By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
A proposed House resolution that would label as "genocide" the deaths of Armenians more than 90 years ago during the Ottoman Empire has won the support of a majority of House members, unleashing a lobbying blitz by the Bush administration and other opponents who say it would greatly harm relations with Turkey, a key ally in the Iraq war.
All eight living former secretaries of state have signed a joint letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) warning that the nonbinding resolution "would endanger our national security interests." Three former defense secretaries, in their own letter, said Turkey probably would cut off U.S. access to a critical air base. The government of Turkey is spending more than $300,000 a month on communications specialists and high-powered lobbyists, including former congressman Bob Livingston, to defeat the initiative.
Pelosi, whose congressional district has a large Armenian population, has brushed aside such concerns and said she supports bringing the resolution, for the first time, to a full vote in the House, where more than half of the members have signed on as co-sponsors. The House Foreign Affairs Committee, which has passed such a resolution before, is set to vote on it today.
House Resolution 106, officially the Affirmation of the United States Record on the Armenian Genocide, has been pushed doggedly by a congressman whose Southern California district contains the largest concentration of Armenian Americans in the country. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D) won his seat in 2000 after his Republican predecessor was sandbagged when then-House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert reneged on a pledge and pulled the bill from the floor after a last-minute plea from President Bill Clinton.
Schiff, who defeated Rep. James Rogan after Hastert killed the floor vote, said the deaths so long ago still resonate with Armenians. "It is an insight you get when you have lots of Armenian constituents," he said, saying it reminded him of conversations he had while growing up Jewish. "But imagine losing the entire family and having the successor state say it never happened."
Few people deny that massacres killed hundreds of thousands of Armenian men, women and children during and immediately after World War I.
But Turkish officials and some historians say that the deaths resulted from forced relocations and widespread fighting when the 600-year-old Ottoman Empire collapsed, not from a campaign of genocide -- and that hundreds of thousands of Turks also died in the same region during that time.
"This is the greatest accusation of all against humanity," said Turkish Ambassador Nabi Sensoy, referring to genocide. "You cannot expect any nation to accept that kind of labeling." He said the reaction in the Turkish parliament would be one of fury, noting that the Turkish military cut contacts with the French military and terminated defense contracts under negotiation after the French National Assembly voted in 2006 to criminalize the denial of Armenian genocide.
Pelosi had long been a co-sponsor of the resolution. The Armenian National Committee, one of the many Armenian organizations that have sought passage of the measure for years, has given her an "A" grade for her stance on Armenian issues.
Now as speaker, Pelosi will face a choice between her role as a national leader and her previous campaign pledges as a member of Congress. U.S.-Turkish relations are already under some strain because Kurdish militant groups have attacked Turkish targets from bases in Iraq, with Ankara suggesting it may launch its own attack. Turkey plans to hold a "neighbors" conference on Iraq pushed by the United States later this month, but a recent poll by the nonpartisan group Terror Free Tomorrow found that 83 percent of Turks would oppose assisting the United States on Iraq if the Armenia resolution passed.
It is a problem that has caused other politicians to flinch. As a presidential candidate in 2000, George W. Bush pledged to ensure that "our nation properly recognizes" what he called "a genocidal campaign that defies comprehension." But, angering Armenian groups, Bush refused to use the term in the annual presidential statement on the subject made on April 24, generally considered the beginning of the killings in 1915. President George H.W. Bush and Clinton also refused to refer to genocide in their annual statements, for fear of offending Turkey.
Among other things, the resolution calls on the president to use his annual message to "accurately characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1,500,000 Armenians as genocide."
In the Senate, where one-third of its members are co-sponsoring the resolution, Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) supports the measure, as do the two leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination: Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.).
The State Department, which collected the signatures of the former secretaries of state, has lobbied against the resolution, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried and U.S. Ambassador Ross Wilson calling lawmakers yesterday to "urge them not to vote for this," according to an interview Fried gave the Anatolia news agency.
The Turkish Embassy is paying $100,000 a month to lobbying firm DLA Piper and $105,000 a month to the Livingston Group, and it recently added communications specialists Fleishman-Hillard for nearly $114,000 a month, according to records filed with the Justice Department. Turkish lawmakers were on Capitol Hill yesterday, warning that passage would put military cooperation with Turkey at risk.
Meanwhile, leading the charge for the resolution are grass-roots groups such as the Armenian Assembly of America, with 10,000 members, a budget of $3.6 million last year and phone banks that are running on overtime calling members of Congress. The organization has signed up 53 non-Armenian ethnic groups, including a number of Jewish groups, to support the resolution.
Some Jewish groups have found themselves in a bind because Turkey is one of the few Muslim nations to have diplomatic relations with Israel.