By Alin K. Gregorian
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A trio of scholars tackled the topic of Armenia — and the Armenian Diaspora in the realm of US policies especially in light of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The panel was especially apropos in light of the Armenian Genocide Resolution, which cleared the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week.
Simon Payaslian of Boston University suggested that the Armenians’ wish for the adoption of the Armenian Genocide Resolution appeals to the moral aspect of politicians, which may not be enough. “By just emphasizing the humanitarian component” of the resolution, the Armenians are not doing themselves a favor, as real concerns can undermine them. Armenians, he said, need to find out “how these values, sentiments that are being expressed, can be translated into actual policy,” he said. It is an uphill battle, he said, and one with little hope of immediate victory.
“We cannot ignore some of the main issues as seen by policymakers,” he stressed.
US-Turkish relations are “very, very important for the US and Turkish governments,” he said. “Fundamentally, the US has supported the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic” continuously, he added.
Payaslian stated that the importance of Turkey to the US has predated NATO and that now it is especially close in light of the post-Iranian revolution world of the Middle East. The US-Israeli-Turkish alliance is a major deterrent to Iranian exporting of its revolutionary rhetoric, he noted. That alliance has only strengthened in the post 9/11 world, to the detriment of the voice of the Armenians, he said.
Payaslian pointed out that the Turkish government had decided in the early part of the new millennium to change its strategy and stress the strength of the Armenian lobby in a negative way in the US and thus affect US foreign policy. “The argument that the Armenian lobby is very powerful was a way of countering the Armenian lobby in the US,” he said.
Payaslian then said Armenians need to focus on why they want President Barack Obama to use the word “genocide” when after all, President Ronald Reagan had used it in 1981. “The next question should be, what was the significance of his using the word? What is the community really pursuing?”
“Recognition,” he said, “is a sentimental issue,” as opposed to policy, he said. “The challenge is to go through the process and penetrate the structural working process.”
“The very second it comes into contact with the policy-making process, it is diluted and shifts orientation,” he said, referring to Bush I and II, as well as Clinton and Obama (so far).
“It is very, very difficult to pass this kind of resolution,” he said. He explained that Turkey gets a very large amount of aid from the US, much of which comes right back to this country through defense contracts, all of which translate into even more importance for that country compared to Armenia.
“Given this situation, I just don’t see the US government adopting an Armenian Genocide resolution. It is not realistic,” he said.
Rouben Adalian, the executive director of the Armenian National Institute in Washington, suggested that morality, policy and diplomacy each have a role in the Armenian question.
He also compared the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, suggesting that Clinton “managed problems rather than solving problems. He deferred solutions,” which he said, “resulted in the catastrophe of 9/11.”
He then compared Bush’s neoconservative approach to Wilsonianism, both “more assertive” policies.
Armenians, he said, have the most chance of affecting changes in domestic policy, rather than foreign. He suggested that it was a victory that for more than 20 years, US presidents are expected to make a statement regarding April 24. He also singled out the election of George Deukmejian as a milestone which opened the doors of American elections to Armenian-Americans.
Adalian suggested that Bush and Clinton both have refrained from using the word “genocide” in their Genocide Day addresses, yet they have, in essence, used the dictionary-definition of the word.
He singled out Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, and his secretary of defense, William Cohen, both of whom, Adalian suggested, were well aware of the Armenian Genocide, as well as the very recent genocides of Bosnia, Rwanda and Sudan, yet interfered in 2007 with the Armenian Genocide Resolution in the House, which seemed poised to pass. He also referred to the MGM film based on The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, which was shelved in the 1940s, because of pressure from Turkey.
Adalian noted that now, while the various Genocide resolutions reaching the floor of the House seem not to pass, at least it is not because the representatives doubt the credibility of history. “They’re not voting against the Genocide, but this particular resolution,” he said.
Marc Mamigonian of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) was the last speaker. He compared and contrasted the statements of the American presidents regarding the Armenian Genocide. Obama, in 2009, used the phrase “medz yeghern,” meaning the Great Calamity, which had been the word Armenians used regarding the events, until the word “genocide” was coined by Raphael Lemkin.
He also suggested that the Turkish media went to great lengths to portray Armenian-Americans as being “supernaturally powerful.” A piece in Hurriyet, he said, suggested that the Massachusetts-Armenian community, angry with Obama, had voted for Scott Brown in the Senate special elections in the wake of the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Obama, he said, “outdid his predecessors in support and usage of the word ‘genocide’” before his election to the office of president. Mamigonian quoted the then-Senator Obama as saying the Genocide “is not an allegation or personal point of view,” as well as that he “strongly” supported the passage of the Genocide resolution. Another important element in his campaign was his stamp of approval from Samantha Power, a scholar whose book in genocides, including the Armenian Genocide, had won a Pulitzer Prize.
He described the “soccer policy” between Armenia and Turkey, which he said, has caused a schism between the diaspora and Armenia.
He also spoke about the “I Apologize” campaign in Turkey, in which four intellectuals said that their “consciences do not allow the medz yeghern denial” to continue. “The [online signature collecting] apology campaign was one of the more manifest ways of the ‘Turkish-Armenian dialogue’ or ‘reconciliation.’”
Said Mamigonian, “The apology did not acknowledge anything.” He suggested that Turkish author and journalist Baskin Oran had said in an interview that only the Armenians in the diaspora cared about the use of the word “genocide.”
He said the late Hrant Dink was a major proponent of this policy and one that opposed Genocide recognition.
Thus, he said, reconciliation was pitted against Genocide recognition. “It became a sort of Hobson’s choice,” the Turkish and Armenian people versus Turkey and Armenia.
Hovannisian Keynote Address
Prof. Richard Hovannisian delivered the keynote address at the end of the panel. Hovannisian, who spoke without consulting notes, suggested that the Genocide resolution supporters appeal to the moral character of the Representatives and Senators, and not the expedient bottom line. Still, he said, the votes had not been “lopsided” as one might conclude, which is “something to be optimistic about.”
He spent a major portion of his time raising questions, including the effects of the adoption of Christianity on Armenians, both positive and negative, and then went into detail regarding the hordes of missionaries who were active in the Ottoman Empire for almost 100 years and their influence, both positive and negative, as well.
“They [Armenians] benefited enormously from American principles, the education system, etc., but did it make them all the more suspect” in the eyes of the Ottoman authorities, asked Hovannisian. “Didn’t they see Armenians increasingly as a threat?”
He wondered whether that association contributed to the “sharpening” of the anti-Armenian sentiment.
He also thought it was interesting that while the Americans in Turkey would promote the cause of independence and equality, they would look askance at Armenians who had been inspired by their words.
The various stages of bloodshed in the Ottoman Empire against the Armenians, starting in 1894, were often ignored by the US, for the same reason, he said, that the Jewish Holocaust was initially ignored, in order to not involve the US in a war.
“The American missionaries were saying that if you declare war on Turkey, we will be forced out and won’t be able to help the miserable Armenians,” he said. “They did not want to see the end of their 100-year investment.”
Thus, Hovannisian said, the US did not declare war in order to “supposedly” help Armenians.
He praised the work of the Near East Relief, which collected about 100,000 Armenian orphans.
He also touched upon the apparently spontaneous 50th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, which was commemorated from Buenos Aires to Boston, Yerevan, Tehran, Aleppo and Beirut, everywhere, except Istanbul. “The young generation was willing to go into the streets and shout,” he said, in comparison to a previous generation who felt they “had to be invisible.”
The need for the affirmation of the Genocide, is “the struggle of memory versus forgetting,” he said.