The nomination of a key State Department official responsible for Central Asia and the Caucasus is being held up because of concerns about his views on Turkish-Armenian relations.
At the heart of the simmering controversy surrounding Philip Gordon's confirmation as assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia is his comments on the mass killings and deportations of ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey that occurred during the second decade of the 20th century. Since gaining independence in 1991, Armenia has pressed for international recognition of the tragedy as genocide. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Gordon, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, had a confirmation hearing before a Senate committee on March 27. During that hearing, he declined to characterize the events of 1915, when an estimated 1.5 million Armenians perished, as "genocide." Instead, he used the term "tragedy." He also said that he was concerned that a congressional resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide would "provoke a nationalistic backlash in Turkey."
The Senate committee proceeded to endorse Gordon's nomination. But his responses did not sit well with Armenian-American lobby groups, which subsequently mobilized opposition among their allies in Congress. One senator has placed a hold on the nomination, and until the hold is removed, the full Senate will not be able to vote on the nomination.
Senators do not have to identity themselves on a hold, but a Senate source told EurasiaNet that the member was John Ensign, a Republican from Nevada who has co-sponsored a congressional resolution on the genocide in the past. A spokesman from Ensign's office did not return calls and emails seeking comment.
Prospects that the United States would officially recognize the 1915 events as genocide have risen with the election of Barack Obama. Obama, during his presidential campaign, pledged to recognize the genocide if elected, although in a recent visit to Turkey he declined to use the word "genocide." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
That disappointed Armenian lobby groups. Aram Hamparian, the executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, said Obama's comments in Turkey represented "a missed opportunity." But he said that he was hoping for Obama to use the word "genocide" on April 24 -- the day that Armenians traditionally remember the tragedy. "He has an opportunity to honor his pledge on [April 24]," Hamparian said.
Representatives of Armenian lobby groups contend that Gordon's nomination was troubling and not in line with Obama's stated views. "Our concern is that his remarks, his writings and his responses to Senate questions during his confirmation process were markedly at odds with the president's record on the Armenian genocide," Hamparian said "The president has said that the Armenian genocide should be recognized."
The Armenian Assembly of America also urged Gordon to get his views in line with other members of the administration: "With President Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Clinton's clear and consistent record with respect to US affirmation of the Armenian Genocide, the Assembly expects that, if confirmed, Philip Gordon will fully embrace this important human rights policy position," said Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the assembly.
Gordon previously served in government in the administration of former president Bill Clinton, as director for European affairs at the National Security Council. During the presidential campaign, he served as head of the Europe team in Obama's group of foreign policy advisers.
Recently, however, he has been a scholar at the Brookings Institution, and has written extensively on Turkey. As part of the confirmation process, Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, asked for details on foreign funding to Brookings. According to figures released by the think tank, since 2006 Brookings has received $200,000 from the Turkish Industrialists' and Businessmen's Association, $200,000 from Sabanci University, $150,000 from the Eksiogullari Group (a construction company in Turkey), and $100,000 from the Dogan Yayin Holding Company, a media-entertainment conglomerate.
Brookings, in a note attached to the spreadsheet listing the donations, said that the "primary funding for the work of Philip H. Gordon in 2006-2007 was provided by the Smith Richardson Foundation. From 2007-2009 primary funding was provided to Mr. Gordon by the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, the Carnegie Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Brookings Endowment."
Hamparian, of the ANCA, said the funding suggests that writings by Brookings scholars, including Gordon and Mark Parris, a former US ambassador to Turkey who also works at Brookings, are compromised.
Melissa Skolfield, the vice president for communications at Brookings, responding to a EurasiaNet query via email, offered a spirited defense of the independence of the institution's analysis. "Brookings is committed to high-quality, independent research, and all of our scholars share that commitment," Skolfield said. "Our donors respect our independence to pose questions, search for answers and present our findings based on the facts."
Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, posed a series of written questions about Armenian issues to Gordon. The ANCA provided Gordon's responses to the questions to EurasiaNet.
In one question, Menendez asked "How does the non-use of the genocide term, as you have advocated, advance US efforts to promote Armenian-Turkish reconciliation?" Gordon responded: "I believe the United States should strongly support Armenian-Turkish reconciliation and avoid steps that could derail that process or discourage either party from participating in the ongoing dialogue."
Editor's Link: Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.