Thursday, July 10, 2008

House committee passes Genocide resolution

First published in the October 13, 2007 Armenian Reporter
by Emil Sanamyan

Congressional leaders overcome unprecedented opposition

House vote pending
WASHINGTON – The Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives voted 27 to 21 on October 10 to send the Armenian Genocide resolution to the House floor and recommend passage. In an interview with PBS the next day, committee chair Rep. Tom Lantos (D.-Calif.) called the vote “a significant step in restoring the moral authority of U.S. foreign policy.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.), a longtime supporter, again pledged to bring the resolution to a vote following the committee vote. “I don’t have a date in mind, but it will [come to a vote] before the end of this session,” Ms. Pelosi said in a briefing on October 11.

The session is scheduled to end in late November. The vote came amid unprecedented lobbying against the resolution by President George W. Bush, his secretaries of state and defense, and senior U.S. military commanders, who citied Turkey’s importance for U.S. military operations in Iraq.

As in the past, Turkey’s leaders hinted that they would retaliate against U.S. interests if the measure passes the House and unless U.S. helps Turkish interests in Iraq. The president’s open involvement in opposing the resolution and Congressional leaders’ determination to pass it brought the decades-long grassroots struggle for reaffirmation of the Armenian Genocide an unprecedented level of worldwide attention.

The cause
For decades, the Armenian-American community and its allies have worked to educate their elected representatives on the facts and the legacy of the Genocide and urge the U.S. government to unambiguously condemn this crime against humanity.

Most recently in 2000 and 2005 congressional resolutions passed in committees only to be blocked before reaching a vote in the House. In both cases, the U.S. administration (under Presidents Clinton and Bush) acceded to Turkish pressure and urged then-Speaker Dennis Hastert to suppress the measure.

Last year, the Bush administration went as far as to sack its ambassador to Armenia for using the term genocide. In Turkey, references to the Genocide cost Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink his life, in an assassination plot linked to Turkish security officials.

Although House Resolution 106 was first introduced just days after Mr. Dink’s assassination, its consideration was delayed repeatedly, with opponents arguing that it would cause a nationalist backlash during elections in Turkey, where the public is already heavily anti-American and nationalist.

But as the Turkish electoral season wrapped up and Congress returned into session, the congressional leadership began to deliver on its pledge to bring the resolution, which was by then backed by more than a half House members, to a vote.

The debate
In the days since the committee on October 2 scheduled the vote, the president himself, the secretaries of state and defense and their deputies, in addition to Turkish leaders and a slew of hired lobbyists, called committee members to underline Turkey’s warnings.

In a statement made on the South Lawn of the White House hours before the Foreign Affairs Committee meeting, President Bush told reporters that “this resolution is not the right response to these historic mass killings [of Armenians]. Its passage would do great harm to our relations with a key ally in NATO and in the global war on terror.” He urged a no vote on the resolution.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates were on hand to play up Turkey’s importance to the U.S. war effort and argue that congressional recognition of the genocide would put U.S. soldiers at risk. “This is not to ignore what was a really terrible situation. And we recognize the feelings of those who want to express their concern and their disdain for what happened many years ago,” said Ms. Rice.

“But the passage of this resolution at this time would indeed be very problematic for everything that we are trying to do in the Middle East because we are very dependent on a good Turkish strategic ally to help with our efforts,” she continued.

In a congressional briefing the next day, Ms. Pelosi was asked, “Why do it now?” The Speaker of the House said, “I have been in Congress for 20 years and for 20 years people have been saying the same thing that Turkey’s strategic location [makes it a bad time for the resolution]. We are reiterating Americans’ acknowledgement of the Genocide. . . . As long as there’s genocide, there’s need to speak against it.”

The vote
Mr. Lantos, the committee chair, is the only Holocaust survivor in Congress. He began the October 10 meeting outlining arguments for and against the measure. “We are not considering whether the Armenian people were persecuted and died in huge numbers at the hands of Ottoman troops in the early 20th century,” he said.

“There is unanimity in the Congress and across the country that these atrocities took place. If the resolution before us stated that fact alone, it would pass unanimously.”

“The controversy lies in whether to make it United States policy at this moment in history to apply a single word – genocide – to encompass this enormous blot on human history,” Mr. Lantos stated. After outlining the administration’s arguments against the resolution, he added, “This is a vote of conscience, and the committee will work its will.”

