These days so much international news has so little impact on our lives here in America. In Russia, the government shuts down the office of a dissident. In China, censors remove online links to the winner of the Academy Award for Best Director. In Mexico, eight people die in a gun battle between rival drug cartels.
Many Americans likely feel this way, too, about a century of tensions between Turkey and Armenia over the atrocities the Ottoman Empire perpetrated on the Armenian people, and whether today the events should be classified as genocide.
Armenians have long sought international recognition of the 1915-1917 mass killings by the Ottomans, which reportedly left some 1.5 million Armenians dead, as a genocide. Turkey, the Ottoman Empire’s successor state, adamantly rejects the position that the massacres, imprisonment and forced deportation of Armenians amounted to a genocide.
According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the term “genocide” did not exist prior to 1944. It is a specific term coined by a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin describing Nazi policies of systematic murder during the Holocaust. He created the word genocide by combining geno from the Greek word for race with cide, from the Latin word for killing.
With the U.S. decision, 30 countries — primarily in Europe and South America — now recognize the Armenian Genocide, according to the Armenian National Institute in Washington, D.C.
Now President Biden, for the first time in 40 years, has firmly placed America on one side of this long-seething debate. Last week, he publicly declared that Turkey’s forerunners in the Ottoman Empire had committed genocide, in a statement released on April 24th, on the 106th anniversary of the start of the tragic events.
In 305 words, Biden invoked “genocide” twice, in the opening sentence and at the end — for maximum impact.
This impactful decision intrigues me because I have many Armenian friends and harbor deep respect for the Armenian culture and for what Armenian people have endured. I also got to know Turkey well.
I have visited Turkey many times in the past 20 years, meeting with Turkish businessmen, politicians, academics, artists and regular denizens, some of whom are Turkish Armenians. Since the pandemic took hold, I have traveled to Turkey three times: twice last year, and again in April, diving deeper into Turkish history and culture.
Therefore, it is clear to me that President Biden’s declaration has offended many Turkish people — especially intellectuals who disdained President Trump for what they saw as his brutish style, and who were welcoming Joe Biden as a return to normalcy.
Biden made himself the first U.S. president to use the ‘g’ word since President Reagan in 1981. President George W. Bush had refused to invoke genocide, saying it would strain relations with Turkey, an important ally in our war on terrorism. President Obama had campaigned on the issue in 2008 and in 2012, and in eight years in office he never made the declaration.
President Trump likewise demurred. At a meeting near a ski resort in a UNESCO-protected region of Turkey, one Turkish businessman told me that Trump’s lack of education in geopolitics was a threat to the world. He hailed the election of Joe Biden — up to now.
In my more recent visit to Istanbul, I had dinner at a seafood restaurant popular with locals. My dining companion was a professor who was a keen observer of Turkish politics, and the genocide debate came up — at his behest, not mine. His take was that there was no denying atrocities occurred, and this was, indeed, a taint on his people’s history.
Then came the “but.” It also was true, he said, that many Turkish people were killed in World War I. In fact, close to one-quarter of the Ottoman population died, including nearly 800,000 killed in action and almost half a million perishing from diseases and epidemics.
This friend added that never was there a premeditated plan by the Ottomans to exterminate an entire ethnic group; this was wartime madness. To use the label “genocide” for this tragic part of history, he argued, would mischaracterize a horrible event and further weaponize it. Now, President Biden may have done just that.
My question is why — how did this serve U.S. interests?
Turkey is one of our most important allies across all of Asia. It is a critical counterweight to the expansionist desires of our adversaries, Russia and Iran. Armenia is friendly with both — and is at odds with Turkey.
Yet acknowledging undisputed atrocities should not be barred by what could be regarded as semantic squeamishness. Turkey’s annual GDP of $720 billion is 50 times that of Armenia, and Turkey’s population of 82 million is 27 times the population of Armenia.
So where is our upside? Our close ally, Israel, did not follow President Biden’s lead, thereby putting strategic imperatives above moral proclamations. Americans can argue that foreign policy should be guided by moral prerogatives and applaud this administration for its righteousness.
Alternatively, shouldn’t we have exacted tangible value from Armenia for making this declaration at the expense of our strategic partner in Central Asia?
It’s only good business, and nowadays, good business is the prime directive of international relations.
Yuri Vanetik is a private investor, lawyer, and political strategist based in California. Read Yuri Vanetik's Reports — More Here.
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