'Armenian Genocide' Bill Moves Ahead, Americans in Turkey Warned

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - Turkey's government on Thursday reacted strongly to a congressional panel's approval of a bill calling the mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey "genocide."

American citizens in Turkey have been urged to take precautions in case of anti-U.S. protests over the emotion-laden issue.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul called the move "unacceptable," telling the semi-official Anatolia news agency in a midnight statement that some U.S. politicians had "ignored appeals for common sense and once again moved to sacrifice big issues to petty games of domestic politics."

Despite concerted and highly visible administration lobbying against the move, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed by a 27-21 vote a non-binding resolution saying that the World War I-era killings constituted a "genocide" that should be acknowledged fully in U.S. foreign policy towards Turkey, along with "the consequences of the failure to realize a just resolution."

Historians say an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed in and after 1915, as the Ottoman Empire crumbled. Turkey maintains that between 250,000 and 500,000 Armenians, and at least as many Muslims, died in civil strife and war-related deaths, and it denies the genocide claims.

Opponents of the bill, including President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and a host of former secretaries of state and defense, Republican and Democrat, argue that the measure jeopardizes relations with an important ally at a time Turkey's cooperation in Iraq and Afghanistan are crucial.

Bush said at the White House before Wednesday's vote that passage of the resolution "would do great harm to our relations with a key ally in NATO and in the global war on terror."

After meeting with the president and Rice, Gates told reporters at the White House that 70 percent of U.S. air cargo headed for Iraq -- including 95 percent of new mine-resistant vehicles -- goes through Turkey, and Turkish reaction to the resolution could put those supply lines in jeopardy.

In a debate the pitted pragmatism against principle and did not fall along party lines, lawmakers on the committee Wednesday weighed the warnings of possible consequences against a symbolic but significant expression of support for the victims of the atrocities.

In an opening statement that acknowledged the difficult decision, committee chairman Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), a Holocaust survivor, said the choice was a sobering one.

"We have to weigh the desire to express our solidarity with the Armenian people and to condemn this historic nightmare through the use of the word 'genocide' against the risk that it could cause young men and women in the uniform of the United States armed services to pay an even heavier price than they are currently paying," he said.

Republican Rep. Chris Smith (N.J.), a supporter of the bill, tackled the administration's position head-on, referring to "a conspiracy of obfuscation and expediency [that] tries to muffle any acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide."

"During the Holocaust the international community waffled and slithered away from responsibility. It did it again in Rwanda, in Bosnia, and it is doing it even as we speak in Darfur," he said.

"American foreign policy must never be complicit in another government's denial of genocide."

Opposing the bill in similarly forceful terms, fellow Republican Rep. Dan Burton (Ind.) said it could endanger U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We're in the middle of two wars," he told the meeting. "We have troops out there who are at risk. And we're talking about kicking an ally in the teeth. It is crazy."

The resolution will now go to the full House for a vote; a similar bill is in the Senate.

Egemen Bagis, a foreign policy advisor to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told Turkish private NTV television Thursday the focus would now move to preventing the measure from reaching the House floor or passing once there.

When a similar bill reached the House in October 2000, then Speaker Rep. Dennis Hastert withdrew it minutes before a scheduled vote, after President Clinton warned it would harm ties with Turkey.

Current Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who has been the target of energetic lobbying for and against the bill in recent weeks, and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer met with Turkey's ambassador Wednesday, but Hoyer said afterwards he expected a floor vote before the House adjourns for the year on November 16.

Cooperation at risk

After the vote, the State Department quickly issued a statement expressing "regret," saying passage of the bill "may do grave harm to U.S.-Turkish relations and to U.S. interests in Europe and the Middle East."

Spokesman Sean McCormack reiterated the administration's position that the bill will not improve Turkish-Armenian relations or advance reconciliation between them, and said that the U.S. government supports "a full and fair accounting of the atrocities that befell as many as 1.5 million Armenians."

Turkish politicians from the president and prime minister down have been warning that passage of the resolution could impact relations with the U.S., which are already under strain over cross-border terrorism perpetrated in southeastern Turkey by Kurdish separatists based in northern Iraq (see related story).

Turkey has in the past shown itself willing to stop military cooperation with allies over foreign policy disputes.

When the U.S. Congress in 1975 imposed an arms embargo on Turkey over its invasion of northern Cyprus the previous year, Ankara responded by closing all U.S. military operations except for the restricted use of one airbase. The embargo was lifted in 1978, and Turkey lifted the restrictions.

More recently, when the French National Assembly voted a year ago to make it a crime to deny that the killings of Armenians were genocide, Turkey suspended military ties with France, and military cooperation has yet to resume (That vote in Paris also reflected the sensitivity of the issue -- 106 deputies voted for the resolution and 19 against, but 448 chose not to vote at all.)

Late Wednesday, hundreds of Turkish protestors marched to the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, where a warden's message has been issuing warning American citizens about the possibility of "reaction in the form of demonstrations and other manifestations of anti-Americanism throughout Turkey."

The statement recalled that French interests in Turkey were targeted after French lawmakers passed the bill on the issue last October.

It cautioned U.S. citizens living in or visiting Turkey to be alert, avoid large gatherings, and especially places known to be frequented by Americans.

See Earlier Story:
Administration, Congress at Odds Over Armenian Genocide Bill (Oct. 8, 2007)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow