On April 22nd, 1981, President Ronald Reagan issued a proclamation in which he asked the American people to commemorate the “solemn anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps.” In doing so, he noted the other horrifying acts of 20th-century barbarism that preceded and succeed the Holocaust, including “the genocide of the Armenians before it.”
No American President since Reagan has had the simple courage to do the same. The Armenian Genocide that began 95 years ago today in 1915 — a historical fact uncontested by the mass of serious historians — is now a forbidden topic to the leader of the free world. It’s a risible state of affairs made possible by the intersection of three factors: Turkish determination to promulgate its national mythos in our own country, a misunderstanding of the American national interest, and a failure of American political courage.
In this as in so many things, President Barack Obama is not showing himself the courageous leader Ronald Reagan was.
In mid-March, the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee attempted to stiffen the President’s spine on the public mention of the Armenian Genocide, with the narrow passage of House Resolution 252. The resolution “calls upon the President … to accurately characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1,500,000 Armenians as genocide.” It’s what candidate Obama proclaimed he would do in a speech exactly one year before his Inauguration, when he explicitly said, “[A]s President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.”
Add this to the lengthening list of Barack Obama’s broken promises. The day of the House Committee’s vote, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a plea for the resolution’s defeat; and since its referral to the full House, she has said that the Administration will “work very hard to make sure it does not go to the House floor” for a full vote. Barack Obama himself is ignoring the pleas of those Americans who believed in him, and today, as the New York Times puts it, he “marks the [Armenian] genocide without saying a word.”
In just over two years, the President has gone from electioneering champion of historical truth, to its adamant opponent. Why?
The proximate cause is Turkish outrage, which has taken an all too familiar course: following the House Committee’s passage of the resolution, the Turkish Ambassador to the United States was recalled, and Ankara issued dark hints of consequences to come. Turkish nationalism is a thorny and multilayered thing, born in the humiliations of the Ottoman Empire’s long decline, and solidified in the deliberate, decades-long eradication of non-Turks from modern Turkey. It’s a process that began with the Armenian Genocide, and finds its modern expression in the repression of the dwindling Greek community of Istanbul, and specifically the Ecumenical Patriarchate — and in the intractable Kurdish problem of Turkey’s southeast.
The unfortunate reality is that Turkey objects to naming the Armenian Genocide because the social and political paranoia that birthed it are current now. This is by no means true of Turkey’s increasingly modern, informed, and Western-oriented middle class. Intellectuals like Orhan Pamuk and Taner Akçam have led the way in honest engagement with their national past. These baleful impulses nonetheless inform and override Turkish policy.
The next cause of the President’s flagging moral courage is a profound misapprehension of American national interests as they pertain to Turkey. (This is surely not the only example, nor even the most damaging, of the President’s misconceptions of our national interest: but it is among the most morally appalling.) The conventional wisdom is that the United States needs Turkey far more than Turkey needs the United States. In this narrative, assiduously promoted by Turkey’s lobbyists in Washington, D.C., Turkish influence in the Islamic world plus the NATO airbases at Adana and İncirlik are indispensable assets to American foreign policy. These are indeed tremendously valuable, and not to be dismissed. Yet realization of their worth must be tempered with realism.
The truth is that the U.S.-Turkey relationship is more valuable to Turkey than it is to the United States. Turkey’s perennial aspiration to European Union membership is abetted by two major factors: its membership in NATO, and the persistent friendly advocacy of the United States. American loans, aid, and financial assistance have been useful to Turkey at various points in the recent past. Not least relevant is the immense benefit that accrues to Turkey’s military with the American strategic alliance. Simply put, though the end of the Turkish-American alliance might make American foreign policy difficult at points, it would outright transform for the worse Turkey’s place in the world.
This is all hypothetical: were the Armenian Genocide resolution to pass, and were the President to abide by it, the Turkish-American relationship would not end. We know because there’s precedent. Twenty-one nations officially recognize the fact of the genocide, and they include countries of major importance to Turkey like NATO allies — and hoped-for fellow E.U. members — France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Turkey maintains full and fruitful relationships with each.
The United States should not be frightened into complicity with genocide-denial over fears of a rupture that isn’t in Turkey’s interest, and has yet to happen with any other nation.
The final reason for the President’s change of heart is a plain failure of political courage. Why fight over this, and why fight now? Why not simply take the path of least resistance? Turkey is large, Armenia is small, and Armenian-Americans are well used to disappointment. Why not sell them out? It’s realpolitik, after all.
I submit that this is a betrayal of the best of the American spirit. We’ve had enough of this President’s realpolitik that leads the America to abandon the United Kingdom over the Falklands, spurn Poland over missile defense, humiliate Israel over nearly everything — and now silently comply with the remaining Big Lie of the last century.
Our nation was founded in an affirmation of fundamental truths about the nature of man. It ill befits us to assent to a lie. The fight over the Armenian Genocide resolution may seem a small thing, but it speaks directly to who we are as a people. Are we, as Thomas Jefferson said, an “empire of liberty” — or just an empire?
Ronald Reagan understood this. That’s why he called the Armenian Genocide what it was. And that’s why the House of Representatives should vote on and pass H.R. 252 — despite the President’s objections, and perhaps even because of them.
—- Chuck DeVore is a California State Assemblyman and a Republican candidate for United States Senate.