Small World: Taking your moral pulse

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Here’s a moral conundrum for those of you who have done the crossword puzzle and are looking for a challenge.

April 24 marked the centennial of the massacre of perhaps 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey, who were killed by government order in their villages or driven into the desert where many of them died and only a few made it into exile. Seventy-five percent of the Armenian population disappeared between 1914 and 1923. Their properties were confiscated by Turks or their Kurdish collaborators.

These events began in 1915 during World War I when the Turkish Ottoman Empire was aligned with Germany and threatened by Russia and its allies. Turkey had earlier lost its territories in the Balkans and was about to lose more in the Arab world — thanks in part to pressures from the Christian European powers. The Ottoman Turks believed, with some justification, that some in the Christian Armenian minority were planning to join forces with Russia to further dismember their empire and carve out an Armenian state in what is now eastern Turkey. At the end of the war, what was left of Armenian territory was incorporated as one of the republics of the Soviet Union. When in 1991 the USSR collapsed and all of its republics became independent, the Armenians finally had their own state.

A friend of mine, John Evans, a Foreign Service expert on Eastern Europe, was named ambassador to Armenia in 2004. As part of his preparation for the job, he read up on the history of his new post and its people and U.S. policy in the region. His research made it evident to him that Turkey had committed genocide against the Armenians. That’s a serious charge; only a few cases exist in modern history: Nazi Germany against the Jews, Rwandan Hutus against the Tutsis and the killing fields of Cambodia.

Turkey, since it became a republic displacing the Ottoman Empire, has consistently denied the charge. Not so long ago a person blaming the country for genocide could be imprisoned. Turkey has acknowledged the deaths of Armenians, but blamed them on the “fog of war” and denied that there was any specific order to eliminate the minority as a people. Any foreign assertion that genocide had occurred has brought a harsh reaction from the Turkish government. Perhaps lurking behind Turkish sensitivity is a concern that Armenians found to be victims of genocide might have the basis for legal claims for lost property amounting to many billions of dollars and even the loss of national territory to neighboring Armenia.

Now for the conundrum: State Department policy has been never to utter the “g” word. Turkey was too important an ally to endanger that relationship, despite pressures from the American-Armenian community to condemn Ankara for genocide. Although President Reagan and Secretary Powell had both used the term, it was never to be uttered by the Foreign Service.

After having served in Armenia for six months and gained a sense of the strong feelings of the people, John went on speaking engagements around this country where the Armenian communities turned out in full force. Inevitably, he was asked if he thought the massacres met the legal definition of genocide. John agreed that it did, a clear and principled violation of policy.

I’ll skip over the bureaucratic to and fro-ing that followed. Before many months and some forced apologies had passed, however, John was eased out of the Service. An extremely able and experienced officer was lost. Was his treatment proper? Was he justified in breaking with a policy he considered blatantly wrong?

Some years later, I chatted with John’s superior at the time, seeking his views on the stiff treatment. “He broke discipline,” was the reply. “We are not an organization where every officer — no matter how talented — is empowered to make his own policy. We have rules; he did not follow them.”

What would you have done? Back when the United States invaded Iraq, several officers resigned in protest. If an officer is midway in his or her career, it means starting over, often from a lower level. The same thing can happen in private business: If you find your employer is cheating, should you take the risk of blowing the whistle? What rule would you follow?

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

Please follow and like us: