For too long, Turkey bullied America into silence. Not anymore.
by Samantha Power, The New York Times, October 29, 2019
On Tuesday, by a vote of 405 to 11, the House of Representatives defied the Turkish government’s intimidation and, for the first time in 35 years, passed a resolution that recognized the Armenian genocide.
In acknowledging the Ottoman Empire’s killing of more than one million Armenians as “genocide,” the House follows more than two dozen countries and 49 of 50 states.
This resolution matters hugely to Armenian-Americans. But it is also a reminder of how important truth-telling is to American foreign policy, and how ultimately self-defeating it is for the United States to bend to autocratic pressure tactics, whether from Turkey or anywhere else.
The facts of the Ottoman campaign have long been established. At the time of the slaughter, which began in 1915, the American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, cabled Washington that a “campaign of race extermination” was underway, while the American consul in Aleppo, in what is now Syria, described a “carefully planned scheme to thoroughly extinguish the Armenian race.”
The word “genocide” did not then exist, but in 1944, Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish lawyer galvanized by the slaughter of Armenians and by Hitler’s extermination of the Jews, coined the term.
Today about two million Armenian-Americans live in the United States, and most are descendants of genocide survivors or victims. Because I have written about the Armenian genocide and argued for recognition, including (unsuccessfully) as a member of the Obama administration, I have joined Armenian-Americans at numerous commemorative events.
There, I have seen how large this history looms, and how much sorrow they feel over the murder and displacement of their long-lost family members. This sorrow has been compounded by Turkey’s denial of the killings; and while the House last recognized the genocide in 1984, Congress and successive administrations, both Republican and Democratic, have refused to use the word “genocide” for fear of offending Turkey.
Through the years, as Armenian genocide survivors in the United States neared their deaths, they often asked their loved ones to carry on the fight to get the American government to acknowledge the historical fact of the genocide. For Armenian-Americans who have labored tirelessly to secure recognition, Tuesday’s vote elicited tears of relief.
Although Turkish officials may see the vote as retaliation for Turkey’s recent forced displacement of Syrian Kurds, that operation — as well as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s sweeping human rights crackdown in Turkey and his purchase (over American and NATO protests) of a Russian air defense system — simply reduced the impact of Turkish blackmail.
The road to the House resolution offers two lessons that go beyond the United States and Turkey.
First, as a baseline rule, for the sake of overall American credibility and for that of our diplomats, Washington officials must be empowered to tell the truth.
Over many years, because of the fear of alienating Turkey, diplomats have been told to avoid mentioning the well-documented genocide. In 2005, when John Evans, the American ambassador to Armenia, said that “the Armenian genocide was the first genocide of the 20th century,” he was recalled and forced into early retirement. Stating the truth was seen as an act of insubordination.
When I became ambassador to the United Nations in 2013, I worried that I would be asked about the Armenian genocide and that when I affirmed the historical facts, I could cause a diplomatic rupture.
Second, when bullies feel their tactics are working, they generally bully more — a lesson worth bearing in mind in responding to threats from China and Saudi Arabia. The Turkish government devotes millions of dollars annually to lobbying American officials and lawmakers: more than $12 million during the Obama administration, and almost as much during the first two years of the Trump presidency. Turkish officials have threatened to respond to genocide recognition by suspending lucrative financial ties with American companies, reducing security cooperation and even preventing resupply of our troops in Iraq.
On Friday, the Turkish ambassador warned that passage of the “biased” House resolution would “poison” American-Turkish relations, and implied that it would jeopardize Turkish investment in the United States which provides jobs for a “considerable number of American citizens.”
It is easy to understand why any commander in chief would be leery of damaging ties with Turkey, an important ally in a turbulent neighborhood. But Turkey has far more to lose than the United States in the relationship. The United States helped build up Turkey’s military, brought it into NATO and led the coalition that defeated the Islamic State, which carried out dozens of attacks on Turkish soil. Over the past five years, American companies have invested some $20 billion in Turkey.
