BY MICHAEL MAHDESIAN
The Big Picture
As the Republican and Democratic Conventions end, the 2016 Presidential election comes down to a choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The stakes are high. The control of the Supreme Court could shape the legal landscape for the next 25 years. Social justice, criminal justice reform, LGBT rights, reproductive rights, voting rights, civil rights, all will be heavily impacted. Other major issues like climate change, immigration reform, economic growth for all Americans, and how we engage with our friends, enemies, and others abroad hang in the balance. The contrasting visions of what we should do, and how we should act, at home and abroad, couldn’t be more different.
Donald Trump’s vision is a dark one in which the heartland is being overrun by lawlessness, illegal immigrants, and ISIS infiltrators posing as refugees from Syria, while abroad, the world is “spinning out of control”. Only he (“I alone”) can fix it, not because he has political or diplomatic experience and understands the complexities involved, but because he is a successful businessman who has mastered the art of the deal, will put America first, will tell it like it is, and be the law and order candidate. When he says “I will be your voice” he is trying to appeal to white working class, mostly men, who have been left behind by economic globalization, and fear their economic stagnation is due in part by minorities, particularly undocumented Latinos. He’s hoping there are enough of them to turn mid-west blue states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania red, creating a new electoral path to the Presidency.
Hillary Clinton’s vision is more hopeful and nuanced. She recognizes daunting challenges l like ISIS and global terrorism abroad, and understands that six years of steady economic growth have not helped enough people at home. Yet she believes “the future holds far more opportunities than threats” if we have the right leadership, and creative policies. By applying adept diplomacy, strengthening our alliances, nurturing new partnerships, and making sure our military is on the cutting edge, we can use “smart power” to shape global events rather than be shaped by them. Hillary believes we can do it without eroding our core principles and values. She’s experienced. President Obama says of his once rival, “She’s seen the consequences of things working well, and things not working well. There has never been any man or woman more qualified for this office than Hillary Clinton, ever.”
Hillary has put together a coalition of African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, women, organized labor, the LGBT community, and is out polling Trump with college educated whites. The odds are the vast majority of Millenials will vote for her with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren vowing to campaign hard on her behalf. Since the conventions her lead has grown in most of the swing states, even putting normally red states Georgia and Arizona in play. Still, three months to go is a long time in politics
Why Some Armenians Are Conflicted About Hillary
Probably 80% of Americans have already made up their minds on who to vote for. Some Armenian-Americans have also made up their minds. Many other Armenian-Americans are conflicted, as are some Armenian organizations, because of the discrepancy on Armenian Genocide recognition between Hillary as the U.S. Senator from New York versus her actions as Secretary of State. My aim is not to gloss over those discrepancies, but to put them into perspective and give them some context. Excuse the length, but the critique coming from some quarters in the community needs to be unpacked case by case, issue by issue.
As a Senator from New York Hillary Clinton was a longstanding supporter of Armenian Genocide recognition, being a co-sponsor of the Congressional Resolution from 2002 through 2008. As a Presidential candidate in 2008, she said, “I believe the horrible events perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire against Armenians constitute a clear case of genocide. I have twice written to President Bush calling on him to refer to the Armenian Genocide in his annual commemorative statement and, as President, I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.” As Secretary of State, she never used the word genocide, and for some, she once crossed a line by mentioning at a Town Hall Meeting that many people see it as “a matter of historical debate”. Here is some context needed for the full picture.
When Obama was elected President in 2008, he sought out Turkey’s then Prime Minister (now President) Erdogan, viewing him, as the conventional wisdom did at the time, as a moderate Muslim democrat who could help him stabilize the Middle East. Later in a 2011 Time magazine interview, Obama named Erdogan as one of the five world leaders with whom he had the strongest bonds (that relationship has since deteriorated dramatically). To this, add the strong pressure put on all U.S. Presidents from the Department of Defense and the State Dept not to officially recognize the Genocide. The Pentagon tells the President our assets in Turkey, particularly Incirlik Airbase, are at stake, and our national security depends on the President not jeopardizing these assets. The State Dept always finds some reason as to why the Turkish alliance is diplomatically indispensable to dealing with issues in the Middle East, Central Asia, refugees in Europe, ISIS, etc. The U.S. Ambassador to Turkey will sometimes warn of potential attacks on the Embassy and staff if the G word becomes official policy. It would take a President of strong commitment and understanding of the region to do the right thing, call Turkey’s bluff, and recognize the Genocide.
