Why is the US House pushing to pass a resolution declaring the death of Armenians a genocide?
October 14, 2007 7:26 AM   Subscribe

Why is the US House pushing to declare the deaths of Armenians as a genocide committed by the then Ottoman Empire/now Turkey?

I recently read this article in the Economist. I also read a NYTimes piece a week or two back, and I'm completely baffled as to why our House is getting involved in this matter at all.

Full disclosure: I don't know the situation, at all. But it strikes me as incredibly dangerous to alienate a key ally in the Middle East at a time when our ability to influence the region is becoming far less powerful. In addition, it seems odd to me that we're getting involved at all.

So really, I have several questions. Why are we getting involved? Why now? What do we have to gain by engaging in such a blatant finger-pointing event at a time when our credibility with the world is diminishing?

I'm not looking to get into a political discussion, per se. I simply want to know the rationale. The articles I've read have been relatively simplistic in their fact-finding, which allow me to quickly conclude things that perhaps aren't as simple as they're made out to be, and so I just want to know more. Thanks in advance.
posted by SeizeTheDay to Law & Government (41 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
Congress is neither an "us" or a "we" they are a "they" and they do things for many different reasons not at all related to any kind of grand, unified strategic vision. Some have domestic constituencies to consider. Some have committed themselves to a human rights agenda. Some have a bone to pick with the administration. You get the gist. If you took a look at all of the nonsensical resolutions passed by Congress, it would be disheartening. It just so happens that this particular nonsensical resolution has international consequences whereas the resolution to celebrate Arbor Day passed largely without notice.
posted by B-squared at 7:44 AM on October 14, 2007


To keep Turkey out of the EU, and free from control by Europe?
posted by blue_beetle at 7:46 AM on October 14, 2007


Unfortunately, it's purely a political move. The Democrats are using this resolution as a way to get the U.S. out of Iraq, particularly since they collectively lack the power and nerve to push the issue directly, despite what they promised their constituents. If we piss off Turkey--particularly given that they just elected a Muslim as president who has ties to a conservative bloc--then, things will get much, much more difficult.
posted by gsh at 7:50 AM on October 14, 2007


There are a lot of Armenian-Americans that were affected by the genocide, many who are here because of the genocide. They have lobbyists, many of them have a lot of money, and it is a big fucking deal to them.
posted by ch1x0r at 7:51 AM on October 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


I would imagine that one of the congresspersons who sponsored this resolution has a large Armenian constituency. Getting this resolution through will probably be extremely helpful to him for fundraising and helping him get re-elected.

It's just self-interest, serving his constituency. I do tend to think he's got the facts on his side thoughl
posted by bluejayk at 7:52 AM on October 14, 2007


I only understand that this is something that has been a long time coming. When you have a situation where you have an official policy barring the description of something as what it is [the accepted term nowadays is "massacre"] because you're afraid of pissing off some of your allies, that seems wrong. There is an active Armenian community that has been working on this for some time now.

It permeated all levels of US government to the point that the Library of Congress subject headings have used the massacre description which actually prevents co-location of books about what happened in Armenia with what happened in, say, Germany or Rwanda where a specific ethnic group was targeted for total annihilation. There's been activism in the library world on this topic for decades and the push-back from this latest administration has, I think, encouraged people to really try to get something done now that the Congress is a little more balanced than it has been over the past few years.

According to Wikipedia (I know I know) 22 countries recognize this as genocide and the fact that we have rules forbidding saying this word -- the correct word by most legal definitions according to the UN -- because of our ties with Turkey I think bothers many people. The New Yorker had a great piece about this general issue that you might find to be decent reading and might explain some things. I mostly know about the issue through library activist eyes.
posted by jessamyn at 7:52 AM on October 14, 2007 [7 favorites]


my best guesses:

-to change/expand our definition of genocide so we can justify future military interventions

-to change/expand our definition of genocide so we can justify future humanitarian interventions

-to make friends with armenia, which borders iran, and is a handy staging area for our military if we decide to go to war with iran

-to make friends with armenia, which borders iran, and is a handy staging area for western forces to block the transit of decomissioned soviet nukes and material into iran

-to make friends with armenia, which is in a strategically oil-rich part of the world

-to force turkey to acknowledge the genocide, speeding its entry into the european union (and thereby improving the west's access to the middle east)

