WASHINGTON — Approval of an Armenian genocide resolution by the House of Representatives would have "very, very unfortunate" consequences for U.S.-Turkish relations, Turkish Ambassador Nabi Sensoy warned Friday.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee will consider the diplomatically charged resolution Wednesday. In an interview, Sensoy said "we are deploying all the efforts that we can" to defeat the nonbinding measure, which he thinks could unravel a strategic alliance.
"I fear — and expect, in fact — a strong reaction from the Turkish people," Sensoy said, "and of course no government can remain indifferent to this reaction."
Introduced by Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the 1,780-word resolution declares that "the Armenian Genocide was conceived and carried out by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923." Armenians say an estimated 1.5 million died during the period.
Symbolically, the resolution puts the House on record as characterizing the Armenian slaughter as genocide. Politically, it has high visibility in regions with large Armenian-American populations, including Southern California, California's San Joaquin Valley, Michigan and New Jersey.
"Silence is genocide's greatest ally, and I am very happy that the silence regarding the Armenian genocide will be ending next week," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif. "It is well past due that the Armenian genocide finally be recognized as such in our nation."
The last time an Armenian genocide resolution came before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in 2005, it was approved 40-7. Congressional Republican leaders blocked it from reaching the House floor.
The House committee likewise had approved an Armenian genocide resolution in 2000, and House Republican leaders also killed that measure.
This year, 226 House members publicly support the resolution, including 23 members of the foreign affairs panel. Nonetheless, Sensoy said "it will be a close race" Wednesday.
Certainly, no expense is being spared. Justice Department records show that Turkey signed a $100,000-a-month contract in May with the lobbying firm DLA Piper, one of several hired to fight the resolution.
Separately, Turkey paid Bob Livingston, former House Appropriations Committee chairman, $625,000 for work from March 1 to Aug. 31, records show. Last month, Turkey added the public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard to its roster at $113,000 a month.
"It is out of necessity, of course," Sensoy said. "On the Armenian side, many people are working, and we need the lobbying firms to have certain access on Capitol Hill."
"It is true that what happened in 1915 is a very sad episode in our common history," he said. "Hundreds of thousands of Armenians perished. Hundreds of thousands of Turks perished. . . . We don't need a new generation of people to hate one another."
He said he did "hope and believe" that the committee's chairman, Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., would oppose the resolution.
Lantos won't tip his hand before Wednesday's committee hearing, said his spokeswoman, Lynne Weil.
Lantos opposed the 2000 resolution, citing its "substantial negative effects on our strategic interests in the region."
He voted for the 2005 resolution, to chastise Turkey for stopping the United States from using the country as a launching pad for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he said.
"Turkey was not very popular at that point," Sensoy conceded.
Neither is the United States currently very popular in Turkey.
Almost four-fifths of Turks surveyed earlier this year favored "strong action" by their government if an Armenian resolution passes. More than 80 percent said they'd oppose Turkey helping out in nearby Iraq. Many said they'd consider boycotting U.S. products. American exports to Turkey totaled about $5.4 billion last year.
"If this resolution does pass, the Turkish government and Turkish people will take it as a personal insult," Sensoy said, while stressing that he doesn't want to be "misconstrued as threatening" lawmakers with retaliation.
On Friday, the International Association of Genocide Scholars retorted in a letter that France and Turkey "are engaged in more bilateral trade than ever before" despite the French National Assembly's support for a genocide resolution.
"We would not expect the U.S. government to be intimidated by an unreliable ally with a deeply disturbing human rights record," Genocide Watch founder Gregory H. Stanton and the other scholars wrote.
The 62-year-old Sensoy is a veteran diplomat who previously served as Turkey's ambassador in Moscow and Madrid. He was embassy counselor in 1981 when President Ronald Reagan declared that "like the genocide of the Armenians before it . . . the lessons of the Holocaust must never be forgotten." Sensoy called this a "very unwelcome statement," but noted that other presidents since "have avoided use" of what he termed "the G word."
Most recently, eight former secretaries of state from both parties cautioned Congress against the dangers of dictating history.