by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
April 23, 2001
The internationalization of the Chechen conflict was dramatically brought home again Sunday when Chechen gunmen seized a Swiss-owned luxury hotel in Istanbul; after tense hours of standoff, 13 Chechen "soldiers" were taken into custody, and the hostages they held were freed unharmed.
Although this was not the first time violence in Russia's war-torn rebel state spilled into other countries, it was the first to encroach upon the everday world of Western tourists in a truly international city. Since it is likely not to be the last time, either, it also dramatizes the need for the hands-off attitude of Western governments to change before Chechen violence visits them.
Ironically, President Bush has an opportunity today [April 24, 2001], when he addresses the Armenian genocide of a century ago, to show the way. But how should change begin?
First, some background.
By ending the takeover of one of Istanbul's most luxurious hotels before any lives were heedlessly lost, the Chechen rebels signalled that they do understand the conventions of Western protest - although not that such protests are usually unarmed -- and leave open the possibility that they may not be so slow to embrace bloodshed as a form of protest in the future.
The Istanbul incident comes after its same Turkish leader of pro-Chechen Muslims took 400 passengers on a Bosphorus River ferry hostage for four days in 1996, and the hijacking of a Russian jet to Saudi Arabia last month, when more than 170 passengers were held until negotiations won their release; three people died in that incident.
Both events were aimed at calling attention to Russia's conduct of the brutal civil war in Chechnya, a primarily Muslim region that is ethnically and spiritually at odds with its Russian government and has been fighting for independence since 1994.
Russia's "disproportionate" violence against the Chechen forces was noted last week by the United Nations, but that hasn't changed anything yet.
How can Western governments assist the cause of peace in Chechnya? It is not as though they have not been trying in a variety of ways, and all of their efforts have been using appropriate diplomacy instead of attempting to arm the Chechen rebels or aid the Russian side.
That is particularly wise on the part of Turkey, a staunch and reliable democratically of the United States in the Middle East, whose wisdom comes at some cost; Chechnya's rebellion is widely supported there, so the government's restraint costs it popular - read political - support.
The United States can be grateful to Turkey and other Middle East powers that have held off providing high-profile assistance to the Chechens. On Tuesday, April 24, however, the Bush Administration has been asked to side with another ethnic group against Turkey in recognizing the Armenian genocide carried out by Turks almost a century ago.
President Bush has been asked by Armenian leaders to condemn Turkey's failure to accept responsibility for the genocide, and he probably would appreciate the opportunity to clear the air on this tendentious topic. But doing so will undoubtedly offend Turkey at a time when its restraint and leadership in the Chechen crisis is critical not only to containing the conflict but to preventing the spread of Chechen terrorism to the West.
Some age-old verities ought to guide the President's words. One would be that the United States played no causative role in the Armenian genocide, and in the modern scheme of things undoubtedly would have actively tried to prevent it. "The sympathy for Armenia among our people has sprung from untainted consciences," President Woodrow Wilson told Congress in 1920, when the U.S. accepted the role of arbitrator of some of the thorniest international disputes concerning the newly-founded Republic of Armenia that followed the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the end of World War I.
Due to Turkish sensitivities and her important role in U.S. strategic policy, only one president since - Ronald Reagan in 1981 - has referred explicitly to "genocide" in describing the 1915 massacre of 1,500,000 Armenian men, women and children. That fact shames us, I think, however necessary it may have seemed. I think it pains Armenians that even Reagan's mention was made in the context of the Holocaust and the first declaration of the annual Day of Remembrance.
Yet, as President Reagan indicated in 1981, the greater aim of U.S. policy must always be to prevent future acts of genocide. As Reagan said, "Like the genocide of the Armenians before it, and the genocide of the Cambodians which followed it - and like too many other such persecutions of too many other peoples -- the lessons of the Holocaust must never be forgotten."
Like it or not, the Chechen quagmire and its fragile balance of forces lends itself to the possibility of yet another attempt to destroy an entire people. So rather than focus on the role of Turkey in the Armenian genocide, which is thoroughly documented and widely acknowledged by all but Turkish historians, the President may do well to look at genocide in its historical context - at the Irish famine, Armenia, the Jewish Holocaust and Kosovo, at the destruction of Native American tribes in the American West, at the 1947 India-Pakistan conflict, at Cambodia, Rwanda and at the impulse to genocide still at work in Northern Ireland and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Then he must reject it forcefully as the most evil, crude and primitive expression of the darkest side of human nature.
Indeed, there must come a time when the tireless efforts of Jewish survivors of the Nazi genocide bear their fullest fruit in the worldwide recognition that the potential for genocide lies within every nation's heart, and that it must be fought and conquered there. Only that recognition can truly honor all its victims throughout history.
While it may seem inconsequential to accept our share of responsibility for the destructive urges of the human heart before taking on a present or potential new act of genocide, in fact a peace offensive based on anything else is doomed to fail.
We cannot hope to build the house of peace on a cracked foundation. The rage of Chechnya will wither our will and stain our reputation as a humanitarian nation if we merely turn aside, whimper and watch. Like Kosovo, the presence of genocide demands a response that is moral, international, intelligent, effective and committed to a peaceful end.
The best possible promise the President can keep with the Armenian people and American history is to vow with them, "Never again!" That is the attitude that ought to inform future Western peacekeeping efforts in Chechnya, and the path to a cure for a recurring madness.