Robert Fisk: Will Obama honour pledge on genocide of Armenians?

World Focus

Share
Related Topics

It's all supposed to be about campaign promises. Didn't Barack Obama promise to deliver an address from a "Muslim capital" in his first 100 days? It's got to be in a safe, moderate country, of course, but where better than Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's secular/Islamist nation of Turkey, whose rulers talk to Syria as well as Israel, Iran as well as Iraq? But when the Obama cavalcade turned up in the heart of the old Ottoman Empire last night, he and all his panjandrums were praying that he did not have to use the "G" word.

The "G" word? Well, if it doesn't trip him up in Turkey today, Mr Obama is going to have to walk into a far worse minefield on 24 April when he has to honour another campaign promise: to call the 1915 massacre of 1,500,000 Armenian Christians by Ottoman Turkey a "genocide". Presidents Clinton and Bush jnr made the same pledge in return for Armenian votes, then broke their solemn promise when Turkish generals threatened to cut access to their airbases and major US-Turkish business deals after they were in office.

This is no mere academic backwater into which Mr Obama must step but a dangerous confrontation with the truth of history, an explosive swamp of bones and old photographs – along with a few still-living survivors – through which he must either walk with dignity or retreat with shame; and the entire Middle East will be watching the results. For the Palestinians – most of whom, ironically, are Sunni Muslims, the same religion as the Ottoman Turkish murderers – it is a crucial issue. For if Mr Obama cannot risk offending America's Turkish allies about a 94-year-old persecution, what chance is there that he will risk offending America's even more powerful ally, Israel, by condemning the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, the ever-growing illegal Jewish settlements on the West Bank and the constant destruction by Israel of Palestinian homes that prevent the creation of a Palestinian state?

Starting on 24 April 1915, Enver Pasha's Turkish army and militias rounded up almost the entire Armenian community, massacred hundreds of thousands of men and sent vast death marches of women and children into the deserts of Anatolia and what is now northern Syria. Expert historians, including Israel's own top genocide academic, insist that the shooting-pits, the organised throat-cutting, the mass rapes and kidnappings – even the use of primitive suffocation chambers – all constituted a systematic genocide.

And it is important to record exactly what Mr Obama said on his campaign website in January 2008. "The Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides. I intend to be that president." Which pretty much locks up any attempt to wriggle out of the promise. Or so you would think.

But already the administration's soft shoes have been trying to finesse away the pledge. "At this moment," Mike Hammer, a White House National Security Council spokesman, said last month, "our focus is on how, moving forward, the US can help Turkey and Armenia work together to come to terms with the past". That Mr Obama should allow such a statement to be made, along with the usual weasel clichés about "moving forward" and "coming to terms", speaks volumes.

Neither the Palestinians nor the Arabs in general have tried to – or should – compare the 1915 slaughter with Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, but there are some faint historical mirrors which rightly worry them. The Turks allege that they began killing Armenians in the city of Van because Armenian insurgents, backed by a regional superpower, in this case, Tsarist Russia, attacked the Turks of eastern Anatolia. Israel claims it bombarded Gaza last December and January because Palestinian "terrorists", backed by a regional superpower – Iran – fired rockets at Israelis.

The political parallels are not exact, of course, but Israel can in any case scarcely debate them when it officially refuses to acknowledge the Armenian genocide in the first place.

But for Mr Obama, there are more pressing points. US and Turkish officials are already discussing how Ankara can help in a US military withdrawal from Iraq, and Mr Obama desperately wants Turkey to help open up the Muslim world to his government to staunch the massive wounds the Bush administration inflicted.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech on his party's plans for the NHS, in Sale, on Tuesday  

Why is Miliband fixating on the NHS when he’d be better off focussing on the wealth gap?

Andreas Whittam Smith
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness