The Inconvenience of Genocide

Historians/History
tags: Armenian genocide



Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, D.C. and author of 15 books about the Holocaust and Jewish history.


It's just a coincidence that the day commemorating the most widely-recognized genocide, the Holocaust, comes out (April 16, this year) in close proximity to the day for remembering the least-recognized genocide, the slaughter by the Turks of the Armenians (April 24). But the lessons from the two experiences are inextricably linked, especially in light of the current debate over how the United States should respond to genocide and other atrocities around the world.

The Armenian genocide is unexpectedly in the news this week, thanks to the April 12 statement by Pope Francis characterizing the Turks' slaughter of more than one million Armenians between 1914 and 1918 as "the first genocide of the 20th century." In Turkey, the pontiff's words were greeted with outrage. The Turkish government called home its ambassador to the Vatican, and its minister for European affairs, one Volkan Bozir, offered the clownish theory that Argentina-born pope, a native Argentinian, has been unduly influenced by nameless members of "the Armenian diaspora" who supposedly "control the media and business" in Argentina.

The pontiff was stating an obvious fact that is widely recognized among mainstream historians and in the Jewish world. The European Parliament this week seconded the Pope's statement and urged Turkey to face up to its past. No such pronouncements were forthcoming, however, from the White House, where the pontiff is more popular when he talks about poverty and less appreciated when he raises an issue at odds with the Obama administration's foreign policy agenda. 

As a presidential candidate in 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama said, "America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide." Yet the statements that President Obama has issued each April 24 on Armenian Remembrance Day have never included the G-word. Instead, he has used an Armenian expression-- "Meds Yeghern," meaning "the great calamity." In all likelihood, he will do so again this year. Fear of displeasing the Turks is more important to the Obama administration than acknowledging this painful historical truth.

A DANGEROUS RUG

The administration took this strategy to such an extreme that for more than a year, it refused even to permit the display of a rug symbolizing the Armenian genocide. 

That peculiar episode began in the autumn of 2013, when the Smithsonian Institution announced it would hold an event featuring a new book, "President Calvin Coolidge and the Armenian Orphan Rug," by Dr. Hagop Martin Deranian, the son of a survivor.

The eighteen foot-long rug was woven in 1925 by four hundred Armenian orphan girls living in exile in Lebanon and sent to President Calvin Coolidge as a gesture of appreciation for America's assistance to survivors of the genocide. Coolidge proudly displayed the rug in the White House for the rest of his term. 

After he left office, Coolidge took the rug to his Massachusetts residence. It was still there in 1939, when former First Lady Grace Coolidge became a leading figure in the struggle to rescue a different group of children from a genocidal dictator. Mrs. Coolidge lobbied in support of the Wagner-Rogers bill, which would have admitted 20,000 German Jewish children to the United States. But President Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to support the legislation, and it was buried in committee.

Ironically, FDR's relative and predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, advocated declaring war on Turkey over the Armenian genocide. "The failure to deal radically with the Turkish horror means that all talk of guaranteeing the future peace of the world is mischievous nonsense," the then-ex-president asserted in 1918. Teddy Roosevelt was correct to fear that tolerating genocide would pave the way for it to happen again.

Indeed, Adolf Hitler reportedly once assured his subordinates that their atrocities would not be remembered, since "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

The genocide rug eventually made it back to the White House and was in use during at least part of the Clinton administration. Then it was mothballed. 

President Coolidge had pledged that the rug would have "a place of honor in the White House, where it will be a daily symbol of goodwill on earth," but instead, in the autumn of 2013, it became a daily symbol of politics taking precedence over recognizing and combating genocide.

The Obama White House refused to loan the rug to the Smithsonian. Reporters who asked the State Department about it were referred to the White House. When they asked the White House spokesman, they were curtly told that he had nothing to say except "It is not possible to loan it out at this time." 

After more than a year of protests, including several embarrassing articles about the controversy in the Washington Post, the Obama finally allowed the rug to be displayed--but for just six days, and not in a display concerning the Armenian genocide. Instead, it was mushed together with other foreign gifts to the White House, in a display called "Thank You to the United States: Three Gifts to Presidents in Gratitude for American Generosity Abroad." The genocide rug was sandwiched in between a Sevres vase presented by France to the United States after World War One, and a cluster of lucite-encased branches sent by Japan after the 2010 tsunami.

Grouping victims of genocide together with those who drowned in a tsunami or were left homeless by World War One in effect disguised what happened to the Armenians. It blurred the distinction between something that was inevitable and something that was not. Weather-related disasters and damage caused by wars are inevitable. But the Armenian genocide was different: it was an act of mass murder, systematically planned and implemented by evil men driven by religious and ethnic hatred.

The Armenian Orphan Rug happens to be a work of great beauty. But the point of displaying it is not for the sake of its aesthetic value. Its power is its message. Its significance is as a symbol and reminder of the genocide that the Turks perpetrated against the Armenians. Six days in an exhibit about gifts to the White House was no victory; on the contrary, it was a defeat for everyone who cares about remembering the past and learning from it.

POLITICS AND GENOCIDE

For human rights advocates, the Obama administration began with great promise. Dr. Samantha Power, an outspoken critic of past American responses to genocide, was named as the president's senior adviser on human rights issues on the National Security Council. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning book called "A Problem from Hell," had taken past presidents to task for failing to act against genocide and ethnic cleansing. Now, for the first time, someone who was both well informed regarding the history of the problem and personally committed to a new approach evidently would be in a position to chart a new course.

But there was another face to this administration--a face which, ironically, Power herself had in her book: the troubling role of Susan Rice in shaping the Clinton administration's decision not to intervene in the genocide in Rwanda. 

Rice was director of Africa Affairs for the National Security Council in the spring of 1994, when reports began pouring in about machete-wielding militias of the Hutu tribe in Rwanda carrying out nationwide massacres of the country's ethnic minority, the Tutsis. 

Then-journalist Samantha Power found a Defense Department memo revealing that the State Department was "worried" that acknowledging that genocide was underway in Rwanda "could commit [the U.S.] to actually 'do something'." Susan Rice was quoted as saying to her colleagues: "If we use the word 'genocide' and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [midterm] elections?" 

When Dr. Rice was nominated in 2012 to become President Obama's National Security Adviser, she was asked during her confirmation hearings about that Rwanda-midterms remark. She replied that she did not recall having made that statement. (She added: "If I said it, it was completely inappropriate, as well as irrelevant.")

Samantha Power found another fascinating internal Defense Department memo, which sheds further light on why the Clinton administration was resisting calling it "genocide." The memo reported: "Legal [division] at State [Department] was worried about this yesterday--Genocide finding could commit [the U.S.] to actually 'do something'."

Those familiar with America's response to the Holocaust will recall an eerily similar behind-the-scenes discussion between the Roosevelt and Churchill administrations in the autumn of 1942, after receiving overwhelming evidence that the Germans were annihilating millions of Jews in Europe. The British government suggested to the United States that they issue a joint statement acknowledging and condemning the mass murder. One Roosevelt administration official objected on the grounds that if they issued such a statement, the Allies "would expose themselves to increased pressure from all sides to do something more specific in order to aid these people.” 

COOKIES AND GOLD STARS

Dr. Rice, for her part, has suffered more than one memory lapse when asked about genocide. A wikileak cable in 2010 quoted a disturbing exchange between Rice and the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court concerning Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, architect of the Darfur genocide. The ICC prosecutor told Rice that Bashir had amassed a secret $9-billion stash. The prosecutor wanted to publicize that information in the hope of turning the Sudanese public against Bashir. But the U.S. never publicized it. After the cable was leaked to the press, a reporter asked Rice about it. She replied that she "didn't recall" being told about the $9-billion. 

Susan Rice's evasiveness regarding Bashir was symptomatic of a broader problem in the Obama administration concerning the Darfur genocide.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, candidate Obama appropriately chastised the Bush administration for its inadequate response to Darfur. "There must be real pressure placed on the Sudanese government," he said. And the candidate surrounded himself with advocates of action against the Bashir regime. Major-General Merrill A. McPeak, who co-chaired the Obama presidential campaign, had called for establishing a no-fly zone over Sudan. So did Joe Biden, when he was a senator, and Susan Rice, before she became the Obama administration's first ambassador to the United Nations.  

In early 2009, Sudanese president Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court for sponsoring the Arab militias that were "murdering, exterminating, raping, torturing, and forcibly transferring large numbers of civilians, and pillaging their property" in Darfur.

The gravity of that indictment did not deter Russia and China from rallying to the defense of Bashir, whom they supply with advanced weapons, and with whom they do a thriving oil business. The Arab League rushed to support Bashir as a fellow-Arab; the African Union embraced him as a supposed victim of Western colonialism. The AU urged that Bashir be tried before a local Sudanese court that would include some "international personnel." It was a thinly-disguised way for Bashir to escape with minimal punishment, yet, remarkably, the Obama administration was soon hinting that it might accept it.

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May 2010, the president's Special Envoy to Sudan, J. Scott Gration, said the U.S. would support what he called "locally-owned accountability and reconciliation mechanisms in light of the recommendations made by the African Union High Level Panel on Darfur" last year. 

It's clear from the statements made by Gration and his successor, Lyman, that Obama was putting in place a kinder, gentler, U.S. policy toward Sudan's perpetrators of genocide. In a September 2009 interview with the Washington Post, Gration explained: "We've got to think about giving out cookies. Kids, countries--they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement." 

Princeton Lyman, his successor, was even blunter. Lyman told the London-based Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat: "Frankly we do not want to see the ouster of the [Bashir] regime, nor regime change." On another occasion, Lyman said frankly the reason the U.S. has not taken a tougher line on Bashir is that "when you're looking for allies, your African allies and others, they do recognize [Bashir's] government...Sudan and Bashir is a member of the African Union, so we have to accommodate those realities." Darfur, in other words, was politically inconvenient for an administration concerned about its relations with the African Union.

Samantha Power was left with the unenviable task of convincing the public that the lethargic administration had responded actively to the Darfur war criminal problem. Speaking at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in November 2010, Power  said "President Obama has been very outspoken on the occasions that President Bashir has traveled." But a search of the White House web site turns up exactly one sentence by President Obama, in August 2010, expressing "disappointment" that Kenya hosted the mass murderer. Not one word by the "very outspoken" president in response to Bashir's visits to other countries that are supposed allies of the U.S. and recipients of American aid, including Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Saudi Arabia.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was blunter; in a January 2013 interview with Fox News, she actually spelled out the administration's rationalization for not acting. Asked why the U.S. had not reacted to the decision by Egypt's new Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, to invite Bashir, Secretary at first agreed that "[Bashir] does need to be held accountable for what happened on his watch as president," she responded, although her wording made Bashir sound like a bystander rather than a perpetrator. "On the other hand, though" --and here comes the rationalization-- "this is a long border [that Sudan has with] Egypt," and there is a problem of weapons "coming out of Sudan…So we have a lot of very, uh, intense discussions, uh, with our Egyptian counterparts, including [Morsi], as to, you know, let's prioritize." Translation:  Not ruffling Morsi's feathers with complaints about Bashir is more of a "priority" than isolating and capturing the Butcher of Darfur.

Contrast President Obama's policy with that of Joyce Banda, the president of Malawi, in southeastern Africa. Banda's country is severely underdeveloped and overcrowded, with a frighteningly high rate of AIDS and other deadly diseases and a life expectancy of 50 years. Those problems did not deter Ms. Banda, in her very first month in office in 2012, from announcing that she would not allow Sudanese president Omar Bashir to attend an upcoming African Union summit in Malawi.

The problem has never been America's inability to bring Bashir to justice. His visits to numerous African and Arab countries created many opportunities for U.S. forces to do to him what they did to other tyrants and terrorists, such as Panama's Manuel Noriega, the hijackers of the Achille Lauro, Saddam Hussein, and Osama Bin Laden. Yet no attempt was ever made to capture the fugitive Bashir. Why? It's the politics of genocide. The Obama administration doesn't want to strain its relations with Moscow, Beijing, the African Union, or the Arab League. 

