Genocide Resolution Riles Turkey, White House
DEBORAH AMOS, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
The use of a single powerful word is at the center of a dispute between the United States Congress and Turkey. The word is genocide. It refers to the killing of one and a half million Armenians during World War I in what is now Turkey. Turkey has actually put people on trial for referring too harshly to that episode. So you could imagine the repercussions after our House Committee voted to call it genocide.
To understand how two nations ended up arguing over history, you need to know that there is an influential Armenian-American lobby. You also need to travel part way around the world and back in time, which we will do in the next few minutes.
Our trip begins with NPR's Brian Naylor.
BRIAN NAYLOR: The Bush administration tried every tool on its workbench to dissuade committee members from approving the resolution. President Bush himself spoke of the consequences of offending the Turkish government in remarks he made on the White House lawn.
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 it's passage would do great harm to our relations with a key ally in NATO and in the global war on terror.
NAYLOR: Earlier, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates made a similar case to reporters. Rice said the resolution would, in her words, be very problematic for everything we're trying to do in the Middle East. Gates was more specific. He said top military brass, including General David Petraeus and Admiral William Fallon, had a view as central command fear of backlash by Turkey could harm the war effort in Iraq.
Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Department of Defense): About 70 percent of all air cargo going into Iraq comes - goes through Turkey. About a third of the fuel that they consume goes through Turkey or comes from Turkey. They believe, clearly, that access to airfields and to the roads and so on in Turkey, would be very much put at risk if this resolution passes. And the Turks react as strongly as we believe they will.
NAYLOR: Members of Congress also heard from half a dozen former secretaries of defense and secretaries of state, all warning of the threat to U.S. national security should the resolution pass.
President Bush also used another tool at is disposal: personally phoning members of the House Foreign Affairs panel, and in the words of one lawmaker, offering deals for votes against the resolution. But despite his public and private lobbying efforts, the committee defied the president.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, the White House.
DAVID WELNA: I'm David Welna at the Capitol.
Members of Congress were squeezed by both sides in the Armenian dispute yesterday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi invited Armenia's top prelate Karekin II to deliver the opening prayer on the House floor.
Catholicos KAREKIN II (Head, Holy Armenian Apostolic Church): With a solemn burden of history, we remember the victims of the genocide of the Armenians.
WELNA: Meanwhile, several members of Turkey's parliament teamed up with three high-powered Washington lobby firms hired by the Turkish government trying to beat back support on Capitol Hill for the genocide resolution.
Here's Turkish MP Egemen Bagis.
Mr. EGEMEN BAGIS (Member of Parliament, Turkey): It's not worth passing a resolution, which might please the Armenian-Americans for a few weeks, but it's going to have a very negative binding effect on Turkish-Armenian relations and Turkish-American relations for many decades to come.
WELNA: Would that negative effect mean the U.S. losing its access to Turkish airspace or supply routes to northern Iraq? Bagis said Turkish authorities might not have a choice.
Mr. BAGIS: Turkey is a democracy, and in a democratic country public pressure does matter. And if the public pressured us to do those things, we will have to consider.
WELNA: A short time after these exchanges, the resolution was up for a vote in the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Chairman Tom Lantos warned fellow committee members they had a sobering choice to make.
Mr. TOM LANTOS (Chairman, House Committee on Foreign Affairs): We have to weigh the desire to express our solidarity with the Armenian people and to condemn this historic nightmare through the use of the word genocide against the risk it could cause young men and women in the uniform of the United States Armed Services to pay an even heavier price than they are currently paying.
WELNA: Some members were clearly torn. Indiana Republican Mike Pence said there is no question Armenians were victims of genocide. Still, he said, he decided to oppose the resolution.
Representative MIKE PENCE (Republican, Indiana): With the American troops in harm's way, dependent on critical supply routes available through an alliance that we enjoy with the nation of Turkey, I submit that at this time, this is not the time for this nation to speak on this dark chapter of history.
WELNA: Others question whether Congress should be lecturing Turkey.
Here's New York Democrat Gregory Meeks.
Representative GREGORY MEEKS (Democrat, New York): We have got to clean up our own house. I've got a bill that's coming out, a resolution I'm going to put out shortly. Working on it now. Talking about the atrocities that took place of the Native Americans of this land. I've yet to see us pass a resolution to talk about them.
WELNA: But California Democrat Brad Sherman did not share such doubts.
Representative BRAD SHERMAN (Democrat, California): It is right for Congress to recognize this genocide. We must do it. Genocide denial is not just the last step of a genocide. It is the first step in the next genocide. When Hitler had to convince his cohorts that the world would let them get away with it, he turned to them and said, who today speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians.
WELNA: The resolution passed 27 to 21. New Jersey Democrat Frank Pallone acknowledged it had passed in committee by much larger margins when members knew a Republican majority would not bring it to the floor.
Representative FRANK PALLONE (Democrat, New Jersey): The reason that this vote was closer was mainly because the opponents realized that this is it. This is going to go to the floor.
WELNA: Democratic leaders say they expect a full House vote on the resolution before Thanksgiving.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.