controlled House to pass this resolution before the Republicans, traditionally less sympathetic to their cause, take over next year. Why is this seemingly innocuous, arcane, powerless resolution so potentially damaging?

A little history is helpful. As some House members might recall there was another war going on in 1915, and Turkey was allied with Germany against England, France and Tsarist Russia. The United States had not yet entered the war. Russian armies were moving into Eastern Turkey, and already the Ottoman armies had lost 90,000 men in one major engagement. Many Armenians living in that area sided with their co-religionist Russians against the Moslem Turks, an act the Turks consider treachery.

The Ottoman government of the time, a bunch of thugs mistakenly labelled as Young Turks, decided to deal with this threat of collaboration by removing the Armenian population from the area. This act in itself, however cruel, was not the first time in history that belligerent nations had taken such a step, nor will it be the last. What made this one different was the wholesale cruelty of the forced marches, murderous attacks by marauding gangs of Kurds, and the callous indifference of the government in far away Constantinople to the fate of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. The mountainous region of Northeastern Turkey that once was home to a vibrant Armenian community now contains the haunting ruins of ancient Armenian churches and crumbling, vacant villages.

Scroll forward a few years. Germany and Turkey lose the war. Victorious allies decide to carve up Turkey and give pieces to Greece, Armenia, France and Italy. Russia suffers a revolution and Lenin takes over. The old Ottoman regime crumbles and a vigorous new Turkish republic is formed. The new Turkish nation refuses to roll over, and repudiates this 1920 treaty. Eventually they push out the invading Greeks. France and Italy quickly lose heart and give up their claims on Turkey. Lenin, in dire need of friends, signs a deal with the new Turkey that sets the eastern border of Turkey – effectively ending the dreams of the resurrection of Greater Armenia. Armenians exact some measure of revenge for the deportations by assassinating two members of the exiled former Ottoman ruling triumvirate. The Russians dispatched the third one. No tears are shed. Case closed? Unfortunately, not.

The Armenian community in Europe and the United States continues to clamour loudly to have the 1915 deportations declared genocide, similar to what the Jews suffered under the Nazis. It is important to note here that there is no unanimity among historians on this point. Several noted specialists like Bernard Lewis and Norman Stone will acknowledge the bloody massacres but stop well short of calling them genocide. No credible evidence has been produced so far that the Ottoman government of the time, unlike the Nazis, ordered the systematic destruction of the entire Armenian community. It is undeniable that the massacres occurred, and it is shameful that the Turkish government has not done more to acknowledge this. But does this by itself constitute genocide? That genocide occurred is an article of faith with the Armenian diaspora, one they proclaim loudly and vociferously. But, unfortunately, that alone doesn't make it true. There is another side to the story. The one thing for sure is that the last place to determine the rights and wrongs of this issue is the United States House of Representatives.

Leaving aside the fog of history, why is the Armenian diaspora pushing so hard for the United States to declare these events genocide? What do they really want to gain? Do they simply want to be remembered as history’s victims? Are they seeking monetary or territorial reparations from modern Turkey? Over the years the vicious extremists of this diaspora have assassinated innocent Turkish diplomats and threatened historians that disagree with their claims. Is more of this what the House wants to encourage?

And more to the point, do they really expect the United States to jeopardize its relations with a key NATO ally to satisfy the claims of one single ethnic group? The very well-informed, thoughtful Turkish journalist Semih Idiz points out in a recent column in the English language Daily News that such a resolution would be God’s gift to all the anti-Americans throughout the region. Current relations with the Turkish government may be difficult, but they would be far worse if such a resolution passes. He paints in crystal clear terms what such a resolution would cost the United States.

The Armenian lobby is politically strong and has traditionally supported the Democrats. Nancy Pelosi and Senator Barbara Boxer are just two of the politicians that have benefitted from Armenian support. They should not be deluded into thinking that American-Turkish relations would remain the same if this non-binding resolution passes. If the House really wants to help resolve this issue it would pass a resolution calling on the parties directly involved to do so. Invoking American national interest in this bit of ancient history is a dangerous waste of time and effort.

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