Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Armenian Genocide of 1915 remains a live issue

Sabrina Tavernise has in Monday's NYT a piece on the still continuing issue of the Armenian genocide of 1915 (and the Ottomans conducted several other mass ethnic cleansings of Armenians in the preceding decades as well). Although Turkey and Armenia in recent weeks claim to be making some major strides in making their relations closer, the issue of responsibiltiy for what was done to the Armenians in 1915 - and the numbers of those killed and "cleansed" - remains a hot potato.

And it continues to affect Turkey's relations with the US, with potentially very serious consequences. During the second Bush term, a bill was slated to come before the Senate in which the US would have gone on record (and many would say here, finally - and long overdue) as condemning the Armenian genocide. That bill was supported by thousands of Armenian-Americans (for whom the issue still burns; something I know from several personal encounters), who constitute a significant voting bloc in several parts of the country. But one of the last things the Bush administration - which was a major supporter of Turkey's candidacy for admission to the EU - wanted was to alienate Turkey, which the passage of this bill surely would have done. Appropriate talks were had and pressures exerted, and the bill eventually did not go forward.

But the issue is still out there, especially because Mr. Obama on several occasions during his campaign went on the record to condemn the events of 1915-1917 as genocide - not surprisingly, both because by most definitions it was indeed a genocide, and because one of his major campaign advisers (and now on his staff), Samantha Power of Harvard University, is an academic expert in the history of genocide and discussed the events of 1915-1917 at some length in her well-regarded book, "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide. He now intends to visit Turkey, however, and as it turns out, Turkey has become quite the potential lynchpin for US goals in the Middle East: (1) as an interlocutor with Syria, with the goal of reaching a peace agreement with Israel; (2) as a conduit for US forces leaving Iraq as the troop drawdown gets underway; and (3) as an emerging regional power whose influence could be helpful in the US's ongoing efforts to get Iran to knock off its nuclear program.

But the Turks have now fired a shot across Mr. Obama's bow. Specifically, the Turkish foreign minister has warned Mr. Obama that any pronouncement on this issue by him would be very unwelcome. The statement seems to be confined to the genocide issue, but I think we can be sure that Mr. Obama and his advisors feel duly put on notice that other issues might be affected as well.

By the way, when the aforementioned bill was wending its way through the halls of Congress, the one country that, one would assume, would have been most sensitized to the issue of genocide for the most part kept mum. Turkey has been one of Israel's only pals in the Middle East. The two countries have agreements for both military and economic cooperation. Evidently the Olmert government felt it more prudent to not rock that boat. Ironic. It's been often noted that when Hitler was contemplating his "Final Solution" against the Jews of Europe, and was asked if he wasn't concerned about the world's reaction, his reply was "Who remembers the Armenians?"

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