Obama’s official policy was not to use the word Genocide, although he did say it was his personal opinion that it was genocide, “and that opinion hasn’t changed”. Once policy is made, all administration officials must fall in line. Policy directives are written, mechanisms are put in place to ensure Administration officials don’t stray from the official policy. Those that do stray can be reprimanded, demoted, or even fired. That is why officials who once championed genocide recognition as Senators, such as Vice President Joe Biden, current Secretary of State John Kerry, and then Secretary of State Clinton never uttered the word. Even Obama’s UN Secretary, Samantha Power, who made her reputation shining a light on genocides of the 20th century, especially the Armenian Genocide, has been mute on the subject. Yet Hillary gets singled out with a high level of anger directed at her.
Even a positive gesture, paying her respects to the victims of the Genocide during a visit to Armenia, was looked at by some through a negative filter. On July, 2010, Secretary Clinton arrived in Yerevan, becoming the highest ranked U.S. official to visit Armenia. The next day she paid a private visit to the Tsitsernakaberd Genocide memorial, and placed a wreath there which read “From Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton”. One of Hillary’s top aides who was there said recently that what was inscribed on the wreath was done with purpose, and she felt it important to pay her respects. They took it as far as they could go per the policy. Even with the low key event, there was high level grumbling, most likely initiated by Turkey. Several weeks later, after she was gone, the Embassy issued a statement saying she paid the visit as a private citizen only. Some Armenians then found her visit to the memorial an “insult”. Really? Had she done anything more, made it public with the press, she would have broken with Administration policy, probably created an international situation, and faced heavy consequences. The Secretary of State, in this, and most Administrations doesn’t engage in impromptu policy changes.
The one time she did cross a line, and she should find a way to walk it back, was during a State Dept. town hall meeting in January of 2012. Secretary Clinton was asked two questions by a woman, one related to France’s legislative decision to criminalize speech that denies the Genocide and the Holocaust, and the second related to why doesn’t the State Dept. call the events of 1915 genocide. She handled the first question saying the US doesn’t want to criminalize free Speech, and later said that would be a dangerous door to open. She blended that into her answer to the question on the genocide in which she said the “terrible event has long been a matter of historical debate”, and it is not the government’s roll to politicize it, but rather should be aired in the marketplace of ideas. This was a dodge, prompted by her attempt not to counter Administration policy, but a dodge that led to a cringe worthy moment. Most historians, save those sponsored by Turkey, have already come to the conclusion that the events amounted to a Genocide, and they have aired those in the marketplace of ideas.
I can assure you that she herself isn’t debating the facts. In Secretary Clinton’s response to then Chairman of the ANCA, Ken Hachikian’s thoughtful letter to her, asking for an explanation to her Town Hall remarks, Secretary Clinton said, “The issue you raise is a serious one. On April 24, 2011, President Obama memorialized the 1.5 million Armenians who, in 1915, were massacred or marched to their death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire, resulting in one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.” The word genocide is missing, again due to the gag rule on the policy, but also missing is any repetition of this being a “matter of historical debate”. Hopefully a lesson learned.
There is another area of legitimate concern to Armenians reflected in the letter to Hachikian and writ large in the ill-advised Armenian-Turkish Protocols: the idea that genocide recognition would be best handled in a bilateral engagement between Armenia and Turkey. The Genocide is a crime against humanity that will require international pressure to get Turkey to come to terms. It is not a bilateral conflict between two states. The goals of the Protocols were to normalize relations between Armenia and Turkey, open the borders, build confidence measures, etc. The main problem, among others, was that Turkey insisted on a Joint History Commission to look into the events of 1915, pushing further with details on how the Commission’s work was to be carried out. One of Turkey’s motives was to deflect and quiet the growing international movement in which many countries began to recognize the Armenian Genocide. According to David Phillips, one of the main advocates, if not architects, of the Protocols, “The Bush Administration was quick to support Erdogan’s proposal for a joint history commission.” At the Turks request, the negotiations on the Commission had little involvement from the Armenian Diaspora. This was a huge omission since the Diaspora’s existence is due to the Genocide, and remains an existential trauma for many.
The State Dept. did, and continues to underestimate the strong commitment in the Diaspora regarding genocide recognition, sometimes thinking these are the sentiments of hard liners, or that the issue can be finessed by improving bi-lateral relations between Turkey and Armenia. My experience at USAID working on countries in conflict taught me that the situation has to be ripe for a comprehensive peace accord or normalization to occur. It’s very difficult for State Dept. diplomats to try and force countries to come together, regardless of how clever or determined the diplomats are, if the major stakeholders are in opposition or ignored. Nevertheless, negotiations for the Protocols proceeded mediated by the Swiss government. By the time the Obama Administration came to power, the negotiations were well underway, and were supported as US policy by Obama. Secretary Clinton, far from being the architect of the Protocols, did, however, invest her time and prestige as the Closer, getting the reluctant parties to sign the deal on October 10th, 2009. The deal had to be ratified by the Parliaments in each country and failed to do so. When Turkey linked the Nagorno-Karabagh talks to the Protocols due to Azerbaijan’s pressure, Armenia suspended its efforts to ratify the Protocols. When Clinton visited Armenia on July 4th, 2010 she indicated the Obama Administration’s displeasure at Turkey’s approach saying, “And now, as they say in sports, the ball is in the other court”.