That is not to say that the Obama administration has never responded to atrocities abroad. Human rights activists point to several actions by the administration that have seemed to reflect the approach they hoped Samantha Power's appointment would augur. Most notably, President Obama used military force to bring down the Muammar Gadaffi regime in Libya, in 2011--specifically on the grounds that Gadaffi was preparing the mass murder of his opponents. " Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries," he said. "The United States of America is different.” He cited "preventing genocide" as a legitimate basis for American intervention in Libya.

President Obama's rescue of the Yazidi Christians besieged by ISIS in 2013 likewise seemed to reflect a willingness by the administration to use American force in support of a global human rights agenda.

But Libya and the Yazidis really are the exceptions that prove the rule. Each of those actions was taken in the context of a comfortable international consensus. No feathers were ruffled, no diplomatic relationships were jeopardized in the slightest.

The genuine test of political courage comes when there is a price to pay. Speaking the truth about the Armenians regardless Turkish temper-tantrums, or bringing Omar al-Bashir to justice despite African Union whining, would represent true acts of principle.

MORE THAN JUST A WORD

The word "genocide" is a relatively recent addition to our lexicon. Outraged by the failure of the international community to prosecute Turkish officials for the Armenian genocide, Polish Jewish attorney Raphael Lemkin trudged from law conference to law conference across Europe in the 1930s, making the case for legal mechanisms to define and combat mass murder. 

Lemkin, an expert on the development of languages, realized that a new word was needed for the unique crime of attempting to destroy an entire racial, ethnic, or religious group. He took his inspiration from George Eastman, who invented the word "Kodak" because he needed a short, unique, and easy-to-pronounce name for his camera.

Lemkin coined the term "genocide" even as a new mass murder, the Holocaust, was unfolding before his eyes. He used the word "genocide" for the first time in 1944, in his book 'Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.' The 700-page tome chronicled, in painstaking detail, all the laws and regulations imposed by the Nazis and their collaborators to facilitate the annihilation of the Jews. 

Lemkin's campaign was crowned with success in December 1948, when the United Nations adopted the Genocide Convention. It defined genocide as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical [sic], racial or religious group, as such." But one suspects Lemkin would have considered his efforts a failure if, in the end, they did not prevent or at least interrupt future genocides.

Of what value, he might well have asked, is U.S. government recognition that there was Darfur in genocide, if the U.S. refuses to apprehend the perpetrators, or act when there are new atrocities?

During the past several years, the Darfur genocide has almost completely disappeared from the news, yet periodically there are reports reminding us that the Sudanese regime has not yet abandoned its murderous ways. The outgoing prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said at his farewell dinner in 2012 that "There's ongoing genocide [in Darfur]...the new weapons of the genocide--starvation and rape--are working very well." 

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has reported on several occasions during the past few years about Bashir's savage air raids on the black Christian villagers in Sudan's Nuba Mountains region. Bashir is carrying out "mass atrocities that echo Darfur" against non-Arab tribes in Sudan's Nuba Mountains, yet the Obama administration has responded with "dithering" and "paralysis," Kristof has written. "I am not only embarrassed by my government's passivity but outraged by it." In one column, Kristof poignantly described the plight of Hamat Dorbet, a Presbyterian pastor who has been tortured by Bashir's police for ringing his church bell. "I'd like to explain to [Rev.Dorbet]," Kristof wrote, "why the world lets this happen without even speaking out strongly, and I just don't know what to say. President Obama?" The White House did not respond.

As recently as February of this year, Human Rights Watch reported that Bashir's soldiers had carried out the mass rape of more than two hundred women and girls in Darfur. Again, no response from the Obama administration.

The refusal to recognize the Armenian genocide, the abandonment of the Jews during the Holocaust, the lack of response to the Rwanda genocide, and the decision not to apprehend Darfur war criminals or act against their latest atrocities, all ultimately stem from the same fundamental failure to recognize that moral responsibilities should trump political inconvenience.

This week's statements by Pope Francis and the European Parliament are small steps in the right direction. Who will be next to muster the courage to speak out?



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