The US House of Representatives appears set to approve a resolution that would officially characterize the World War I-era massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide. The resolution, though lacking any force of law, would mark the culmination of years of effort by Armenian-Americans to win such recognition from Congress. Turkey has already expressed its anger over developments by recalling its ambassador to Washington for consultations.
On October 10, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed the resolution on a 27-21 vote. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, has said that the matter will come to a full vote before the House by the end of November. The resolution currently has 220 co-sponsors, which would represent enough votes for the measures adoption.
The resolution is strongly opposed by the Bush administration, but it is not clear whether the White House, which made great efforts to defeat the bill in committee, will continue to expend political capital on what increasingly appears to be an inevitable defeat. President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates all personally called members of the committee to try to persuade them to vote against it.
Under one scenario, provided the genocide resolution is adopted, the Bush administration may attempt to undertake a pro-Turkish initiative to mollify Ankara. A delegation of Turkish members of parliament, who were in Washington to lobby against the resolution, warned on October 11 that the US-Turkish alliance could suffer serious damage unless Washington made a goodwill gesture, such as adopting a much tougher stance toward the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist organization.
"The only remedy of yesterday's mistake is concrete cooperation in the fight against the PKK," said Egemen Bagis, an MP and foreign policy advisor to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "I don't know of any other option that can somehow soften the hearts of 72 million Turks."
"Some members of the US Congress yesterday wanted to play hardball," he continued. "I can assure you that Turkey can play hardball. Our experience of having a state is 1,000 years old. The ball is in your court, and you have to show us that Turkey matters. Show us on the PKK, show us on bringing this to the floor or not bringing this to the floor, or other issues."
Asked if the PKK-for-genocide-resolution trade might be the strategy before the full House vote, another parliamentarian, Gunduz Aktan, said, "We don't know yet, but that is a possibility, that is a real possibility." The Turkish MPs declined to speculate on what specific action Ankara would seek from Washington regarding the PKK issue.
Meanwhile, Turkish leaders in Ankara were infuriated by the House committee vote. "This unacceptable decision of the committee, like similar ones in the past, is not regarded by the Turkish people as valid, or of any value," the Anatolia news agency quoted President Abdullah Gul as saying. Turkish officials indicated that the ambassadorial recall would be temporary.
Bush administration officials said immediately after the vote that they will continue to work to oppose the resolution. "The administration continues strongly to oppose this resolution, passage of which may do grave harm to US-Turkish relations, and to US interests in Europe and the Middle East," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormick in a statement.
"If what we saw before the committee vote was any indication, I think the administration will continue to press," said Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America. "But we have truth and morality on our side."
For the October 10 hearing, both a large hearing room and an overflow room were filled. Dozens of Armenian-Americans, including a handful of elderly survivors of the 1915 tragedy, wore stickers reading "Stop the Cycle of Genocide." A large Turkish press corps was also in attendance, as were a much smaller number of Turks opposing the resolution. In the overflow room, where a closed-circuit television showed the proceedings, the Armenians and Turks alternately cheered or booed the members' statements.
Several members of Congress described agonizing decisions they had to make on the resolution. Most recognized that that the events of 1915 met the standard of genocide; Many of those who opposed the resolution said they did so out of respect for Turkey as a friend, or out of fear that Turkey could retaliate by curtailing cooperation on Iraq. On the other hand, many who voted for the resolution said they resented Turkey's threats
"There was indeed a genocide of the Armenians and it will not be forgotten," said Representative Mike Pence, a Republican from Indiana. "But I can't support this resolution. With American troops in harm's way, dependent on a critical supply route from Turkey, this is not the time for our nation to be speaking about this dark moment in history."
Another Republican, Dana Rohrabacher of California, however, decried the "the audacity that some Turks have to threaten to cut logistics to US troops... Perhaps they're not as good friends as they profess," he said.
The hearing was broadcast live in both Armenia and Turkey, and the Turkish parliamentarians said that even the tenor of the hearing offended them. For example, several congressmen suggested that Turkey might be bluffing and that if the resolution passes it will be forgotten quickly in Ankara.
"Those people who claim Turkey is bluffing should not mock Turkey on live TV," Bagis said. "I think that was a big mistake. Turks are very peculiar about their honor."
"What was bothering me yesterday was that those [US representatives] who were supporting the Turkish case, 21 of them, they said loud and clear that the events of 1915 amounted to genocide," Aktam said. "Despite this fact, because of the strategic importance of Turkey, because of the national interest of the US, they are voting no. This was unbearable."