Armenian genocide controversy tests balance of power between US and Turkey

April 24, 2002
Source: The Daily Star (Lebanon)

By Levon Marashlian

It is US President George W. Bush’s turn to wrestle with a familiar controversy involving Armenians and Turkey that confronted his father and other American presidents. In the days leading up to April 24, when Armenians in Lebanon and all over the world commemorate the destruction of nearly 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians between 1915 and 1923, approximately 160 Democratic and Republican congressmen urged President Bush to honor a pledge he made before his election in November 2000. Candidate Bush had pledged to “ensure that our nation properly recognizes” the “genocidal campaign” Armenians were subjected to.

One year ago, over 100 congressmen made a similar request to honor the pledge. But in his April 24, 2001 statement, Bush avoided the crucial "G" word, even though he did mourn the "tragedy," the "infamous killings" and "forced exile and annihilation," as "terrible events" that "darkened the 20th century and continue to haunt us to this day."

This year, if President Bush again avoids the “G” word, it will be because of the same pressure from Turkey that compelled several of his predecessors to acquiesce in Ankara’s denial that the Ottoman Turkish government committed genocide.

The reasons why American presidents have been helping Turkey to falsify history raise serious questions regarding the place of morality in American foreign policy and the balance of power that shapes Washington’s relationship with Ankara. These questions came into sharp focus during the 2000 presidential election.

In October 2000, when Speaker of the House of Representatives Dennis Hastert, a Republican, cancelled a scheduled floor vote on a resolution that would recognize and commemorate the genocide, Democratic Congressman Frank Pallone protested that Speaker Hastert and Democratic President Bill Clinton had "succumbed to the threats of the Turkish government," threats "against American soldiers."

The speaker acknowledged that the bipartisan resolution "would have enjoyed support among the majority of the house." Nevertheless, he decided to go back on the promise he had made to Armenian Americans that he would bring the resolution to the floor for a vote. He explained that President Clinton, in a last-minute appeal on October 19, "raised grave national security concerns," that passage of this resolution "may adversely impact the situation in the Middle East and risk the lives of Americans."

The State Department had already issued a "worldwide caution" two days earlier. The US embassy in Ankara and the consulate in Istanbul were scenes of "peaceful, daily demonstrations related to the Armenian genocide resolution," Americans "should be alert to the possibility of demonstrations in cities with large expatriate Turkish populations" and "should remain vigilant with regard to their personal security."

President Clinton may have spoken about a risk to American lives in his private conversations with Speaker Hastert, but he did not mention it in the letter he sent him. In his letter, Clinton warned that he was "deeply concerned" that considering the resolution "at this sensitive time," when we have "significant interests" such as "containing the threat posed by East and Central Asia, stabilizing the Balkans, and developing new sources of energy," could have "far-reaching negative consequences for the United States."

This warning is similar to the warning the current president’s father had sent to the Senate when a similar resolution was pending in 1990. The senior George Bush said he was "sensitive to the close relationship the United States has with our friend and ally, Turkey," and was worried about the resolution "damaging our national security." The only new twist in Clinton’s October 2000 letter is the argument that the resolution "could undermine efforts to encourage improved relations between" Armenia and Turkey.

The argument echoed Turkish Ambassador to Washington Baki Ilkin’s rationalization that passing the resolution would be "a disservice to Armenia" because "Armenia needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Armenia." Leaving aside what is good for Armenia and what is good for a growing number of Turks with integrity who are chagrined by their government’s denial of crimes against humanity, Turkey’s pressure certainly can be seen as a disservice to America.

In effect, America’s allies in Ankara are blackmailing Americans into denying the evidence of a colossal crime recorded in their own archives, a crime that the US ambassador in Istanbul during World War I, Henry Morgenthau, called "race extermination." High-level American officials are going along with the denial of this evidence in the belief that it is necessary for the defense of current American interests in Turkey. But is it really necessary? Since American interests in Turkey bring big benefits to Turkey, would Ankara really carry out its threats to retaliate? It is questionable, for example, that Incirlik airbase, located northwest of the Syrian border, would be closed to US warplanes.

"Stopping those flights." admitted former Turkish Foreign Minister Ilter Turkmen, "would be counterproductive or self-destructive," because it "would impede Turkey’s ability to go into northern Iraq."

Ankara’s other threat, canceling contracts with corporations in the American defense industry, is also problematic for Turkey. A prominent Turkish commentator, Mehmet Ali Birand, reminded his readers that Ankara buys American weapons not to "make the United States happy," but because the prices are "lower than elsewhere" and the credit terms are "more favorable."

Yet the Clinton administration still caved in to what Congressman Pallone called this "shameful" pressure by "a bully." The French government, in contrast, stood up to similar pressure last year and officially recognized the Armenian genocide in January 2001. Turks fumed and fussed, demonstrated and denounced, recalled their ambassador from Paris and cancelled several defense contracts, but it was only a matter of months before they saw the folly of their policy.

By January 2002, Turkey had essentially normalized its relations with France. The French experience apparently has not been enough of a lesson for the Bush administration. All the evidence indicates that the White House is still allowing Turkey to intimidate America with threats that, if carried out, would likely backfire on Turkey itself because the balance of power indicates that Turkey needs America more than America needs Turkey.

Levon Marashlian, born in Beirut, is a professor of history at Glendale Community College in California. He testified before the US Congress in 1996. He was invited to Ankara in 1990 to deliver a paper, which was published recently in Turkish in Istanbul as a book, The Armenian Question and Turkish-American Relations, 1919-1923. He wrote this commentary for The Daily Star.