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August 25, 2004

O How Our Hearts Bleed For The Suffering People Of The Middle East

When I was on WSBU on Monday the host asked me about the humanitarian case for invading Iraq. I said I respect the views of anyone who was horrified by the hideous crimes of Saddam Hussein and wanted to help the people of Iraq. The problem is that while regular Americans may feel this way, the war and its aftermath are being executed by the US government. And while governments are delighted to use the best instincts of their citizens to get the citizens to support wars, governments themselves essentially never care about the suffering of people elsewhere.

Or to be more precise, on some occasions individual members of governments may genuinely care what happens to people elsewhere. But it's nearly impossible for them to force this into a prominent place on their government's agenda. For instance, if you were to make a list of the top 1000 priorities of the US government, the well-being of Iraqis might rank as high as 994th. And that's nice enough. It's just that if their well-being conflicts with any of America's top 993 priorities, they've got to go.

To illustrate this, during the interview I told a story about the Armenian Genocide that has extremely strong echoes today. I first came across the story in the book The Splendid Blond Beast: Money, Law and Genocide in the Twentieth Century by Christopher Simpson, a professor at American University in Washington, DC.

Conveniently enough, this section of The Splendid Blond Beast is online. Here's what it says:

At the height of the pogroms in 1915, the governments of France, Great Britain, and czarist Russia issued a joint declaration denouncing the mass killings of Armenians as "crimes against humanity and civilization" and warning the leaders of the Turkish government that they would be held "personally responsible."

But too often there was little of substance behind the indignant rhetoric. At the height of the genocide, a factional split among the Young Turks [the rulers of the Ottoman Empire] opened the possibility that Turkey might put an end to the massacres in exchange for an agreement from the Associated Powers to abandon their claims on Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. Djemal Pasha, a member of the triumvirate that ruled Turkey, had settled into Damascus and exercised local control over much of what is today Syria, Jordan, and Israel. In late 1915, while Turkish efforts to exterminate Armenians were at their height, Djemal sought out an Armenian emissary and convinced him to carry an offer to the governments of the Associated Powers. If czarist Russia, France, and Britain would back him, Djemal promised, he would undertake a coup d'etat against his Young Turk rivals, end the massacres, and take Turkey out of the war. Djemal himself would then emerge as sultan.

The price for the plan was that the European powers would abandon imperial claims to what is today Iraq and Syria and provide reconstruction assistance to Djemal's government after the war. Djemal, for his part, was willing to concede control of Constantinople and the Dardanelles to Russia.

"Djemal appears to have acted on the mistaken assumption that saving the Armenians -- as distinct from merely exploiting their plight for propaganda purposes -- was an important Allied objective," writes David Fromkin, a historian specializing in Ottoman affairs. The Russians favored Djemal's plan and for a time assured him that the other Associated Powers would cooperate. But in early 1916, France rejected Djemal's offer and claimed southern Turkey, Syria, and parts of Iraq. Great Britain followed suit, claiming Iraq on behalf of a local "Iraqi" government created by London. "In their passion for booty," Fromkin writes, "the Allied governments lost sight of the condition upon which future gains were predicated: winning the war.... Djemal's offer afforded the Allies their one great opportunity to subvert the Ottoman Empire from within" -- and to save innocent lives -- "and they let it go."

As Simpson writes, after the end of World War I there were some efforts by England, France and the US to hold the Turkish government responsible for the genocide. But it never came to much because doing so would have interfered with the scramble to divide up the Middle East.

By the start of the Harding administration in 1921, massacres of Armenians had begun again. And while regular Americans remained outraged -- partly because it was a matter of Muslims killing Christians -- the US government was more concerned about US access to mideast oil. Delightfully, one of the people working on this at the State Department was junior staffer Allen Dulles, later to be head of the CIA under Eisenhower. (And fired by Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs.)

The Splendid Blond Beast explains:

"Confidentially the State Department is in a bind. Our task would be simple if the reports of the atrocities could be declared untrue or even exaggerated but the evidence, alas, is irrefutable," Dulles wrote in reply to [US High Commissioner to Turkey Mark] Bristol's requests for State Department intervention with U.S. publishers to shift the tone of news reports still dribbling out of Turkey and Armenia. "[T]he Secretary of State wants to avoid giving the impression that while the United States is willing to intervene actively to protect its commercial interests, it is not willing to move on behalf of the Christian minorities." Dulles went on to complain about the agitation in the U.S. on behalf of Armenians, Greeks, and Palestinian Jews. "I've been kept busy trying to ward off congressional resolutions of sympathy for these groups.''

Yes, it's all there: the feigned concern for human rights; the actual concern only for money; the desire to manipulate the media; and the need to squelch any concern by US citizens for people elsewhere, unless it lined up with the making of money. In a world of tumult and change, it's nice to see the US government has remained exactly the same for 80 years.

INTERESTING HISTORICAL FACT: The plane that hit the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 took off from Dulles Airport in Virginia. Dulles Airport is named after Allen Dulles' brother John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State in the Eisenhower administration.

Posted at August 25, 2004 02:16 PM | TrackBack

Another interesting fact, Bishop Avery Dulles, famous Jesuit scholar and author of the best seliing Theories of the Church is JF Dulles son.

Thanks for the information, I had never heard about that aspect of the Armenian genocide.

Posted by: Anthony Smith at August 27, 2004 05:31 PM

Christ, I meant Models of the Church. Sorry.

Posted by: Anthony Smith at August 27, 2004 05:32 PM