Inside America’s Long Handwringing Over the Armenian Genocide

“Each year on this day we remember the lives of all those who were killed in the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman era, and we re-commit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever happening again,” said President Joe Biden.

Why the long delay? Why has the US, which is committed to human rights, resisted the use of the “G word” for so long? When I was working on the subject, my colleagues and I knew the facts of the murders. We didn’t deny that they were genocide. But we didn’t use genocide to describe it. We used terms such as atrocities, mass murders, slaughter, and mass murder. Strong terms, but not genocide.

There were two reasons the US took this position. One long-time US administration had to do with relations with Turkey, a strong NATO ally during the Cold War and beyond. Turkey viewed any use of the word genocide in the US as a redline in relationships and made it clear that using the term would create a harsh response. Given the US interest in relations with Turkey, particularly military and security relations, such Turkish warnings carried weight. In addition, despite the country’s authoritarian orientation, including a pattern of military rule, the US had maintained its close alliance with Turkey for decades. The US didn’t like it very much, but it had learned to live with it. In this context, it was simply not considered worthwhile to emphasize bilateral relations in order to recognize the Armenian genocide, which some in the US administration viewed as a historic dispute.

This type of “realistic school” calculation was common in US government thinking for decades. Support for the Greek supreme regime after 1967, the authoritarian Shah of Iran and the Chilean military rule after 1973 followed this pattern of hard swallowing, but remained allied with authoritarian countries. Trying to remove the Armenian genocide as an irritating distraction that could disrupt otherwise close ties between the US and Turkey fits this model. It was the norm for US-Turkey politics for many years. Those kinds of calculations made some kind of sense back then. But in hindsight, they often don’t look good. Hypocrisy has a price.

I and my colleagues in the Bush administration had another, hopefully better reason for avoiding the use of the term “Armenian genocide”: We wanted to encourage Turkey to step out of its shell of historical denial and hostility towards Armenia. to find his own way to reconcile with Armenia and its own past.

This wasn’t just wishful thinking. Turkish-Armenian relations have been and are fraught with many problems, including not only the Armenian genocide and Turkey’s refusal to consider this dark chapter in the Ottoman historical legacy, but also the terrorism that Armenian terrorist groups perpetuated against the Turks . And there is more. When the Soviet Union broke up and Armenia declared its independence, it waged a brief, successful war with another emerging country, Azerbaijan, Turkey’s friend and ethnic cousin, over the disputed Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inhabited by many Armenians. As a result of this war in the 1990s, Armenia had effective control over Nagorno-Karabakh and its seven surrounding Azerbaijani regions. In order to support Azerbaijan, Turkey closed its border with Armenia. So Armenia not only had bitter historical experiences with Turkey, but also a current dispute that would not lead to years of diplomacy (which I also participated in) and that closed its land border with a NATO country and its best potential economic partner.

The US government saw the early years of the 21st century as an opportunity for Turkey to make peace with its neighbors and at homest Century. And she wanted to give Turkey the opportunity to own her story rather than reacting to a US government statement recognizing the Armenian genocide.

As of 2001, non-state Turks and Armenians have taken part in a reconciliation effort to try to deal with the past and build a better future. In 2002 the new AK party took power in free elections and promised deeper democracy and “no problems with the neighbors”, as the Turkish proverb used to say at the time. Soon the Turkish Foreign Ministry, with Swiss help and silent US support, opened a confidential channel to Armenia to pave the way for reconciliation, diplomatic relations, an open border and a commission of historians investigating the past, including “The Great Calamity, “As the Armenian genocide is often called in the Armenian language. By 2008 the Turkish and Armenian negotiators had agreed on a text. By 2009 they had signed it thanks to the able efforts of the Obama administration.

But in the end, Turkey – by far the stronger country – could not bring itself to ratify the agreement or otherwise act to reconcile itself with Armenia. Although Turkish President Erdogan himself admitted in 2014 that the Ottoman treatment of the Armenians is “inhuman”, Turkey did not open its border with Armenia at that time or later. Older Turks used to say that, given the pending Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, amid fierce opposition to normalization from Azerbaijan, they could not do so. But the Turkish government – not shy of asserting itself – could have acted at some point. It has not. The Turkish government has not acted after the renewed fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan last year, in which Azerbaijan recaptured a large part of Nagorno-Karabakh with Turkish help.

The Bush and Obama administrations showed their leniency on the genocide issue. But this indulgence was not permanent.

Biden’s government, with an emphasis on democracy and human rights as its foundation, knew the record: years of efforts to urge the Turkish government to reach Armenia and deal honestly with the Ottoman historical legacy. You would not go back to the realistic school calculation of the past. And the temporary indulgence of encouraging Turkey to do the right thing had run its course. So they decided – finally – to do the right thing.

US-Turkey relations will come at a price. Hopefully this is only temporary and not too costly. The US-Turkish relationship remains important. But a line has been crossed. The US no longer needs to engage in elaborate linguistic contortions in order to deal honestly with the story and the truth while at the same time maintaining its immediate interests vis-à-vis Turkey and the region. The Biden team made a difficult, potentially costly, but correct decision.

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