In The Loop

Genocide and Diplomatic Policy

In a weekend interview, Vice President Cheney said he did not agree with the firing of Donald Rumsfeld . . .
In a weekend interview, Vice President Cheney said he did not agree with the firing of Donald Rumsfeld . . . (By Gerald Herbert -- Associated Press)
By Michael Abramowitz And Peter Baker
Monday, October 15, 2007

President Bush has found himself in a morally and politically ambiguous position on what may be one of the most vexing questions that can face an occupant of the White House: When does carnage rise to the level of "genocide"?

He came out forcefully last week against a congressional resolution labeling as genocide the killings of hundreds of thousands of Armenians between 1915 and 1923, even though most historians agree with that conclusion. Yet Bush continues to describe atrocities in Darfur as genocide, even though many experts, including some in his administration, doubt that the situation there of late qualifies.

Underlying those decisions are political dynamics as much as technical definitions. The administration worries that the Armenia resolution could imperil relations with Turkey, a key U.S. ally that has hinted at all manner of retribution, such as barring the U.S. military from transferring goods for the Iraq war through the Incirlik air base. By contrast, the administration has little concern about alienating what it considers a loathsome regime in Sudan and does not want to retreat from a principled stance.

The White House acknowledges little contradiction between the positions Bush has taken on Armenia and Darfur. "A genocide has taken place in Sudan," spokesman Gordon Johndroe said by e-mail last week. "If the United States always waited for the rest of the world to act in Africa, more people would already have died of HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB, more people would have less food, and more innocents would have died in Sudan."

Johndroe added: "What happened nearly 100 years ago in Turkey and Armenia is tragic, but is an historical issue that needs to be worked out by those two countries, not the United States Congress, which has a lot of other legislation it needs to take up at the moment."

Bush staked out this position despite the consensus among historians. "It's the clearest case of genocide apart from the Holocaust," said Ben Kiernan, who directs the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University. Conditions today in Darfur, while not close to ideal, are much less violent and more chaotic than the simpler situation three or four years ago, when government-backed Arab militias were responsible for much of the violence as they menaced defenseless African villagers, experts said.

Indeed, the rest of the world has never fully embraced the U.S. decision to call Darfur genocide, not necessarily because anyone thinks the violence is acceptable -- except perhaps the Sudanese government, which denies much of it -- but because the legal designation of genocide requires evidence of intent to wipe out an ethnic or racial group.

Diane Orentlicher, an expert on genocide at American University's Washington College of Law, said the debate misses the mark. "One of the mistakes we have made in recent memory is we have performed legal gymnastics to avoid using the word 'genocide' when describing real-time atrocities," she said. "That misses the point of the [international] Genocide Convention -- which is, if you wait until it's legally certain that a genocide has occurred, you have waited too long to prevent it."

Cheney, Lost and Found

We're not sure why our colleague Al Kamen can't seem to find Vice President Cheney. He need only have watched the Fox News Channel documentary on the veep over the weekend to catch up with the old Angler.

In an interview with Bret Baier, Cheney confirmed that he opposed Bush's decision to fire Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary last fall. For all the problems in Iraq, Cheney said, he "thought that in terms of the way forward, Don was the right guy to continue to lead the Department of Defense."

Cheney's loyalty to Rumsfeld, his mentor since the 1970s, is no secret. The vice president thwarted previous efforts to get Rumsfeld fired. And he earlier told author Stephen F. Hayes for his biography "Cheney" that he opposed getting rid of his old friend last year as well, and was prepared to say so publicly if asked in an interview, but no one did -- until Baier.

The vice president turned out to be a big television topic last week. Jimmy Carter, touting a new book, "Beyond the White House," lambasted Cheney on BBC. "He's a militant who avoided any service of his own in the military," Carter said, adding: "You know he's been a disaster for our country. I think he's been overly persuasive on President George Bush, and quite often he's prevailed."

It fell to Lynne Cheney, the vice president's wife, to smack back. "This is a little amusing, because Jimmy Carter is so predictable," she told MSNBC. "He brings out a book, and he makes a fuss. He creates a controversy. He did it with his last book by suggesting that Israel was creating a society of apartheid with Palestine. He's done it this year by criticizing the administration and calling Dick names, so it's just pretty predictable."

That's Politics: A Nobel and a Hit Song

Speaking of vice presidents, Al Gore is not the only one to win a Nobel Peace Prize. Charles Dawes, a banker before he became vice president in 1925 under Calvin Coolidge, won for the Dawes Plan to resolve Germany's debts after World War I. But Gore never had a past life as a songwriter. Dawes wrote the melody for what was apparently the only No. 1 hit song ever written by a vice president. It was composed in 1912 as "Melody in A-Major." Carl Sigman added lyrics in 1951 and changed the name to "It's All in the Game." It begins, "Many a tear has to fall . . . "

Taking Off

Bush took his retrofitted Air Force One out for a spin. After months of upgrades, one of the two Boeing 747-200B series that serves the president was back on duty. Most of the wiring and other modernizing changes were not visible, and were not discussed by security-minded aides, but 100 Air Force crew members showed up for the inaugural takeoff Friday as Bush headed for Florida before flying to his ranch near Crawford, Tex., for the weekend.

Quote of the Week

"It's great to be in Miami. I've been looking for my little brother. He must have finally found work. Just kidding, Jeb."

-- President Bush, during a free-trade speech in Florida.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company