American Samoa, a tiny remnant of old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy in the Pacific, is permitted to send a single member to the House of Representatives in Washington. He is not allowed to vote on the floor of the House – American Samoans are US nationals but not citizens – but thanks to an obscure procedural anomaly he can vote in committee. So it was that on 4 March Samoan Representative Eni Faleomavaega came to cast the deciding vote that passed the House Committee on Foreign Affairs resolution recognising the Armenian genocide.
Faleomavaega (rated an A- sympathiser on the Armenian National Committee of America’s website) is a veteran of the House not previously much known for his interest in Ottoman history. The committee’s chairman, the Democrat Howard Berman from California (A+), himself modestly disclaimed expertise in the archives. After the obligatory acknowledgment of his country’s own mistreatment of the Native Americans Berman said that it had been incumbent on his committee to preserve America’s moral leadership in the world. If he felt any embarrassment in having had to rely on a colonial subject to get the motion through, he did not show it.
It was not the first time that an Armenian genocide resolution has made it through the committee – similar resolutions were passed in 2005 and 2007 thanks to effective American-Armenian lobbying – but in the past, White House pressure has always managed to head off a full vote in Congress. This time, hopes remain high among activists that the motion will reach the House itself. After all, Hillary Clinton was one of the sponsors of a similar bill in the Senate only three years ago. And her then rival, Barack Obama, was even more outspoken on the issue. ‘America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides,’ he proclaimed on the campaign trail in January 2008. ‘I intend to be that president.’
There’s been some backtracking since then, of course. On a visit to Turkey in 2009, Obama avoided the G-word, while insisting at the same time that his views had not changed. He has reason to tread cautiously. There’s not only Turkey’s role as a moderate Muslim power to consider. There’s also its positioning athwart the new gas line running from the Caspian Sea to the EU (the vital alternative to Russian supply channels), and the access it offers to the American military in northern Iraq. And of course there is Iran. Turkey is currently none too keen on supporting action against its eastern neighbour – Prime Minister Erdogan has recently been making pointed comments about Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal – and the Obama administration fears that genocide recognition would tilt Turkey further in the direction of Iran at precisely the moment the US needs Turkey’s support in pressuring Tehran.
Although Ankara remains a critical ally for the Americans, tension has been evident for some time. Turkey’s traditionally warm connection with Israel – so important to Washington – has chilled since the invasion of Gaza. And much to America’s frustration, the Turkish parliament has yet to ratify an agreement to re-establish full diplomatic ties with Armenia. Pundits speculated that Obama deliberately did little to halt the House committee vote so that he could hold the threat of a full House vote over the head of the Turks if they failed to move that forward.
Erdogan’s irate response to the House resolution suggests this may not work. It was inevitable that Turkey’s ambassador in Washington would be recalled. But Erdogan also remarked that Turkey had 100,000 illegal Armenian immigrants and could deport them any time it chose, a comment so ill-conceived that it aroused a storm of criticism within Turkey and forced the prime minister to recant. He may not have meant to imply that these Armenians – their numbers grossly overstated – were hostages to the compliance of their co-nationals abroad; but it sounded as if he had.
If Erdogan, who has been more successful than anyone else in moving Turkey away from the habits of Kemalism, came on like just another hardline Kemalist, it may not only have been for the sake of national honour; he may have been prompted by more material concerns as well – notably energy. For thanks to the recent rapprochement with Armenia, Turkey now finds itself caught between its commitments to the latter and its traditional support for Azerbaijan, with whom the Armenians fought a very bitter war in the early 1990s, and some of whose land they still occupy. The Azeris are furious about the Turks’ agreement with Armenia. They see it as a sell-out, and they have ways of showing their displeasure, such as threatening to divert gas supplies from Turkey and the EU to Russia or maybe China.
Amid the geopolitical tangle, it is easy to lose sight of that old and bloody history which American and European legislators say they are so certain about. From everything we know, it seems pretty evident that what happened to the Armenians in 1915-16 was genocide. But the way the politicians talk one would think that eastern Anatolia in the First World War is as easy to research as Herbert Morrison’s London County Council or Poland in 1942 when, in fact, we still have some very basic things to learn. Unlike the Third Reich, Ottoman Turkey was no totalitarian state with a clear chain of command; Ottoman civil servants relied heavily on local notables, clan leaders, bandit chiefs and provincial intermediaries to get things done. The government itself lay in the hands of a triumvirate beholden to a party – the Committee of Union and Progress – schooled in the modes of clandestine politics. Add to this the fact that the archives were never seized and copied, as much German documentation was. Thus working out what really happened in Anatolia in 1915-16 still means relying more on the testimonies of survivors and bystanders – chiefly missionaries or German servicemen – than of the perpetrators and policy-makers. And because the subject itself was taboo in Kemalist Turkey, decades of historians steered clear of it.
Ironically, it is only under the Erdogan government that the archives in Istanbul have been opening up. Among the Turkish public at large, the old self-pitying, self-heroising patriotic myths remain entrenched. Popular literature and school textbooks paint a very misleading picture of what happened and help foment the sort of extremism that led to the murder of the campaigning Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. Yet inside the universities, especially in Istanbul, things are moving in a different direction and a younger crowd of journalists and historians – Turks, Armenians and others, sharing their results at workshops, generally united in their dislike of nationalist pieties – has been transforming and broadening our understanding of what took place. Their work reveals the deeply engrained suspiciousness of the Young Turk leadership and its multifaceted consequences: the Armenians were far and away the worst affected, and the only group systematically targeted for killing, but Christian minorities as well as Muslim Albanians, Circassians and heterodox Alevis faced persecution too. None of this work makes the genocide label fit any less. What it does do is make it seem more like a label and less like an adequate guide to understanding.
In Europe, the impact of the insistence on a Turkish admission of guilt has been to create one more barrier to Turkish membership of the Union: while conservatives stigmatise Turkey for its religion, liberals can attack it for genocide denial. The odds on Erdogan doing a Willy Brandt and making public amends seem slim, especially since it is unlikely that such a gesture would actually tip the balance in favour of membership. (On the contrary, only the other day, Angela Merkel repeated her suggestion that Turkey should be content with a privileged partnership.) Thus what Ankara has really wanted from the Americans – help getting into Europe – it turns out the Americans can’t deliver. In these circumstances, congressional genocide resolutions won’t nudge Turkish governments in the right direction. If anything they will strengthen nationalist outrage and perpetuate the state of historical denial that grips much of official Turkish discourse. More effective in the long run will be the reorientation of scholarly and cultural attitudes that is already taking place inside and outside the country. But there are not many votes in that, either in Turkey or in American Samoa, and not much opportunity for political grandstanding.