New Internationalist

Obama and the denial of genocide

Issue 423

This April, Barack Obama broke campaign promise #511, namely to explicitly acknowledge the Armenian genocide as US President. Mickey Z gets writer-activist David Boyajian’s take on the new President’s approach.

Writer-activist David Boyajian’s investigative articles and commentaries have appeared in Armenian media outlets in the US, Europe, Middle East, and Armenia. The Newton Tab and USA Armenian Life newspapers named him among their ‘Top 10 Newsmakers of 2007’. So, when Barack Obama paid a visit to Turkey in April, it seemed like a good time to ask Boyajian for his take on the new President’s approach to the issue of the Armenian genocide.

Map courtesy of Lucine Kasbarian and Ortelius Design, excerpted with permission from Armenia: A Rugged Land, an Enduring People by Lucine Kasbarian (Dillon Press/Simon & Schuster).
Map courtesy of Lucine Kasbarian and Ortelius Design, excerpted with permission from Armenia: A Rugged Land, an Enduring People by Lucine Kasbarian (Dillon Press/Simon & Schuster).

Mickey Z: This April, President Barack Obama broke campaign promise #511, namely to explicitly acknowledge the Armenian genocide as US President. What happened on his recent visit to Turkey? What are the ramifications of his breaking this promise?

David Boyajian: President Obama visited Turkey from 6 – 7 April, where he did not use the word ‘genocide’ when referring to the 1.5 million murders committed by the Turkish Ottoman Empire against its Armenian citizens from 1915-1923. As a candidate, Obama had promised several times to do so. His statement in Turkey that he had ‘not changed his views’ – implying he still believes it was genocide – was still a clear breach of his promise to use the ‘G word’. It was a case study in verbal gymnastics and political duplicity and should be studied in political science courses. Obama’s broken promise obviously eroded his credibility. The same holds true for Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who, as senators, supported the Armenian genocide resolution. They’ve since fallen disgracefully silent. Dr. Samantha Power should also be embarrassed. She’s the National Security Council’s genocide expert and a Pulitzer Prize winning author. As a campaign adviser to Obama, she made a video telling Armenian Americans that as president, Obama would definitely acknowledge their genocide. ‘Take my word for it,’ she said.

[Obama’s statement] was a case study in verbal gymnastics and political duplicity and should be studied in political science courses

Appeasement of a genocide-denying country such as Turkey is bad policy because its message is that genocides can be committed without consequence. Appeasement also erodes US credibility on human rights and its stated desire to be a leader in genocide prevention. Unlike what lobbyists for Turkey would have us believe, Armenian genocide affirmation by America would not harm US national interests. Turkey depends on the US for weapons systems, support for billions in loans from the International Monetary Fund, security guarantees through NATO, advocacy for Turkish membership in the European Union, and more. Some 20 countries, including Canada, France, and Switzerland, as well as the parliaments of the EU and the Council of Europe, have acknowledged the Armenian genocide. None has ever experienced much more than a Turkish temper tantrum in retaliation.

MZ: Two days prior to Armenian Genocide Remembrance day – which annually falls on 24 April – Turkey and Armenia announced that they had agreed to a ‘roadmap’ to normalize relations. What was the significance of this timing? What does the ‘roadmap’ contain?

DB: Behind the scenes, the US State Department had long been twisting Armenia’s arm to agree to a so-called ‘roadmap’ with Turkey before President Obama issued what has become a customary ’24 April statement’ by US presidents marking Armenian Genocide Memorial Day. The ‘roadmap’, announced on 22 April, provided political cover for Obama to not use the ‘G word’ on 24 April. That is, since there was now supposedly a roadmap for normalization of relations – no matter how vague and hurriedly slapped together – Obama could say that he did not want to upset Turkey and the touted-as-highly-delicate Turkish-Armenian negotiations by using the ‘G word’. Notice that Obama did not consult with Armenian-Americans or Armenia about this. So much for promises and moral principles. It’s disgraceful that Obama, simply to help Turkey save face, not only broke his promise, but showed blatant disregard for the activists – not just Armenians – who laboured so hard for many years for the cause of recognizing all genocides.