A two-hour debate ensued. Nineteen members spoke in favor of passage, and 16 against. The remaining members of the 50-person committee, including Mr. Lantos, did not say how they intended to vote, leaving the outcome too close to call.

Committee members Reps. Brad Sherman (D.-Calif.), Gary Ackerman (D.-N.Y.) and Ed Royce (R.- Calif.) led the arguments in favor. While many of the members who spoke in favor of passage called Turkey a good, loyal, or essential ally of the United States, Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R.-Calif.), Albio Sires (D.-N.J.), and Joe Crowley (D.-N.Y.) harshly criticized Turkey for its tactics.

The administration’s lobbying succeeded in having two members, Reps. Mike Pence (R.-Ind.) and Ruben Hinojosa (D.-Tex.) and Delegate Luis Fortuno (R.-Puerto Rico) defect to the opposition; another past supporter Rep. Joe Wilson (R.-S.C.) did not show up for the vote.

In the end 27 members, including Rep. Lantos, voted in favor, assuring the resolution’s passage. While there are 27 Democrats and 23 Republicans on the committee, the vote crossed party lines. Of the 27 members voting in favor, 19 were Democrats and 8 Republicans. Of the 21 voting against, 8 were democrats and 13 Republicans. Two Republicans were absent.

The Jewish Telegraph Agency noted that seven of eight Jewish members of the committee voted in favor of the resolution, in spite of the heavy lobbying by Turkish leaders for the Jewish-American organizations to oppose passage.

The reaction
The vote was welcomed by President Robert Kocharian and parliamentary leaders in Armenia, and criticized by their counterparts in Turkey. The Bush Administration expressed “regret” and a State Department spokesperson promised to continue to fight the resolution’s adoption.

The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), which in recent years has led community advocacy on the issue, said “the vote represents a meaningful step toward reclaiming our right – as Americans – to speak openly and honestly about the first genocide of the 20th century, free from the gag rule that Turkey has, for far too long, sought to impose on nation’s elected officials.”

The U.S.-Armenia Public Affairs Committee (USAPAC) called the vote “a powerful statement of truth to power.” The Armenian Assembly of America (AAA) welcomed the decision as “a historic day and a critically important step forward.”

All organizations thanked Speaker Pelosi, Chairman Lantos, the resolution’s original co-sponsors Reps. Adam Schiff (D.-Calif.), George Radanovich (R.-Calif.), Frank Pallone (D.-N.J.) and Joe Knollenberg (R.-Mich.) and other members of Congress for their leadership, and said they looked forward to the prompt passage of the resolution by the House of Representatives.

The impact
Even before consideration by the full House of Representatives, and in large part owing to President Bush’s efforts to oppose it, the Armenian Genocide has received an unprecedented level of worldwide media attention. The story headlined reporting by virtually all major television channels and featured in every major newspaper around the world.

While the coverage focused on the threats of Turkish retaliation, for many in the world it provided a first-ever opportunity to learn about the Armenian Genocide and its continued relevance today. At the same time the administration’s lobbying has had an impact on some of the 226 co-sponsors of the resolution, making eventual passage more difficult.

Some members of the Turkish parliament have also threatened to retaliate against Armenia by banning Armenian civilian flights over Turkey’s territory and restricting Armenian citizens’ entry into the country – something Turkish governments have done in the past. That has not stopped the Armenian government from speaking in favor of passage.

Opponents of the resolution have also argued that U.S. defense companies may suffer, as Turkey is increasingly turning to alternative sources of weapons and technology. They also suggest that Turkey may undermine U.S. military’s logistical lines that run through Turkey.

But U.S. military officials told the New York Times on October 12 that any impact on U.S. military would be of a short-term nature and contingency plans have already been put in place to resupply U.S. forces in Iraq through Jordan and Kuwait.

In his PBS interview, Mr. Lantos said that he “has much higher regard for the intelligence of our Turkish friends and for their sense of responsibility. I don’t think they will [retaliate]. I think it is demeaning to the Turks [to think] that they will take such an irresponsible action.”

And Turkish officials appear ready to bargain. On a visit to Washington, Egemen Bagis, a senior ruling party member of the Turkish parliament, suggested that Ankara may not retaliate against U.S. after all if Washington helps neutralize anti-Turkey Kurdish forces in northern Iraq, reported on October 11.

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