"His polished, sometimes even poetic prose evokes a sense of curiosity and lament. In response to his family’s silence—and to the silence of a whole people still shellshocked by their grim treatment—Kalajian has become a professional storyteller and an excellent one at that." Kirkus Reviews

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

It's hard to be sure, but I'll make my best guess about whether a candidate will help or hurt the Armenians—and I won't apologize for that

I used to think presidential candidates should be judged by how well they would guard America’s interests, period.

It annoyed me to hear anyone suggest a candidate was unacceptable because he wasn’t sufficiently committed to liberating Cuba or to defending Israel—or even to standing up for the perpetually beleaguered Armenians.

For most of my life, Armenia was jammed tightly in the maw of Soviet Communism, which was also the great threat to America. It seemed clear to me that the common interest was overwhelming. 

So I didn’t care if a candidate had failed to issue sufficiently salutary proclamations as a governor if I felt certain he’d champion the ultimate triumph of freedom.

But times change, and so do I.
            
My disappointment with the current resident of the White House is certainly one reason for my heightened interest in the Armenia-friendly prospects of his potential successors. 

I was as disheartened as most American-Armenians by President Obama’s broken promise to recognize the Armenian Genocide, but I’m even more disturbed by his determination to continue America’s intrusive and destabilizing policies in the Middle East. 

The area of most acute concern is Syria. After the first Arab Spring demonstrations in 2011, the administration made a knee-jerk decision to help a disparate array of rag-tag rebels overthrow the Assad regime. 

We may never know how much of the arms and cash we poured into the conflict wound up in the hands of the Islamic State. But we do know that instead of displacing Assad, the consequent turmoil displaced multitudes of civilians and left many more at the mercy of ISIS. 

Communities where Armenians lived in peace since their families sought refuge from the last century’s Genocide were devastated.  

It’s just one example of the many threats to Armenians in the homeland and in the diaspora that have resulted from the turbulence spreading from the Middle East to much of the world.

Just look at a map and you’ll understand why an Armenian would feel even greater anxiety about the current crisis than the average American: there is no buffer zone, as renewed violence between Turks and Kurds has broken out in Eastern Turkey.

It may escape the attention of many Americans who have other things on their minds in this election season, but the plight of Turkey’s Kurds isn’t an isolated situation: Turkey is clearly using the fight against ISIS as cover to purge and punish Kurdish nationalists on its side of the Iraq border.

As an American, it’s maddening to me that we tolerate such outrageous behavior from a supposed ally. 

As an Armenian, it’s frightening.

Unfortunately for both America and Armenia, the already thinning ranks of presidential contenders in both parties don’t offer many clear prospects for improvement in either the clarity or execution of policy regarding Armenia or the Middle East.

Many policy experts say Obama’s drone strikes have helped recruit more terrorists than they’ve killed by creating waves of sympathy among survivors. Republicans seem to think the solution is not to leave any survivors. 

Donald Trump, for example, explained his policy toward terrorists his way: “You have to take out their families.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, meanwhile, has been channeling the late, great Gen. Curtis LeMay, who pioneered the “carpet bomb” technique that Cruz thinks would eradicate ISIS. 

LeMay really was great when he directed the Allied air assault in Europe during World War II but less so a couple of decades later when he decided we could bomb North Vietnam back to the Stone Age.

LeMay’s strategy might have worked if the enemy weren’t already living in the Stone Age. As a result of his miscalculation, we learned that dropping mega-tons of bombs on a jungle had considerably less effect than dropping the same bombs on oil-refineries and munitions plants. 

The approach is unlikely to work much better in a desert than in a jungle. Although population centers might be vulnerable, even LeMay resisted the temptation to blow up Paris in order to kill Nazis.

I was already thinking much too hard about all this when I came across the Armenian National Committee of America’s overview of the major-party candidates. 

They’ve  done an excellent job of highlighting the contenders’ records as well as their positions on issues of interest to Armenians. It's a valuable companion to the organization's report card on member of the House and Senate. 

I’m always cautious about making too much of such things because I’m mindful of past disappointments. But it’s good to have hope, and even better to heed warning signs. 

So I read the ANCA’s  summaries as well as recommendations by other Armenian interest groups. You can see the ANCA report for yourself at this link, but here are a few highlights that jumped out at me:

*Although he’s governor of a state with a large and active Armenian community, Chris Christie of New Jersey has no record on Armenian affairs. 

He apparently hasn’t found time to express any thoughts about the Genocide or Armenia’s current struggles, but he did sign a proclamation of sympathy for Armenia’s “victims” in Azerbaijan. My strictly personal conclusion: What an asshole.

*Donald Trump has no record of issuing any statements in support of Armenians, but the committee noted: "There are reports, however, that Trump's corporation does business with Azerbaijani oligarchs who lobby against Armenian American priorities." 

I think we all understand that business is business, and we understand just as clearly the danger of accepting this as an excuse for poor judgment.

*By contrast, two Republican senators in the race have taken a positive stand on recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Marco Rubio of Florida and Cruz of Texas both co-sponsored the Armenian Genocide Resolution working its way through the Senate. Cruz also issued a clear call for the world to follow. So, while his bombsite may need adjusting, his heart’s in the right place. 

*On the Democratic side, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, has consistently supported Genocide recognition and has stood with Armenia on critical matters of aid and restricting arms sales to Turkey and Azerbaijan. Sanders has also been a strong voice of caution against America’s Mideast incursions, including the Iraq War.

(I can't be much help to Bernie in the primaries, as I don't belong to his party. But it's a sign of these strange times that a self-proclaimed Socialist makes more sense to me than many of my fellow Republicans.) 

But how much does any of this really tell us about how these candidates would act as president? I don’t know, and you don’t either because we don’t know what political pressures are being applied even now by big donors and other powerful interests.

We do know that successful politicians are attuned to their constituencies, so it’s possible to get their attention in a state where Armenians are vocal and well-organized. But let’s face it: there just aren’t enough Armenians to factor strongly into the national political calculus.

The shifting priorities and dissipating loyalties that result from politicians moving to a bigger stage are illustrated by the example of Hillary Clinton. 

As a senator from New York, Clinton spoke out for Armenia’s interests and called on President Bush to recognize the Genocide. When she became Obama’s Secretary of State, she decided the Genocide was a matter for “historical debate.” 

She also repeatedly spurned American-Armenian groups that sought to discuss their concerns while she lauded the increasingly authoritarian and menacing Erdogan regime in Turkey.

I’m sure she has her reasons, but they don’t interest me any more than she does. 

What do I conclude after viewing all these candidates through an Armenian lens? So far, not enough to cast my vote—but more than enough to make me think twice before I do. 

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