-to force turkey to acknowledge the genocide, speeding its entry into the european union (and thereby providing an example of a muslim nation aligning with the west)

-finally, to somehow make up for all the atrocities we are committing by bewailing the atrocities committed by others a long time ago in a country very far away. in other words: damage control.

i'm not going to get into whether or not these things are right or wrong, but those are my guesses for the reasons.
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:53 AM on October 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


Truthfully, the machinations behind things like this are likely pretty obscure. The first time I heard about it, I pawned it off as Democratic lawmakers wanting to engage in some traditional left-wing feel-good legislation. However, I have a suspicion that part of the motive is to intentionally put off Turkey, making it clear that if they invade Iraqi Kurdistan, we're more than willing to take off the gloves. This, on top of the recent pro-Islamic shift in government, shows that we're none too happy with Turkey either.

However, if this is the actual plan, it seems flawed as it only instigates nationalism, when the secular military is already deeply distrustful of the government. On the other hand, what better to prevent a destabilizing coup than an outside force instigating nationalism which will have two distrustful parties band together in greater anger at a third?

The French situation seems to be a clear and obvious ploy to make Turkey's entry into the EU quite impossible. France is already quite frustrated with the Muslim immigrant population, and to permit Turkey the immigration benefits of the EU would only serve to aggravate that problem, so it seems.

What seems strange to me is that such a provoking tactic would be backed by the Democrats. Regardless of recent shifts, the Democrats are still the party more likely to engage in direct talks and less belligerence. Strong-arming a country that's making friendly ties with Iran is clearly something we'd expect the Republicans to support, and yet the White House and many Republican congressmen are against it.

Then again, plate of beans and all that. For all I know, it could Armenian lobbyists as mentioned before. Or liberal guilt. Maybe it could be a vast left-wing conspiracy! I'm sticking with the former until I see more details.
posted by Saydur at 7:57 AM on October 14, 2007


Robert Fisk writes about the Genocide issue best, IMHO. Here's a Google search for Fisk and Genocide.

Armenian-Americans have been fighting for this for a long time.

Why now? Well, Pelosi is now Speaker. She has been a "friend" of the Armenian lobbies for a long time. That has a lot to do with it.

Also in the last few years, some important countries have recognized the Genocide (which is all wrapped up with Turkey joining the EU.)

Something that is important to note: Genocide politics has very little to do with the present-day Republic of Armenia. The Armenians who live in the U.S. today are pretty disconnected from the RoA and certainly the RoA doesn't include the lands where they or their ancestors lived.
posted by k8t at 8:02 AM on October 14, 2007


The Armenian lobby (well, there are actually 2 lobbying groups, but one has dominated for the last year) is powerful and concentrated.
posted by k8t at 8:04 AM on October 14, 2007


Rather than the highly centralized theories being offered, imagine you were a member of the House. How could you explain voting against the bill once it comes to the floor? You can't win by voting "no"; you're an apologist for a genocidal regime. "No, I do think that a genocide was perpetrated against the Armenian population, but I don't think we should say it right now because of our interests abroad..."
posted by B-squared at 8:14 AM on October 14, 2007


I remember John Kerry had a section of his campaign website devoted to this issue. It seems that Democrats want to court the demographic.
posted by stammer at 8:15 AM on October 14, 2007


This issue is huge to the Armenian American community. I once got some from a hot Armenian chick for simply being able to talk about the genocide coherently.
posted by rbs at 8:46 AM on October 14, 2007 [3 favorites]


Armenian-Americans have been fighting for this for a long time.

Why now? Well, Pelosi is now Speaker. She has been a "friend" of the Armenian lobbies for a long time. That has a lot to do with it.


Yes and there are large Armenian-American populations in Northern and Central California. William Saroyan's stories are a good start if you want to know more about this community. Don't know specifically if Pelosi's district is included in the Armenia belt, but if some really rich Armenians who live in an exclusive SF enclave call, hmm. I'd want to cultivate them.

But the person who said that it is less common than the machinations and conspiracy theories being offered [1] is correct. It is all about appeasing voters and interest groups who talk loudly. And of course, there was an Armenian genocide, and if we recognize other genocides, then why not this one?

[1] We don't want Turkey in the EU? au contraire, the US is pushing the EU to gain Turkey's entry. probably strategically to say, "look it is those cheese-eating Europeans who are anti-Muslim!!! Not us"
posted by xetere at 8:48 AM on October 14, 2007


[...]you're an apologist for a genocidal regime. "No, I do think that a genocide was perpetrated against the Armenian population, but I don't think we should say it right now because of our interests abroad..."

