Was It Genocide or Not?

U.S. resolution over a historical event triggers Turkish anger

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It was either a nod toward justice and the recognition of truth—or a supremely ill-advised foray into a historical tragedy that will come back to damage current U.S. interests in the Middle East. The action last week that cheered Armenian-Americans but incensed a key U.S. ally, Turkey, was a House panel's approval of a resolution labeling as "genocide" the deaths of up to 1.5 million Armenians amid the collapse of the Ottoman Empire early in the 20th century.

The measure next moves to the full House, with the promise of intensified opposition by the Bush administration and Turkey. Though nonbinding declarations are common on Capitol Hill, this resolution is different from most. It threatens a rupture in relations with a strategically key NATO ally through which pass essential military supplies for the U.S. fight in Iraq. About 70 percent of U.S. air cargo to Iraq transits Turkey, most through the Incirlik Air Base, along with 30 percent of the fuel used.

The administration last week expressed disappointment and braced for the fallout. Turkey ordered its ambassador in Washington home for "consultations," saying, "It is not possible to accept such an accusation of a crime which was never committed by the Turkish nation."

Passions. The resolution, with the backing of two California Democrats—House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs—appears to have majority support in the House. California is home to more than half of all Armenian-Americans, many of whom feel passionate about the issue.

U.S. officials and analysts worry about the consequences if it is adopted in the full House. "There's no safety net under this relationship," says Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It can go a long, long way down." A headline in the popular Turkish daily Hurriyet proclaimed: "End of a 100-Year Alliance."

The congressional move not only comes at a time of angry disenchantment with the United States; it also is seen in Turkey as deeply offensive to national pride. "It is a profound political issue in Turkey," says Morton Abramowitz, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey. "Here, it is a narrow political issue."

Turkey spent a reported $300,000 a month in fees to lobbying firms to fight the measure. Separately, all eight living former U.S. secretaries of state came out in opposition. But what has prevailed instead is the desire to make a moral statement on the mass killings, combined with the political impulse to respond to a mobilized community of Armenian-Americans. "To a large extent, this is a function of ethnic politics," argues Abramowitz.

Pelosi plays down the foreign policy risks, citing "continued mutual interest" with Ankara. "There's never a good time," she adds. Bad moment or not, the costs of legislating on foreign history may be about to come due.