Every April 24 since 1994, the U.S. president has delivered a proclamation honoring the people Congress has declared to be "the victims of genocide, especially the 1 1/2 million people of Armenian ancestry who were the victims of the genocide perpetrated in Turkey between 1915 and 1923." And every year since 1994, the U.S. president has managed to do it without once uttering the G-word. It's a ritual of linguistic realpolitik in deference to the massive objections from Washington's important NATO ally, Turkey.
But 2007 may be the year that the cop-out finally blows up in a president's face. What was once the obscure obsession of marginalized immigrants from a powerless little Caucasus country has blossomed in recent years into a force that has grown increasingly difficult to ignore. In 2000, the Armenian issue helped fuel one of the most expensive House races in U.S. history; two years ago, it turned a mild-mannered career U.S. diplomat into an unlikely truth-telling martyr. Now the question of how to address these long-ago events is having an impact on next month's elections in Turkey.
What's more, Congress appears poised to vote on a resolution urging the president to say the words "Armenian genocide" when observing the awkwardly named "National Day of Remembrance of Man's Inhumanity to Man" on April 24 — the date in 1915 when the Ottoman predecessors of modern Turkey launched the genocide by rounding up 250 Armenian intellectuals for eventual execution.
The resolution won't take effect on Tuesday. The Bush administration, ever mindful of its delicate relationship with Turkey (especially with a war in Iraq next door), takes the bill so seriously that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned in a joint letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) that it could "harm American troops in the field." The lobbying has been successful enough that the House has delayed its vote until after this year's April 24 commemoration. But passage later this year would still be an enormous blow to the White House.
Why is this hairsplitting exercise over a single word — in a nonbinding resolution, no less — reverberating so strongly more than nine decades later? The easy answer is that there has been a confluence of mostly unrelated events. Democrats took control of Congress in January and are spoiling for a fight, especially one that can paint Bush's foreign policy as hypocritical. The president, after all, used "genocide" as a justification to topple Saddam Hussein before, during and after the war against his regime, and the United States has not hesitated to apply the word to the crisis in Darfur, where more than 200,000 people have died since 2003.
Across the Atlantic, the Armenian question — especially Turkey's offensive laws against "insulting Turkishness," which have been used to prosecute even novelists who create fictional characters questioning the government's denialist position — has become one of the main lines of attack against Turkey's bid to become the first majority-Muslim country to join the European Union. Most of the 15 countries that have officially recognized the genocide are European (with Switzerland and France even going so far as to pass over-the-top laws making it a crime to deny the genocide).
Then there was the January murder of ethnic Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in broad daylight on a busy Istanbul street. Dink's assassination, at the hands of a Turkish nationalist, shocked the world and led to a wave of anxious introspection in Turkey. Yet Ankara quickly — and disastrously — concluded that the proper response was to redouble its losing campaign to prevent foreign governments from using the G-word.
High-level Turkish ministers were dispatched to Washington over the last few months to warn that the resolution in Congress could force them to close the crucial U.S. Air Force Base at Incirlik and could imperil relations at a tipping-point moment for the Middle East. (The exact same argument was used by President Clinton in October 2000 to convince then-House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert to withdraw at the last moment a similar bill, introduced by then-Rep. James Rogan (R-Glendale), who was fighting a losing battle against Democratic challenger Adam Schiff in an $11-million race.)
For Turks, the genocide is taboo for a host of reasons, but perhaps the most important is that it occurred at the time of the founding of modern Turkey under Kemal Ataturk, a man so sainted that insulting his memory is still punishable by jail. So the battle continues, year after year.
Earlier this month, Turkish lobbyists successfully scotched a United Nations exhibit on the 13th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide because it dared refer to the "1 million Armenians murdered in Turkey." "Every time they try to censor discussion of the Armenian genocide," a New York Times editorial observed, "they only bring wider attention to the subject and link today's democratic Turkey with the now distant crime." Turks even helped water down a U.S. Senate resolution condemning Dink's murder.
Yet this flurry of recent developments doesn't adequately explain the enduring potency of the recognition issue.
For that I will defer to the most recent U.S. ambassador to Armenia, John Marshall Evans: "In the real world," Evans told a packed Beverly Hilton hall of diaspora Armenians in February, "when an official policy diverges wildly from what the broad public believes is self-evident, that policy ceases to command respect."
Evans, a career, keep-your-head-down foreign service type, surveyed the available literature on the events of 1915-23 before taking the Armenian post in September 2004 and concluded that the U.S. position of avoiding the word "genocide" diverged so wildly from the historical consensus that it undermined Washington's moral authority.
He attempted to budge the policy from behind the scenes, but when that failed he took a page from a man he knew well from his pre- and post-communist postings to Prague — former Czech President Vaclav Havel and decided to publicly "call things by their proper names."
So in February 2005, while speaking in California, Evans said: "I will today call it the Armenian genocide. I think we, the U.S. government, owe you, our fellow citizens, a more frank and honest way of discussing this problem." For that remark he was recalled from his post so that Washington could get back to the business of evading the historical truth.
President Bush won't say "genocide" on Tuesday. In the words of Condoleezza Rice, the administration's position is that Turks and Armenians both need to "get over their past" without American help.
But this issue won't go away. Watching Rice's linguistic contortions in response to harsh congressional interrogation by Schiff, who has become the Armenians' great House champion, is profoundly dispiriting; it makes one embarrassed to be American. Of all issues subject to realpolitik compromises, mass slaughter of a national minority surely should rank at the bottom of the list.
Hitler reportedly said, just before invading Poland, "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?" It's a chilling reminder that forgetting is the first step in enabling future genocides. Yet Hitler was eventually proved wrong. No temporal power is strong enough to erase the eternal resonance of truth.