WASHINGTON—A retired Foreign Service officer, U.S. Ambassador Arma Jane Karaer, recently revealed a series of shocking revelations about the State Department’s behind-the-scenes efforts on behalf of Turkey during the 1980’s to kill congressional initiatives commemorating the Armenian Genocide, according to now-public documents circulated today by the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA).
The revelations are part of an oral history interview with Karaer, a foreign service officer who served, among other postings during her long diplomatic career, as a commercial officer in Ankara and as the State Department’s senior Turkish desk officer. Excerpts from her lengthy interview concerning Armenian issues, including Armenian Genocide legislation before the U.S. Congress, are provided below.
“We’re circulating Ambassador Karaer’s interview—a truly stunning example of undisguised cynicism in the face of genocide and denial—as a public service,” said Aram Hamparian, the executive director of the ANCA. “As painful as her callous remarks are to read, they do, in their candor, provide powerful insights into the depths to which U.S. officials have sunk in enforcing Turkey’s genocide denial dictates. Sadly, it would seem the pervasive attitude of expediency over morality characterized by her words remains, even today, much more the rule rather than the exception among the senior ranks of our nation’s Foreign Service.”
From the Library of Congress, Historical Collections (American Memory) Manuscript Division, the Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.
An interview with Ambassador Arma Jane Karaer by Charles Stuart Kennedy, April 19, 2004.
Q: Yes, absolutely. Anyway, I think we were all over the place, kind of rewriting the book on this and I had served in Yugoslavia for five years running the consular section and we’d had the same thing. I mean you learn to discriminate between the real communists and the ones who were kind of nominal or belong to the labor movement. If you’ve got a job you belong to a labor movement. Anyway, I mean it was a period of sort of revamping the rules.
KARAER: One of the things that we were doing in that office was trying to wipe out the ineligibilities of cases that came to our attention for which there was no fundamental proof that the person was ever a communist or was, in any sense, dangerous to the United States. Another thing that made me sensitive to this problem was a task that I undertook when I was in Istanbul. In my office there were two three-drawer filing cabinets with big bars and padlocks on them. Upon inquiring I found out that they contained files of refugees from Eastern Europe who had been processed in Istanbul through the Refugee Relief Program. INS had taken whatever they wanted from those files and left years before, but my immigrant visa clerk, who was the world’s greatest pack rat, didn’t want to destroy them because she thought they might contain some original documents, like birth certificates.
Of course this is now 20 years later. If they haven’t missed their birth certificate by now, they’re probably not going to need them, but I’m conscientious too. I went through every one of those doggone files, six drawers full, not a single original document in any of it, number one. Number two, I learned a lesson about refugees trying to get to the United States. Most of them claimed to have left their home countries because they were anti-communist.
Anti-communist? These guys were taxi drivers. What did you do that was so anti-communist? Well, I just am, and that’s why I left and that’s why I have to go to the United States, to fight the communists. So much of it was so fluffy, but that’s what they needed to say to get their visas for the U.S., so they said it. Of course we’ve got that still. When I was on the Turkish desk I was got routine inquiries sent to me by immigration courts about people who were Turks of Kurdish background who were illegal aliens here.
They were being tried by the immigration court. Do they go back or do they stay? Every single one of them said they had to stay in the United States because their life would be in jeopardy if they returned to Turkey. Not true. They were economic refugees, not political refugees. There were even some Armenian Turks who had left Turkey just in the previous few years who were claiming that as an Armenian if they went back to Turkey they were in fear of their live, which was all a bunch of bunk.
[ . . . ]
Q: You were on the Turkish desk from ‘84 to?
KARAER: ‘84 to ‘86, yes.
Q: At the time you went there, in the first place, did you, was the southeast Europe thing, did it fall along the lines that happened between the Greeks and the Turks? I mean I’m talking about the American personnel there. Was there, did you find it a pretty objective bunch or did you see kind of that division within people who are looking at that area off of our side?
KARAER: No, I think that they were objective. The Greek government truly was being difficult. At the time we had a real terrorism threat against our people.
Q: November 17th group, but anyhow.
KARAER: Yes. So, that was their main focus as I recall. Turkey was the big, big issue, almost the whole time that I was there. About the time I arrived, then California Congressman Tony Coelho had introduced a bill in the Post Office Committee of the House of Representatives to declare April 25th or April something Genocide Day. The purpose, ostensibly, was to help the American people recall the people who were lost in the so-called Armenian genocide.
