Top defense contractors warn that genocide measure will hurt business

March 3, 2010
Source: The Hill (Washington, D.C.)

By Kevin Bogardus

Executives for the nation’s top defense contractors say billions of dollars in business with Turkey could disappear if a genocide resolution advances on Capitol Hill.

Formally recognizing the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during World War I as genocide could have "unintended consequences," chief executives for Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and United Technologies Corp. warned in a Feb. 26 letter to House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.).

"There is reason to believe committee passage of the resolution risks a rupture in U.S.-Turkey relations. Alienating a significant NATO ally and trading partner would likely have negative repercussions for U.S. geopolitical interests and efforts to boost both exports and employment," the letter says.

The executives told Berman that U.S. defense and aerospace exports to Turkey in 2009 were more than $7 billion and that tens of thousands of American jobs depend on "strong relations" between the two countries. It follows a Feb. 24 letter from the Aerospace Industries Association to Berman that expressed similar concerns about the resolution.

News of the letter comes as Berman plans for the committee to mark up the resolution on Thursday. That has set off a lobbying blitz by Turkish officials who oppose the measure, as well as Armenian-American groups that support it.

Suat Kiniklioglu, a member of the Turkish parliament, is in Washington this week with a delegation of Turkish officials meeting with members to battle back against the resolution. The Turkish lawmaker said there would be "immense repercussions" if Congress signs off on the resolution.

"We have a difficulty in understanding what is the national interest for America in this resolution," Kiniklioglu said. "We are cooperating on so many issues, whether it is Iraq, Afghanistan or counter-terrorism."

Perceived threats to U.S. national security are why many lawmakers end up opposing the resolution, but advocates for Armenian-American groups say this is a human-rights issue that needs official recognition from the U.S. government. Referring to the defense firms in particular, one Armenian advocate said many are just protecting their business interests in Turkey.

"Those companies certainly have a financial interest in Turkey. … They are, unwittingly or wittingly, part of this denial industry," said Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America. "I don’t think we should shy away from speaking the truth."

The resolution appears to have enough support for approval by the panel, but both sides expect a close vote. Half of the 46 members on the panel voted for the resolution during 2007, while 15 lawmakers still on the panel voted against it.

Two of the eight members who did not vote in 2007 — Reps. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) — are co-sponsors of the resolution. If no one switches his or her vote and Berkley and Lee stick to their support, the resolution would be approved.

Ardouny said he was “confident” the committee would approve the resolution.

Kiniklioglu said he was not giving up just yet.
"I’m a politician and I don’t believe anything until I see the votes on paper," the Turkish lawmaker said.

Turkey has mounted an extensive lobbying effort to stop the resolution in its tracks. The Turkish embassy has spent more than $2.2 million with PR giant Fleishman-Hillard since late 2007, according to Justice Department records. Further, the embassy has spent more than $650,000 with the Gephardt Group and $445,000 with Dickstein Shapiro.

Turkey’s roster of lobbyists includes several past lawmakers, among them former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt (Mo.), former Sen. Tim Hutchison (R-Ark.) and former Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.).

Armenian groups have been active as well. The Armenian Assembly of America has spent more than $514,000 on lobbying, while the Armenian National Committee of America has spent almost $150,000 since 2008, according to lobbying disclosure records.

One lobbying force notably absent is the White House. During the 2008 campaign, President Barack Obama was fully behind the resolution but has since distanced himself from the term “genocide.”

Several aides to lawmakers on the committee told The Hill they have not heard from the Obama administration on the resolution. That is an express difference from the last time the resolution was considered in 2007. President George W. Bush was reportedly calling lawmakers personally to oppose the resolution.

"The lobbyist-in chief is not lobbying against this legislation, and that sends an important message," Ardouny said. "I think it reflects the different dynamic than there was the last time the administration was against the bill in 2007."

Kiniklioglu said the lack of involvement by the White House has helped the Armenian cause. "The Bush administration made a lot more of an effort in 2007," he said.

But despite the lobbying battle already raging on Cap tol Hill, it would serve only as a precursor to a much bigger fight. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has not committed to bring the resolution to the floor, which she planned to do in 2007 but ultimately backed down from under heavy pressure from Turkey.

"I hope we will win it in the committee, and if not, we will make sure it doesn’t come to the floor," Kiniklioglu said.