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Genocide question hits home

Use of the term by the former U.S. ambassador to Armenia sets up a battle in Congress.

January 07, 2007|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Nearly two years ago, John Evans did something no U.S. ambassador to Armenia before him had done: He used the word "genocide" -- in public -- to describe the deaths of about 1.2 million Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turks.

It has long been a sore point with Armenian Americans that the U.S. government does not refer to the killings that began in 1915 as genocide, and Evans' use of the word did not signal a change in that policy. It did set off a slow-boiling controversy that eventually cost him his job.

Now, the issue is preparing to boil over again, setting up a clash between the Democratic-controlled Congress and the Republican White House. The dispute has stalled the confirmation of Evans' successor and strained U.S. relations with Turkey, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East.

"Based on what I've seen, this is headed to a confrontation," said a senior Democratic congressional aide. "It's an issue that's a flashpoint of controversy for both parties."

It started at UC Berkeley, in February 2005, soon after Evans took up his ambassadorship.

"I will today call it the Armenian genocide," Evans said, according to a transcript by one of the groups attending the gathering hosted by the university's Armenian studies program.

Evans' comments floored -- and pleased -- his audience, even though he made it clear that he was articulating a personal view, not U.S. policy.

"I recall being surprised at that moment," said Stephan Astourian, executive director of Berkeley's Armenian Studies program, who organized the session.

Though Armenian Americans and others consider Evans' statement an act of courage for which he has been unfairly punished, policymakers call it a misjudgment that could fuel anti-Western sentiment in Turkey.

Historians have long used the term "genocide" to describe the murderous campaign against the Armenians in Turkey. Nearly the entire population of Armenians was executed, starved or forced into exile on the orders of the ruling Young Turk Party. Outside Turkey, there is little debate over the facts or the use of the word "genocide."

In Turkey, however, official history has long disputed the use of that term. As a result, American officials have used all sorts of others -- "mass killing," "massacres," "atrocities," "annihilation" -- but have stopped short of "genocide."

"We have never said it wasn't genocide," explained a senior State Department official, who agreed to discuss formation of U.S. policy in detail on condition he not be further identified. "We just haven't used that word."

State Department officials believe that Turks will come to their own acceptance of the term from internal debate.

"That debate needs to happen, but it needs to be a Turkish debate," the official said. "It has been our view that our position of encouraging that debate -- and not allowing Turks an easy out to say, 'This is foreign pressure' -- is more effective."

Most Armenian Americans and many members of Congress disagree, arguing that the U.S. government should call the killings "genocide."

In a short interview, his first since leaving the State Department, Evans declined to discuss his motives in making the genocide statement, but said that "it wasn't a slip of the tongue."

"I knew it was not the policy of the United States" to use the word "genocide," Evans said.

"Ninety years is a long time," Evans added, referring to the decades since the genocide began. "At some point you have to call a spade a spade."

In the months after Evans' remark, the State Department made clear its displeasure. By July 2005, "it was absolutely crystal clear" that he would be forced out, he said. Still, it took more than a year more for him to leave.

"Evans was a career foreign service officer, and you do not go after a career foreign service officer lightly," said a second State Department official.

Evans left Armenia in September and formally retired from the State Department last month.

Meanwhile, the American Foreign Service Assn., the organization that represents U.S. foreign service officers, granted Evans its 2005 award for "constructive dissent" by a senior diplomat. But weeks later, the group rescinded the prize, arousing suspicion that the State Department had intervened.

Foreign Service Assn. officials who agreed to discuss the matter said they took back the award after learning that Evans apparently did not first go through internal channels of dissent before publicly stating his views.

"Ambassador Evans' action -- admirable as it was -- did not fit the category of 'constructive dissent,' " the group said in a statement.

State Department officials said they felt blindsided by Evans' genocide remarks.

The unanswered questions about Evans' departure have stalled the nomination of a successor.

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