U.S.-Turkey relations are on the line

On April 24, 2010, Armenian Remembrance Day, President Obama will issue a statement on the events in 1915 concerning Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. This statement is being awaited with great interest because the presidential statement on Armenia is seen as a crucial litmus test to determine where the United States government stands on this issue, and on America’s relations with Turkey.

On March 4, 2010, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs passed a non-binding resolution (by the slimmest of margins, 23-22), urging President Obama to characterize the events in Armenia in 1915 as “genocide” when he issues his statement on April 24, 2010 (Armenian Remembrance Day). The passage of this ill-advised resolution precipitated a major crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations, including the recall by Turkey of its ambassador to the United States. So far, the resolution has not progressed to the full House. The Administration has apparently been weighing in to prevent the bill from moving forward.

Under the Turkey/Armenia protocols, which provide a process for the normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia, a historical sub-commission will be established “to implement a dialogue… including an impartial scientific examination of the historical records and archives to define existing problems and formulate recommendations” – in other words, to allow an objective examination of the history of the 1915 events in Armenia. The historical commission is the proper platform for this discussion and analysis.

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs, instead of leaving the analysis of the events in Armenia to the historical commission under the Protocols, decided to preempt and co-opt this process and become the decider and arbiter of historical events. Further, the Committee, which is mandated to consider foreign affairs issues and consequences, completely abdicated its responsibility, and ignored the significant foreign affairs impact of the passage of the resolution on Turkey, a major friend and ally of the United States. Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan, at the recent nuclear summit in Washington, D.C., was right on target when he said that “history cannot be written in a parliament or judged by a parliament."

In 2009, on April 24th, in his annual message, Obama used an Armenian word "Meds Yeghern" to describe the 1915 events, a term which to Armenians means “genocide” but may also be interpreted to mean a great tragedy. This approach didn’t really please anyone, but at least the “genocide” term was not utilized.

This year, for the April 24, 2010, statement, the President needs to say as little as possible, and certainly not use the term “genocide” or any term even remotely similar, or this will provoke a very negative reaction from Turkey. The President’s statement should support peace between Turkey and Armenia, the ratification of the Turkey-Armenia protocols by the Turkish and Armenian Parliaments and especially emphasize the vital importance of the establishment of the historical sub-commission envisaged by the protocols. The President should not feel compelled to provide any sort of characterization of the Armenian events. Like the Foreign Affairs Committee, the President is not the official arbiter of history, especially when the history is so contentious and hotly contested.

If the President, on April 24, 2010, uses the term “Genocide” to describe the events in 1915 in Armenia, this would have a disastrous effect on Turkish-U.S. relations and could even shut down these relations for an indefinite period and lead to other serious and severe repercussions, including the scrapping of the vitally important Turkey/Armenia Protocols (which also are related to the solution of the complicated issue of Nagorno-Karabakh). Even if the President does not explicitly use the term “Genocide” in his statement, the rest of his statement will be very important. The President knows that Turkey, a member of NATO, is a major ally and friend of the U.S. and a key country in a volatile region which includes Iran.

This is a time for Presidential leadership and decisive action. Avoiding the “genocide” label in the statement will salvage the relationship between the US and Turkey, allow Turkey and Armenia to normalize their relations, and put the US-Turkey relationship back on track, so that the US and Turkey can deal with the many pressing matters facing them (and the region in which Turkey is located), especially the possible nuclearization of Iran.

Mark Meirowitz is a business lawyer who also holds a doctorate in Political Science and has taught Politics, History and Law at colleges in the NYC Metropolitan area.