Sponsors delay Armenian genocide vote

They bow to fears the resolution could harm the U.S. war effort in Iraq by angering Turkey.

October 26, 2007
Source: Los Angeles Times (California)

By Richard Simon

WASHINGTON — Yielding to fierce diplomatic and political pressure, congressional sponsors of an Armenian genocide resolution abruptly put off a vote on the measure Thursday and defused a mounting confrontation with Turkey that was threatening to hamper the U.S. war effort in Iraq.

The decision, a swift reversal for the long-debated resolution, disappointed supporters who two weeks ago were optimistic that the House would approve it. "We're not going to bring it up until we're confident we have the votes to pass it," said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who introduced the measure. "It's going to take some time."

The action extricated House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) from the clash between a powerful constituency in California and an important U.S. military ally.

As the measure approached a vote, the Turkish government warned that the resolution's passage could lead to a rupture in relations and disrupt U.S. military operations in Iraq. Most of the supplies headed to U.S. forces in Iraq are flown through Turkey. The issue also came up as the United States was imploring Turkey not to send forces into northern Iraq to curb Kurdish rebel attacks.

Republican opponents welcomed the delay and blamed Pelosi for a miscalculation on an important foreign policy matter. "Fortunately, the right decision was made before this debacle turned into a full-blown national security crisis," said Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

The resolution's backers once counted a majority of the House as sponsors. When it cleared the House Foreign Affairs Committee two weeks ago, Pelosi pledged to bring it to the floor.

"When it passed out of Foreign Affairs, I thought it was finally going to happen," said Rep. George Radanovich (R-Mariposa), a sponsor of the resolution, which calls on the president to "accurately characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1,500,000 Armenians as genocide."

But support began to ebb as President Bush and Turkey escalated their warnings and the situation in northern Iraq deteriorated. Two dozen representatives have withdrawn their support, raising doubts about whether it could pass.

Supporters said that Pelosi remained committed to the measure and that they had no choice but to bow to political reality. "If this were to come up to the floor today, it would be too close to call," said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks).

The resolution's backers stressed that they delayed the vote only to buy time to rebuild political support.

Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.), a co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues, who has pressed the resolution for more than a decade, said he was hopeful. "We have never been anywhere near this close. Never. I don't think we're going to give up."

In a letter to Pelosi sent Thursday, four of the measure's sponsors said they would press for passage later this year or next year. "We believe that a large majority of our colleagues want to support a resolution recognizing the genocide on the House floor and that they will do so, provided the timing is more favorable," wrote Reps. Schiff, Sherman, Anna G. Eshoo (D-Menlo Park) and Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.).

Aram S. Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, faxed a letter to every House member, criticizing Turkey and expressing "disappointment, even anger, that an ally is so brazenly threatening the security of our troops."

"We are confident that, as the confusion over these threats lifts, an even stronger bipartisan majority will stand up against Turkey's intimidation and vote to adopt this human rights resolution on its merits," he wrote.

The Turkish government disputes that the World War I-era killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks was a genocide, contending that both Turks and Armenians were casualties of the war, famine and disease. But historical evidence and authoritative research support the term, and The Times' policy is to refer to the deaths as genocide.

Turkish Ambassador Nabi Sensoy, who was recalled to Ankara in protest of the House committee vote but returned last weekend, said in a statement that he was pleased that the measure was not headed to a floor vote. "This is a deeply complex and emotional issue that has caused great anguish among the Turkish people," he said. "We do not believe it is the role of the U.S. Congress -- or of any legislative body -- to pass judgment on this historical matter."

Sensoy continued, "It is high time to use our energies to encourage reconciliation between Turks and Armenians, and normalization between Turkey and Armenia, something we Turks have been striving to achieve for a long time."

Armenian American groups were not in a conciliatory mood.

"The true danger to America's interests comes from caving in to foreign interference in American human rights policy," said Andrew Kzirian, Western region executive director of Armenian National Committee of America. "Turkey's threats and intimidation have caused some members to take a second look. But as the initial fear over Turkey's threats turns to anger, we're beginning to see a backlash."

Armenian American groups vowed to continue their grass-roots lobbying campaign for the resolution. Jason P. Capizzi, executive director of the Armenian-American Political Action Committee, said he understood the political reality that bringing up the resolution at this time would be difficult for Schiff and the other sponsors "given Turkey's continued and desperate threats."

But he also said: "We remain encouraged and confident that this Congress will reaffirm the U.S. record on the Armenian genocide."

A number of the resolution's supporters said its fate may depend on circumstances in Turkey and Iraq.

"With Turkey's success to tying this thing to the war in Iraq, it's going to be tough to disconnect those two," said Radanovich, one of the resolution's lead sponsors. "But I think they're going to have to be disconnected before we've got some hope of bringing it back."

The latest setback follows others.

Similar resolutions approved by the House in 1975 and 1984 did not make it through the Senate. In 2000, a resolution was headed to the House floor when then-Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) abruptly called off the vote because President Clinton warned him that it could damage national security.

Pelosi's office declined to comment on the decision other than to say that she was deferring to the wishes of the sponsors.

Despite admonitions from top administration officials, the Turkish prime minister and former secretaries of State, Pelosi, a longtime supporter of the resolution, insisted a week and a half ago that she would bring it to a vote.

Last week, however, as a number of Democratic colleagues urged her not to, she sounded uncertain.

Radanovich said he supported delaying a vote, but he declined to sign the letter. Asserting that Pelosi had decided on her own not to bring the resolution to a vote, he said: "It's not in my interest to give cover to the speaker."

John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, said Pelosi had pressed House members further than they wanted to go, "so she had to back off. The episode is far from fatal, but it suggests that she is still struggling to master the job."

The resolution has been strongly opposed by the Bush administration.

After the committee vote, the administration and Turkey, aided by lobbyists, stepped up efforts to persuade the House to deep-six the measure.

Bush and military leaders personally called lawmakers.

Turkey's top general said House passage of the resolution would rupture U.S. relations with one of its most reliable allies in the Islamic world.

At the same time, deadly cross-border raids by Kurdish rebels into Turkey have inflamed public opinion in the country, which has accused the United States and Iraq of not doing enough to stem the attacks. The Turkish parliament overwhelmingly granted the government permission to invade northern Iraq to pursue Kurdish insurgents.

Kurdish rebels ambushed a Turkish army patrol Sunday, killing at least 12 soldiers and raising the possibility of a Turkish incursion, which could destabilize the safest region in Iraq.

Sherman said that the high-profile Turkish campaign to kill the resolution gave its supporters a victory of sorts: "The purpose of the resolution is to raise awareness of the Armenian genocide. Thanks to the Turkish Embassy, we have been spectacularly successful."