10/04 Wall Street Journal: Editorial: Politics and Genocide

October 4, 2007

Most Members of Congress don't know enough about U.S. history, much less anyone else's. But that isn't stopping the House of Representatives from trying to weigh in on a painful chapter of Ottoman history -- and hurting U.S. interests in the bargain.

A pending resolution, co-sponsored by 226 Members, calls on President Bush to ensure that U.S. foreign policy "reflects appropriate understanding and sensitivity concerning . . . the Armenian Genocide" in 1915, when Turks carried out "the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1,500,000 Armenians." The resolution isn't binding, but Turkey can be forgiven for seeing an absence of "understanding and sensitivity" in that broadside.

As a general rule, legislatures in far-off countries ought to think carefully before judging another people's history. It's a fair bet that points are being scored with domestic lobbies, and playing with history often complicates current foreign policy. In this case, all of the above apply. The sponsor is Adam Schiff, a California Democrat whose district has a lot of Armenian-American voters. His adoption of the genocide cause helped him get elected in 2000 and made his "name in foreign affairs," as the Los Angeles Times put it in 2005.

This Congressional free-lancing would put a strain on U.S. ties with a key Muslim ally in a tough neighborhood. If the resolution passes, the backlash in Turkey will be more than symbolic. In urging Speaker Nancy Pelosi to stop the resolution from reaching the floor for a vote, eight former U.S. Secretaries of State wrote last week that it "could endanger our national security interests in the region, including our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and damage efforts to promote reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey."

Horrible massacres certainly took place during World War I in the Ottoman Empire, and the Turkish government has never been eager to discuss the Armenian question in good faith. But this history is more complex than either the genocide crusaders or official Turkish deniers are willing to concede.

To briefly recap: On April 24, 1915, the nationalist Young Turk government ordered the Armenians of eastern Anatolia deported en masse to Syria and Iraq. The Turks feared the Armenians were in cahoots with their enemy, Czarist Russia, and fighting to carve their own state out of a collapsing Ottoman Empire. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians died on their trek, murdered by Turkish or Kurdish fighters and marauders, or falling to disease, hunger and cold. The Ottoman War Crimes Tribunal, set up by the victorious allies after the war, estimated that 800,000 Armenians perished. Armenians put the toll at 1.5 million, which was about the entire Armenian population of Anatolia at the time.

In October 1984, when Congress considered a similar resolution, we wrote: "There can be little doubt that the Armenian repression was a terrible chapter in history and perhaps the Turks have been too insistent on denying guilt. But it was only one part of a global tragedy that claimed nearly 15 million lives. Dredging it up now in Congress, some 70 years after the event, may be a generous gesture toward Americans of Armenian descent but is hardly an appropriate signal to U.S. enemies." Or to our Turkish friends.

Source: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB119146163212748497.html?mod=hps_us_at_glance_opinion