James Taranto: Wannabe Historians (Re: Armenian Resolution)

[Mr. Taranto is a columnist for the WSJ.]

... This is a very odd debate. For one thing, it is ultimately about nothing: Congress is not proposing to pass any law, merely to issue a nonbinding resolution--a statement of opinion. Congress issues such resolutions all the time, but usually they are either uncontroversial ("recognizing the 90th birthday of Ronald Reagan") or intended to put lawmakers on the spot by forcing them to take sides on some contentious question (such as whether to repudiate MoveOn.org's McCarthylike tactics). In this case, the statement itself is the point of the resolution.

Another odd aspect to the debate is the asymmetry between the two sides. The strongest proponents of the resolution are Armenian-American groups and congressmen with many constituents of Armenian extraction. There is little domestic opposition, but the Turkish government is vehemently against the resolution--so much so that it recalled its ambassador from Washington last week merely because the House Foreign Affairs Committee gave the resolution the nod, and it is making noises about evicting America from the Incirlik air base, which is crucial to the Iraq effort. For this reason, the White House strongly opposes the resolution.

This is not a partisan or ideological disagreement. Seven years ago, the same scenario played out with the parties reversed. A rookie Republican speaker, Dennis Hastert, planned to bring the Armenian genocide resolution to the floor, but was dissuaded from doing so by the lame-duck Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who feared that it would adversely affect relations with Ankara. Hastert and Clinton, like Pelosi and President Bush today, were each responding to institutional imperatives: the speaker to the demands of his members' constituents, the president to the demands of national security.

That the president prevailed then, and that his successor looks likely to prevail now, should not surprise us. The number of congressional districts with large Armenian-American populations is fairly small, so that congressional support for the resolution is much wider than it is deep. Congressmen are easily swayed by the argument that antagonizing Ankara runs counter to America's national interest--and they should be, for that argument is true.

What about Congress's obligation to affirm historical truth? With all due respect to our distinguished elected representatives, whatever gave anyone the idea that they are authorities on history? Off the top of our head, we can't think of a single credentialed historian in the House, and even if there are a handful, we'd be astonished to find one who specializes in World War I-era Ottoman history.

There are probably a few Armenian history buffs in the House, but that is an interest they have developed for parochial reasons. In a 2000 article on the race between Republican Rep. James Rogan of California and Democratic challenger Adam Schiff in a heavily Armenian California district, the New York Times noted of Rogan that "the only overseas trip he made in his life was to Armenia, for obvious reasons." Rogan lost to Schiff, who is now a leading supporter of the genocide resolution. Doubtless both Rogan and Schiff know a lot more about the subject than the average American, but theirs is hardly a disinterested view.

Most members of Congress, if they were to be candid, would have to agree with a colleague quoted in today's Times:

"This happened a long time ago and I don't know whether it was a massacre or a genocide; that is beside the point," said Representative John P. Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who is urging Ms. Pelosi to keep the resolution from the floor. "The point is, we have to deal with today's world."

When Armenian-American activists demand congressional affirmation, they play a mug's game. By ceding historical authority to lawmakers, who are manifestly unqualified to exercise it, they open themselves up to an adverse historical judgment that has nothing to do with historical truth. Someone with only a glancing interest in the subject is likely to infer from Congress's squabbling that the historical question is far from settled. Even if the resolution were to pass, a close vote would be open to the same interpretation. How does any of this serve the Armenian cause?

None of this should be construed to mean that this column sides with the Turks. Our father is a native of Istanbul, and we have a personal fondness for Turkey. But Ankara's petulant threats, over what is after all only a piece of paper, seem to us to display a certain national immaturity. The Turks feel insulted by this resolution? Poor babies. America endures all manner of insults from allies, enemies and neutrals, including our friends the Turks. A great nation needs a thick skin....

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