Why Washington continues to equivocate on the Armenian genocide

April 22, 2016 (released April 22, 2016)
Source: Los Angeles Times

By Matt Welch

Time was, the activists who are rightly pushing the United States to officially refer to the Turkish slaughter of Armenians as a "genocide" would use presidential campaigns to squeeze recognition promises out of candidates. But 2016 may go down as the year when that single issue has exited from the race to the White House, thanks to the flip-floppery of Hillary Clinton.

Faced with the tension between otherwise liking Clinton and disliking her record on this particular issue, many activists are either dropping recognition as a litmus test, or just not mentioning it at all.

Take the case of George Clooney. The irrepressible actorvist feels so strongly about the recognition issue that on April 24 — officially known in the U.S. as the National Day of Remembrance of Man's Inhumanity to Man — he will be in Yerevan to award the inaugural $1 million Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, presented "on behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and in gratitude to their saviors." You can't prevent tomorrow's genocide, Clooney plausibly argues, if you can't even use the G-word to describe something that happened 100 years ago.

So why are officials in Washington still dragging their feet on a simple word choice? "Because we have military bases in [Turkey]," Clooney explained on KPCC's "The Frame" in October. "Suddenly those same politicians who before could say, 'Yes, there was a genocide,' can't talk about it now. You can't call it that. I've had conversations with senators where I'll say, 'Can we talk about the Armenian genocide?' and they'll say, 'Absolutely not, because Turkey is our partner in the war on terror.' "

And there was Clooney last week, raising what even he acknowledged was an "obscene" amount of campaign money for Clinton. Meanwhile, recognition proponents Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz remained on the outside of political Hollywood looking in.

Few politicians can top the former senator's about-face on the issue. In January 2008, locked in a primary-season dogfight with Barack Obama, Clinton issued a statement bragging that "alone among the presidential candidates, I have been a long-standing supporter of the Armenian Genocide Resolution." That resolution, variants of which have been kicking around Congress for well over a decade, simply calls for Washington to call the genocide by its proper name.

As president, I will recognize the Armenian genocide. -Hillary Clinton in 2008

"As president, I will recognize the Armenian genocide," 2008 Clinton continued. "Our common morality and our nation's credibility as a voice for human rights challenge us to ensure that the Armenian genocide be recognized and remembered by the Congress and the president...."

Yet when handed a golden opportunity to live out her morality as secretary of state, Clinton punted.

In July 2010, Washington's top diplomat visited the genocide memorial in Yerevan, but refused to use the magic word, and had the State Department refer to the occasion, absurdly, as "a private visit." She lobbied Congress to ensure that the genocide resolution never reached the House floor. Asked by a State Department staffer at a January 2012 town hall whether such verbal sidestepping had "to do with our relationship with Turkey," Clinton answered the question like a Turkish politician: "This has always been viewed, and I think properly so, as a matter of historical debate and conclusions rather than political."

Such was Clinton's turnabout that the great Armenian American commentator Harut Sassounian last June, even while urging his compatriots to drop genocide-recognition as a political litmus test, included the caveat: "It is important to note that those candidates who have already deceived the Armenian community during previously held elective or appointive positions should be eliminated from all consideration. One such candidate is Hillary Clinton."

But as Clooney's example shows, Clinton is unlikely to suffer much. In part, this is because even the strongest of issue advocates aren't necessarily single-issue voters (Kim Kardashian is another loud recognition proponent who has endorsed Hillary). The same was true for Clinton's old sparring partner and eventual boss, who proved just as brazen in walking back his 2008 promise and yet didn't pay much of a price for it.

"As president I will recognize the Armenian genocide," Barack Obama vowed in January 2008. He even had his top campaign foreign policy adviser, self-styled "genocide chick" Samantha Power, issue a plaintive YouTube vow to the Armenian American community that this time they wouldn't be double-crossed. Needless to say, neither Power nor Obama lived up to their promises once handed the responsibility of conducting foreign policy.

The ugly fact is that increased U.S. military presence in the world produces increased obsequiousness to the irrationality of strategic partners, from Ankara to Riyadh. Even the most "moral" of interventions is going to produce immoral actions beyond the actual killing.

And no matter how much you convince yourself about the nobility of any presidential candidate, Democrat or Republican, they are almost certain to sell your single-issue down the river the first time it becomes inconvenient. That's a movie I'd love to see Clooney make next.

Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason and a contributing writer to Opinion.