WASHINGTON — Torn between international diplomacy and domestic politics, the Obama administration is speaking softly and not using any stick as a House of Representatives committee moves toward approving a controversial Armenian genocide resolution Thursday.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee appears poised to approve the resolution, which asserts that, "The Armenian Genocide was conceived and carried out by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923."
House committee passage, however, is only one step in a campaign that's intended to get the U.S. House of Representatives on the record as calling genocide the 1915-1923 events in which, by some counts, more than 1.5 million Armenians perished. That goal still could be elusive.
"I'm optimistic, though I never underestimate the power of the Turkish lobby," Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the resolution's author, said in an interview Wednesday.
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The resolution has 137 House co-sponsors, far fewer than the 218 that are needed for approval by the full House, leaving two crucial questions:
- Will House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., require the resolution's supporters to secure 218 co-sponsors before a full House vote?
- What's President Barack Obama's position, and how forthrightly will he express it?
The 218 co-sponsor standard isn't applied to every bill, but congressional leaders could use it to keep the incendiary resolution bottled up on procedural grounds.
Obama supported an Armenian genocide resolution when he was campaigning for president, as have other candidates, but he avoided the term "genocide" in his official statement last April marking the events. His administration's subsequent statements could be interpreted as suggesting, but only obliquely, that Congress should leave the issue alone.
"Our interests remain a full, frank and just acknowledgement of the facts related to the historical events," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last Thursday. "But the best way to do that, with all respect, is for the Armenians and Turkish people themselves to address the facts of their past as part of their efforts to move forward."
In a similar vein, Defense Secretary Robert Gates cautioned last month that, "Anything that would impede the success of those (Turkish and Armenian) discussions and negotiations I think is objectionable."
Schiff characterized the Obama administration's apparent position as "neutral," which he described as "a step forward" from the Bush administration's vocal opposition to the genocide resolution.
The resolution is a long-standing priority for the Armenian diaspora, politically potent and concentrated in Florida, New Jersey and California's San Joaquin Valley. The 2000 census recorded 385,000 U.S. residents of Armenian ancestry, three times the number who claim Turkish ancestry.
Supporters call the resolution a necessary recognition of a human-directed catastrophe in which more than a million Armenians were killed or force-marched into the Syrian desert.
The resolution, however, is perennially troublesome for presidents, who are pressed by worried U.S. military officers and diplomats, as well as by Turkish officials. The Turkish government considers the nonbinding resolution an insult to the nation's 72 million people.
"We don't want anything to interfere with our relations," Murat Mercan, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Turkey's Grand National Assembly, said in an interview.
Mercan, who once taught management at Cleveland State University, led an eight-member parliamentary delegation this week to lobby against the resolution. The public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard, which has a $113,000-a-month contract with Turkey, according to public records, assisted the delegation's efforts.
Mercan warned that passing the resolution would "make it very difficult if not impossible" for the Turkish legislature to ratify protocols negotiated between Turkey and Armenia. The protocols seek to reconcile the two countries, in part by establishing a historical commission to research what happened during World War I and afterward.
American military contractors have joined the debate, with the chief executive officers of Boeing, Lockheed Martin and three other defense firms signing a joint letter last Friday warning that the resolution posed "negative repercussions for U.S. geopolitical interests and efforts to boost both exports and employments."
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