Opinion

Kanye West can help Trump recognize the Armenian genocide

The media – and the public – are taking a beating for their interest in Kanye West’s visit with Donald Trump
The media – and the public – are taking a beating for their interest in Kanye West’s visit with Donald Trump AP

Armenia is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Kanye West and the Kardashians. Truth is, however, Kanye has always cared and sang about justice and his wife's Armenian-American family has always felt strongly about the need to recognize one of the world's greatest crimes and injustices — the Armenian genocide.

Kanye should leverage his newfound kinship with President Trump to prod him towards doing what no other sitting American president has done: Use an executive order to declare that the murderous events of 1915 were the world’s first modern genocide.

Genocide means a single group is targeted for systematic and premeditated death and extinction. Armenian families who survived the genocide await the world’s recognition of this reprehensible event. America officially regards it as regrettable, unfortunate, and tragic, but does not recognize it as the event that spurred the word “genocide.” It is time.

Kim Kardashian and Kanye traveled to Armenia in 2015 to commemorate the 100th year of the genocide. Kardashian publicly continues to memorialize the event every year, for good reason. The Armenian genocide was the 20th century’s first mass crime against humanity, with 1.5 million Armenians either systemically butchered or forced onto death marches through the Syrian Desert by military regulars of Turkey’s Ottoman government.

Modern Turkey does not like to be reminded of this historic fact. It prefers to look at the Christian Armenian deaths as unfortunate collateral damage during a World War, not a group targeted by Turks for ethnic and religious cleansing. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatens to exact punishment from countries recognizing that genocide. He made good on his threat when the French parliament passed a recognition bill in 2012. Erdogan sanctioned France.

President Trump does not take kindly to threats. Trump is always inclined to do things differently and buck tradition. American presidents have feared riling Ankara or challenging Turkey’s revisionist history regarding events that the U.S. Ambassador at the time, Henry Morgenthau, called Turkey’s acts “cold blooded, calculating state policy.” Those fears have to do with losing access to an important NATO air base or causing Turkey to reassess its strategic U.S. alliance.

The reality, however, is that President Erdogan has already all but officially abandoned the relationship with America and the West in favor of building bridges to Putin’s Russia and accommodating Iran. In his worldview, America plays no role in his personal project to build a more Islamic Turkey. Erdogan’s self-perception as a rising caliph means there is also not much of a role for human rights, a free press, independent judiciary, Israel, Christians, Kurds, or critics. Erdogan not only effectively holds American personnel and military materiel hostage on Turkish bases, he holds millions of Syrian war refugees on his territory and threatens to expel them into Europe via Greece. He understands his real geographic and demographic leverage and is willing to use strategic assets and vulnerable populations as bargaining chips to get whatever he wants.

armenian
People dressed in black in solidarity of remembrance of the Armenian Genocide, lay red carnations in a circle at the conclusion of Fresno State’s 2016 Armenian Genocide Commemoration at the Armenian Genocide Monument. JOHN WALKER Fresno Bee file

President Trump, on the other hand, is willing to trash treaties and renegotiate deals, making him the most likely and least hindered American politician able to recognize Armenia’s genocide — a campaign promise on which President Obama reneged. Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, has prepared to drop out of the Iran nuclear deal, threatened “fire and fury” against North Korea, imposed tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, and even made enemies of the entire Mexican nation. He’s not afraid to implement his foreign affairs policy instincts. It’s his defining trait and it endears him to his loyal base.

But there are two things that he seems unwilling or unable to do. One is to criticize Vladimir Putin. The other is to hold Turkey accountable for its current domestic abuses and military adventures — even when they threaten American values and interests, as in Syria’s political tinderbox. Erdogan wants to make sure his own heroic narrative of a greater Turkey, rooted in empire and glory, is not sullied by American recriminations or real historic reckoning. Trump seems willing to accommodate him.

From France to Pope Francis, 29 countries and 48 American states have recognized the genocide. 100 U.S. lawmakers recently wrote Trump a letter to seek the same. Trump punted. That was wrong.

Survivors of the Armenian genocide scattered around the globe, with large communities living in Moscow, Paris, New York, Fresno and Los Angeles after post-Ottoman Armenia wound up as part of the USSR. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Armenia has been independent and rarely makes news. During this last week, however, young Armenians tired of logrolling autocratic national politics made the headlines with mass street protests forcing President Serzh Sarksyan to quit. The modern country is alive and dynamic while the nearly wiped-out Armenia of a century ago is nearly forgotten by the world. Who remembers those Armenians? Does Trump?

If lawmakers can’t convince Trump to recognize the genocide and his good friend Rep. Devin Nunes, whose political future hangs on the love of his Fresno Armenian-American electorate can’t do it, and if Kanye can’t do it, then who’s left? Maybe Hip Hop artists Kendrick Lamar or Nazo Bravo can find the right beat and lyrics to pull the president’s heartstrings. It’s time.

Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a senior fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at markos@stanford.edu or on Twitter @KounalakisM.
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