BY ARDASHES ARDY KASSAKHIAN
Every Armenian knows by now the outcome of the recent Genocide Resolution vote in Congress. For the first time in over three decades, the US House of Representatives officially reaffirmed the historical fact of the Armenian Genocide (1915-1923) by an overwhelming majority vote of 405 – 11. That’s a whopping 97 percent of votes cast. In politics that’s not just a landslide, it’s an avalanche on top of a tsunami.
Perhaps because the vote happened so quickly or the margin of passage was so huge, there has been a lot of speculation about why the House did what it did and why they chose now as the appropriate time to bring this up for a vote. To many, these points may not matter but it is a fair question given the bill’s recent history.
This version of the Genocide Resolution was brought to a vote by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who during her last stint as Speaker teased Armenians with a promise of a vote only to pull it at the last minute due to pressure from the White House and State Department. This time, her resolve was strengthened by the aggressive moves in Syria by Turkey, as well as an almost universal Democratic dislike of President Donald Trump. Whatever the motivations, Speaker Pelosi and decades long champions like Adam Schiff, Brad Sherman, Frank Pallone and others deserved our gratitude for finally getting this one over the finish line.
But this article isn’t about retelling of the play-by-play of how this resolution got to where it did and how it finally passed. This is about two U.S. diplomats and how they played a role in where we are today. This is about who can take credit for this moment and who shouldn’t. Let me first address the big credit part – all the people and groups who can pound their chest, point up to the sky and say, “This victory was for you!”
There is a great deal of credit to be shared by many. Our community’s advocacy efforts in D.C. played a critical role. But everyone reading this deserves credit as well, because chances are you’re plugged in and active. Anyone who has ever written a letter, made a phone call, or sent an email to a member of Congress, owns this victory. As well as the numerous Armenian organizations who, for decades, have planned, organized and carried out various projects and marches and demonstrations all to raise awareness about this issue.
We can even credit the Kardashians for this one, because their heightened awareness in recent years combined with the K sister’s (Khloe, Kourtney and Kim) posts on Twitter have helped inform people that even System of a Down probably couldn’t reach. Now that we’ve all given each other a virtual high-five, let me tell you who shouldn’t be taking a victory lap on this recent success – Samantha Power.
For the unfamiliar or whose memory only goes as far back as the last episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Samantha Power is an academic who rose to one of the most influential posts in the White House and became the US Ambassador to the U.N. in the Obama Administration. She was a policy advisor to President Barack Obama on international issues and in human rights in particular. For the record, I’ve met Samantha Power and she seems like a very nice and intelligent person. I met her at official events and attended lectures by her. I bought her Pulitzer Prize winning book, “A Problem from Hell” when it first came out and stood in line to have her sign it. I was grateful that this fiery Irish woman had taken up our cause and thanked her for drawing international attention to how America has turned a blind eye to genocides dating as far back as 1915 up to the present day.
But Samantha Power recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times (“A Belated Recognition of Genocide by the House”) that oozed with the sanctimonious tone of a person who uses their roommate’s Netflix password but won’t share her jar of peanut butter with anyone. This isn’t an overstatement. No other person was better positioned in the last 13 years to make something significant happen on this issue than Samantha Power. She was imbedded in the Obama Administration for 8 years (four of which was as Ambassador to the U.N.) and during that time Obama never used the word “Genocide” to condemn the mass killings of Armenians. Let us not count how many survivors of those massacres died having been denied dignity of an official acknowledgment from their own government.
In Power’s recently published memoir “The Education of an Idealist” she dedicates an entire chapter to this failure titled – appropriately enough – April 24th. She writes about how she tried and failed to get President Obama to use the word Genocide in his annual statement. She details very tense encounters with Obama after he is elected and recounts efforts to get him to acknowledge the genocide on various occasions during the first year of his Presidency. She first tries preceding his trip to Turkey and later before an annual Holocaust commemoration event. Both times she is rebuked and it truly upsets her to her core, according to her memoir. It apparently upsets her so much so that, the second time, it may have even been the reason her water broke early resulting in her first child, Declan, being born on April 24, 2009.
The chapter is powerful in revealing in many ways. It drew back the curtain on a system and politics that many of us have known, but have never really heard directly from the source. It validates what we already know – that the entrenched interests in the nation’s foreign affairs apparatus are dead set against upsetting Turkey at any cost. It is as powerful as any piece of writing that Power has produced prior or since and, reading it, I couldn’t help but empathize with her frustrations.
It would seem she was all in with us and that our issue really mattered to her. Except that after this episode, Samantha Power went on to serve as one of the highest ranking officials in this very same administration that let her and the rest of the Armenian people down in epic fashion.
Now compare this with the experience and service of Ambassador John Marshall Evans – a career diplomat who was appointed to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Armenia in 2004 during the George W. Bush administration. Evans spent a significant amount of time reading about Armenia prior to his post and educated himself on the nation’s history as well as reading the memoirs of U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau. He had an exemplary career in the Foreign Service and the Armenia posting may not have been his last given his reputation, acumen, and experience.
In 2005, during a number of visits on the west coast, Ambassador Evans met with members of the Armenian-American community and publicly acknowledged that what Armenians experienced during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was genocide. The news of his comments hit the community and spread like wildfire. The Armenian media covered it pretty extensively, but the mainstream media was relatively silent.
Following these comments, Ambassador Evans was relieved of his post and his career in the U.S. Foreign Service came to an abrupt end. Later that same year, the American Foreign Service Association decided to honor Evans’ courage by bestowing upon him their Constructive Dissent award, which they promptly rescinded after pressure from Turkey. John Evans was not only fired from his post for his willingness to speak out and question his government’s morally bankrupt position on the Armenian Genocide, but he was humiliated by the very association to which he had dedicated his entire career. A lesser person may have taken their licks and gone home, but not Ambassador Evans.
In a 2007 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Evans doubled down on his comments. He said, “The facts of the historical matter, and the legal definition of genocide as basically codified in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, which we ratified, does count for something in my view. I felt that something had to be done to rock the boat, and to open up some space around this taboo subject…”
It’s refreshing to see that Evans has never changed his position nor ignored it for the sake of another position or job that would give him more attention or prestige. To this day, Evans visits and speaks at Armenian community events and calls out the hypocrisy of the U.S. government in not acknowledging the genocide.
In 2016, Evans wrote a book about his experience titled, “Truth Held Hostage: America and the Armenian Genocide – What Then? What Now?” But unlike Power, I doubt his goal was to end up on the NY Times bestseller list or win a Pulitzer. I doubt it has or will sell half as many copies as Samantha Power’s works have. Evans wrote this book because he had to tell his story in his own voice and not let the censorship of the State Department and those complicit in the century long denial of the Armenian Genocide win.
When H.Res. 296 passed the House, John Evans didn’t write an op-ed in the NY Times. He didn’t use the moment to rush to the spotlight or try to share in this collective victory by claiming to have been with us since the first day like Power did. But he certainly could have or should have. His courage and unrelenting, unequivocal statements were more impactful than the weak verbal gymnastics of others who have held the title of Ambassador since. Samantha Power can write op-eds, but I for one, would welcome Evans taking that victory lap more than I would Samantha Power.
Ardashes Kassakhian was the Government Relations and Executive Director of the ANCA-WR from 2002- 2005. He is currently the elected City Clerk in Glendale, Calif. and the great grandson of Genocide survivors. He can be reached at AKassakhian@gmail.com.