OBAMA, MAKE GOOD ON ARMENIA: USATODAY
Gregory J. Wallance4:20 p.m. EDT April 14, 2015 

Pope Francis stands brave against Turkey. Why can't America follow suit? On April 24, 1915, in the midst of World War I, the Ottoman Empire began systematically massacring its Christian Armenian subjects. At Sunday's Mass in Rome, Pope Francis described the massacres as "the first genocide of the 20th century."

Turkey, which emerged from the rubble of the defeated Ottoman Empire and has long fiercely denied that a genocide took place, angrily recalled its ambassador to the Vatican. "The pope's statement, which is out of touch with both historical facts and legal truths, is simply unacceptable," tweeted Turkey's foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu. Will President Obama follow Pope Francis' lead? Contrary to the foreign minister's tweet, there is a solid factual and legal foundation for calling the massacres a genocide, defined as killing or other acts intended to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. At the outbreak of the war, there were approximately 2 million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. Tens of thousands of Armenians were serving in the army of the empire, then at war with Britain and Czarist Russia.

Seizing on the acts of a few Armenian sympathizers with Russia, the Ottoman government began systematically eliminating the Armenian leadership in Constantinople (now Istanbul) and sent Armenian men, women and children, many orphaned by the slaughter, on death marches into the Syrian desert, where they were left to die. One of the Ottoman leaders, Talaat Pasha, wrote that by "continuing the deportation of the orphans to their destinations (in the desert), we are ensuring their eternal rest." Ultimately, about1.5 million Armenians died in the massacres which, together with Armenians who fled the Ottoman Empire, decimated the Armenian community.

In fact, as a senator, Barack Obama strongly supported the passage of the 2007 Armenian Genocide Resolution, which called the massacres a genocide. As a presidential candidate, he condemned the Bush administration for dismissing John Evans, the U.S. ambassador to Armenia, after Evans said the word "genocide" in public. "As president," vowed Obama, "I will recognize the Armenian genocide. Not even close. On his first major foreign tour, President Obama visited Turkey and, while speaking in the Turkish Grand National Assembly about how "each country must work through its past," including the "terrible events of 1915," the word genocide did not then, and has not since, been publicly used by the president or members of his administration to describe the massacres. (As a senator, Hillary Clinton supported the Armenian genocide resolutions, but as Obama's first secretary of State, she opposed them.)

The Obama administration has been hardly alone in its timidity. For example, aside from a brief reference in a 1981 Holocaust proclamation, the Reagan administration avoided calling the Armenian massacres a genocide. The historic reason is rooted in the perceived strategic importance of Turkey, first in the Cold War and now in the war on terror. Turkey, a member of NATO, has threatened to curtail operations at the U.S. Air Force base at Incirlik in Turkey whenever momentum built for a congressional resolution on the Armenian genocide. For Turkey, its national identity is at stake.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gone so far as to acknowledge the "shared pain" and "inhumane consequences" of World War I, referring to the deaths of both Ottoman Muslims and the Armenians, but he categorically disputes that the Armenians died in a genocide by the Ottomans. Erdogan, who seems to exist in a state of near clinical paranoia, has warned against "new Lawrences of Arabia," read, the Western countries who he claims are working to destroy the Middle East. He can hardly afford to admit that modern Turkey was built on the greatest crime a government can commit.

There are important U.S. interests at stake in relations with Turkey, but there is also something unseemly in a president breaking a firm campaign pledge rooted in moral considerations. Confronting a terrible past is essential to avoiding a repetition in the future. Or as the pope said Sunday, "Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it." President Obama, who has prided himself on breaking foreign policy orthodoxy, as witness his opening to Cuba and nuclear negotiations with Iran, should do likewise with the Armenian genocide and finally make good on his own campaign pledge. Gregory J. Wallance, a lawyer and writer in New York City, is a board member of Advancing Human Rights. In addition to its own editorials, USA TODAY publishes diverse opinions from outside writers, including our Board of Contributors.To read more columns like this, go to the Opinion front page.
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1202 reads | 16.04.2015
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