Jim Fallows on the Armenian Genocide Resolution

Needless to say, he thinks it was a bad idea: Why not go all the way? How about a resolution condemning China for the millions who suffered in the Cultural Revolution and the tens of millions starved during the Great … Read More

By / October 23, 2007

Needless to say, he thinks it was a bad idea:

Why not go all the way? How about a resolution condemning China for the millions who suffered in the Cultural Revolution and the tens of millions starved during the Great Leap Forward – right as we’re seeking China’s help on Burma, North Korea, the environment, etc? I mean, for each Armenian the Ottoman Turks slaughtered, at least ten Chinese citizens perished at the hands of the regime whose successors still rule the country. And the government's official stance of denial is just about as strong. So, why not just tell them they were evil? The timing would be especially nice during China's current Party Congress.

I'm sure we could get a unanimous vote for a resolution condemning North Korea for any of a hundred grievous offenses; that would be a good complement to the recent nuclear deal. Why not one denouncing Russia for the Czarist pogroms, to accompany efforts to reason with/rein in Putin? Maybe another condemning England for its subjugation and slaughter of the Scots, to say nothing of the Irish – while also asking Gordon Brown to stay the course in Iraq? What about Australia for its historic treatment of the Aborigines? Or the current nations of West Africa for their role in the slave trade?

The Armenian genocide was real; many Turks pretend it wasn’t. They are wrong, and we should stand for what's right. But it’s hard to think of a more willfully self-indulgent step than lecturing Turkey's current government and people 90 years late.

Leaving aside the fact that Soviet Union acknowledged and repudiated the Czarist pogroms — before it planned its own version of them — these points are worth exploring since Fallows' argument hinges not on the question of Why? but on the question of Why now? Of all times to express our solidarity with the Armenian people, he asks, why choose a time when our military alliance with Turkey has suffered, perhaps irrevocably, by the Iraq war and the escalating PKK crisis in Kurdistan?

Fallows' plaint is not new, but it is compelling, at least on the surface. Diplomacy is game that depends partly on the wise seizure of opportunities when they present themselves. Only an idealist or a fool acts without regard for immediate consequences. Yes, dear, geopolitics sometimes means making moral sacrifices to ensure the comity of nations. Better still: Who are we, with all our warts, to chide another country for its atrocities and ongoing attempts to cover them up?

Very well. Let's consider the proposition of a poorly timed historical reckoning with the roles reversed. Let's say that tomorrow China's Central Committee decides to pass a non-binding resolution that condemns the United States for its former slave economy. What would our reaction be? Would we stop lobbying China to intercede in Burma, bolster global environmental policies, and see the North Korean nuclear deal to completion, or would we give up these pursuits to express our outrage at the "self-righteously posturing measure" (Fallows' words) enacted by a repressive regime that would do better to concern itself with its own human rights abuses in the 21st century than with ours in the 19th?

What would the cold, hard logic of realpolitik — which is what Fallows advocates, after all — dictate we do under such circumstances? And are other countries immune to this logic? To put it another way, why hasn't Turkey already invaded Iraq after 12 of its soldiers were killed and 8 more were kidnapped?

Even if one agrees that the United States has a responsibility to behave with more self-restraint than other countries, I can't see how the timing for recognizing a genocide would ever be "right." The Ottoman Empire no longer exists. What does exist is the modern Kemalist state of Turkey, which bears no responsibility for the murder and dislocation of 1.5 million Armenians, only for the annihilation of the legacy of this gruesome event. Since it hasn't already, at what point in the future, then, will Turkey realize, without feeling the full weight of shame brought down upon it by an international consensus, that its policy towards facing the past is both immoral and self-defeating? Will it be able to join the European Union so long as even speaking of the Armenian Genocide is a crime punishable by jail time? If the Iraq war had not happened, or if it had gone smoothly, would Congress then have been allowed to hold a NATO ally to account for its denial of history?

There are always excuses to be made for deferring justice a little while longer. Many anti-Dreyfusards of fin de siecle Paris, for instance, suspected that the French captain was innocent but that "now was not the time" to acquit a Jew of false charges if that meant jeopardizing the stability of the teetering Third Republic. La patrie en danger: Couldn't France afford to remain under the cloud of clerical paranoia and medieval superstition a few years longer?

What the excuse-makers fail to realize, however, is that by deferring justice they in effect deny it by making it the hostage of convenience. This is a game infinitely more suspect than diplomacy, and it's bad enough when it's played in Great Britain or the United States, where the most jingoistic refrain is "My Country, Right or Wrong." But how much worse is it when it's played in Turkey, where scores of citizens take to the streets to chant self-righteously in defense of a genocide, and where the refrain seems to be "My Country, Never Wrong"?

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