An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Armenian Genocide’s Samantha Power Problem

The United States cannot stop genocide as long as policymakers and human rights advocates stick to black-and-white narratives.


“On April 25, 1915, the day the Allies invaded Turkey, [Ottoman Interior Minister] Talaat ordered the roundup and execution of some 250 leading Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople.… All over Anatolia the authorities posted deportation orders requiring the Armenians to relocate to camps prepared in the deserts of Syria. In fact, the Turkish authorities knew that no facilities had been prepared, and more than half of the deported Armenians died on the way.”

—Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell

Samantha Power’s ability to render the horror of events like the Armenian genocide in such stark terms made her 2002 book, A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, a damning indictment of American indifference to mass slaughter and an enduring reference point for contemporary discussions of genocide. Having watched people die in Bosnia while Americans all too slowly came around to thinking their government should do something, Power sought to inspire outrage with her account, outrage that would spur an indifferent public to action.

Power writes that “no genocide since the Holocaust has been completely black and white.” But her focus is on the way that “[p]olicymakers have been able to accentuate the grayness and moral ambiguity of each crisis” in order to justify doing nothing. Power’s understandable response to such cowardice is to downplay ambiguity and grayness. Her version of history is one in which those who recognized the complexity of genocide, before or after the Holocaust, were spineless bureaucrats trying to rationalize U.S. indifference.

But as we prepare to commemorate the Armenian genocide on its April 24 centenary, we should also reflect on the risks of reducing history to simple morality tales. When U.S. bureaucrats use the ambiguity of events in Bosnia to excuse their inaction, or when Turkish denialists use the complexity of what happened in 1915 to whitewash Ottoman atrocities, creating the clearest possible counternarrative can seem like a moral duty. But in detailing the efforts by President Bill Clinton’s administration to avoid taking action in Yugoslavia, Power inadvertently shows why confronting ambiguity, rather than ignoring it, can make rationalized indifference less likely to win out in the future. Understanding the more complex history of the Armenian genocide doesn’t diminish its horror or absolve its perpetrators. Instead, it gives us a firmer foundation for confronting genocide today and tomorrow by preparing the public for the fact that evil and ambiguity can coexist.

On the subject of 1915, some things are not ambiguous: In the past decade, Turkish and non-Turkish historians have become ever more successful in confronting official Turkish censorship in order to write openly about the Armenian genocide. As a result, a wealth of recent scholarship eliminates any doubt about the Ottoman government’s genocidal intent in ordering the death by deportation of more than 1 million Armenian citizens. But that’s not the end of the story. Ironically, by refusing to meet reality halfway all these years, Turkey undermined the very scholars who could have given the Ottomans a fair hearing. In suppressing any scholarship that deviated from a strict denialist line, Ankara ensured that even the most simplistic or anti-Turkish accounts of the genocide would seem legitimate in comparison with its account.

Until recently, Turkish pressure made it difficult for all but a few historians to publicly acknowledge the genocide while also presenting it in context, complete with a more thorough account of Ottoman motivations that includes the reality of systematic violence against Ottoman Muslims as well. This full version of history angers not only Turkish nationalists, long bent on denying any evidence of their country’s wrongdoing, but also many Armenians, who believe that evidence of Christian crimes against Turks negates the purity or even reality of their victimhood. As a result, Turks claim that what happened in 1915 was war, not genocide. And Armenians, with understandable anger, respond that it was genocide, not war.

In fact, almost every scholarly treatment of the subject makes clear that genocide is quite frequently committed in the context of civil war or insurrection and often has frighteningly “rational” motives for parties in these conflicts. In Rwanda, Darfur, and Bosnia, to name just a few examples, war and genocide were closely related, as militarily weak states engaged in what they believed to be existential conflicts against internal enemies.

The Holocaust differed from this pattern. The internal enemy existed only in the Nazi’s anti-Semitic imagination, which is why it often proves such a troubling reference point in Armenian-genocide debates. It becomes clear in countless Turkish statements that the unique outrage over the word “genocide” is often over the implied comparison to the Nazis. Armenian rhetoric, in turn, can exacerbate this comparison, suggesting, for example, that for Turks to be angry about crimes committed against their ancestors is equivalent to Germans mourning the soldiers killed in the Warsaw Uprising.