Why the post office committee? Of course this is a foreign policy thing. If the U.S. Congress says that their government committed a genocide, it would enrage the Turks. However, there were a lot of Armenian Americans in Mr. Coelho’s congressional district, and apparently whatever makes the Turks unhappy, makes them happy. He probably couldn’t have even got it onto the schedule of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, but he thought he could slip this through the Post Office Committee, which is in charge of declaring national pickle day, national rose day, and things like that.
Mr. Coelho is famous now, infamous, for his money raising abilities, so he had a lot of friends on the Hill. This thing had just popped up on the Department’s screen when I arrived. The Turks had informed the secretary of state that if that bill got passed, something awful was going to happen in the bi-lateral relationship.
They didn’t know what, but something awful was going to happen. the secretary had told the assistant secretary who told my boss, “Stop it.” Well, fortunately, we were able to find some members of the House who, although they didn’t know very much about this piece of history, were peeved with Coelho for trying this end-run around the Foreign Affairs Committee. Whatever the justice of his claim it didn’t belong in the Post Office Committee.
I worked very closely with one of the senior aides to one of those congressmen. This man was a master of House procedure. This was my next great learning experience—how much of what happens or doesn’t happen on the Hill depends on finessing procedure. What they wanted from us primarily were lots of short speeches. Three minute speeches, two minute speeches, that they could pass out on the subject on why this was a bad idea. Why this could not or should not be done. We, mostly me, spent hours writing these little speeches that could be given to members to use from the floor to speak against this proposal. The Turks had belatedly learned that they had to lobby Congress. They had for many years just sort of sat back with their typi
cal chip on the shoulder attitude. “We know that we’re great. We know that you need us. That should be good enough for everybody. Why should we go around hat in hand to your legislators?”
It took them a long time to understand the power of members of Congress in this country. I think that they looked on our members of congress as equivalent to their members of parliament which is not the same thing. They thought that if they dealt with the administration that was all that should be necessary. By the time the Coelho bill came up, they had already been convinced that this wasn’t the case. They had hired a lobbyist that was giving them advice on things that they could do—primarily not stick their feet in their mouths too often. There was an American professor who was a specialist in Turkish and Ottoman history who got together a bunch of other academics in the same line. They too were putting out public statements that the version of history supported by the Coelho bill was not as clear cut as it implied. One of the big problems with this issue is that so much of what has been written in English about the Armenian massacres in Turkey in the early 20th century was written by Armenians or Armenian
Americans. Our main line of attack on this whole thing was that yes, something really horrible happened in Turkey in what was then the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, but whatever happened there was not a genocide.
We did get a certain amount of support from the Jewish lobby. They don’t particularly want to share the genocide label with other groups. The gratuitous killing of a lot of people is an ugly thing.
You don’t like to be picking nits over language. But the word genocide means a particular thing, and the history does not support the charge that the Turks were trying to wipe an ethnic group. From their point of view, they were trying to stop a minority group from breaking off another part of the country. While many people died in eastern Turkey, the Armenian communities in western Turkey, who were not engaged in rebellion, were not touched. The Turks had already lost a large portion of their empire to rebellion by the Greeks and the Bulgarians who had won their independence with the help of the Russians. The Armenians in northeastern Turkey, in their old homeland contiguous with Russia, tried the same thing.
They formed militias and, with Russian help, attacked Turkish villages in the same area. This was all happening about the time that Turkey entered the First World War on the side of the Germans and Austro-Hungarian Empire. Russia, of course, was on the other side of the conflict. From the Ottoman government’s point of view, not only were those Armenian groups rebelling, they were making common cause with the enemy. The army put down the rebellion and then rounded up all of the Armenian villagers, pointed them towards Syria and said, “Start walking.” There was no attempt to provide any sort of food or even any real protection. There were Kurds and bandits who had preyed on these villages for centuries, just waiting in the hills. When these unprotected convoys came along, they did what they always did, they attacked these people and killed them and raped the women.
What we know about what actually happened comes a great deal from the oral histories that were collected of people who lived through that period and ended up in the United States. A lot of them were young children at the time that this happened and some of them were still alive at the time that I was the desk officer. There are at least three Armenian newspapers in the United States. I think two of them in English and one of them in Armenian. We used to get all of these papers and read this stuff. Every issue would have an interview with some grandmother or grandfather who remembered what happened to them when they were a child. Now, how did they survive?
