Armenian genocide resolution again moving through House

WASHINGTON — It's crunch time for an Armenian genocide resolution, where foreign policy meets ethnic politics and a familiar plot keeps recurring.

As of Friday, a majority of the House of Representatives supports a resolution recognizing the slaughter of Armenians between 1915 and 1923 as genocide.

With that important hurdle crossed, Armenian-Americans and their congressional champions now must see what congressional leaders have in mind.

"We're making sure we have all of our ducks lined up," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.

Schiff and Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., are the chief sponsors of the genocide resolution, introduced in its latest form five months ago. Radanovich acknowledged recently that he's "a little concerned" that the House Foreign Relations Committee hasn't yet considered it.

Different concerns motivate the White House and the Turkish government. Both vigorously resist the resolution that they say will endanger diplomatic relations. Already, a new poll finds that 83 percent of Turkish residents view the United States negatively.

"This is a very sensitive time to be bringing up this resolution," cautioned Rep. Phil English, R-Pa. "Right now, we need to be reaching out to Turkey."

English's change of heart illustrates the complicated politics of genocide recognition. He's one of five House members who initially endorsed the resolution this year but later withdrew support. English said he dropped his sponsorship, six weeks after signing onto the bill, following a meeting with members of the Turkish parliament.

English's congressional district in far northwestern Pennsylvania lacks a sizable Armenian-American population.

By contrast, more than 50,000 Armenian-Americans live in California's San Joaquin Valley, where the Armenian genocide issue is acutely important to the region's politicians.

This year's version is now backed by 218 House members, a majority. Backers secured additional sponsors in recent days, following an extended telephone campaign organized through the Armenian National Committee of America.

The resolution is symbolic, articulating a viewpoint that lacks the force of law. It urges President Bush to "accurately characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation" of Armenians as genocide.

"The Armenian Genocide was conceived and carried out by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923, resulting in the deportation of nearly 2,000,000 Armenians, of whom 1,500,000 men, women, and children were killed (and) 500,000 survivors were expelled from their homes," the resolution says.

Genocide was defined as a crime under international law in 1948, after the Ottoman Empire had expired. It means "an intent to destroy" a population "in whole or in part." It includes killing and "deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction."

Many historians, including the International Association of Genocide Scholars, have concluded that the murders and forced deportations of Armenians into the unforgiving Syrian desert amounted to genocide.

The Turkish government disputes the overall death count and says the Armenians were caught in a tumultuous time of war.

"Unlike the Holocaust, the numbers, dates, facts and the context associated with this period are all contested, and objective scholars remain deeply divided," Turkish Ambassador Nabi Sensoy declared in a statement last year.

To help spread this viewpoint, the Turkish government is paying former Rep. Robert Livingston, R-La., $750,000 every six months.

Foreign agent records filed with the Justice Department show how the lobbying works.

In April 2006, for instance, records show that the Livingston firm contacted Texas Republican Kay Granger, Texas Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson and Idaho Republican Mike Simpson, among many other lawmakers. The lobbying firm wanted them to know about the author of a book titled "The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide."

"When these events and the sources describing them are subjected to careful examination, they provide at most a shaky foundation from which to claim, let alone conclude, that the deaths of Armenians were premeditated," the author, retired historian Guenter Lewy, wrote in one journal article.

In May, public records also show, the Turkish government also signed a $100,000-a-month lobbying contract with the firm of former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo.

A Democrat, and one-time presidential candidate, Gephardt had supported versions of the genocide resolution when he was in Congress.

"The Turkish government is lobbying heavily," Radanovich said. "They've been working it."

The Bush administration, like the Clinton administration before it, emphasizes the diplomatic costs of alienating Turkey. The last time Radanovich came close to getting a House vote on a genocide resolution, in 2000, then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., pulled the bill from the floor at the last minute at President Clinton's request.

The current House speaker, Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California, supported previous genocide resolutions when she was a rank-and-file House member. Ultimately, Radanovich said, it will be Pelosi's call on whether the resolution gets a vote.

"I think we have a good shot at this," Schiff said.