I disagree. That is exactly, in fact, what the dissenting
House members will say, in so many words.

This sort of doublespeaky rationalizing happens constantly in Congress. In fact, it's the essence of partisan politics in many ways-- the art of appearing to care about one group of constituents/interests (so as to avoid jeopardizing future votes), while actually serving another.

This art form is most highly developed where corporate interests clash with human rights interests.
posted by Rykey at 8:50 AM on October 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


The Democrats are using this resolution as a way to get the U.S. out of Iraq

That's ridiculous. Pelosi's strong connection to the Armenian-American community has gone back 20 years or so - long before the Iraq invasion, and there are other sizable Armenian-American communities in other representatives' districts as well. Now that Pelosi's in charge, *some* sort of payback is necessary to placate those constituents. Getting a resolution out of committee (I doubt it'll pass the House, and I'm fairly sure it isn't even scheduled for a vote anywhere in the Senate anytime soon) is a good way to tell your constituents "Hey, I tried."

Also, papering over the conflicting goals in Iraq of the U.S. and Turkey to score partisan political points doesn't help clarify things.
posted by mediareport at 9:19 AM on October 14, 2007


Definite factor: Tom Lantos is both chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee (where this resolution originated) and a Holocaust survivor.
posted by awesomebrad at 9:23 AM on October 14, 2007


On NPR Pelosi said that this bill is nothing new and various lawmakers have been trying to get it passed for 20 some years now. Each time there's always some excuse why it's not a good time to do so. Cold war, first gulf war, etc. Basically she said that now was the right time to do it.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 9:28 AM on October 14, 2007


I don't know if there are deeper motives, or what they are. But at least on the surface I think it's framed as a decision between "doing the right thing" and being politically/strategically correct, and Congresspeople have to decide where they stand.

There is broad consensus among historians that genocide occured, but Turkey continues to not only deny it, but prosecute Turks who argue that it occured.

Historically, countries like the U.S. and the U.K. have been willing to defer to Turkey's genocide denial for strategic and political reasons, while an increasing number of countries (22 right now, I believe) have officially recognized it as genocide. It's becoming an increasingly prominent issue as Turkey moves towards EU membership, but the process has been going on for quite some time. There is at least theoretically some hope that if the tide turns and countries like the U.S. stop accepting Turkey's denial, Turkey will slowly, eventually come to terms with its history.

A lot of the justifications for opposing such a resolution "feel wrong" (even if when you separate yourself from the issue it seems crazy to damage alliances for a symbolic resolution). What would you say when your Armenian-American constituents ask: "Will you please recognize that the horrific mass extermination of a million of my ancestors was genocide, or are you going to give in to Turkey because they're threatening you and pretend despite all evidence that it was some exaggerated, unintentional occurence that the Armenians brought upon themselves?" It's very morally uncomfortable.

That said, I'm not denying that there may be ulterior motives for the timing, I'll leave that to others.
posted by EmilyClimbs at 9:39 AM on October 14, 2007


Twenty-six years ago the Israelis bombed nuclear facilities in Iraq to prevent Iraq from developing a nuclear capability.

There has been speculation in the past about Israel attacking Iranian nuclear facilities to similar ends.

Apparently there has been enough chatter about a US-blessed attack by Israel to merit an official denial by the US government.

If you look at a map of the region, Israel can't get to Iran without permission from neighboring countries to use their airspace.

If the hypothesis is an airstrike by Israel (at the behest of the US) then the obvious ally is Turkey. If the Democrats are worried that poking the Iranian hornet's nest with a stick (even by proxy) is a bad idea, doing something that will anger Turkey is a way to throw a wrench into the works. Turkey withdraws permission to use its airspace, and the Israelis have a harder time getting home from a foray to Iran.

I normally don't wear the tinfoil hat. It's just that otherwise, the pressure to get this Armenian genocide bill passed really doesn't make sense.
posted by ambrosia at 9:44 AM on October 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


Another issue that needs to be considered is reparations. in 2004 a bunch of Genocide survivors successfully sued their insurance company for $20million.

If Turkey DID recognize the Genocide would they have to reimburse the survivors? Would the survivors be allowed to return to the (now Kurdish-occupied) lands?