Almost all of them survived because a Turkish family had taken them in and taken care of them until Christian missionaries arrived looking for these kids and then they gave them to the missionaries.
A lot of the information that was published in the United States at the time of this event was provided by American missionaries who were working in that area. The history of Christian missions in Turkey is rather a strange one in my view, because while everybody was out there to try to convert someone to their particular brand of Christianity, they had very little luck with the Muslims. Almost none whatsoever. So, then what did they do? They proceeded to try to convert the Armenian Catholics to their particular Protestant denomination. Of course many missionaries had a very biased view of who was right, who was worthy of saving, who was worthy of having their freedom and so on.
I found some books in the Department library written by a man who was our consul in Izmir. He was there at the end of the Turkish independence war where Izmir is burned. Reading what he wrote in the mid-1980s was shocking. According to him whatever the Muslims said or did was wrong and they were all liars, and whatever a Christian said was good and whatever they said was the absolute truth. This was the kind of stuff that was being fed to the U.S. public.
Q: In a certain respect, I’ve looked into this a little bit, only from a consular point of view, I think this was the consul I can’t think of his name, did quite a heroic deed when the Greeks were pushed out and he saved a lot of lives.
KARAER: Well, there’s no question that these people did the job that they were sent to do, but the fact is that he and others like him were so incredibly partial to one religion and so anti-Turk.
This is one of the reasons why the Turks, Ataturk and others, felt that the whole world was against them, and this remained the theme in Turkish diplomacy right up until the time that I was working there…
Our issue with the Coelho gambit was not to try to say that the Ottoman government hadn’t done something awful. They had. What we were focusing on was the genocide language. I remember once my boss and I went to call on the man who was the vice president’s chief political advisor. They didn’t want to get in trouble with Coelho, but they didn’t want to rock the boat with the Turks either. He said, “Now, why is this so important?” I said, “It’s the genocide thing. These people want their own state. Armenian territory right now is a part of the Soviet Union. The rest of what the Armenians claim as their homeland would have to come from Turkey, and they will never ever agree to that. We need their cooperation in NATO and elsewhere and that’s why we’re siding with them. If the Armenian group can get respectable organizations like the Congress of the United States to say, in effect, that the Turks committed a genocide, then they can get others in Europe and so on to do the same thing and their next step is going to
be pressure to compensate. See that’s territory so we can have our own homeland and this will never happen to us again.” The man we were talking to said, “Oh, that’s ridiculous.” I said, “Why? It happened before, didn’t it?”
Q: Well, you know, speaking about the word genocide, I was watching public broadcasting yesterday, last evening, the Lehrer Report, which is the sort of the preeminent public broadcast in TV. They were talking about problems in the western province of the Sudan called Darfur and there was a discussion of “I know that you’re not using the word genocide.” I can’t remember what, it got sort of esoteric about why they weren’t using genocide, but were using ethnic cleansing and I think it’s the same thing. Genocide is a term that everybody is very careful about because all sorts of things get kicked in if you use genocide.
KARAER: Yes, that’s right.
Q: You know, it strikes me that one of the problems in Congress has h
appened in the last 30 or 40 years or so, is there’s no adult minding the store there anymore. It used to be that you’d have the speaker of the house or something to take a look and say, look this is affecting our military ability to resist the Soviet Union. It doesn’t get anywhere. Kids knock it off. But there’s nobody to do that at this point I take it.
KARAER: In fact it came to the floor of the House for a vote, and I’m telling you this was one of the most exciting days of my life. We were sitting in the Department in somebody’s office who had a nice big television watching CSPAN and our guys stood up and said what they had to say and they did, and we got Steven Solarz to speak against the bill. He was great because he got up and said, speaking as a Jew, that he had great sympathy for peoples who had suffered in this way, but there was a serious question as to whether this could accurately a) be called a genocide and b) about the effect such an action would have on our foreign policy. Anyway, they took a vote on an amendment to the bill, which was a stalking horse to see how many votes they had that might be for or against this resolution. When they saw how it was going, the person in charge of the floor called it off and removed it from consideration. There never was an up and down vote on that resolution, but we did manage to stop it for the time being.
They got another one through a few years later.