The House of Representatives passed two important bills this week amid deteriorating US-Turkey relations, one imposing sanctions on Turkish military and government officials over Ankara’s incursions against the Kurds in northeast Syria, the other officially recognizing the Armenian genocide. The latter is largely symbolic, finally acknowledging what scholars have long reached an overwhelming consensus on: that during World War One, amid the fading embers of the Ottoman Empire, 1.5 million Armenians were systematically exterminated. Turkey’s longstanding denial of this atrocity stands in stark contrast with how Germany has handled the moral stain of the Holocaust and continues to rob the Armenian people of dignity and closure.
More than two dozen countries and 49 US states have avowed the fact of the Armenian genocide. Even in the House, there was the precedent of acknowledgement in 1975 and 1984, but as a key NATO ally and regional security partner, Turkey had been successful in pressuring Washington to stop short of adopting the ‘G-word.’
This time, there was a bipartisan effort to rebuke Turkey and the bill recognizing the genocide passed overwhelmingly, 405-11. Republicans backed the resolution 178 to 11, and Democrats backed it 226 to 0, with two present votes. The 11 Republicans who voted against the bill were fortunate that most of the public condemnation focused on the Democrat who voted present, Ilhan Omar. In a statement explaining her decision, the Minnesota congresswoman wrote:
‘I also believe accountability for human rights violations — especially ethnic cleansing and genocide — is paramount. But accountability and recognition of genocide should not be used as cudgel in a political fight. It should be done based on academic consensus outside the push and pull of geopolitics. A true acknowledgment of historical crimes against humanity must include both the heinous genocides of the 20th century, along with earlier mass slaughters like the transatlantic slave trade and Native American genocide, which took the lives of hundreds of millions of indigenous people in this country. For this reason, I voted “present” on final passage of H.Res. 296, the resolution Affirming the United States record on the Armenian Genocide.’
Where do we even begin to pick this farcical statement apart? For starters, she seems to have ‘All Lives Mattered’ the Armenian genocide by implying that only when we take stock of other historical transgressions can we acknowledge the injustice of the systematic decimation of the Armenian population that began in late April 1915. While some American officials such as Gavin Newsom have used the word ‘genocide’ in reference to the mass slaughter of Native Americans, both the treatment of indigenous peoples and the Atlantic slave trade are widely considered grave moral perversions whose evil shadows continue to taint America’s legacy, a perspective with which hardly anyone disagrees outside white supremacist circles. Compare this with what would happen if Turkish citizens openly discussed the crimes of their government or the Armenian genocide under draconian speech laws (see Article 301) that prohibit denigration of the Turkish nation.
Putting aside the ‘hundreds of millions’ figure that Omar casually throws out (the 1870 census shows the US population at just under 40 million) and any moral qualms she might have about, say, the East-African slave trade over the Indian Ocean (perpetrated by Arabs), her explanation proves that she is a faux champion of minorities who only cares about victims of oppression when they don’t interfere with her rigid anti-West views.
Omar’s point about not using the genocide bill as a political cudgel is a subtler argument that finds her partly aligned with the House Republicans who opposed the bill. Oklahoma’s Tom Cole and North Carolina’s Mark Meadows see both bills as punitive measures against Turkey that would drive the NATO nation further into the arms of Russia’s Vladimir Putin without providing tangible benefits for the United States. Other Republicans, such as Greg Pence, brother of the vice president, voted against both bills to signal his support of the Trump administration’s pivot toward friendlier policies and actions toward Turkey, including the US troop withdrawal that enabled Ankara’s offensive into northeast Syria to ‘secure’ territory previously occupied by Kurdish allies.
While the cynics among us are right that House lawmakers were acting opportunistically in passing the Armenian genocide bill now, it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t the right thing to do. Serj Tankian, the Armenian-American vocalist of rock band System of a Down, said in response to the news, ‘Genocide should never be used for political expediency or to sell a despot more helicopters.’ Indeed, for too long, the US government has tried to walk a fine line between nurturing its alliance and appeasing an increasingly belligerent, autocratic leader with Islamist sympathies, at the expense of many things, including rightfully recognizing one of the greatest crimes of the 20th century. Erdogan has only grown more powerful and the Turkish state more repressive, once again showing how empowering and appeasing authoritarian leaders often backfires. Elizabeth Chouldjian of the Armenian National Committee of America says the House bill is an important development. ‘Its passage will signal Ankara that Washington won’t be bullied, US policy can’t be hijacked, and American principles are not for sale. No nation — certainly not one as anti-American as Erdogan’s Turkey — deserves a veto over US policy on genocide.’
The Armenian community in Los Angeles County represents a major voting bloc for Adam Schiff, one of the genocide bill’s co-sponsors. He delivered a tearful statement on the floor of the House that was the perfect response to Omar’s views: ‘We cannot pick and choose which crimes against humanity are convenient to speak about. We cannot cloak our support for human rights in euphemisms. We cannot be cowed into silence by a foreign power.’
The Armenian people finally get recognition of one of the darkest chapters of their history, albeit less out of principle than political expediency. Politics was the reason the Armenian genocide bill was overlooked before. Now the political winds have shifted, and we might soon see a day in which the Armenian genocide will no longer be a pawn in a geopolitical chess game.