When you look at the sum total of Clinton’s actions as Secretary of State, you see a dutiful and energetic Secretary of State carrying out Administration policies. On the Genocide, she is a mixed bag. She has never denied the facts of the Genocide, never tried to minimize the facts, and is still the highest ranking US official to visit Armenia’s Genocide Memorial (which was a clear indication that she personally knows it was a genocide). She crossed the line once when, in the context of criminalizing speech in France, she characterized the genocide as “something many people see as a matter of historical debate”. She has refrained from ever saying it again. The worst you can say about her role as Secretary of State is that, on issues relating to Turkey and Armenia, she often reflected the conventional mindset of the State Dept. and the Obama Administration
So why all the venom and vitriol towards Hillary in some parts of the Armenian-American community? I think it’s clear that twenty five years of unrelenting attacks from the Right starting with Whitewater and continuing most recently with Benghazi and her email server have created enough negative noise which has bled into the Armenian-American community. It doesn’t matter that no crime or malfeasance has ever been substantiated. Combine this with a bruising primary where some on the left falsely painted her as a corporate shill. Add a variety of fringe blogs peddling insinuations that are impossible to prove, but get reprinted in Armenian newspapers, and you get a grossly negative framework in which everything she does is given the worst possible motives. This all feeds on itself, and even some of the best and brightest in the community are susceptible in believing the caricature that has been created.
Why Armenians should support Hillary
Bill Clinton, in his speech to the Democratic Convention, said it is important to distinguish between the Cartoon character of Hillary the Right wing has created, and the Real Hillary who has fought for progressive change during the last fifty years. President Obama, campaigning for Hillary, recently said, “I saw the passion that she feels for anybody who’s experienced injustice, anybody who’s faced discrimination, anybody who does everything right and still can’t seem to get a fair shot…” Personally, my admiration for her grew strongly during my years at USAID where I saw her as one of the great champions for international aid and assistance. Hillary did incredible work to advance the lives of women and girls around the world. She was principled and consistent in advocating for human rights, rule of law, and development of civil society in countries facing authoritarian crackdowns. Hillary Clinton is the kind of person you want on your side.
What does this mean for Armenians? There are many issues the Armenian community should engage the next President on in addition to Genocide recognition: Aid, trade, and investment to Armenia; aid to Armenian refugees from Syria; protection and rebuilding of Armenian communities in Syria; protection of Armenian monuments and churches inside Turkey; Nagorno-Karabagh; the US approach to dealing with Turkey, Azerbaijan, the Kurds and the region in general. Given the volatility of the region, other issues will surely arise. Let’s assess what we know of the candidates on these issues.
Hillary has knowledge of the region, and has visited Armenia twice. She has developed working relationships with government officials and Armenians outside of government. This could be important in securing appropriate levels of US aid, trade, and investment in Armenia. She is sure to promote a more robust foreign aid program as a major pillar of US foreign policy. This is an area where Armenian-Americans and Armenian organizations can work constructively with a Clinton Administration. Donald Trump has not said anything so far regarding Armenia, or the issues facing it and the diaspora. We do know he has properties in Azerbaijan, and business relationships both there and in Turkey.
As for Turkey, during the recent coup attempt, Trump applauded President Erdogan as a model of strong leadership in how he dealt with the attempted coup and its aftermath. In an interview with the New York Times, Trump, when asked about the purges and violations of civil liberties within Turkey, responded, “When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger…We need allies.” In Trump’s recent interview with “60 Minutes”, he said the Turks can do more against ISIS, but they need to be “incentivized” – in other words they need to get more of what they want. Clinton, on the other hand, called out Turkey during one of the Presidential debates, saying, “Turkey and the Gulf nations have to make up their minds…Are they going to stand with us against this type of jihadi radicalism or not?..They need to be absolutely clear on where they stand.” On the attempted coup, she called for calm, rule of law, and respect for human rights. Clinton has a long history of standing up for rule of law and human rights, and this should come into play as Erdogan consolidates authoritarian power in Turkey.
