The House's Ottoman Agenda

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, March 5, 2007

Can a nonbinding congressional resolution really matter? Most are ignored by everyone except the special interests they are usually directed at. Even the House's recent resolution on Iraq was dismissed by both President Bush and Democratic antiwar leader John Murtha. Yet a vote expected next month on a nonbinding House resolution describing a "genocide" in the Ottoman Empire beginning in 1915 has the potential to explode U.S. relations with Turkey, sway the outcome of upcoming Turkish elections and spill over into several other strategic American interests, including Iraq and Iran.

So, yes: The Armenian Genocide Resolution sponsored by Rep. Adam Schiff does matter, logically or not. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul spent several days in Washington last month lobbying against it, though the Turkish-American agenda is chockablock with seemingly more important issues. Friends of Turkey in Washington, from American Jewish organizations to foreign policy satraps, are working the Hill; so is the Bush team. On the other side is the well-organized and affluent Armenian American community, 1.4 million strong, and some powerful friends -- including the new House speaker, Nancy Pelosi.

Here is a debate that could occur only in Washington -- a bizarre mix of frivolity and moral seriousness, of constituent pandering, far-flung history and front-line foreign policy. And that's just on the American side; in Turkey there is the painful struggle of a deeply nationalist society to come to terms with its past, and in the process become more of the Western democracy it wants to be.

Start with the pandering: Schiff, a Democrat from Los Angeles, cheerfully concedes that there are 70,000 to 80,000 ethnic Armenians in his district, for whom the slaughter of Armenians by the Young Turk regime during World War I is "anything but ancient history." Local politics also explains why a resolution that has failed numerous times in the past 20 years is suddenly looking like a juggernaut: Pelosi, of San Francisco, also has many Armenian supporters.

"There's a sense of momentum now about the resolution that we haven't had before," Schiff told me. "The votes are there in the committee. The votes are there on the floor." If Pelosi allows the resolution to be brought up, as she has reportedly pledged to do, it will probably pass. Its language is almost comically heavy-handed: It begins by declaring that the House "finds" a series of 30 paragraphs of facts about the genocide, ranging from the number killed (1.5 million) to the assertion that "the failure . . . to punish those responsible" helps explain subsequent atrocities, including the Holocaust.

Imagine the 435 members of the House, many of whom still don't know the difference between Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis, solemnly weighing whether Schiff's version of events 92 years ago in northeastern Turkey deserves congressional endorsement. But the consequences of passage could be deadly serious: To begin with, Turkey's powerful military has been hinting that U.S. access to the Incirlik air base, which plays a key role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, could be restricted. Gul warned that a nationalist tidal wave could sweep Turkey and force the government to downgrade its cooperation with the United States, which needs Turkey's help this year to stabilize Iraq and contain Iran. Candidates in upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections could compete in their anti-American reactions.

No wonder the Bush administration as well as even Democratic-leaning foreign policy experts, such as Clinton-era ambassador Mark Parris, are trying to stop the resolution. Yet theirs, too, is a contorted campaign. After all, historians outside of Turkey are pretty much unanimous in agreeing that atrocities against Armenians worthy of the term genocide did occur. Though Congress may look silly with its "findings," the continuing inability of the Turkish political class to come to terms with history, and temper its nationalism, may be the country's single most serious political problem. Prominent Turkish intellectuals, including a Nobel Prize winner, have been prosecuted in recent years under laws criminalizing "insults" to Turkey -- such as accurate accounts of the genocide. In January a prominent ethnic Armenian journalist was murdered by an ultranationalist teenager.

Maybe Congress has no business debating Turkish history, maybe it is doing so for the wrong reasons. Yet if Turkey is to become the stable, Western-oriented democracy that it aspires to be, its politicians will have to learn, at least, to react the way everyone else does to nonbinding House resolutions: that is, with a shrug.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company