The president should be as frank with the Turks as he was during the campaign
When President Barack Obama visits Turkey tomorrow, millions of Americans hope that he will fulfill a campaign promise by preparing the Turkish government for official American recognition of the Armenian genocide of 1915-23.
No American president since World War II has come into office with a stronger understanding of the facts about this terrible chapter in history. And no president has a greater track record of speaking plainly about it: As a presidential candidate, Mr. Obama argued forcefully throughout the campaign that “America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides.”
His words reflected a powerful personal commitment. In 2006, for example, our ambassador to Turkey, John Evans, was recalled for using the term “genocide” to describe the events of 1915-23. In a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on July 28 of that year, then Sen. Obama described the official U.S. position on the events of 1915-23 — which is not to describe them as a genocide — as “untenable.” He reminded Ms. Rice that “the occurrence of the Armenian genocide in 1915 is not an ‘allegation,’ a ‘personal opinion,’ or a ‘point of view.’ Supported by overwhelming evidence, it is a widely documented fact.”
“Words matter,” as Mr. Obama said on Feb. 16, 2008. And genocide has a particular power, encompassing within a single word a crime of unsurpassed barbarity — the effort to destroy an entire people. When Holocaust survivor Rafael Lemkin coined the term during World War II, he drew on the Ottoman campaign to annihilate the Armenians, in which over 1.5 million perished, as a paradigmatic example. It is no wonder that the International Association of Genocide Scholars and all credible historians (outside Turkey) have agreed that this was the first genocide of the 20th century.
This mammoth crime was well known at the time; newspapers of the day were filled with stories about the murder of Armenians. “Appeal to Turkey to stop massacres” headlined the New York Times on April 28, 1915, just as the killing began. On Oct. 7 of that year, the Times reported that 800,000 Armenians had been slain in cold blood in Asia Minor. By mid-December, the Times spoke of a million Armenians killed or in exile. Thousands of pages of evidence documenting the atrocities rest in our own National Archives.
For over 90 years, Turkey has refused to recognize this dark chapter of its Ottoman past, and apologists in this country have abetted its campaign of denial with an ever-changing litany of reasons why this year is simply not the right year for recognition. True to form, opponents now argue that recognition would torpedo recent efforts by Turkey and Armenia to reconcile and reopen the border that was closed by the Turks in 1993.
Armenian officials reject this argument. In a recent letter to Congress, Armen Rustamyan, the chairman of the Armenian parliament’s foreign relations committee, expressed confidence “that the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the United States would not only not hamper, but on the contrary will contribute to the prospects of a thorough dialogue between Turkey and Armenia.”
Some opponents go even further, however, such as Mark Parris, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey who argued on these pages on March 3, 2007, that the time may never be right for America to comment “on another’s history or morality.” But that would condemn the president and Congress to silence on a host of human-rights abuses around the world. In Turkey, meanwhile, Mehmet Elkatimis, chairman of the Turkish Parliament’s Human Rights Commission, accused the U.S. of genocide in Iraq, and a prosecutor in Ankara has opened an investigation to determine whether Israel’s recent military offensive in the Gaza Strip constitutes genocide, torture and crimes against humanity.
Mr. Obama must surely recognize that our failure to speak plainly about past genocides has impaired our ability to take action against the genocide taking place in Darfur. If we are unwilling to speak out against genocide when it would offend an ally, how can we persuade Russia or China to take action to stop the killing in Darfur if they would have to offend theirs?
On Nov. 11, 2007, in one of the most memorable speeches of his campaign, the future president told a South Carolina crowd that “I am running because of what Dr. King called ‘the fierce urgency of now.’ I am running because I do believe there’s such a thing as being too late. And that hour is almost here.” For the precious few victims of the Armenian genocide still with us — in their 90s and beyond — that time has come.
Editor’s Note: Mr. Schiff is a Democratic member of the U.S. Congress from California.