Belatedly, the House's History Lesson

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, October 11, 2007

Wondering why Congress can't reach a consensus on the Iraq war? Well, consider that our lawmakers are still divided on the Turkish-Armenian conflict. Of 1915.

With bullets flying in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007, the House Foreign Affairs Committee sat down yesterday to resolve a pressing issue: whether to pass a resolution declaring that the killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenians 92 years ago qualifies as genocide.

Ankara insists this is nobody's business but the Turks'. But the history-minded House knows better.

"I consider myself a friend of Turkey, but friends don't let friends commit crimes against humanity," said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) in his stinging rebuke of the Ottoman Empire.

Nor was Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) afraid to call a sultan a sultan. He spoke of a need to "speak truth to Turkey" about the 1915 situation.

"Genocide is genocide, and there's no way of sugarcoating it," agreed Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.).

Indeed not. Only 92 years late, the intrepid members of the committee voted 27 to 21 to condemn the Young Turks of 1915. The Armenians in the audience, wearing stickers urging "Stop the Cycle of Genocide," erupted in applause and tears. Among the celebrants: Catholicos Karekin II, supreme patriarch of the Armenian Church.

Amid such fervor, only a minority of lawmakers dared to argue that it was hardly worth antagonizing Turkey, a crucial ally in Iraq and a rare Muslim friend, over long-ago atrocities perpetrated by long-dead rulers of a long-defunct empire.

"This is crazy," remarked Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who once shot a watermelon as part of his probes of Bill Clinton. "We're in the middle of two wars and we've got troops over there that are at risk, and we're talking about kicking the one ally that's helping us over there in the face."

Then there was the statute-of-limitations conundrum. If it's within Congress's authority to be the arbiter of the Armenian genocide, will it next confront the Romans for the rape of the Sabine women, or the Greeks for sacking Troy? And if attacking the Ottomans, why not weigh in on the siege of Constantinople in 1453?

"Whether it is the Ottoman Empire, the Japanese Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire or, indeed, the Roman Empire, I mean, we could go on for a long time condemning the atrocities committed under each," pointed out Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.).

And maybe they will. Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) pointed out that the committee has already probed the enslavement of "comfort women" by imperial Japan. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) announced yesterday that he will soon introduce legislation on atrocities against American Indians.

Ostensibly, the debate was about morality (many proponents noted that Hitler was emboldened by the silence on the Armenian genocide) vs. national security (several opponents observed that most U.S. air cargo to Iraq goes through Turkish bases).

While nobody disputed that something very much like genocide happened to the Armenians 92 years ago, support for the resolution tended to reflect the size of the Armenian population in the lawmakers' districts. All 10 committee members from California (where the census counts 231,777 Armenians) voted aye, while both members from Indiana (total Armenians: 904) voted no. The Californian chairman, Lantos, warned that the measure could cause U.S. troops "to pay an even heavier price" -- then voted yes.

Ultimately, the threat to national security couldn't compete with four women in wheelchairs in the front row wearing pink stickers announcing "I'm a survivor" of the genocide. "I don't like Turkey -- they are animals there," reported Perouz Kalousdian, 97. She left Turkey in 1916 but remembers it clearly; "they came and they took all my uncles," she said.

For lawmakers, the memories were rather less fresh and personal. Lantos reached into the history books and pulled out quotes from the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

"Thank you for your outstanding review of history," Sherman told the chairman.

"Very fair summary of the history," agreed Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.).

Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Tex.) thought it would be better if "everyone opens their historic books."

"I don't pretend to be a professional historian," demurred Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.).

But Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.) insisted. "We are all students of history," he told colleagues.

Not all students of logic, however. Sherman, arguing passionately for the label of genocide, acknowledged that the measure was "an irritant to our relationship with Turkey" but then concluded: "That's the best reason to vote for it."

The debate didn't improve from there. Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.) complained that "I feel like I have a Turkish sword over my head," while Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) contributed a profound thought: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."

Likewise, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), arguing in favor of the resolution, offered some pithy advice to the feuding Turks and Armenians. "Move on," he recommended.

If only Congress could do the same.

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