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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

In May, President Bush nominated Ambassador Richard Hoagland, who most recently served as ambassador to Tajikistan. But in September, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) put a parliamentary hold on Hoagland's nomination, blocking it until the end of the congressional session, when the nomination expired.

Some Armenian Americans took issue with Hoagland, complaining that in written responses to questions from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was dismissive of the Armenian genocide. Last month, Menendez and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) demanded the administration send over a new nominee.

Bush will have to decide whether to renominate Hoagland. The administration appears to be standing behind him, and complains that he has been turned into a scapegoat over Evans' dismissal.

"Senators can say that our policy on the Armenian massacres is wrong, but it's wrong to punish the president's nominee for adhering to the president's policy," said the senior State Department official, adding that some of Hoagland's opponents had "twisted" his responses on the genocide.

"He's being tarred as a [genocide] denier," said the senior State Department official. "And the only reason it's being done is that they are angry about Evans for the wrong reasons."

Not all Armenian Americans oppose Hoagland's nomination. The Armenian Assembly of America has said that although it opposes administration policy, it would support Hoagland. And the Armenian government has said that policy on the genocide issue should take second place to more immediate problems, including diplomatic relations with Turkey.

The Republic of Armenia became an independent state after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, and today has a population of about 3 million.

To both Democrats and Republicans, support from Armenian Americans is important. There are an estimated 1.4 million Armenian Americans, with the largest population center in Glendale.

In the end, Democrats now in control of Congress may need to decide between pragmatism and principle.

"To the extent that Armenia goes without a U.S. ambassador, that's a bad thing by anyone's standard," said a Democratic staffer involved in the confirmation process. "We're 1,000% supportive of the Armenian community on the genocide issue. But in this case, the [State Department] policy is going to be very tough to change, and I don't think holding up an ambassador is going to get them to change their policy."

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