A debate not needed

August 10, 2007

The 90-year-old genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks is being turned into a spectacle - in Washington, naturally, where even the past becomes a fruitful topic for lobbyists.

On one side are well-organized and locally influential Armenian-American interest groups and their Democratic friends in Congress, who want to push through a resolution declaring that the deaths of 1.2 million Armenians during World War I were in fact a result of genocide. On the other side is the Turkish government, which has hired former congressmen Richard A. Gephardt and Robert L. Livingston to push its case that Armenians died in the brutal chaos of war but that it wasn't genocide, and the Bush administration, which believes that current relations with Turkey are more important than parsing a crime that took place during Woodrow Wilson's presidency.

Last year the White House yanked the U.S. ambassador to Armenia, John Evans, out of his post in Yerevan for daring to utter the G-word. Last week, the career foreign service officer who was nominated to replace him, Richard Hoagland, withdrew his name from Senate consideration after Sen. Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, put a hold on his bid because he won't say "genocide."

This is not edifying.

It is painful for Armenians to have the deaths of so many dismissed as virtually an accident by the government in Ankara. Much of the documented record was assembled by Americans - diplomats and others - who were in Turkey when it happened.

(By the 1920s, though, the chief of the U.S. mission in Istanbul tended to give some credence to the Turkish claim that the Armenians were victims of ineptitude and individual acts of cruelty, both of which were in ample supply in Turkey. He noted that Americans seemed much more concerned about the travails of Christians in the old Ottoman Empire, such as the Armenians, than those - also horrible - of millions of Muslims.)

But have you noticed something? This is starting to delve into history, which is another way of saying it's not a question that belongs before Congress in 2007. The verbose, pompous (and, yes, pandering) resolution cheapens Armenian history, not the reverse.

But it's also not a matter over which the White House should be issuing a gag order. History is messy and ugly and is best served by free and robust discussion. Americans as well as Turks and Armenians should have the confidence to recognize that.

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