Some of the more nationalistic Armenians of one of the two major Armenian political parties/organizations which is strong in the U.S. DO want the lands back. Specifically, Mt. Ararat, which is in Turkey, but is "sacred" to Armenians (and is visible from just about everywhere in Western Armenia and looms largely over the landscape). Other "hot" spots are Ani, Akhtaramar (a cool island with amazing Armenian churches), and other places...

It gets complicated, doesn't it?
posted by k8t at 9:52 AM on October 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


Just to piss off Serdar Argic maybe.
posted by phrits at 10:05 AM on October 14, 2007


otherwise, the pressure to get this Armenian genocide bill passed really doesn't make sense.

Better now than closer to the presidential direction, and they've already put it off for a while after Pelosi's election as Speaker. The "payback to constituents" explanation makes more than enough sense to cover this one.
posted by mediareport at 10:32 AM on October 14, 2007


As your common American, who always suggests Samantha Power's work, A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide to folks, I would like to think that the House is doing this because its simply the right thing to do. After all the craplicious events that our government has perpetrated over the last seven years, the lease we can do is make a statement that has a higher moral value than strategic.

Basically, its the right thing to do, and if Turkey can't owe up to it, then it will never be a member of the EU (other than the Muslim thing).
posted by Atreides at 10:43 AM on October 14, 2007


It gets complicated, doesn't it?

Actually, it does not. US and other countries recognizing the genocide, will not force Turkey to recognize it. They will never do it, for the reasons you state. And after all, they should pay the price just as elsewhere genocide victims and their families demand and rightfully gain reparations.

Turkey right now is raising havoc not because it gives a shit about Armenians, but because they want to cover their imminent invasion of Northern Iraq and the repression of the Kurdish minority in their land. A remnant of Ottoman rule, they know how to play the game in politics well, and keep their advantage cards ready. The Armenian genocide recognition is a negotiating tool for them. Turkey should be part of the EU, regardless what Sarkozy thinks, but if and only if it respects human rights and the democratic process.

I hope it gets voted at the floor, where it matters.
posted by carmina at 10:52 AM on October 14, 2007


Rykey, if you read my comments, my argument is that different members will make their decisions based upon different criteria; essentially that Congress should not be treated as a unitary actor. Some may not "recognize the genocide" because there are compelling external security consequences. Others, given the spirit of the resolution might feel hypocritical not to support it. I'm not sure that it's double-speak. It is, in fact, a very difficult circumstance to be in.
posted by B-squared at 11:31 AM on October 14, 2007


Pelosi speaks...
posted by k8t at 11:38 AM on October 14, 2007


carmina: Turkey should be part of the EU, regardless what Sarkozy thinks

Since you vote and pay taxes in the US and not the EU, as I gather from your profile, Turkey becoming part of the EU is not for you to offer. As a result your or any US citizens opinion in the matter is void.
You can offer to make Turkey another state of the US if you want.
posted by jouke at 11:48 AM on October 14, 2007


Why now? It's pretty simple, the White House is the politically weakest it has been in a generation. They're expending all their political capital on the Iraq venture and hoping that the GOP minority in both houses has their back enough to prevent the necessity of another veto like SCHIP.

In the past, the WH -- yes, even Democratic held -- has blocked similar efforts by Congress.

But it strikes me as incredibly dangerous to alienate a key ally in the Middle East

Technically, Turkey only borders the Middle East, although it is often included generally. But part of the calculus is that Turkey needs us too much; they're too invested in the West (for a century now) and too close to the EU and part of NATO. Remember, we dealt with them through a generation of hostility between them and Greece that came close to a shooting war more than once. There's a sense they'll get over it.

Turkey should be part of the EU

Part of the problem is that being part of the EU would be fantastic for Turkey, not so much for the EU. That works two ways. One is the obvious economic benefits. The other is that the reforms that Turkey must undertake to become a peer to EU members would be good for the country in the long run.

There is, however, much less immediate benefit to Europe per se. This is pretty much why they will probably remain just off the shortlist for a while yet.

As an American, I think it would also be good for the EU to get over what is some rather obvious xenophobia regarding Turkey, but I don't blame the situation solely on that.

