What we know about this – and it isn’t everything, I suppose – is that during the First World War, when Russia and the Ottoman Empire were on opposing sides, Armenians from the Caucasus joined the Russian side and tried to incite Turkish Armenians into open revolt, or treason. In 1915 the Government, and it was Ottoman rather than Turkish, ordered the expulsion of all Armenians to Syria. It is said that 300,000 Armenians died on the way; some say 1million.
Now, in America, nearly 100 years later, the House Foreign Affairs committee has voted to approve a resolution describing this as genocide. In 2007 a similar resolution came before it but the Bush administration persuaded them not to bring it to a vote.
Now without doubt, even by the standards of a century ago and in the middle of a war which would determine the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, this was evil; an atrocity, perhaps. The technical feature which would make it genocide appears to be whether the Ottomans wanted to destroy or severely damage a particular race (just wanting them to live somewhere more in keeping with their political views would not constitute genocide). From what I learn it is debatable. The question is: should it be debated? The regime guilty of this no longer exists.
Oddly enough, the matter cropped up during the long run-in to the American Presidential Election. What Obama said was that the only way to eliminate genocide is to recognise it in each case. Sounds good.
I don’t suppose, however, we shall be recognising as genocide the systematic hounding, corralling and elimination of the various indigenous American people by white settlers in North America, nor, for example, the bombing of civilian populations during the second world war (the Armenian expulsion was also in wartime). And that is before we examine what has been going on in China and its neighbours these 60 years. On grounds of hypocrisy alone it might have been better to remain silent.
But there is more than just the hypocrisy. Turkey is a member of NATO and a key element in any negotiations with Iran, with the troubled Caucasus region, and with Syria. On a diplomatic level this looks like utter folly, and despite Obama’s high minded words, will not eliminate genocide. It will just make a few people feel better.
Obama seems likely to be labelled as worse at diplomacy than George Bush. There's a legacy.