The real history of the Armenian genocide is far messier than the story conveyed by casual Holocaust comparisons or books like A Problem from Hell. Throughout the course of the 19th century, the Ottoman government lost territory to Christian nationalist movements in the Balkans — Greeks, Serbs, and Bulgarians. When these nations became independent, often following brutal fighting, their new rulers sought to create ethnically pure states, usually by killing or expelling as many Ottoman Muslims as they could. When Bulgaria became independent in 1878, for example, hundreds of thousands of Muslim civilians fled, with as many as half of them dying along the way.

Before World War I, a small number of Armenians, living in the eastern portion of what was left of the Ottoman Empire, had begun to form revolutionary groups seeking independence. These separatists did not command widespread support among the Armenian population, certainly not to the extent portrayed in modern Turkish propaganda. But for Ottoman leaders who had seen small nationalist movements in the Balkans grow into insurmountable rebellions, chipping away at their empire with European support, the pattern appeared all too familiar. In this context, destroying the empire’s Armenian population became an obvious, if brutal, way to prevent this pattern from repeating itself. With the Armenian nation crippled, they reasoned, there would never be an Armenian state formed from Ottoman territory. Thus the Ottoman leaders’ subsequent genocide campaign elevated to the level of systematic state policy the kind of mass murder they had seen carried out on a smaller scale against their people by Balkan Christians. And as the fortunes of World War I shifted and Russian troops advanced into Ottoman territory, this cycle of violence continued, with Armenian militias’ atrocities against Muslim villagers living on in Turkish memory today.

Even in its abbreviated form, this history helps demonstrate how internal conflict served as a motivation for genocide, not grounds for denying or justifying it. Yet the idea of genocide as something incompatible with other forms of internal conflict remains widespread.

Perhaps the most striking example of how this mistaken belief can pose an obstacle to preventing genocide comes from Bosnia in the 1990s. Power shows how Washington officials skeptical of U.S. intervention regularly fell back on the claim that Bosnia was “racked by a ‘civil war’ (not a war of aggression) in which ‘all sides’ committed atrocities against the others.” This, according to Power, was “spin,” an effort to “mudd[y] the facts” and “temper public enthusiasm for involvement.” This spin, she argues, was perpetuated by journalists who “compensated for their ignorance with an effort to be ‘even-handed’ and ‘neutral’” by searching for “stories about atrocities committed by all sides.” Power, by contrast, praises the courage of those who challenged this cowardice and declared, as the editors of the New Republic put it, that “platitudes about the responsibility of ‘all factions’ for the war” were nothing but “an escape hatch through which outside powers flee their responsibilities.”

Undeniably, many policymakers did use these platitudes as an escape hatch, avoiding any decisive use of force until public outrage and embarrassment at America’s seeming powerlessness compelled them to intervene. Looking back today, though, it is equally undeniable that many of these platitudes were also true. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, for example, has charged a number of Croatian generals with war crimes alongside their better-known Serbian counterparts. But does this vindicate policymakers who were willing to let the killing continue?

The best way to prevent future administrations from using these same platitudes as excuses is to recognize that officials who talked about atrocities on all sides were often right about their facts and wrong about their conclusions. Faced with future atrocities, policymakers may well claim that unlike previous, clear-cut examples of genocide — unlike the version of the Armenian genocide we all remember — this time things really are complicated. Realizing things have always been complicated leaves us better prepared to confront these rationalizations and explain to policymakers that a complex reality must not be an excuse for inaction. History can provide future activists and advocates with evidence that almost all the situations where Americans now agree their country should have done something looked, and really were, far messier at the time.

In many cases, people are understandably hesitant to talk about the atrocities on all sides for fear that this will lead to victim-blaming or exculpate the perpetrators. But the more directly we confront the issue, the more quickly this fear abates. No details that emerged in the trials of Croatian war criminals have made Slobodan Milosevic appear any less evil. And in Turkey, many of those who regularly wield the atrocities of Armenian guerrilla groups as some sort of moral trump card come up short when asked to explain how this justified murdering hundreds of thousands of women and children.

Guilt and innocence can seldom be neatly appropriated along national or political lines. But acknowledging this does not diminish the innocence of civilian victims or the guilt of the state officials who orchestrate mass murder. This distinction alone is enough to give genocide its horror and should be reason enough for the U.S. government to act in defense of innocent lives.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Nicholas Danforth is Non-Resident Senior Research Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, ELIAMEP.