Guest Commentary: U.S. Ignores Genocide for Alliance's Sake

    Most would agree that America’s role in the world is, of late, a bit in doubt. Our young men and women are sacrificing their lives, and we believe, or at least hope, for good reasons.

    Is it just about oil prices or even to protect America from terrorism?

    Not quite.

    There is something more, having to do with moral standing, that is vitally important to America. Those of contrary opinion say that such thinking is of little practical value and could even be detrimental to America’s foreign interests. This is in fact just the point of contention.

    What is best for America’s interests is not always the immediate indulgence of self-interest but rather the implications of moral standard, what some call the high moral ground. Why is this important? America today faces threats from those who choose terror. They believe they are right, and by implication, America is wrong. Their frequent argument is that America makes the wrong moral choices, that we do not stand for what is right.

    Do we have examples that prove the contrary?

    One clear example of such a choice involves an issue that many have tried to keep under the radar for 92 years, the Armenian genocide. At first glance, the Armenian genocide seems to be just such an issue that is not important to America’s self-interest and should therefore be dismissed without further notice. However, much to the dismay of those trying to keep the issue hidden, the Armenian genocide will just not go away.

    Why?

    To answer this question, go back to the time of World War I. The year is 1915, and the Ottoman Turkish Empire is fighting alongside Germany and Austria-Hungary and against Britain and its allies, including the United States in the later years of the war. Taking advantage of the chaos and confusion of the war, the Ottoman government decided to settle a long-standing problem occurring within its borders known in those days throughout the world as the “”Armenian Question.””

    It included human rights violations against the Armenians, a Christian minority within the Islamic majority of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. The method employed to settle the problem was a mass extermination of Armenian people – an Armenian genocide. Initiated on April 24, 1915, the Armenian genocide was implemented through forced march, burning of towns, starvation, rape and outright massacre.

    So brutal were the events, with estimates of 1.5 million Armenians killed, that despite the ongoing war, the world at large was horrified and demanded the perpetrators be brought to justice. At the forefront of this demand for justice was America, as personified by then-former President Theodore Roosevelt, calling what happened to the Armenians the worst crime of the war.

    With such a clear acknowledgment of what happened to the Armenian people, official recognition of the Armenian genocide seems to be the right choice. However, Turkey categorically denies that a genocide ever took place, even paying high-priced U.S. lobbyists to work fervently at denying the Armenian genocide. That Turkey receives significant foreign aid from the United States and so essentially pays for such lobbying through U.S. taxpayer money is sadly ironic and perhaps not so surprising.

    What is, however, surprising is the debate about recognition of the Armenian genocide that rages every year in the U.S. government. For those who oppose recognition, it’s about not offending Turkey, a country of geopolitical significance.

    The logic goes that the United States cannot risk offending Turkey by recognizing the Armenian genocide. Those favoring recognition counter this argument by saying that the Cold War is over, and that Turkey performed poorly as a U.S. ally during the initial stages of the current Iraq war.

    While Turkey’s geopolitical significance is debatable, what should not be debatable is America’s position on issues of moral justice. From its beginnings, America has strived for the ideal that there is something more than just self-interest, something that makes the world a better place – the existence of a high moral ground.

    Are we now to dismiss this high moral ground for reasons of short-term self-interest? This is the central question of debate within the U.S. government when it comes to recognizing the Armenian genocide. Case in point: Currently, there are resolutions making their way through both houses of Congress that would recognize the Armenian genocide.

    In response, Turkey has sent some of its top government and military leaders to persuade the U.S. Congress otherwise. Their efforts seem not to be wasted as was well demonstrated by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent congressional testimony. The following is an exchange of that testimony between Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Rice.

    SCHIFF: Is there any historic debate outside of Turkey? Is there any reputable historian you’re aware of that takes issue with the fact that the murder of 1.5 million Armenians constituted genocide?

    RICE: Congressman, I come out of academia, but I’m secretary of state now and I think that the best way to have this proceed is for the United States not to be in the position of making this judgment, but rather for the Turks and the Armenians to come to their own terms about this.

    Rice completely dodges the very straightforward question concerning the historic reality of the Armenian genocide by asserting that the United States is not in the position to pass judgment. Put another way, the United States should not make judgments about issues of moral justice.

    What are the consequences of the United States not making these kinds of judgments? In Turkey at least, the lack of a strong message from America about the Armenian genocide emboldens those who would deny its existence, to the point of passing laws that make it illegal to say there was an Armenian genocide. This has resulted in trials and, in some cases, imprisonment of leading Turkish intellectuals, including Nobel laureate writer Orhan Pamuk. Sadly this law also resulted in the rousing of a 17-year-old Turkish boy to murder Hrant Dink, a Turkish Armenian journalist dedicated to reconciliation between Turks and Armenians.

    Making a judgment about moral issues like this one is rarely without cost. Throughout its history, America has had to make such choices.

    These choices are not without consequence, as exemplified by the firing of U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Evans for just using the word “”genocide”” to describe what happened to the Armenians. This man’s career was essentially ended because he made a stand to say what was right, to take the high moral ground. Without this high moral ground, can we as Americans claim that we are any different than our enemies, except that we have bigger guns?

    America’s very credibility is on the line. It’s our choice.

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