1679) It's History . But It Does Matter An Interview with Ambassador John Evans

WASHINGTON (A.W.)- Former U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Evans defied U.S. State Department policy by using the word genocide in reference to the destruction of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. He was soon after dismissed from his post. In this interview, conducted in Washington on April 23, Evans talks about why he went against the policy, what changes that policy has since undergone, and why and how it needs to change. . .

Khatchig Mouradian-Why would a distinguished ambassador like yourself speak out on an issue that guarantees criticism and intervention from the State Department?

John Evans-It came down to an ethical question, and I came to the conclusion that I had no choice. I have to say that it is not something that any diplomat does lightly. It goes against every grain of our being. It goes against every teaching that we've ever had as diplomats, so it was not an easy decision. But I did a lot of thinking and a lot of reading beforehand, and you have to wait for my book to get the full story.

K.M.-Of all U.S. foreign policy issues, why did you choose to speak out on the Armenian genocide?

J.E.-You have to remember that I was the U.S. Ambassador to Armenia. Had I been the U.S. ambassador somewhere else, there would have been no sense in this. My having been assigned to Armenia meant that I did a lot of reading and studying. And it wasn't the first time, because I had studied Ottoman history before, during the sabbatical year. So this was not totally foreign historical territory for me. But it was a combination of factors, and I do ask your patience. Wait until I finish my book and I hope to answer these questions for everybody.

K.M.-Talk about your book.

J.E.-Since I left the State Department last fall, I have been working on a book which traces my own intellectual journey from knowing very little about Armenia and Armenians to knowing a little bit more-still not all that much but quite a bit in the end-and I'm hoping that I will appeal to everyday American readers who don't know very much and are even puzzled afraid of the issue. I hope I can bring them with me on this intellectual journey and then try to explain why it is important to deal with it and suggest some things that should be done. That's the purpose of my book. It's with an editor now and I hope it would be done with a publisher soon.

K.M.-When you consciously decided to make that statement, to say genocide, what did you expect to happen? Is it what's actually unfolding now?

J.E.-No one ever knows exactly what is going to happen as a consequence of one's actions. I did have a pretty good idea that it was going to cause some controversy. And if you see the tape that was recently discovered of what I said in Fresno, I didn't simply blurb out the word genocide to make an effect. It was embedded in a deep context of lots and lots of other factors that I was trying to discuss as honestly and sensitively as I could with my audiences. And my audiences were not only Armenian-American, but also university audiences. There were Turks and Azeris in some. I felt that the impossibility under current situations of dealing with the issues frankly was an impediment to everybody's understanding and to everybody's getting to a better place on this issue.

K.M.-How did people you interacted with in Armenia deal with the genocide issue?

J.E.-The issue of the Armenian genocide was never raised with me in Armenia and I never raised it there. I talked about it during my trip through the U.S. in February 2005. I did not raise it at my post of assignment. I know there are polling data which reveal that the recognition of the genocide is not on top of the list for most citizens of the Republic of Armenia. And I certainly found that people I have talked to in Armenia are very sensible about this issue, they are also deeply passionate about it, but there are so many other things to deal with-questions of economy, politics, daily living. Certainly U.S. programs there are focused primarily on these issues and that's what we mainly dealt with.

K.M.-Why is it important for the U.S. to recognize an atrocity that took place 92 years ago in another part of the world?

J.E.-The U.S. has all through its history prided itself on standing up for historical truth, human rights, justice, and on trying to make the world a better place. Although the foreign policy of every state is a combination of factors, it's never based simply on ethics or simply on the truth as we may perceive it; it's always a mixture of things. And honest men and women can differ about the ingredients. On one side, there are those who would practice realpolitik; on the other end of the spectrum you may have the Wilsonian bent of mind. Somewhere between those two poles is a happy medium and I personally think that on this issue, we have gone too far in one direction and the balance needs to be redressed.

Obviously lots of other people are speaking out on this. We have 40 of the 50 U.S., which have in some way or the other recognized the historical reality of the Armenian genocide. By latest count, there are now 191 co-sponsors of the bill currently in the House. So it's not by any means just me. There are many other people who have spoken out about this issue and written about it-the New York Times very recently in its editorial, the L.A. Times, and many other of the media voices in this country.

K.M.-Many diplomats serving around the world may have problems with the different aspects of U.S. foreign policy, but do not publicly speak against it. What was the difference in your case?

J.E.-In 35 years of my diplomatic career, I never once found myself in serious disagreement with U.S. foreign policy in an area on which I was working or had responsibility. That's the difference. This is the first time in my diplomatic career that I ran up into a policy and a situation. This was not a case where one could simply call a staff meeting or interagency group meeting and solve the problem or tweak the policy. It is much more profound than that. I don't think all ambassadors are sitting on historical problems.

K.M.-Yes, I wanted to know why you considered it important in the case of the Armenian genocide.

J.E.-I do think it's important because history is important. History matters. Unfortunately in the U.S., too often when you say it's history, we mean it doesn't matter. But history does matter and if the questions left over from history are not addressed, they tend to come back and back again and again, and this is one of those questions. I also think this is very much linked to security for all the countries in that region. It's an issue that has not been fully addressed, and needs to be fully addressed. And all the countries I am talking about Anatolia and the Caucasus, they need to deal with the demons of the past, put them to rest, and create a better, healthier and safer future for their people.

K.M.-What about the argument that Turkey is an important ally?

J.E.-I think we are good friends with the Turks and I think we should be good friends with the Turks. And I think what we've been doing is not what a good friend necessarily does. I bare today's Turks no ill will. I have Turkish friends, my stokebroker is a Turk, and the people of present-day Turkey are not culpable for the crimes that took place in 1915. But our friendship cannot be based on the denial on historical truth.

K.M.-How do you see Turkey coming to grips with the past?

J.E.-I am not a great expert on the internal dynamics of Turkey. I do follow them as every well-informed citizen should. It's a very important country. We do see signs of change in Turkey, we see signs that ice is cracking a little bit, and I think we need to encourage those voices who are speaking for a better, more democratic Turkey in the future, which will be for us a better ally.

K.M.-How do you think the State Department's policy regarding the Armenian genocide will change?

J.E.-I think change is happening. A lot of changes have already happened, and the recent testimony of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried on March 15 marked an important milestone, when he used a new term "ethnic cleansing." I also think there are other things that can be done. In my book, I plan to suggest a number of these things-not just prescribe what must happen, but throw out some ideas that could be done and in my view should be done, and we will see then where we will go. Because I don't think simply using the word genocide-which is a very powerful word, and it does describe in my view what happened in 1915-will deal with the issue fully. There's a great deal more that needs to be done in the future and we all need to think about what some of those things could be.

By Khatchig Mouradian
5 May 2007
The Armenian Weekly On-Line


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