The word ‘reconciliation’ in relation to Armenian-Turkish relations is largely an invention of US policymakers

Armenia has always said that it was ready to normalize relations with Turkey – which would include Turkey’s re-opening its border with Armenia – without pre-conditions. Suddenly, however, Armenia has had pre-conditions imposed on it in this ‘roadmap’. According to the Turkish press, the ‘roadmap’ allegedly contains pre-conditions such as Armenia’s agreeing to a joint commission to examine the veracity of the Armenian genocide (yes, you heard right), Armenia’s formal recognition of current Turkish boundaries, which contain the Armenian homeland, and, possibly, Armenia’s accepting Turkish mediation in the conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijan over the disputed Armenian region of Karabagh – which is absurd since Azerbaijan and Turkey are allies. It appears that Armenia’s President, whose electoral legitimacy is in question, has been worn down in these negotiations by Turkey, the West, and possibly even Russia. And because the Armenian President is grappling with his legitimacy, he is not heeding the cautions being voiced by the people of his own nation about the ‘roadmap’.

MZ: The US Administration and mainstream media would have us believe that Turkey is seeking to ‘reconcile’ with Armenia. Is ‘reconciliation’ really a possibility, or have we misunderstood what’s going on?

DB: The word ‘reconciliation’ in relation to Armenian-Turkish relations is largely an invention of US policymakers, their emissaries, and the mainstream media who take their cues from them. What the US and Europe would like to see is a more stable Caucasus – that is, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia – with open borders. Open borders, you see, would facilitate laying more oil and gas pipelines that would originate in the Caspian Sea region and proceed west to Turkey and then to energy-hungry Europe and Israel. The US and Europe don’t want to put it quite that crudely – no pun intended – so they try to depict Armenia and Turkey as possibly ‘reconciling’ and thus resolving all their differences. Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 out of sympathy with its ally Azerbaijan, which was in a war with the Armenians of Karabagh, a historically Armenian-populated autonomous area within Azerbaijan that Stalin handed to Azerbaijan. Turkey has also been infuriated that Armenia and Armenians worldwide have been demanding that Turkey acknowledge the genocide it committed against Armenians. Turkey has to acknowledge the genocide or there will never be peace between it and Armenia. And although the Armenian Government has not put forth any claims for reparations arising out of the genocide, or for territory, many Armenians do have these goals. They cite the Treaty of Sèvres of 1920, which provided for Armenian sovereignty over Armenian lands upon which Turkey committed the genocide, and which have since been incorporated into what is now eastern Turkey.

MZ: The countries of the Caucasus are Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Most Americans, including the mainstream media, could not find these small countries on a map. Why are Russia and the US – the latter being thousands of miles from the region – so interested in these three small countries?

DB: The Caucasus is truly Ground Zero in Cold War II, the ongoing conflict between the US and Russia. The US – along with Europe and the NATO military alliance – regard Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan as middlemen between the West and the gas and oil-rich regions around the Caspian Sea. The West has already laid gas and oil pipelines from Azerbaijan through Georgia and then on to Turkey and the west. The US wanted those and future pipelines to bypass Russia and Iran because those two countries could shut such pipelines to pressure the US and others. The only possible pipelines routes, therefore, are through Georgia or Armenia. But Turkey shut its border with Armenia in 1993, and Azerbaijan closed its border with Armenia even earlier due to the conflict between it and the de-facto Armenian region of Karabagh. That left Georgia as the only place for these Western pipelines. After the Russian-Georgian war last year, however, opening an alternative route has become more urgent. That largely explains the West’s renewed interest in Armenia. Conversely, Russia sees the Caucasus as within its traditional sphere of influence, and regards US and European interest in the region as hostile acts.

Russia fears that it will eventually be virtually surrounded by NATO. As a result, we have Cold War II: The US and NATO are trying to push into the Caucasus and Central Asia, while Russia is trying to keep them out

Simultaneously, NATO has been pushing into the region. Georgia, Azerbaijan, and to some extent even the ex-Soviet republics on the other side of the Caspian Sea, are on the path to joining NATO. Russia was already upset that, following the Cold War, NATO had absorbed the former Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe. NATO is now attempting, in effect, to do the same thing on Russia’s southern border. Russia fears that it will eventually be virtually surrounded by NATO. As a result, we have Cold War II: The US and NATO are trying to push into the Caucasus and Central Asia, while Russia is trying to keep them out.

