Again, Armenian genocide resolution confronts a president

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 17, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The perennial political battle over an Armenian genocide resolution is joined again, as lawmakers Tuesday introduced a symbolic measure that puts President Barack Obama in a bind.

The resolution backed by lawmakers who represent large numbers of Armenian-American constituents calls on Obama to "accurately characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1,500,000 Armenians as genocide."

The bill introduced with 77 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives largely tracks similar resolutions introduced in previous years. Its fundamental point is to apply the term "genocide" to events that occurred between 1915 and 1923 during the Ottoman Empire's final years. The empire was based in what is now the Republic of Turkey.

"It has never served our national interest to become complicit in the denial of genocide, and it never will," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. "While there are still some survivors left, we have a compelling moral obligation to speak plainly about the past."

But what some call a moral obligation strikes others as a diplomatic conundrum. Obama had one of the first telephone calls of his presidency with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, with whom Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has met personally. Obama in early April will visit Turkey, where the genocide resolution is anathema.

The biggest test for the Obama administration is what the president will say on or around April 24, the traditional date for any Armenian genocide commemoration. A Los Angeles Times story published Tuesday suggested that Obama might postpone the traditional commemorative statement. A White House spokesman could not be reached Tuesday to elaborate.

"The resolution would be insulting to Turkey and would be very poorly received," said James H. Holmes, a retired U.S. ambassador who is now president of the American Turkish Council. He added that "some very significant commercial opportunities" might be put at risk.

As a presidential candidate, Obama bluntly characterized the deaths of Armenians.

"There was a genocide that did take place against the Armenian people," Obama said during one filmed campaign appearance. "It is one of these situations where we have seen a constant denial on the part of the Turkish government and others that this has occurred."

Clinton, while a senator, co-sponsored the Senate's version of a genocide resolution. National Security Council staffer Samantha Power, a high-profile foreign policy adviser during the campaign, filmed a video specifically aimed at Armenian-American voters considering a vote for Obama.

President Ronald Reagan in 1984 issued an Armenian genocide recognition. But other presidents, including George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, have made similar campaign attestations only to retreat from the genocide term once in office.

State Department officials have testified that historians differ as to whether the word genocide properly applies. More generally, diplomats have warned of potential diplomatic fallout.

"America can ill afford to lose the support of a critical ally like Turkey," Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., a leader in the Congressional Caucus on Turkey, declared at one 2007 House hearing.

Schiff and Rep. George Radanovich, R.-Calif., have traded off as the resolution's chief sponsor, depending upon which party controls the House. Neither, though, has yet advanced the resolution to the House floor.

In 2007, amid intense pressure from the Pentagon, the White House and Turkey, 25 House members withdrew their support for a similar Armenian genocide resolution. At the time, military leaders warned that the resolution would undermine U.S. relations with a valued ally whose support was needed for success in Iraq.

Seven years before, literally minutes before Radanovich was going to bring a genocide resolution to the House floor, then-Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., pulled the plug following an urgent phone call from the White House.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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