Armenian Genocide Resolution: President Obama and the price of moral courage

The Armenian Genocide Resolution passed by a House committee last week merely asks Obama to tell the truth. Given Turkey’s strategic importance, that will be hard to do.

March 8, 2010
Source: The Christian Science Monitor (Massachusetts)

By John Hughes

Yerevan, Armenia —

A resolution approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, in recognizing the Armenian Genocide, asks the Obama administration to endorse history at the risk of insulting a needed ally. The passing of House Resolution 252 introduces a new dynamic into the State Department’s hopes for “normalization” of relations between Armenia and Turkey.

The Armenian Genocide is marked as beginning April 24, 1915. On the 94th anniversary last year, President Obama decried the “great atrocities” – but defied his own campaign promise by following the precedent of other modern presidents and stopping short of using the word “genocide.”

HR 252 calls on the president to use the annual April 24 message “to accurately characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1.5 million Armenians as genocide and to recall the proud history of United States intervention in opposition to the Armenian Genocide.”

The fallout over the nonbinding resolution – Turkey withdrew its US ambassador, and its prime minister called the resolution “a comedy” – makes it most unlikely that it will either pass the full Congress or nudge President Obama to call a historical fact by its proper name next month. Indeed, the Obama administration urged the committee not to pass the measure. The letdown will further erode the trust of Armenians to whom he has become davatchan – a traitor.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has vowed to stop the resolution where it stands. Mrs. Clinton was the chief diplomat behind a three-country effort shared by Russia and Switzerland last October that resulted in Turkey and Armenia agreeing to try to agree, and follow a set of “protocols” intended to work out their deep differences.

The protocols meant to be a roadmap have led nowhere, as neither country has ratified them. Armenia has even gone so far as to amend its legislation on international treaties, allowing for “the suspension or termination of agreements signed by Armenia before their entry into force.” Creating a pre-emptive exit strategy from cooperation hardly portends kumbayah in the Caucasus.

Turkey (which closed its border with Armenia in 1993 in support of Muslim cousin Azerbaijan in its war over the historically Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh) was the first to drag down the process, by insisting that rapprochement cannot carry on unless Armenia returns land it reclaimed from Azerbaijan. Turkey’s insistence on projecting Karabakh into the discussion brings to question whether protocol negotiators were literally on the same page.

The drafted, debated, signed-and-sent-to-parliaments document makes no reference to the Karabakh issue. Armenians saw Turkey’s introduction of this controversy into the protocol talks (after they were signed) as unacceptable. Washington diplomats – mindful of the delicate and protracted negotiations over Karabakh – encouraged Turkey to seek harmony with Armenia “without preconditions” – or in this case, “postconditions.”

Nonetheless, members of Congress debating HR252 last Thursday and indeed Clinton herself in subsequent statements, seemed either uninformed or dismissive of the reality that “normalization” has reverted to the unfortunate normal state of acrid dislike between Armenia and Turkey.

Clinton’s claim that endorsing the resolution would damage the protocol process plays perfectly into Turkey’s position as the aggrieved nation. Neither she nor the Turks concede that the attempt at reconciliation has been a blunder that not only hasn’t worked, but has torn scabs off wounds that irritate the Turkey-Armenia healing process. What was meant to be a document uniting nations has left the republics divided. And while open borders were intended, closed minds have prevailed.

The process has also split Armenia’s vast diaspora and has been a source of division domestically – in a cantankerous country that needs no encouragement to divide its diminished self. A large segment of the Armenian diaspora rejected the protocols from the start. (Significantd diaspora institutions endorsed the document, but their support was muted compared to contrary outcry.)

Opponents contested a clause that calls for a “historical commission” to explore what happened from 1915 to 1923 in the Ottoman Empire. They reasoned that such a commission would cast doubt on (as candidate Obama called it) the “overwhelming body of historical evidence” and in doing so would betray lost souls to whom nearly every Armenian can trace a link.

The diaspora is unhappy. The natives are uncertain. Turkey is stonewalling. Azerbaijan is threatening war. Is this the “normalization” the State Department envisioned?

The Obama administration won’t call genocide by its ugly but scientifically-deserved name because Ankara effectively said to Washington in March what it said to Yerevan last October: “Share our blindness to history so that we all might squint our way to a brighter future.”

By passing this resolution, a congressional committee has hurt Turkey’s feelings, and the resulting pout could harm American interests. Moral courage carries a higher price than the US can afford.

This resolution – like similar ones before it – will be stopped from going any further. Convenience will trump conscience because Turkey’s importance to US strategic interests is too great. Armenia, landlocked, crippled by Post-Soviet-Syndrome and a soaring national debt, offers nothing – except a share in the just side of moral judgment. All it takes is a word that, again, won’t be spoken by the world’s most influential voice.