The issue of Turkish genocide against Armenians during World War I has once again become volatile. President Biden on Saturday issued a statement speaking out on the death march conducted in 1915 by the Ottoman Turkish forces to “ethnically cleanse” sensitive military regions of eastern Turkey of its restive Armenian population, leading to the deaths of at least one million Armenian civilians.
The Armenian case ranks just below the Nazi Holocaust in the annals of modern genocide. Indeed, while the full circumstances surrounding the Armenian case are still debated, all parties, including the modern Turkish government, acknowledge that, at the very least widespread killings, occurred. The Armenian genocide took place towards the end of the war in the middle of a complex geopolitical situation in eastern Turkey where Armenians have been living for over one thousand years; they constituted a significant part of the huge, thoroughly multi-ethnic, multi-religious Ottoman Empire that collapsed at the end of the war, eventually giving rise to the new much smaller modern Turkish republic.
The Ottoman government perceived the Armenian population of eastern Turkey as hostile during the war, and there is evidence that violent nationalist Armenian groups carried out some terrorist acts against the government at the time. The Empire was also facing invasion from Tsarist Russian forces fighting on the side of the Allies in Europe.
That massacre was one of the most horrific cases of broad-scale elimination of huge numbers of a civilian population. Indeed, it is hard not to qualify it as genocide by today’s standards. Turkish accounts note that the Christian Armenian population was suspected of having sympathies with the invading Tsarist Russian (and Christian) forces into Eastern Anatolia where large numbers of Armenians lived. Russia, in fact, had some grounds to believe the Armenians could be induced to serve as a fifth column of resistance against Ottoman forces. The case is complicated since it simultaneously involved widespread disorders in eastern Anatolia under wartime conditions, much anarchy, brigandage, killings, seizure of Armenian lands, etc. Local Kurdish populations were also largely anti-Armenian.
Biden’s official declaration and condemnation of the Armenian genocide now joins many similar Western condemnations. But this is the first public condemnation by Washington of an incident reaching into Turkey’s past. Unfortunately, the statement has much more to do with current U.S. foreign policy towards Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan than it does with any morality of the case. At this point, condemnation of the genocide is effectively being wielded as a tool of American foreign policy.
While the government of modern Turkey, which came into being in 1923, has unofficially acknowledged that a large-scale massacre of Armenian civilians indeed did take place, Ankara steadfastly rejects the use of the term “genocide.“ Among other things, it argues that the modern Turkish Republic is not the same state or even the same country as was the massive Ottoman Empire. It also points out that, before the term “genocide” in invoked, Turkish and Armenian scholars need to jointly work out all the relevant facts and conditions of the complex events that took place under wartime conditions on the eastern front of the Empire against invading Russian forces. Indeed, there have been a few working groups of Turkish and Armenian scholars working to shed broader light on the full story. But large numbers of fervid Turkish nationalists fiercely reject any idea of Turkish culpability while many Turkish liberals support the investigation. In any case, the political “complexity” of the issue in no way diminishes the horror of what took place. In the international view, the Armenian cause has the moral argument on its side.
The U.S. Congress has debated for decades as to whether to officially recognize the killings as genocide, as long urged by well-organized Armenian-American and human rights groups. Concerned over the potential impact it would have on U.S. relations with Turkey, especially at a time when Ankara was viewed as a more “stalwart'” member of NATO, the State Department lobbied Congress against such a move. Nonetheless, both houses of Congress finally passed resolutions recognizing the genocide and rejecting its denial in 2019. The Trump administration, however, refused to endorse Congress’s action, essentially reaffirming Washington’s long-held position.
Biden’s statement, however, marks a dramatic change. The question is, why this declaration now — over 100 years after the terrible events? Clearly, it has everything to do with Washington’s great dissatisfaction with the foreign policies of the Erdogan government in Turkey and is intended as a point of punitive pressure against Ankara. Over the past nearly 20 years under Erdogan, Turkey has increasingly pursued an independent direction in its foreign policy, often in direct contradiction of what Washington perceives as its own interests. And indeed, Ankara has been adroitly playing both sides of the game in working closely with both Russia and China, while offering occasional olive branches to Europe.
The timing of Biden’s genocide declaration highlights what is part of a generic long-term problem of serious hypocrisy in U.S. foreign policy; it claims to be based on “moral values” or “human rights” or “democratic values.” Yet these genuine values are primarily used instrumentally. They serve as weapons against countries Washington does not like but are almost never directed against regimes we do. The countries and leaders chosen for U.S. denunciation are invariably cherry-picked according to time, place and the political needs of the moment, rather than values.
Washington speaks out about the “genocide” of Uighurs in China but has nothing serious to say about Israel’s treatment of nearly four million Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. The Indian government’s harsh policies against Muslim Kashmiris go largely overlooked because we want India on our side against China. Rwanda was never prominent on the U.S. political agenda in a genocide of some 800,000 people in 1994; we had no Cold War interests to protect there. The widespread killing of Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka over nearly three decades were largely ignored. And the savage massacres of 200,000 Mayan peoples in Guatemala were overlooked because the generals in charge were “anti-communist.” The United States has been similarly virtually silent about the severe repressions against the Shi’ite populations of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The list goes on.
Surely this approach cheapens and devalues our professed concerns over “human rights.” The United Nations, or perhaps more modest countries that are not playing in the international strategic game, such as the Scandinavian nations or Canada, wield far greater credibility on these issues.
Most Armenians are justifiably pleased to see further recognition and condemnation of the terrible events that befell them over a century years ago. But what useful purpose does it serve for Washington to issue such a condemnation of genocide precisely today?
The declaration will of course anger Turkey — and that is the point — a message to Erdogan that we no longer consider him a valued ally to be shielded from criticism. But the declaration is quite unlikely to change the broader course of Ankara’s policies. Erdogan today faces serious domestic pressure as a result of failing economic policies and, above all, the abuse of liberal values and free speech in his heavy-handed treatment of political opposition. At the moment, he is making nice with the West in hopes of relieving pressure as he moves towards elections in 2023. But last year Erdogan was deep in his “Eurasian mode” in seeking closer relations with Russia and China. This pendulum is likely to be a predictable phenomenon as Erdogan weaves back and forth in his complex vision of Turkish foreign policy extending from Western Europe and North Africa to China.
Human values should always matter in governance everywhere. But when they are employed opportunistically for transient political ends on a century-old issue, we undermine the very importance and significance of those values.