For too long, Turkey bullied America into silence. Not anymore.
On Tuesday, by a vote of 405 to 11, the House of Representatives defied the Turkish government’s intimidation and, for the first time in 35 years, passed a resolution that recognized the Armenian genocide.
In acknowledging the Ottoman Empire’s killing of more than one million Armenians as “genocide,” the House follows more than two dozen countries and 49 of 50 states.
This resolution matters hugely to Armenian-Americans. But it is also a reminder of how important truth-telling is to American foreign policy, and how ultimately self-defeating it is for the United States to bend to autocratic pressure tactics, whether from Turkey or anywhere else.
The facts of the Ottoman campaign have long been established. At the time of the slaughter, which began in 1915, the American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, cabled Washington that a “campaign of race extermination” was underway, while the American consul in Aleppo, in what is now Syria, described a “carefully planned scheme to thoroughly extinguish the Armenian race.”
The word “genocide” did not then exist, but in 1944, Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish lawyer galvanized by the slaughter of Armenians and by Hitler’s extermination of the Jews, coined the term.
Today about two million Armenian-Americans live in the United States, and most are descendants of genocide survivors or victims. Because I have written about the Armenian genocide and argued for recognition, including (unsuccessfully) as a member of the Obama administration, I have joined Armenian-Americans at numerous commemorative events.
There, I have seen how large this history looms, and how much sorrow they feel over the murder and displacement of their long-lost family members. This sorrow has been compounded by Turkey’s denial of the killings; and while the House last recognized the genocide in 1984, Congress and successive administrations, both Republican and Democratic, have refused to use the word “genocide” for fear of offending Turkey.
Through the years, as Armenian genocide survivors in the United States neared their deaths, they often asked their loved ones to carry on the fight to get the American government to acknowledge the historical fact of the genocide. For Armenian-Americans who have labored tirelessly to secure recognition, Tuesday’s vote elicited tears of relief.
Although Turkish officials may see the vote as retaliation for Turkey’s recent forced displacement of Syrian Kurds, that operation — as well as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s sweeping human rights crackdown in Turkey and his purchase (over American and NATO protests) of a Russian air defense system — simply reduced the impact of Turkish blackmail.
The road to the House resolution offers two lessons that go beyond the United States and Turkey.
First, as a baseline rule, for the sake of overall American credibility and for that of our diplomats, Washington officials must be empowered to tell the truth.
Over many years, because of the fear of alienating Turkey, diplomats have been told to avoid mentioning the well-documented genocide. In 2005, when John Evans, the American ambassador to Armenia, said that “the Armenian genocide was the first genocide of the 20th century,” he was recalled and forced into early retirement. Stating the truth was seen as an act of subordination.
When I became ambassador to the United Nations in 2013, I worried that I would be asked about the Armenian genocide and that when I affirmed the historical facts, I could cause a diplomatic rupture.
Second, when bullies feel their tactics are working, they generally bully more — a lesson worth bearing in mind in responding to threats from China and Saudi Arabia. The Turkish government devotes millions of dollars annually to lobbying American officials and lawmakers: more than $12 million during the Obama administration, and almost as much during the first two years of the Trump presidency. Turkish officials have threatened to respond to genocide recognition by suspending lucrative financial ties with American companies, reducing security cooperation and even preventing resupply of our troops in Iraq.
On Friday, the Turkish ambassador warned that passage of the “biased” House resolution would “poison” American-Turkish relations, and implied that it would jeopardize Turkish investment in the United States which provides jobs for a “considerable number of American citizens.”
It is easy to understand why any commander in chief would be leery of damaging ties with Turkey, an important ally in a turbulent neighborhood. But Turkey has far more to lose than the United States in the relationship. The United States helped build up Turkey’s military, brought it into NATO and led the coalition that defeated the Islamic State, which carried out dozens of attacks on Turkish soil. Over the past five years, American companies have invested some $20 billion in Turkey.
If Mr. Erdogan turns further away from a relationship that has been immensely beneficial for Turkey in favor of deepening ties with Russia or China, it will not be because the House voted to recognize the Armenian genocide. It will be because his own repressive tactics are coming to resemble those of the Russian and Chinese leaders.
The House vote was overdue. Now the Senate, and President Trump, should follow suit. The facts of what occurred a century ago demand it.
Photo: Credit…Mario Tama/Getty Image