House speaker now unsure if Armenian Genocide motion will reach a vote


October 18, 2007
Source: The New York Times

By Carl Hulse

Representative Alcee L. Hastings of Florida, left, an opponent of the Armenian proposal, conferring with three other House Democrats, some of whom also expressed doubts: from left, Robert Wexler of Florida, and John Tanner and Steve Cohen.

-- Doug Mills/The New York Times

WASHINGTON, Oct. 17 — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that she was reconsidering her pledge to force a vote on a resolution condemning as genocide the mass killing of Armenians starting in 1915, as President Bush intensified his push to derail the legislation.

“Whether it will come up or not and what the action will be remains to be seen,” Ms. Pelosi said in light of the decline in support for the proposal, which, though nonbinding, has angered Turkey and raised fears that the Turkish government could reduce its strategic cooperation with the United States.

The comments by the speaker, a key supporter of the measure, added to growing evidence that modern-day pragmatism was overwhelming supporters’ demands that the House render a historical verdict on the killings of the Armenians by Ottoman Turks. Mr. Bush, who as a candidate in 2000 criticized what he called a “genocidal campaign” against the Armenians, said lawmakers had better things to do than be caught up in the past, pursuing legislation that has unsettled an important ally.

“With all these pressing responsibilities, one thing Congress should not be doing is sorting out the historical record of the Ottoman Empire,” Mr. Bush said. “Congress has more important work to do than antagonizing a democratic ally in the Muslim world, especially one that is providing vital support for our military every day.”

Backers of the resolution said they would push ahead despite mounting opposition and try to rally support for the declaration, which they said was essential to deter future genocide and protect America’s credibility in speaking out against brutality in places like Darfur and Myanmar.

It also was not lost on them that Mr. Bush was willing to risk upsetting China by honoring the Dalai Lama in a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda in an expression of support for democracy and human rights.

“As we take this principled moral stand in defiance of the Chinese government, we must similarly be willing to speak out on the Armenian genocide,” said a statement issued by the six chief sponsors of the House resolution. “If we as a nation are to be a moral leader around the world, we must have the courage to recognize genocide whenever and wherever it occurs.”

One of those sponsors, Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, acknowledged that the resolution had split Jewish lawmakers, with some backing the resolution and others pointing to the risk to Israel should Turkey’s role as a stabilizing force in the region be diminished. He said it would be tragic if Israel’s security became a rationale for not recognizing a case of genocide.

“There is no nexus, but Turkey would like to make one,” he said.

A group of House Democrats pointed more to Turkey’s continuing cooperation in the war in Iraq in urging Ms. Pelosi to refrain from scheduling any vote on the proposal, which they said would not pass in the current environment.

“I’ve got the compassion for the people, the Armenians that are fighting for their ancestors,” said Representative Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat who visited Iraq this month. “But these are real-life situations, and sometimes your heart has to give in to your head and do what makes sense for your country.”

Other lawmakers questioned whether it was wise for Congress to pass judgment on the behavior of other nations when it had yet to weigh in on some of its own, like the treatment of American Indians in the settlement of the continent.

“All the time when we won, it was a victory, and when they won, it was a massacre,” Representative Alcee L. Hastings, a Florida Democrat who opposes the genocide resolution, said of the Indians. “Yet they were the ones being chased all the way across the country, and no one has ever apologized to them.”

Congress occasionally embarks on delicate historical issues with foreign policy implications. It did so this year when it approved a resolution calling for Japan to acknowledge using women from occupied territories as sex slaves during World War II. The vote angered Japanese officials, but their objections failed to persuade the House to drop the matter.

Armenian-Americans saw parallels in the vote on the Japanese issue and the Armenian proposal, and they urged the House to move ahead.

“It is shameful and hypocritical that the Bush administration would cede our moral authority in condemning genocide, thereby becoming an enabler in Turkey’s worldwide multimillion-dollar campaign of genocide denial,” said a statement from the Armenian National Committee of America, which painted Turkey as an unreliable ally.

But opponents of the resolution said that if Turkey should be lost as a partner, any effort to bring the war in Iraq to a close could be greatly complicated.

“This is not about Turkey, pro-Turkey or anti-Armenia, or vice versa,” said Representative John Tanner, Democrat of Tennessee. “From my perspective, it is about the United States being able to bring a swift — hopefully — resolution to this conflict in Iraq.”

Mr. Schiff, who had appeared close to expecting House approval of the resolution after an initial victory in the Foreign Affairs Committee last week, seemed resigned that it now might not prevail in light of the push from the administration, Turkey’s government, lobbyists retained by Turkey and worried lawmakers.

“We have the truth on our side,” Mr. Schiff said, “but the truth doesn’t always win.”