Armenia: neither history nor morality but politics.
“Who, after all, is today speaking about the destruction of the Armenians?” It was a rhetorical question addressed to his generals and about this, and so much else in August 1939, Hitler was dead wrong, of course. The answer in 2021, though, is some people but not enough and still a long way from everybody. This, even after America finally took the momentous step of officially recognising the Armenian Genocide, becoming just the thirty-second nation to do so in the process.
Better late than never? I’m not sure. Let me explain.
By dint of not entering the Great War until three years later, America was the only great power, apart from Germany, still maintaining a diplomatic presence in Constantinople when hostilities broke out in 1914. Germany, as an ally of the Ottomans, was never going to make a big brouhaha about the atrocities they knew were taking place despite repeated representations and warnings from the American ambassador, Henry Morgenthau. With typical Germanic efficiency it appears they recorded most of what transpired quite meticulously and during the latter stages of the extermination registered modest protests but this mostly to ensure they were not to be held accountable for what happened after the conflict.
The US ambassador, though, given his proximity to events, some of which he witnessed first-hand, was well-positioned and well-informed. He protested in person to the man primarily responsible for the genocide, Ottoman Minister of the Interior, Mehmed Talaat. He also played postman to the Grand Vizier when the Allied Powers wrote him a letter, devoid of the usual diplomatic tact, in May 2015 which began: “For about a month the Kurd and Turkish populations of Armenia have been massacring Armenians with the connivance and assistance of the Ottoman authorities”.
Morgenthau consistently reported back to Washington what he learned of the atrocities from a network of consuls and missionaries throughout the country. The American government might have been powerless to do much about it at the time but there is no doubt the White House and all the Allied Powers had a very clear idea of what was happening on the ground.
Why the recognition now, more than a century since the genocide? The problem with having waited so long to take this step is that the decision no longer looks like a moral imperative. The Turks can claim, with some justification, it reads more like a political statement. This undermines its impact and obscures the message.
Mobilised by the powerful lobby of Armenia’s American diaspora, presidents going back to Reagan have been considering this move. Obama was the most committed but allowed himself to be dissuaded by strategists that Turkey was too important an ally to offend given the importance of their support amid regional volatility. The Moron-a-Lago formerly known as President No.45 was too deeply in thrall to his fellow dictator Erdogan to risk hurting his feelings and his (mal)administration, the most amoral in American history, was never going to forsake personal chemistry for a principle. Put simply, Trump would have left office still ignorant of the issue.
The campaign commitment, made and honoured by Joe Biden, to recognise the genocide, was no doubt motivated by high-mindedness. There is good reason to believe his foreign policy will at the very least be informed, if not directed, by his Catholicism. The problem is this declaration has been made after so many of America’s well-publicised diplomatic spats with Turkey, it risks being interpreted as a gesture of realpolitik rather than righteous condemnation. After the disputes over the S-400, the sanctions-busting Halk Bank, Turkey’s foreign policy adventurism in the Eastern Med, Libya, Syria, Venezuela, pastor Brunson and Fetullah Gulen, it’s easier to (mis?) interpret America’s stance as the logical consequence of realpolitik rather than solidarity with an oppressed people. Biden needs to emphasise the distinction or the symbolism is lost.
This need not isolate Turkey internationally. (Erdogan has done his level-best to achieve this independently.) The past is literally a foreign country. This crime took place in the name of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic was established in 1923. There is some distance in between. Acknowledging and confronting the past head-on will serve to alleviate some of the pressure that has built in recent decades. Turkey could move on and rebuild ties with Armenia.
Just as the US recognition of the Medz Yeghern smacks of expedience rather than morality, so the Turkish refusal to acknowledge it owes less to an historical disagreement or factual analysis and more to political considerations. Erdogan is dependent on the support of the nationalist MHP Party to prop up his government and he cannot afford to alienate them. Staying in office is an existential battle for the Turkish president. Out of it, he’s serving time. The strategy of maintaining an expensive and extensive army of lobbyists in Washington has failed.
Turkey is not unique. None of the former imperial powers is entirely innocent of similar crimes against humanity. Perhaps the British parliament has been slow to change its position (unlike devolved Scotland and Wales) because it hesitates over its treatment of the aboriginal Australians or the Irish.
And somewhere on the North American plains or in its desert south-west, on some flyblown reservation, sitting in his trailer watching television, addled by whisky and opioids, there must be a Native American, watching Joe Biden officially recognise The Armenian Genocide of 1915 and thinking: ‘What about my people? We want some of that.’ And he’s been waiting longer.