Her passionate appeals for human rights and a strong civil society have made her instinctively more interventionist than Obama, but certainly not the hawk that some people portray her as. Hillary didn’t start the Arab spring, and she didn’t start the Syrian revolt. She is not a NeoCon and the NeoCons don’t claim her. She is more measured in her approach. Her instinct to intervene is based more on stopping thousands from being imminently harmed, or slaughtered (Libya). Given our history, that is something all Armenians should appreciate.
Clinton’s policy towards Syria has evolved as the conflict has changed. Yes, she did want to arm “moderate” Syrian rebels in 2012, only after they went through a vigorous vetting process. Obama declined to do so until 2014, two years after Hillary left the Administration. While she is prone to take action, she has learned that unintended consequences can result from the best intentions if things aren’t thought through. She learns. In November, 2015, speaking before the Council of Foreign Relations, Clinton said that the focus in Syria should not be first ousting Mr. Assad, but instead focus on defeating the Islamic State. She would try to create safe havens for Syrian refugees within Syria and the region, and welcome some Syrian refugees in the US. She bluntly demanded that Turkey “…finally seal its porous border, a major channel for Islamic State fighters, arms and oil sales, and stop bombing Syrian Kurds who are fighting ISIS”. Trump would also focus on defeating ISIS, and would put 20-30,000 US troops into the war zone, and would not let any Syrian refugees into the US. He would reintroduce methods of torture, and suggested going after and killing the families of ISIS members. He would somehow get the Turks and Kurds in a room so they could work together to defeat ISIS, and “we will defeat them so quick, really quick, you won’t believe it.” Don’t believe it.
When it comes to the rebuilding of Armenian communities in Syria, there are so many unknowns. Will Assad prevail, or will there be a negotiated settlement with some eventual transition to a new government? What would be the US policy of engagement in either scenario (or other scenarios). The real question is, when the time comes, who would you rather have in the White House, someone like Hillary, who understands the importance of rebuilding in a war ravaged country, and the complexities of doing it right? Or do you want someone like Donald Trump, who has never shown any empathy for the vulnerable, particularly if they live in a foreign country? The choice is clear.
Armenians cannot sit this one out. We need to be engaged in this election and develop a working relationship with the Executive branch, where real foreign policy is developed and implemented. It’s a long term and often incremental process. But the time may be ripe for change even in the most conventional thinking inside the government. With Germany and the Pope himself recognizing the Genocide, it feels like recognition has reached an international tipping point. With Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic and provocative behavior; with the Pentagon often frustrated by threats to the use of Incirlik, and Turkey’s erratic response to ISIS, there are possibilities of changes in policy. The Armenian voice needs to be heard. We have a unique understanding of the Near East. That voice is better heard from both being inside and engaging constructively from the outside. Yes, it’s often frustrating, and we are often left mumbling, “I told you so”, whether it is Turkey linking the Historic Commission and NK to the Protocols, or enabling ISIS while fighting the Kurds, or flexing its Neo-Ottoman designs on its neighbors. Yes, the Executive branch needs to reach out more and value our experienced viewpoints. But that certainly won’t happen if Armenians sit it out and find a comfort zone in being in the opposition.
Finally, this election represents a stark moral choice. Donald Trump is creating an atmosphere of fear both on the home front and internationally. On the home front he is whipping up bigotry, racism, and inciting violence at his events – the very conditions that lead to persecuting “the other” – something all Armenians know about in our DNA. There is no appeal to our better angels. His foreign policy is a hodgepodge of contradictory elements. He feels most comfortable with strong autocrats like Erdogan because they show “real leadership”. The thought of a man with his temperament controlling the US nuclear arsenal has led to 50 former Republican national security officials to say his election would be an outright disaster. Many more are jumping ship.
Whether you are making your decision based only on Armenian issues, or you are a progressive who voted for Bernie Sanders, or looking at the candidates as what is best for America, Hillary Clinton, the real Hillary, is the superior choice, hands down. She has principles that guide her, real information that informs her, policies that flesh out her vision, experience that steadies her actions. She has fought her whole life to protect the vulnerable, empower those who have faced bias and discrimination, and to educate, train and equip those needing skills to enter the 21st century economy – both here and abroad. Those who disliked her before they knew her changed their tune after they had a chance to work with her. The real Hillary is an impressive and likable person. We can work with her. Engage and get in the game.
Michael Mahdesian was appointed by President Clinton in 1993 to 2000 as Deputy of USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Response. During this period, he was integrally involved in shaping USAID’s response to Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Indonesia, and other crisis spots around the world. Prior to that, he was the first Executive Director of the United Armenian Fund’s Airlift to Armenia in 1989-1990. Mahdesian is currently Chairman of Servicon Systems, Inc. with over 1300 employees throughout southern California and the southwest.