As a pie-in-the-sky idealist I also have a vision of a stable region with more culturally-specific national boundaries -- Greater Armenia and Kurdistan -- but I don't feel we need to force that on Turkey. It's something they're going to have to come to terms with this century on their own, I suspect.
posted by dhartung at 12:31 PM on October 14, 2007


[A few comments removed. The question is about the political maneuvering, not whether there was a genocide.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 12:44 PM on October 14, 2007


Rykey, if you read my comments, my argument is that different members will make their decisions based upon different criteria; essentially that Congress should not be treated as a unitary actor.

Yes, good points in your first post B-squared.

Some may not "recognize the genocide" because there are compelling external security consequences. Others, given the spirit of the resolution might feel hypocritical not to support it.

Exactly the kinds of situations that lead to the kind of evasive rationalizations to which I was referring.
posted by Rykey at 1:24 PM on October 14, 2007


maybe its a "fuck you" to the bush admin from house democrats? This resolution certainly complicates their mission in iraq with a key ally getting majorly pissed off. It could help expediate plans to pull out.
posted by Kifer85 at 1:28 PM on October 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


jouke, I live and work in the US but I come from Greece. Whenever possible I vote there. I find that it would solve a lot of the problems in southeastern Europe (Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Albania) if Turkey was part of EU. Also, it would help immensely relations with the Black Sea countries which use Dardanelles for exit to the Mediterranean, let alone the revenues and leverage Europe would gain from that. Just to name some of the reasons why I think Turkey should become member of EU. The possibility of a great influx of Turkish immigrants is not necessarily going to happen to the numbers they are afraid, it has not happened with other countries and after all it can be regulated.

But back to the discussion of the genocide, nobody here suggested twisting arms. US should vote as US believes and Turkey should do what they believe right.
posted by carmina at 1:41 PM on October 14, 2007


Armenian lobby. No other reason.
posted by Crotalus at 3:14 PM on October 14, 2007


From The Daily Show [video link]:

“John, the message here is clear: you help us with the War on Terror, we’ll see what we can do about your past…When Spain joined the Coalition, they were able to get their Inquisition downgraded to the Spanish Q&A…Obviously not all countries are on board. Germany—not in the Coalition. That’s a shame. Could have turned their Holocaust into a Half-a-caust.”
posted by whimwit at 4:22 PM on October 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


Just wanted to pop in and say thanks for an incredibly informative thread. All the leads, all the possibilities...I feel like I kinda get it now. Thanks folks!
posted by SeizeTheDay at 5:11 PM on October 14, 2007


When France passed a similar resolution, Turkey stopped cooperating with their military needs.

I do believe Pelosi & Co. had an 'a-ha!' moment, there.

The Dems have failed miserably to make any progress against the U.S. presence in Iraq--taking the issue head-on is--in this year before the election--far too dangerous. So thusly they attempt a back-door maneuver.
posted by gsh at 5:23 PM on October 14, 2007


This is a great question, and the answer remains unclear. I think it is a combination of the Armenian lobby and the fact that morally it is the right thing. Unfortunately, politically it is the wrong time. We are at a critical juncture with Turkey, we need them as an ally more then ever, and we need them as a stabilizing, pro-western, force in the Arab world absolutely more than ever. Now is the wrong time for this, which makes the question all the more pertinent. This is the best question asked in weeks, at least from my perspective. I wish we could get a concrete answer but I fear we won't.
posted by caddis at 5:50 PM on October 14, 2007


The question isn't "why is this bill coming up; what do we have to say about the past of Armenians and Turks?" -- almost this exact bill has come up half a dozen times in the last 10-20 years. So the answer "it actually was genocide" or "the Armenian lobby is powerful" doesn't really get to the heart of it -- those things have been true for a long time, but this bill has been proposed and shot down. Whenever it's come up in the past it's been shut down by our need to remain friendly with Turkey. The question is, how are things different now, that we're pushing it. (And I agree that's a very puzzling question.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:27 PM on October 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


I don't think it's really that complicated.

1) It pleases a lot of Armenian-Americans, who have been pushing for this for a while, and have demonstrated that they can and will vote/donate/whatever in support of this. It also polls pretty well with Americans who aren't of Armenian descent, as well as the Democratic base.

2) It pisses off the Bush administration and basically kicks down a sand castle (the relationship with Turkey) that they've been building for many years now.

So if you're a Democrat looking to take a cheap dig at the Republicans, it's a win-win.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:12 PM on October 14, 2007


Best article I've seen on this so far.
posted by k8t at 8:35 PM on October 17, 2007


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