MZ: Why is Israel interested in the Caucasus, and what role is that country playing? Why are Israel and the pro-Israel lobby dead set against recognition of the Armenian genocide by the US Congress?

DB: Israel is interested in getting some of the oil and gas that flow out of the Caspian Sea region. That is, from countries such as Azerbaijan, oil and gas flow west through Georgia, and then on to Turkey and other countries, possibly including Israel. After all, the US and Turkey, which are important players in these pipelines, are obviously also very friendly with Israel. Israel also welcomes all non-Arab supplies of energy since they would make its Western allies less dependent on Arab oil and gas. And Israel has long had what it calls its Periphery Policy. Historically, Israel has not had good relations with its Arab neighbours. Therefore, to serve as counterweights, Israel befriends those countries further away, especially Muslim countries that aren’t necessarily sympathetic to Israel’s Arab neighbours or Palestinians. Azerbaijan, the only Muslim nation in the Caucasus, and some Muslim nations to the east, such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, are such countries. Fortuitously for Israel, they also possess significant deposits of gas and oil.

For decades, Israel and Turkey have had very good relations, mainly because they have a common ally, the US, and common adversaries, namely Arab nations. In the 1990s, Israel and Turkey signed a number of military, economic, and political agreements that solidified their relationship. Even before that, but particularly after that, Turkey felt that it did not have sufficient lobbying muscle in Washington. So the Turks asked Israel to convince some of the pro-Israel lobby – the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee and others – to serve as advocates for Turkey. The Jewish lobby groups agreed. So these groups, as part of their deal with Turkey, deny or call into question the Armenian genocide and work to prevent US acknowledgement of that genocide. These groups won’t tolerate anyone questioning of the Holocaust, and yet hypocritically work against acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide. Interestingly, for the last 2 years, Armenian-Americans have exposed the ADL’s hypocrisy. In Massachusetts, for example, 14 cities severed ties with an anti-bias programme sponsored by the ADL because of the latter’s hypocritical and anti-Armenian stance (see NoPlaceForDenial.com). Armenians are determined to challenge genocide denial whenever it occurs.

MZ: Is there a problem with the way the mainstream media has been covering Armenian issues?

Media also tend to accept at face value the propaganda issued by Western governments whose interest in the Caucasus is – let’s be frank – not ‘reconciliation’, democracy, or human rights, but rather self

DB: Yes. The mainstream media have several problems. First, they know very little about the Caucasus or Armenians. Reporters tend, therefore, to copy each other and repeat clichés and falsehoods – such as that Armenia and Turkey are on the verge of a historic ‘reconciliation’. Media also tend to accept at face value the propaganda issued by Western governments whose interest in the Caucasus is – let’s be frank – not ‘reconciliation’, democracy, or human rights, but rather self-interested economic, political, and military political penetration of the Caucasus.

Turkey has about 30 times more people and territory, and 50 times more Gross Domestic Product, than Armenia. The power differential is enormous. Turkey has infinitely more allies in Western media, governments, think tanks, and multi-national corporations – and knows how to use them. Commentators who have a vested interest in touting Turkey for their own political and even financial reasons have particularly come out of the woodwork to deride legitimate Armenian demands. But we rarely hear commentators speak of how a small country that has been the victim of genocide, that has had most of its territory stripped from it, and that has been blockaded by the denier of that genocide –Turkey – is being threatened by that very same unrepentant denier. Mainstream media largely fail to appreciate the foregoing facts. Hopefully, Mickey, this interview will help the media and your readers understand the issues and the region a bit better.

David Boyajian can be reached at david_boyajian@yahoo.com

Mickey Z is a self-educated writer, personal trainer, martial artist, and vegan who lectures on US foreign policy at MIT in his spare time. He is the author of numerous books, including Fifty American Revolutions You’re Not Supposed to Know, The Seven Deadly Spins, and most recently, CPR for Dummies and No Innocent Bystanders. He lives with his wife Michele in New York City. Visit him on the web at www.mickeyz.net. You can contact him at info@mickeyz.net

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