Questioning Authority: Jack Matlock on the Armenian Genocide Resolution

Jack Matlock is teaching a course on Political Leadership in International Relations at Mount Holyoke this fall as the Cyrus Vance Professor of International Relations. He is former George F. Kennan Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. He has a distinguished career in the American Foreign Service, serving as ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991, special assistant to the president for national security affairs and senior director for European and Soviet Affairs on the National Security Council staff from 1983 to 1986, and ambassador to Czechoslovakia from 1981 to 1983.

Matlock is the author of numerous articles and books on Russian literature and history and United States-Russian relations, including Autopsy on an Empire: The American Ambassador's Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union (1995). His latest book, Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended, was released by Random House in July 2004.

Questioning Authority recently asked Matlock to comment on the pending Congressional resolution that would designate as genocide the mass killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during World War I.

QA: What would the resolution do, exactly?

JM: I have not read the text, but I understand that it expresses the sense of Congress that acts of genocide occurred against Armenians in Turkey during World War I. It does not have the force of law and does not require any particular action on the part of the president.

QA: Why is the White House resisting the resolution so strongly?

JM: Because the Turkish government, a NATO ally which is particularly important to our military operations in Iraq, strongly opposes the resolution. It considers the resolution a hostile act and threatens to halt cooperation with U.S. forces in Iraq if it passes.

QA: How could our national security interests be compromised by the passing of the resolution?

JM: If Turkey should carry out its threats, operations in Iraq would become much more difficult. Also, Turkey might become less cooperative regarding other issues of importance to the United States.

QA: Is it appropriate for the U.S. to adopt a formal position condemning this action?

JM: I think it is not appropriate.

QA: Why not?

JM: First of all, the term “genocide” did not exist in the English language at the time the massacres of Armenians occurred in the Ottoman Empire during World War I. It was first used in English in 1944, according to the latest edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. It has since been defined in documents with the force of international law, but this was not true in 1915 and 1916 when the deportations and massacres occurred.

Second, the current Turkish government is not the same as the Ottoman Empire. It is quite different and should not be held responsible for the crimes of its predecessor.

Third, it has not been normal for the U.S. Congress to characterize acts of previous American governments as “genocide,” even though the treatment of several Native American nations during the nineteenth century would qualify for that definition. Sherman’s tactics as he marched through Georgia also probably would qualify. If you live in a glass house, it is best not to throw stones.

Fourth, the resolution is highly selective, since it has not been the habit of Congress to search history for atrocities to condemn. One can make a case that Congress should do so when an ongoing situation in the world requires action--as for example in regard to Darfur today. But what possible benefit is it to characterize a massacre that occurred during a past war filled with atrocities on both sides? We should concentrate on deterring such actions in the future. In practice, the resolution is more likely to inflame passions than to quiet them.

I am a great admirer of the Armenian people and am deeply sympathetic to their past sufferings. I have visited Armenia several times and have even delivered a speech in the Armenian language. I have with great compassion laid a wreath on the monument honoring the victims of the massacres in Turkey during World War I. I also believe that Turkey is making a mistake in taking offense. I would be much happier if the Turkish government would say that whether of not it was “genocide,” massacres did occur and that it is the duty of the current Turkish government to see that nothing like that happens again.

Nevertheless, I believe that there are times to draw a line on the past--not to forget it, but to move forward determined to prevent such atrocities in the future. Armenia is now an independent country, and its future will be much brighter if it can live in harmony with its neighbors, Turkey and Azerbaijan. Arguments over history that raise passions and hatred rather than calming them do not help, and it is a mistake for the U.S. Congress to take a position in an argument that does not involve the United States and that can do more harm than good. Therefore, even if this resolution did not lead to less Turkish cooperation with the United States, I would advise against it. To most of the rest of the world it will seem more like hypocrisy than the defense of a high-minded principle.

Related Links: