By Henri J. Barkey
Tuesday, March 2, 2010; 3:26 PM
The House of Representatives has decided to make a problem from the past into a problem of the present. On Thursday, the House foreign affairs committee is set to launch its fruitless annual effort to declare that the 1915 massacre of over a million Armenians by Ottoman Turks was genocide. As in the past, the resolution isn't likely to get very far. But this year, it portends great damage to the Obama administration's attempts to rescue a fragile Turkey-Armenia reconciliation.
To be clear, the overwhelming historical evidence demonstrates that what took place in 1915 was genocide. But while some U.S. lawmakers feel strongly about the Armenian genocide resolution, most realize that no moral good can come from a label applied almost a century later. They support the resolution only to score points with the highly organized Armenian-American lobby. And they know full well that pressure from Turkey, which remains a critical U.S. ally, ultimately will prevent passage on the House floor.
The cynicism of this effort is matched only by the cynicism of the Armenians and the Turks.
For Armenians, the genocide issue is of paramount concern, and Armenian populations in Europe have even supported laws punishing Armenian genocide deniers. Yet in 2007, Yerevan State University awarded an honorary degree to the No. 1 Holocaust denier in the world: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian president not only invited fellow deniers to Tehran for a "conference," but he has systematically called for the destruction a member state of the United Nations. This clearly didn't bother Armenian politicians who, in the interest of fostering ongoing friendly ties with neighboring Iran, decided to honor him. They must have been disappointed, though, when Ahmadinejad skipped a trip to Yerevan's Armenian Genocide Memorial, citing important obligations in Tehran. Maybe he values his country's relations with the Turks, or maybe he doesn't believe there was an Armenian genocide any more than a Holocaust.
And what of the Turks? You'd think they'd be careful about throwing around a word like genocide. On the contrary, in a country where a Turkish citizen can be jailed for arguing that the Ottoman massacres were genocide, Turks will hurl that accusation at almost anyone else. The speaker of the Turkish parliament recently declared that the killing of 400 Azeris by the Armenians during the 1992 Nagorno-Karabakh war was genocide. Turkish politicians have on numerous occasions accused Israel of genocide in the occupied territories. And last year, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the Chinese of committing genocide in Xinjiang, where interethnic riots killed 200 people. (He did, however, deny that the Sudanese government's actions in Darfur were genocidal, on the grounds that "Muslims do not commit genocide.")
The Turks, Armenians and the United States all dilute the meaning of the word genocide by playing politics with it. But the U.S. alone has the power to help broker an agreement that would make a meaningful difference in Armenians' lives, by ending their economic isolation.
The Obama administration has been pushing for a deal that would normalize Turkish-Armenian relations and open the borders between them. Realizing the delicacy of the situation, Obama made a point to avoid "genocide" in his April 2009 statement commemorating the start of the massacres, instead using the Armenian expression "Great Catastrophe." Unfortunately, Turkish leaders have shown signs of cold feet. And further antagonism would undoubtedly set back the process for years.
With that in mind, the U.S. Congress should drop its annual Armenian genocide resolution. And lawmakers worried about responding to Armenian-American constituents should focus their efforts on helping to mediate a reconciliation that would benefit Armenians. It'd be better if they used their power to end ongoing fights than to pick old ones.
The writer is a nonresident visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and professor of international relations at Lehigh University.