Genocide resolution tests Turkey’s K Street clout

October 10, 2007
Source: The Hill (Washington, D.C.)

By Kevin Bogardus and Jim Snyder

Following visits to Ataturk’s Mausoleum and the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in the Turkish capital of Ankara, members of Congress in May sat down for a series of meetings with top Turkish officials, including the Speaker of the national assembly, the deputy chief of the Turkish General Staff and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In every meeting, Rep. Steve Cohen said, U.S. lawmakers heard the same message: Oppose a congressional resolution that defines the killing of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians in the early 1900s as genocide, perpetrated by Ottoman Turks.

Government officials “were constantly saying to vote against the resolution. Constantly,” Cohen, a freshman Democrat from Tennessee, said. “The Turkish government doesn’t want it passed.”

Hosting American officials — three privately sponsored trips, two of which were staff-only, have visited Turkey in the last six months — is just one piece of a furious campaign the Turkish government and its supporters have used to try to turn Congress against the resolution.

The measure is scheduled for a House Foreign Affairs Committee vote Wednesday, the resolution’s first legislative test under the new Democratic majority.

“This resolution enjoys strong bipartisan support and is consistent with concerns long expressed by the American people on the suffering of the Armenian people,” Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said.

If the measure gains committee approval, Elshami said, the Speaker is “supportive of bringing it to the floor.” Another Democratic congressional aide said that it was unclear whether the resolution would pass the committee, although it has supported similar resolutions in the past.

The measure calls upon President Bush to “accurately characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of [1.5 million] Armenians as genocide.”

Lobbying on the issue intensified after the panel vote was scheduled. Three members of the Turkish parliament traveled to Washington Tuesday for a series of meetings with lawmakers and State Department officials to discuss the ramifications of the vote. One delegation member said the trip was his fourth this year.

Turkey has relied heavily on K Street to make its case. Former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt (Mo.) and ex-Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.) are among the lobbyists who have argued that the resolution would unnecessarily harm relations between the two countries.

Livingston shot an eight-minute video that members can see on the Capitol Hill Broadcasting Network. In it, Livingston says Congress “ought not be going out and just gratuitously kicking [Turkey] in the shins with issues that are unnecessary.”

Livingston Group lobbyists have passed out polling data to members that show that 83 percent of Turkish citizens would oppose assisting the United States in Iraq if Congress approves the resolution. American forces now use an airbase in Turkey to re-supply troops in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Gephardt’s firm, DLA Piper, has distributed a small booklet titled “An Appeal to Reason” that disputes Armenia’s claims of genocide, published for meetings with House members in March, according to public records.

Despite the intense lobbying, backers of the resolution are optimistic the House panel will vote in favor of the resolution Wednesday, which would represent a victory for the Armenian-American community that has mounted an aggressive grassroots campaign for the better part of two decades to push the measure through Congress.

“I feel pretty good about things, but they are certainly spending a lot of money on this,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who is a main sponsor of the resolution, said.

Schiff argues there is a “compelling moral and ethical reason” to call the killings in eastern Turkey a genocide. Not doing so, he said, would undermine the United States’ own aggressive posture with the Sudanese government over the crisis in Darfur, which President Bush has labeled a genocide.

However, the Bush administration, like the Clinton administration before it, remains opposed to the Armenian genocide resolution, fearing damage to the U.S.’s relationship with a key ally.

Turkey acknowledges the deaths of tens of thousands of Armenians in clashes from 1915 to 1923, but it says the catastrophe was part of a civil war sparked by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It says atrocities occurred on both sides.

“No one claims those were not horrible days,” said Egemen Bagis, a Turkish member of parliament who is leading the Turkish delegation this week.

Bagis said a request by the Turkish prime minister to set up an international historical commission along with Armenia to study the killings has not been answered by the Armenian government.

“I believe the job of the politician is to determine the future to make the best world for our children, not to determine the past. That is the job of the historian,” the Turkish official said.

Armenian-American backers of the resolution say the evidence that what happened is correctly labeled a genocide is overwhelming and that calls for a commission amount to a delaying tactic.

Armenian genocide resolutions have been debated in previous Congresses. In 2005, for example, what was then the House International Relations Committee voted overwhelmingly to approve a similar resolution. But the measure never reached the floor.

Twice before, the House has voted for a resolution calling the killing of Armenians a genocide, but the measures never passed Congress.

Supporters say that with Democrats in charge of Congress this year, the lobbying has intensified. Those efforts include a well-organized grassroots campaign by the Armenian diaspora, which form significant voting blocs in key states such as California.

The Armenian Assembly of America has sent an action alert to its 10,000 members and has been running phone banks targeted at Foreign Affairs Committee members.

In a letter sent to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, the assembly said the resolution would be an important gesture to survivors of World War I atrocities to “irrevocably and unequivocally reaffirm this fact of history.”

The assembly also has handed out a cable Henry Morgenthau, the ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913 to 1916, sent to the State Department in 1915. In it, Morgenthau wrote, “The great massacres and persecutions of the past seem almost insignificant when compared to the sufferings of the Armenian race in 1915.”

So far, 226 lawmakers have co-sponsored the resolution, enough to pass the measure in a floor vote.

Still, Turkey’s lobbying campaign seems to have had some effect. Nine members have dropped off as co-sponsors. At least three of those members changed their minds after they or their staff members heard from lobbyists from the Livingston Group, according to public records.

Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) was one of those. His spokesman, T. Q. Houlton, said Tancredo dropped sponsorship after sitting through a committee markup for a resolution that encouraged Japan to accept responsibility for the sexual enslavement of so-called “comfort women” during World War II. Tancredo voted against that resolution.

“After the hearing, he felt it would be equally unfair to imply that the current Turkish government bears responsibility for the actions of the now-defunct Ottoman government,” Houlton said.

Houlton added that Tancredo’s “decision had nothing to do with pressure from any foreign government in either case.”

Cohen, the freshman Democrat who visited Turkey in May, said he, too, likely would vote against the measure.

Cohen said he has always heard what happened to Armenians referred to as genocide. “Whatever happened was awful,” he said.

But he called Turkey the only democracy and “our strongest ally” in the Middle East.

“It is important that we have good relations,” he said. Cohen is trying to convince the Congressional Study Group on Turkey to meet in Memphis next year, which would draw a number of Turkish and American officials to his district.