State Dept. Holds Ottoman Officials Responsible for ‘Mass Killings’
The long-awaited full Senate confirmation of the new Ambassador to Armenia was finally brought to a close on August 1, after last minute concessions by the Bush Administration.
Hiding behind the excuse of a questionable presidential policy of not using the term Armenian Genocide, inept State Department officials completely mismanaged the whole process, starting from the unwarranted dismissal of Amb. John Evans from his post in Armenia, and ending up with multiple attempts to get a replacement confirmed by the Senate over a two year period.
Faced with a determined group of Senators who were ready to block the nomination of Marie Yovanovitch, as they had done earlier to Amb. Richard Hoagland, State Department officials were forced to rush a last minute letter on July 29 to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, admitting in so many words that Ottoman Turkey had effectively committed genocide against Armenians, without using that term.
In that letter, Matthew Reynolds, the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs, made two important clarifications and acknowledgments:
1. The purpose of the planned invitation of Turkish and Armenian archivists to Washington is to help them “protect the evidence of the past so that future generations will have the documentation of the mass killings and deportations of Armenians committed by Ottoman soldiers and other Ottoman officials in 1915." Mr. Reynolds further clarified that the State Department’s aim is "not to open a debate on whether the Ottomans committed these horrendous acts; it is to help preserve the documentation that supports the truth of those events." On the basis of this clarification, it remains to be seen whether Turkey would agree to send its archivists to the United States in order to have them trained in preserving the Ottoman archives on the Armenian Genocide.
2. "The [Bush] Administration recognizes that the mass killings, ethnic cleansing, and forced deportations of over one and a half million Armenians were conducted by the Ottoman Empire. We indeed hold Ottoman officials responsible for those crimes." Mr. Reynolds asserted that Amb. Yovanovitch "in no way sought to cast any doubt on historical facts."
The Turkish Daily News, reflecting serious Turkish concerns with the contents of State Department’s unexpected letter, reported that "these two new points raised by Reynolds [were viewed] as a setback for Ankara. Particularly the point that the Americans see World War I-era events as fully documented realities is disturbing, and makes Washington’s stated support for our proposal for the creation of a joint Armenian-Turkish history commission to probe the events totally irrelevant. If the events are fully known, there is no need for an investigation, the letter says, which is in contradiction with the official U.S. policy."
Most members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, however, were pleased with the State Department’s latest clarifications. Chairman Joe Biden (D-DE) stated during the July 29 Committee meeting that he did not think that without the "sustained push" of Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) "the Administration would have come as far as they have" in acknowledging the facts of the Armenian Genocide. Sen. Biden thanked the Armenian American community for its dedicated efforts in this regard. The Armenian National Committee, working closely with key members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was instrumental in reaching a last minute arrangement that cleared the way for Senators not to block Amb. Yovanovitch’s confirmation in return for the United States distancing itself further from Turkish denialism.
Sen. Biden further told the Committee that during his recent trip to Ankara along with Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE), he pressed Turkish officials: "When are you going to get real with this [genocide issue]?" He asserted that Turks "know what happened and they’re trying to figure out how to deal with this."
Sen. Boxer, in her turn, told the Foreign Relations Committee on July 29 that she was voting against the nomination of Amb. Yovanovitch in order to make "a statement against the Bush Administration’s failure to properly recognize the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923…. There are a few issues on which we should never waiver. And one of those is the issue of genocide." She also stated: "There is no need for further study or historical research. The facts are clear." Sen. Boxer concluded by saying that "because Amb. Yovanovitch can still not use the word ‘genocide,’ I cannot vote for her nomination today."
Sen. Menendez also spoke at the Committee meeting: "It is a ridiculous game that this Administration asks our Ambassadors to play over the use of the word ‘genocide.’ And I was concerned about some of the responses that Amb. Yovanovitch wrote to some of our written questions…."
Even though the Senators were dissatisfied with the Bush Administration’s refusal to allow Amb. Yovanovitch to use the term genocide, they voted to confirm her on August 1, taking into account the insistent requests of the Armenian and American governments to have a U.S. Ambassador dispatched to Yerevan as soon as possible.
Armenian leaders had tried to be helpful in easing some of the roadblocks in the way of Amb. Yovanovitch’s confirmation by the Senate. They probably believe that accommodating the United States on such matters would help strengthen their hand in countering their domestic opponents. However, Armenian officials should not be surprised if the new U.S. Ambassador makes critical comments about Armenia’s domestic political situation, in keeping with her official duties.
Finally, we hope that after the November 4 elections, the next U.S. president would put an end to playing shameful word games with genocide terminology and allow Amb. Yovanovitch and other American officials to follow the admirable example set by Pres. Ronald Reagan back in 1981, when he issued a presidential proclamation that matter-of-factly mentioned the Armenian Genocide.