The House Foreign Affairs Committee recently presented the Bush administration with another major foreign-policy challenge by approving a nonbinding resolution (19 Democrats and 8 Republicans voting affirmatively) condemning Turkey for alleged genocidal acts against Armenians in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire nine decades ago. The action infuriated Turkish leaders and citizens and seriously threatens the strong bi-lateral and military strategic relationship the U.S. has had with this important Muslim ally since the Truman Doctrine Agreement of 1947.
Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi intends to schedule a full House vote on the resolution next month — despite strong concerns of President Bush, the secretaries of defense and state, the two top American officials in Iraq, and eight former Republican and Democrat secretaries of state who believe the resolution could damage U.S. Middle East regional security interests and/or the well-being of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The top House Republican, John Boehner, called the House leadership action the “most irresponsible” thing done in Congress this year claiming what was done 90 years ago should be something for historians, not Washington politicians, to sort out.
The House resolution accuses Turkey’s former Ottoman Empire of killing and displacing two million Armenians from 1915 to 1923 and calls upon the American president to assign the genocide label to it. The resolution does not discuss the alternative view of the current Turkish government and some historians who claim that between 250,000 to 500,000 Armenians, and as many Muslims, died in civil strife and war-related deaths when Armenians sided with Russian invaders against the country during WW I.
The impetus behind the current resolution appears to be a powerful Armenian-American lobby supported by an even more powerful Greek-American lobby which heavily influences many Democrats and Republicans — and a group of House lawmakers who have seized upon this issue as another opportunity to undermine the Iraq war effort.
There could be serious repercussions if a full House votes takes place. One possibility is that Turkey’s government will ignore U.S. entreaties by sending combat troops into northern Iraq to quell Kurdish rebels — an unwanted action that could complicate recent American successes in the country. Another possibility is that Turkey could deny U.S. access to seaports and the Incirlik air base which are currently used as critical re-supply points for American troops. About 70 percent of the fuel, weapons, equipment, supplies, and life-saving IED resistant vehicles needed to perform successful combat missions in Iraq transit through Turkey.
Acrimony between Armenians and Turks dates back centuries. Their countries presently don’t have diplomatic relations or share open borders. Most fought against each other during WW I. Armenia is a Caucasus Christian country of three million people — while Turkey is a secular Muslim country of 73 million people located in one of the world’s most geostrategically important areas bordering four seas and six countries including Iraq and the terrorist states of Iran and Syria. During the Cold War period Armenia was part of the Soviet Union while modern Turkey allied itself with the U.S. and the Free World against Soviet tyranny and hegemony, fighting alongside U.S. troops in Korea, and joining NATO. Today, Turkey serves as a bulwark against radical Islamic forces and is one of few Muslim countries having full diplomatic, economic and military relations with Israel.
The House resolution’s chief sponsor, Congressman Adam Schiff (D., Calif.) claims it “will give the U.S. the moral authority it needs to take action against other genocides like that taking place today in Darfur.”
History shows the U.S. already has a solid record on this issue. The U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913 to 1916, Henry Morgenthau, organized and led protests against the alleged Armenian persecution; the U.S. Congress and President Wilson were instrumental in creating the Near East Relief, which from 1915 to 1930 contributed $116 million to aid Armenian survivors, including 132,000 orphans who eventually became American foster children; the U.S. House passed a resolution in 1975 designating a day of remembrance for all victims of genocide, especially those of Armenian ancestry; and Presidents Reagan, Clinton and Bush acknowledged the forced exile and annihilation of Armenians in 1981, 1998, and 2004 proclamations.
The U.S./Turkey relationship is too important to be sacrificed on the altar of self-serving domestic political interests. And unless it’s clearly in U.S. national security interest, genocide prevention should be the prime responsibility of organizations like the United Nations or the European Union, African Union, and Islamic Conference for what happened in places like Bosnia and Rwanda and for what’s happening today in Sudan. For the U.S. Congress to antagonize an ally like Turkey over an event occurring so long ago — with perpetrators dead and the Ottoman government nonexistent — is unnecessary, irresponsible, and dangerous.
When a similar resolution passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2000, Republican House Speaker Hastert wisely acquiesced to President Clinton’s request not to bring the resolution before the full House because of its possible negative impact on U.S. national security. It was the right decision then and the right thing for Pelosi to do now.
– Fred Gedrich is a foreign-policy and national-security analyst, having served in the U.S. Departments of State and Defense and visited Armenia and Turkey on official assignments.