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Genocide resolution still far from certain

Larger forces may quash a measure on Armenian deaths in Turkey.

April 21, 2007|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — It was the year 2000, and Rep. George P. Radanovich was on his way to the Capitol, expecting the House to pass a long-debated resolution he was sponsoring to recognize the Armenian genocide almost a century ago.

But just as the Republican from Mariposa prepared to step onto the House floor, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) called off the vote because President Clinton personally had warned him that the symbolic but emotion-charged resolution could damage national security. Turkey, an important U.S. ally, long has insisted that the deaths of about 1 million Armenians in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire were not acts of genocide.

Seven years later, however, with Congress in the hands of Democrats, the resolution's backers believe they stand their best chance yet of winning passage -- even though the Bush administration, like previous Democratic and Republican administrations, is working hard to kill it.

Radanovich is predicting that the resolution's fate once again will come down to a phone call between the president and the House speaker. This time the speaker is Democrat Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, who as a member of the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues has been a passionate supporter of the genocide resolution.

But there's a rub:

During almost 20 years representing the Bay Area, home to thousands of voters of Armenian descent, Pelosi has had a relatively free hand in deciding her position on the volatile issue. But today she comes at it as a leader of the Democratic Party and a high-profile player in the U.S. government.

She has shown, by her maneuvering on Iraq war funding and her recent visit to Syria, that she is not reluctant to take on the White House. And she has learned that Republicans will be quick to seize any opportunity to brand her a lightweight in foreign affairs.

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Pelosi must now weigh the resolution "through a perspective she never did before."

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Also in a bind

And the speaker is not the only one in a bind on the issue. The Israeli government and many of its U.S. supporters face similar crosscurrents because opposing genocide is at the core of the Jewish state, but Turkey is the closest thing to an ally Israel has in the Muslim world.

As a result, although its prospects are bright, the resolution is far from assured of passage.

Radanovich predicted that if the leadership decided to bring it to the floor, President Bush would call Pelosi and ask her not to do so, in the interest of national security. Then, said Radanovich, usually a Bush ally, "Pelosi is going to have to make a choice: to agree with the president or respectfully disagree." Radanovich said that he hoped she "respectfully disagrees" and puts the measure to a vote.

"If it gets to the floor," he said, "it passes."

Pelosi hasn't signaled whether she will schedule a vote.

The resolution is supported by 191 House members, the most sponsors it has had in 20 years, according to the Armenian National Committee of America. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) backs it, as do more than a quarter of his colleagues. California's two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, are among them.

Mark Parris, a U.S. ambassador to Turkey during the Clinton administration who now is at the Brookings Institution, said that when the Democrats won control of Congress in November, "the Turks knew there was going to be a problem."

Almost everyone, including the Turkish government, agrees that hundreds of thousands of Armenians died in eastern Turkey between 1915 and 1918 as World War I and the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire engulfed the region in turmoil. It's how they perished that continues to stir ferocious disagreement.

Armenians, along with most historians and many Western governments, say more than 1 million died at the hands of Turkish forces -- victims of either murder or mass deportation that led hundreds of thousands to succumb to exposure and disease.

Turks say there was no government-sponsored program targeting Armenians. Rather, they insist, large numbers of Armenians -- and Turks -- died in the chaos of war and an uprising staged by Armenians seeking to capitalize on a government weakened by World War I.

"There were numerous deaths on both sides, due to war, disease, hunger and civil strife," the Turkish American Heritage Political Action Committee said in a recent letter to lawmakers.

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Not forgetting

Though the events lie far in the past, Armenians and Armenian Americans have worked hard to keep the memory alive. The Turkish government and the ultranationalists who are resurgent in that country have worked equally hard to keep the U.S. government from taking a position.

Caught in the middle of the debate are Israel and its supporters.

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