House panel approves Armenian genocide resolution

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 4, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday narrowly approved an Armenian genocide resolution over last-minute objections by the Obama administration.

After an extended debate that awoke many old ghosts, the committee approved the resolution by 23-22. The measure would put the House of Representatives on record as applying the word "genocide" to a man-made catastrophe in which, by some estimates, 1.5 million Armenians died from 1915 to 1923 during the final days of the Ottoman Empire.

"I don't pretend to be a professional historian," said committee Chairman Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., "but the vast majority of experts agree that the tragic massacre of Armenians constitutes a genocide."

The nine-page resolution says that "the failure of the domestic and international authorities to punish those responsible for the Armenian genocide is a reason why similar genocides have recurred and may recur in the future."

The Turkish government in Ankara recalled its newly appointed ambassador to the United States, Namik Tan, shortly after the House committee voted, for what were described as "consultations." The Turkish government took a similar step in 2007 after an earlier committee vote.

Many of the resolution's supporters in Congress represent regions with large and politically vocal Armenian-American populations, including Florida, New Jersey and California.

"My Armenian friends in the neighborhood I grew up in believed this was a genocide," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., "and so do I."

The resolution is nonbinding and doesn't need a presidential signature or Senate action. Even so, its long-term future was cast into serious doubt with the Obama administration's decision to explicitly oppose a measure that the president and his top advisers once supported.

The vote Thursday afternoon was dragged out far past the usual deadline, with resolution opponents leading by a wide margin at one point. The resolution's author, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., was buttonholing members on the House floor to propel them to the committee room to vote.

One committee member, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, watched the final vote from the side but didn't participate.

On Wednesday night, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had telephoned Berman to urge him not to bring up the resolution. Berman declined to discuss details of the conversation, but a White House spokesman confirmed that the Obama administration fears the resolution could undermine Turkish and Armenian reconciliation.

"In that conversation, the secretary indicated that further congressional action could impede progress on normalization of relations," National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said.

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, added that he'd received a classified briefing that warned the genocide resolution could hinder U.S. military efforts as well as reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia.

Resistance to the resolution marks a reversal for Clinton, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, all of whom had campaigned on the premise of support for an Armenian genocide resolution. "It's disheartening to see this, at the eleventh hour," acknowledged Bryan Ardouny, the executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America.

Armenian National Committee of America Chairman Ken Hachikian, while pleased with the outcome Thursday, said after the tense vote that "it will definitely be an uphill fight" to win full House approval of the resolution.

Now that it's explicit, the Obama administration's resistance will make it harder for supporters to rally the 218 co-sponsors that are needed for full House passage. Three years ago, a similar resolution that had won committee approval withered in the face of opposition from the Bush administration.

"The Turkish people are upset, and you will see the Turkish government will take all necessary steps to make that displeasure known," said Suat Kiniklioglu, the head of the Turkey-U.S. Inter-parliamentary Friendship Caucus.

As of Thursday, the resolution had 137 co-sponsors, although more were being added. On the other side, the resolution has mobilized a potent array of U.S. opponents. Major defense firms including Boeing and Lockheed Martin and leading lawmakers including the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, warn that the measure would harm U.S. national security interests.

Turkey has about 1,700 troops in Afghanistan assisting the U.S.-led effort there, and American warplanes based at Turkey's Incirlik Air Base supply troops in Iraq.

"This is a sensitive time for U.S. efforts in both Europe and the Middle East," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the senior Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Eight members of Turkey's Grand National Assembly observed the debate from front row seats. Three women described as survivors of the Armenian killings, the youngest of them 95, sat nearby in wheelchairs. Others in the standing-room-only audience sported "NO" tags while some bore tags with an equally vehement "YES."

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