Congress Mulls Resolution on Armenian 'Genocide'
ROBERT SIGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
And this is the question a congressional panel has been considering today: Should the slaughter of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during World War I be called genocide? Historians have argued about it for decades. And today, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a resolution of firming the genocide label.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that she wants to bring that to the House floor. That has upset the Bush administration, which says the measure would harm relations with Turkey - a key ally in the Middle East.
NPR's David Welna is with us from the Capitol. David, what exactly is it that the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed today?
DAVID WELNA: Well, Robert, by a vote of 27-to-21 that was really bipartisan. It's actually a bipartisan nonbinding congressional exhortation to the U.S. president and it calls on him or her, as the case may be, to refer to the deaths of as many as a million and a half Armenians during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire as having amounted to genocide. And that's something that both Armenians and Armenian-Americans have been asking for years the Congress do.
In fact, at today's hearing, there were four elderly Armenian women sitting in wheelchairs in the front row who'd survived that massacre. And, you know, their presence really sort of made palpable how alive this grievance remains.
SIGEL: Now, the resolution has been opposed vehemently by the Turkish government. And today, President Bush voiced his administration's opposition as well.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: We all deeply regret the tragic suffering of the Armenian people that began in 1915, but this resolution is not the right response to these historic mass killings. And its passage would do great harm to our relations with a key ally in NATO and in the global war on terror.
SIEGEL: It sounds like a big issue for the White House.
WELNA: It really is a big deal for the White House. And you could see today that they were sort of pulling out all the stops to talk this resolution down. You had Defense Secretary Gates and Secretary of State Rice also speaking out against it. And their argument really comes down to this is not the time to roil the waters with Turkey, that Ankara is a key ally - perhaps most important ally - at this point in the war in Iraq.
And that's because the U.S. depends so much on Turkey's allowing the U.S. to use the airbase at Incirlik for military flights into Iraq. And Turkey also allows some 3,000 trucks a day to cross its southern border into northern Iraq to supply U.S. troops. It's a key supply line. And the fear is that a backlash in Turkey against a genocide resolution by Congress could lead to that access being closed off or restricted just as Turkey refused to let the U.S. stage its invasion of Iraq from its territory four years ago.
SIEGEL: Well, given that those possible consequences would be very negative for the U.S., why does it seem that this resolution has so much brought support in Congress?
WELNA: Well, for one thing, you have lawmakers who have strong constituent pressure from Armenian Americans in their districts. The resolution's chief sponsor is California Democrat Adam Schiff, who has probably the country's largest concentration of ethnic Armenians in his district. And Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has many ethnic Armenians in her San Francisco district as well.
In fact, she began today's session of the House by having the top prelate in the Armenian church deliver the opening prayer. You also have many lawmakers from both parties who say it's the nation's moral duty to stop the denial of genocide no matter how long ago it happened.
If we're to have the moral grounds on which to condemn what's happening right now in places like Darfur. They also say for Turkey's own good, it's time to face up to what it's been denying for decades. Of course, there are some lawmakers as well who say maybe Congress should think about passing a resolution condemning the fate of native Americans before it passes judgment on other nations.
SIEGEL: This isn't the first time that Congress has taken up such a resolution about the Armenians. What's happened the other times that it's done so?
WELNA: Well, the House actually did pass a resolution back in 1984. They called on President Reagan to issue a proclamation, asking Americans to remember victims of genocide especially the million and a half Armenians who died. But Reagan was the last president to utter the word genocide in reference to what happened in Turkey. And attempts to pass other resolutions since then have all faced fierce resistance from both Democratic and Republican administrations.
SIEGEL: NPR's David Welna at the Capitol. Thank you, David.
WELNA: You're welcome.