When Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were running for president eight years ago, they pledged their support for legislation to memorialize the Armenian genocide of 1915. Obama made a special point of criticizing President George W. Bush for bowing to Turkish pressure and removing Ambassador to Armenia John Evans for uttering the “g-word” in meetings with Armenian-Americans.
Obama promised, “as president I will recognize the Armenian genocide.” He used the powerful word 11 times in a 504-word campaign statement on the subject. And not once since taking office.
Nor has Clinton. When, as secretary of state, she was asked why the administration issues statements about “Armenian Remembrance Day” but won’t use the g-word, she called that a “dangerous” door to go through.
Now that she is running again, it will be interesting to see what she and all the other presidential wannabes have to say on the subject.
Similarly, Israeli governments have succumbed for years to Turkish threats to their military, political, and economic relations. In an April 13 editorial titled “Israel should recognize the Armenian Genocide,” the Jerusalem Post observed, “Hitler and the Nazi regime looked to Turkey’s festering moral wound for inspiration for their own genocide.”
As we observed Yom Hashoa and the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis, Armenians are marking the 100th anniversary of the Turkish slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians.
Can you imagine the Germans bullying and threatening the United States and other countries and world leaders not to call that slaughter “genocide” because they find it offensive?
Well, that is exactly what the Turks have been doing, and it works. They have successfully intimidated American presidents of both parties. Ronald Reagan mentioned the Armenian genocide once, in passing, along with the Cambodian genocide, in a 1981 proclamation memorializing the victims of the Holocaust. No president has uttered the word since.
When Pope Francis had the temerity to refer to the Armenian slaughter as “the first genocide of the 20th century,” Turkish leaders summoned the Vatican ambassador to the woodshed in Ankara and recalled their own envoy from the Holy See.
Turkey’s caustic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “condemned” the Pope and “warned” him not to make “similar mistakes again.” There was no genocide, insisted Erdogan, just “historical incidents” “taken out of their genuine context.”
The word “genocide” was coined by the Polish-Jewish lawyer Rafael Lemkin, who said he had in mind the Turkish slaughter of Armenians as well as the Holocaust.
Whenever resolutions calling for recognition of the Armenian genocide were introduced in U.S. Congress, the Turks would go berserk and blame the Jews because several Jewish lawmakers were among the sponsors.
In Ankara they would summon the Israeli ambassador and order his government to kill such efforts, and then they called a contact at the foreign ministry in Jerusalem to let him know of the damage being done by the Jews to U.S.-Turkish and Israeli-Turkish relations.
I know because during the years I was AIPAC’s legislative director, that diplomat called me to pass along the message and plead for help. In addition, the Turks had their own hired guns in Washington, including a prominent Jewish attorney who would mobilize Jewish organizations to help him peel away sponsors from the bill.
He was just one of many Jewish leaders who worked against congressional recognition of the Armenian genocide in response to Turkish threats and out of their own misguided concern that it would dilute the uniqueness of the Holocaust. Neither one is defensible.
The resolutions never got anywhere. The Turks had the administration — whether it was Republican or Democrat — in their pocket. In addition, many lawmakers sympathetic with the Armenian cause were more concerned about the repercussions for Israel.
As the Turks hardened their positions, there was a growing feeling among members of Congress, particularly the Jews, that someday someone might claim that, in fact, the Jews who died in the Holocaust were not murdered in hatred but were just unfortunate victims of circumstances, as the Turks explain away the Armenian deaths, said Howard Diamond, a former foreign policy staffer in Congress.
Israeli-Turkish relations have steadily deteriorated under the bitterly anti-Israel leadership of Erdogan. He has been leading his country away from Western-oriented democracy to one-party Islamist rule and the Muslim Brotherhood. He’s also on the outs with the PLO because of his support for Hamas, and with the Egyptian government that overthrew Cairo’s Brotherhood government.
After the 2010 Mavi Marmara Gaza flotilla incident, there was no interest among Jewish organizations to help the Turks and very little among members of Congress. After Ankara’s refusal to assist the United States in the Iraq and Afghan wars, there was anger, particularly among Republicans, in Congress.
But not at the White House. President Obama was anxious to cultivate a close relationship with Erdogan and made a point of stopping to visit him on his first trip to the Middle East — the one where he went to Egypt and Saudi Arabia but didn’t have time to stop in Israel, to the detriment of that relationship.
Even as Turkish-American ties have deteriorated under Erdogan, the administration continues to block congressional action on Armenia by warning of potential damage to the bilateral relationship and getting the Pentagon brass to warn of the dangers to our troops, logistics, and NATO operations.
The Jerusalem Post editorial said Israel should follow the Pope’s lead and “recognize the premeditated massacre for what it was — genocide.”
That’s also good advice for the United States. It’s time to stand up to the bullies.