According to the dictates of pragmatism, one couldn’t have reasonably expected President Obama to drop the g-word — referencing the genocide of the Armenians in World War I, which Turkey has persistently refused to label as such — while speaking in Turkey, his campaign promise to do so notwithstanding. And, in fact, the portion of Obama’s speech in Turkey addressing the issue, while perhaps evasive, did address the matter in a commonsensically productive manner.
While there has been a good deal of commentary about my views, this is really about how the Turkish and Armenian people deal with the past. And the best way forward for the Turkish and Armenian people is a process that works through the past in a way that is honest, open and constructive.
Whether or not the President of the United States of America says the word genocide is indeed a political calculation. The politicization of this usage of a single word stems partially from U.S. domestic politics (which is why it will be much more interesting to see if and how Obama pivots when he makes the president’s traditional statement to Armenian-Americans in a couple weeks) and partially from the heavy, almost all-consuming significance that the word has acquired (and which, four and a half years after President Bush declared Darfur a “genocide,” to much fanfare and little action, is clearly not productive). And in this sense, what matters more is that Turkey and Armenia deal with this issue, and with their own relations with one another. The opening of the closed Armenian-Turkish border is no small accomplishment, and, though it may appear to be simply this year’s entry in the annual casuistry explaining the particularly inopportune timing of a genocide resolution, achieving tangible ends can lay claim to an upper hand over a declaration that everyone assures will derail progress on some Turkey-related foreign affairs project or another.
Yet for a dialogue between Turkey and Armenia to be truly “honest” and “open,” truths need to be acknowledged — and spoken aloud. It is morally repugnant that Turkey continues to deny that genocide occurred within its bounds, and the international coup that its leaders have consolidated — convincing the world that any mention of a “genocide” of the Armenians would provoke waves of hostility and summarily end cooperation with Turkey — is even more perverse. Somehow, the onus is consistently placed on external actors — such as on an American president — over the consequences that his words may engender. Never is it considered how out of proportion — how utterly ridiculous — it would be for a Turkish government in 2009 to sever all relations with countries, to entirely cease its contributions to projects like that in Iraq, and to take all sorts of other rash steps that might jeopardize its own admission to the European Union, all over the use of a single word by a single world leader, about the actions of a government 90-plus years ago.
Yes, we are talking about genocide, and that is serious. But no, we are not talking about accusing a foreign government of conducting genocide (again, though, on the effectiveness thereof, see Sudan). We are doing what President Obama himself did in his speech, in acknowleding the dark parts of American history, or what the government of Australia is belatedly doing, in apologizing to the aboriginal population that suffered in that country’s history. Calling a genocide a genocide is a moral imperative, yes, but it would be better for all involved — for the Acholi people in northern Uganda, for example, who suffer ethnicity-based counter-insurgency campaigns without worldwide hand-wringing (or attention) over the g-label — if the term coined by Raphael Lemkin were less fraught with political overtones.
More than a moral decision, though, this should be a constructive one. Leverage should be concentrated on Turkey acceding to this judgment, not on urging the United States not to upset some geopolitical balance that bears striking similarity to what Turkish genocide-deniers would readily have the West believe. Would this be “poking a stick in [Turkey's] eye?” Only, if, effectively, Turkey is allowed to continue holding the stick. Order will not devolve into chaos in Turkey if we talk about the Armenian genocide in 1915 publicly and openly; the incentives weigh very heavily against Turkey acting recklessly in retaliation to such discussion. And then, perhaps, we would not have to again be having this debate next year. That, to me, seems like moving forward.
(image of Armenian Genocide Memorial, in Yerevan, Armenia, from flickr user Rita Willaert under a Creative Commons license)