Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Obama and the Armenian Preoccupation

I had a chat recently with three people each of whom expressed extreme reluctance at the candidacy of Barack Obama because he has moved to declare the massacre and deportation of Armenians in 1915.

The issue is of incredible importance to many Turks who take personal offense when the events are labelled a "genocide." Many Turks refers to the events as the "so-called 'genocide.'" Indeed, a significant amount of the recent disenchantment with Europe can be attributed to Europeans' increasing tendency to label the events of 1915 as a genocide. France has even gone so far as to pass a law last year that makes it illegal to deny the Armenian genocide. Both Armenians and Turks take strong stands on the issue, conduct research into the events, and spend a great amount of time making and responding to arguments over the Internet. (A Facebook search for such groups is quite shocking.) It is nearly impossible to sort out all of the propaganda and labels hurled by opposing sides (see Jan. 14 post).

The issue is also not absent from American politics where a large and powerful number of Armenian activists have successfully pressured the U.S. Congress to pass a non-binding resolution declaring the events a genocide. The most recent attempt occurred this past October and prompted Turkey to recall its ambassador. In the United States, although the October resolution was supported mostly by Democrats, the issue is not a particularly partisan one. In 2001, the Republican-led House at the time passed a similar resolution in committee only to have President Bush ask Speaker Hastert to prevent the resolution from reaching the floor. The Turkish government spends millions of dollars on extensive lobbying efforts to counter an equally, if not more intensive effort on the part of the Armenian lobby.

This brings me back to my conversation. It amazed me that these three people have all concluded that John McCain would be a better choice for the U.S. presidency than Obama based on the fact that while Obama has "acknowledged" the events of 1915 as a "genocide," McCain has not. Despite most Turks strong discontent with the war in Iraq and suspicions of the United States' designs for an independent "Kurdistan," all issues which very much affect Turkish security, the one issue people seem to know the most about is the candidates' stances on the Armenian question. Ridiculous indeed, but food for thought this Tuesday.

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