If Mr. Erdogan turns further away from a relationship that has been immensely beneficial for Turkey in favor of deepening ties with Russia or China, it will not be because the House voted to recognize the Armenian genocide. It will be because his own repressive tactics are coming to resemble those of the Russian and Chinese leaders.
WASHINGTON — The House voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to formally recognize the Armenian genocide and denounce it as a matter of American foreign policy, a symbolic vindication for the Armenian diaspora made possible by a new torrent of bipartisan furor at Turkey.
The passage of the legislation, by a 405-to-11 vote, is the first time a chamber of Congress has officially designated the 1915 mass killings of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire as a genocide. Lawmakers had previously shirked from supporting such a resolution to preserve the United States’ relationship with Turkey, a NATO ally that has steadfastly denied that the atrocities amounted to genocide.
Livid at Turkey’s bloody military assault in northern Syria, some lawmakers saw an uneasy parallel between the Armenian genocide and the bitter warnings from Kurdish forces that the withdrawal of American forces would lead to the ethnic cleansing of their people.
“Recent attacks by the Turkish military against the Kurdish people are a stark reminder of the danger in our own time,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said in a speech on Tuesday.
And so Ms. Pelosi moved to put the measure, led by Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, to a vote for the first time.
“Too often, tragically, the truth of the staggering crime has been denied,” she said. “Today, let us clearly state the facts on the floor of this House to be etched forever into the Congressional Record: The barbarism committed against the Armenian people was a genocide.”
The House vote was bound to infuriate leaders in Turkey. Almost immediately after the vote, Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, assailed it on Twitter as an act of revenge by American lawmakers unhappy over Turkey’s military moves against the Kurds. “This shameful decision of those exploiting history in politics is null & void for our Government & people,” he wrote.
Ruined big game
w/#OperationPeaceSpring. Those whose projects were frustrated turn to antiquated resolutions. Circles believing that they will take revenge this way are mistaken.This shameful decision of those exploiting history in politics is null & void for our Government & people.
— Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu (@MevlutCavusoglu) October 29, 2019
The events surrounding the killings of Armenians are tied to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, starting in 1915, when the Ottomans, Germany’s allies in World War I, ordered mass deportations of Armenians from the empire’s eastern provinces to thwart their collaboration with Russia. By some estimates, at least 1.5 million Armenians died from the forced exodus, starvation and killings by Ottoman Turk soldiers and the police. About a half-million survived, and many scattered into a diaspora in Russia, the United States and elsewhere.
While Turkey’s government has acknowledged that atrocities were committed during that period, it has argued that a large number of Turks were also killed and that it is historically inaccurate to portray the Armenian killings as systematic or intentional. Turkish officials have also disputed the number of Armenian deaths, suggesting it may have been far lower than 1.5 million.
On Capitol Hill, the passage of the measure was a rare bipartisan moment on the House floor at a time when House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry has exacerbated a partisan rift.
Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, who in recent weeks has bitterly dueled with Democrats over the investigation, crossed the floor to hug Ms. Pelosi and offer Mr. Schiff a handshake in celebration as spectators in the gallery stood to cheer the bill’s passage.
Mr. Schiff, who has a large community of Armenian-Americans in his district, lobbied for 19 years to put the legislation to a vote on the House floor, alongside Representatives Anna G. Eshoo and Jackie Speier, fellow Democrats of California. A succession of American administrations, fearful of offending Turkey, have effectively supported the Turkish government’s position by opposing passage of congressional Armenian genocide resolutions and objecting to the use of the word “genocide.”
Members of my own family were among those murdered, and my parents fled with my grandparents to America. What all of the persecuted had in common was that they were Christians.
— Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (@RepAnnaEshoo) October 29, 2019
But on Tuesday, lawmakers went on the record.
The House, they affirmed, rejects “efforts to enlist, engage or otherwise associate the United States government with denial of the Armenian genocide or any other genocide.”
Catie Edmondson reported from Washington, and Rick Gladstone from New York.