Making sense of genocide

Turkey needs to come to grips with its bloody past so it can move forward in its relations with Armenia and the U.S.

March 8, 2010
Source: Los Angeles Times (California)

An estimated 1.5 million ethnic Armenians were massacred in the final throes of the Ottoman empire. That blood bath, carried out by the Turks between 1915 and 1918, was genocide, and should be called by that name. In approving a nonbinding resolution to make this the official U.S. position, Chairman Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village) and other members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee were responding to constituent demands that the United States take a moral stand. Now, Congress and the Obama administration must decide whether such a symbolic act also serves the strategic interests of the United States. For the moment, just like presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before him, Barack Obama appears to be saying no.

It is important for the United States to stand for historical truth on the Armenian slaughter. Even more important is that Turks themselves come to terms with their brutal history. From Germany to South Africa to Argentina, there are many examples of countries that have confronted their violent pasts honestly.

Instead, Turkey recalled its ambassador for consultations after the 23-22 House committee vote, saying the resolution offends the country's honor and warning of negative consequences for U.S.-Turkish relations, as well as for the ratification of agreements to normalize ties with the Republic of Armenia. A more productive approach would be for the Turks and Armenians to adopt the protocols hammered out last year to establish diplomatic relations and reopen their shared border. The U.S. vote must not become a pretext for further stalling.

During the 2008 campaign, Obama was unequivocal in his support for labeling the killings a genocide. As president, however, he has the unenviable task of weighing that position against the need for Turkey's support in Afghanistan, in stabilizing Iraq and for United Nations sanctions against Iran. Turkey is the only Muslim country in NATO, and it currently sits on the U.N. Security Council.

We understand that any U.S. administration must nurture the vital strategic alliance with Turkey. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who coaxed Turkey and Armenia into signing the protocols last year, noted that the agreement established a commission to examine their bloody history and argued that "it is not for any other country to determine how two countries resolve matters between them." That's true, but we also understand Armenian fears that such a commission could whitewash history.

The goal is Turkish and Armenian reconciliation, putting to rest the ghosts of the past. That is in the U.S. interest as well as that of both peoples. For it to happen, the onus is on Turkey to acknowledge the Armenian genocide.