March 16, 2012
On April 24, 2012, the 97th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, President Obama will have the opportunity to fulfill his campaign promise to officially recognize Ottoman Turkey's deliberate and systematic destruction of its Armenian population as genocide. For decades, the United States has refrained from formal recognition of the mass killings of Armenians as genocide for fear of upsetting its relations with Turkey, a strategic ally. The Turkish government has perpetuated this apprehension by issuing strong but ambiguous threats of ‘negative diplomatic consequences’ in the event of US recognition.
Yet Turkey’s state-sanctioned denial of its genocidal past and the hypocritical US failure to speak truthfully about the Armenian Genocide threatens the reputations of both as well as their respective capacities for regional and global leadership. It is time to remove this albatross.
On the night of April 24, 1915, Turkish authorities arrested some 250 of Constantinople's Armenian intellectuals and community leaders and sent them to prison camps, where most were summarily executed. The following eight years saw the annihilation of some 1.5 million Armenians. Obama knows this history well, stating on January 19, 2008, "that the Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. The facts are undeniable."
Yet despite his 2008 commitment to recognize the genocide as president, Obama has not been true to his word. As a precursor to his first Armenian Remembrance Day statement on April 24, 2009, he refrained from using the "G-word" three weeks beforehand on April 6th during a speech to the Turkish parliament. "My views are on the record and I have not changed views," he said. "I want to focus not on my views right now, but on the views of the Turkish and Armenian people. If they can move forward and deal with a difficult and tragic history, then I think the entire world should encourage that."
Sure enough, when April 24th arrived, his much-anticipated statement employed similar language. Obama referred to the genocide as "Meds Yeghern," which in Armenian means "Great Calamity," rather than calling it the "Armenian Genocide" outright. "My interest," he stated, "remains the achievement of a full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts. The best way to advance that goal right now is for the Armenian and Turkish people to address the facts of the past as a part of their efforts to move forward." Not saying the words "Armenian Genocide," Obama appears to have thought, would aid the Armenian-Turkish reconciliation process.
Initially, that indeed seemed to be the case. Six months later in October 2009, after lengthy negotiations and intensive 11th hour shuttle diplomacy by US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, Foreign Ministers Ahmet Davutoğlu of Turkey and Eduard Nalbandian of Armenia signed the Protocol on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations and the Protocol on the Development of Bilateral Relations between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Turkey (hereafter “the Protocols”). The accord was penned amidst much fanfare: the signing ceremony was attended by Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the European Union's High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana. The great expectations of the protocols, however, were only met with great disappointments.
Shortly after the Protocols were signed, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated that Turkey’s ratification of the Protocols would depend on a peace deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly Armenian enclave which broke away from Azerbaijan during the eclipse of the Soviet Union. In so doing, Erdoğan linked Turkey’s implementation of the Protocols with one of the most intractable and complicated conflicts in Eurasia.
Yet the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not mentioned in the Protocols anywhere. Azerbaijan, a close ally of Turkey, had expressed serious concern that normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations would make the Armenians less likely to make concessions at the bargaining table. Thus Turkey, capitalizing on this sentiment and in a calculated bid to ensure that the Protocols would fail so that Turkey would not have to take action in regards to Armenia, recrafted the Protocols into an imaginary Armenian-Azerbaijani concern.
This precipitated the slow death of an agreement that the Obama Administration once touted as a major diplomatic achievement. Obama had perceived Turkey’s commitment to the Protocols to be genuine and rewarded it by abstaining from use of the word “genocide,” as both Obama’s 2010 and 2011 Armenian Remembrance Day statements employ similarly evasive language as his first statement in 2009. Unfortunately, Turkey had different intentions for the Protocols from the beginning.
President Obama's purging of "Armenian Genocide" from his lexicon did not result in a change in the Armenian-Turkish reconciliation process. Armenia extended a hand, but Turkey was unwilling to unclench its fist, squandering a momentous opportunity for peace.
This is a loss for both Turkey and the United States. True, formal US recognition of the Armenian Genocide would strain US-Turkish relations in the short-term, including the temporary withdrawal of Turkey’s Ambassador to the United States and a provisional restriction on the use of Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey. The long-term consequences of genocide denial, however, impose far greater strategic and reputational costs, most notably in threatening Turkey’s accession to the European Union. There is also the genocide's most enduring human rights legacy: an open wound on the collective memory of the Armenian people.
Furthermore, Turkey’s threats of political and economic retaliation against those countries that have officially recognized the Armenian Genocide have turned out to be largely empty. Ankara’s ambassador to France returned to Paris four months after being recalled following France’s 2001 recognition of the genocide. And international trade data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reveal that ten advanced economies – including Russia, France and Canada – have actually experienced growth in bilateral trade with Turkey despite their recognition of the Armenian Genocide.
History can be a bitter pill to swallow, yet Turkey is not the first country to require US prodding in order to confront its past. Obama should remember that good allies, like good friends, must be willing to not only praise achievements, but also reproach failures. In addition, this issue has repercussions for Obama's reelection. Many Armenian-Americans feel his message of “hope and change” does not apply to them, that they have traded their votes for an empty promise. So long as Obama remains a hypocrite in their eyes, he should not expect their support in 2012.
Vice-President Biden, Secretary of State Clinton, and Special Assistant Power – whose book, A Problem from Hell, devotes its first chapter to the Armenian Genocide – have all previously gone on record in support of Armenian Genocide recognition. As April 24th approaches, they should recall the fate of the Armenians in Constantinople in 1915. And if this year’s Armenian Remembrance Day statement is just a reworded version of last year's equivocation, perhaps one of them will have the courage to tell Obama, “Yes, you can say ‘genocide,’ Mr. President.” And yes, he should.
Mark Dietzen is an international affairs analyst and consultant specializing in European and Eurasian Affairs. He holds an MA in International Relations with Concentrations in U.S. Foreign Policy in Europe and Eurasia, and International Law, and Certificates in International Security and Policy Studies, from Yale University. The views expressed are solely those of the author.