One hundred years ago this April, the Ottoman Empire began a brutal campaign of deporting and destroying its ethnic Armenian community, whom it accused of supporting Russia, a World War I enemy. More than a million Armenians died. As it commemorates the tragedy, the U.S. government, for its part, still finds itself wriggling on the nail on which it has hung for three decades: Should it use the term “genocide” to describe the Ottoman Empire’s actions toward the Armenians, or should it heed the warnings of its ally, Turkey, which vehemently opposes using the term and has threatened to recall its ambassador or even deny U.S. access to its military bases if the word is applied in this way? The first course of action would fulfill the wishes of the one-million-strong Armenian American community, as well as many historians, who argue that Washington has a moral imperative to use the term. The second would satisfy the strategists and officials who contend that the history is complicated and advise against antagonizing Turkey, a loyal strategic partner.
No other historical issue causes such anguish in Washington. One former State Department official told me that in 1992, a group of top U.S. policymakers sat in the office of Brent Scowcroft, then national security adviser to President George H. W. Bush, and calculated that resolutions related to the topic were consuming more hours of their time with Congress than any other matter. Over the years, the debate has come to center on a single word, “genocide,” a term that has acquired such power that some refuse to utter it aloud, calling it “the G-word” instead. For most Armenians, it seems that no other label could possibly describe the suffering of their people. For the Turkish government, almost any other word would be acceptable.
U.S. President Barack Obama has attempted to break this deadlock in statements he has made on April 24, the day when Armenians traditionally commemorate the tragedy, by evoking the Meds Yeghern, or “Great Catastrophe.” In 2010, for example, he declared, “1.5 million Armenians were massacred or marched to their death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire. . . . The Meds Yeghern is a devastating chapter in the history of the Armenian people, and we must keep its memory alive in honor of those who were murdered and so that we do not repeat the grave mistakes of the past.”
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