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Congress Resolution on Armenian Massacre Squashed to Allow Continued Bombing of Iraq

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Wednesday, October 25, 2000

Armenian history will have to wait

Mindful of Turkey's key role in the turbulent Middle East, Israel and the U.S. administration act to have a bill on the Armenian genocide removed from the Congressional agenda

by Zvi Bar'el

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Last Friday, President Clinton could finally sigh in relief. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert, removed from the Congressional agenda a bill that had threatened to seriously upset American relations with Turkey. Under the bill the United States would have recognized as an act of genocide the mass murder of Armenians carried out from 1915 to 1923 by the Ottoman government.
It was a non-binding bill, which had no equivalent in the Senate and was entirely declarative in nature. It underscored the fact that the blame for the massacre did not lie with the modern governments of Turkey, but rather with the no longer existent Ottoman government.

However, where Armenians and Turks are involved, history is inseparable from the present; even a hint that the Turkish nation might be capable of genocide is tantamount to besmirching Turkey's name. The bill quoted from statements made by American presidents who recognized the fact that the murder of about 1.5 million Armenians (the Turkish speak of 330,000) was indeed genocide, and that American administrations over the years determined, as a matter of policy, that these murders would be referred to as genocide. All the bill sought to say was that the administration would be bound to treat the murder of the Armenians as genocide, and that the president of the United States would refer to it as such in his annual address.

In addition to the detailed formulations and a report that accompanied the bill, other reports by American and Turkish experts were presented, stating that the deaths were not the result of genocide, but rather of war. The Turkish government stated that Armenian citizens of Turkey continued to live in Turkish cities without fearing for their lives, and enjoyed the same status and rights as any other Turkish citizen, making the claim of national or racial persecution unfounded.

The Turks also claim that during those years, many Muslims were slaughtered in clashes with Armenians or their Russian allies as part of the political-religious struggle over control of the eastern regions of Turkey. Turkey points out that even the U.S. State Department described the precise circumstances in which the Armenians were killed as "unclear." (A suit was filed against this State Department description in the Supreme Court in Washington, which determined that according to evidence found in American archives, genocide was indeed committed against the Armenians.)

Turkey had almost become accustomed to the fact that American presidents and human rights activists referred to the slaughter of the Armenians as genocide, although its ambassador always took the trouble to protest every time the word was mentioned, and to reiterate the Turkish government's view on the subject. Israel was also the target of a harsh Turkish response when former education minister Yossi Sarid suggested that the history of the Armenian holocaust be studied in Israeli schools. Turkey submitted an official protest and for the first time, its leaders refused to attend the Israeli Independence Day celebrations held at the Israeli embassy in Ankara.

Turkey was convinced that it had succeeded in checking the Armenian affair, keeping it locked inside informal references and the reports of human rights organizations. But the bill in the American Congress upgraded the issue to a level that Turkey could not ignore.

The bill itself came into being as part of the election campaign for the House of Representatives. Republican Congressman James E. Rogan of California found himself floundering opposite the Democratic candidate, Adam Schiff. Rogan's district included the largest Armenian community in the United States. He had to make some kind of gesture to his Armenian voters and asked his friend Dennis Hastert to submit the bill in question. The promise was made in August; the final bill was drafted in September and placed on the agenda of the House of Representatives. Then the Democrats stepped in. Despite their known prominence in areas dealing with human rights, it was important for them to help the Democratic candidate in California, and perhaps even more so, to get even with Rogan, who had been among the most outspoken members of Congress demanding the impeachment of President Clinton in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky affair.

Turkey, however, did not trust the American political system alone to do the work necessary to quash the bill. It began to put pressure on the administration and on Congress. According to Turkish sources, it even appealed to Israel to exert its influence on members of Congress. Ilnur Cevik, the editor of the Turkish Daily News, wrote in an editorial, "We have learned that the administration and Congress were under pressure from the Jewish lobby to remove the bill from the agenda."

Turkey made it clear that if the bill were not quashed, it would take a series of steps that could undermine U.S. policy in the Middle East. Within days, the Turkish press was filled with reports on Turkey's intention to send an ambassador to Baghdad, renew the rail line between Istanbul and Baghdad, increase the amount of oil to be sent from Iraq to Turkey by 50 percent, prohibit American and British planes from using its Incirlik air force base to take off for bombing missions in Iraq - in short, to unilaterally violate the sanctions imposed on Iraq.

Highly placed Turkish officials granted numerous press interviews in which they noted that there was no reason for Turkey, which had paid a heavy price for the sanctions (losing $35 billion in the last 10 years), to remain behind while other countries were doing business with Iraq. In order to underscore the seriousness of their intentions, Turkey, like many Arab countries, sent a plane with medical supplies and a medical team to Baghdad.

The Americans understood that if the bill were passed, the U.S. would end up on a collision course with the most important NATO member in the Middle East, with much more than just the policy toward Iraq in danger. After a number of street demonstrations by students and Islamic movement activists against Israel's policies in the territories, slogans of identification with the Palestinian Intifada, and the burning of Israeli and American flags, Israel realized that Turkey might be considering a new policy.

"It was vital to maintain Turkey's positive neutrality toward the Palestinian problem and certainly not to create an erosion in Turkey's position," said an Israeli source. "To put it delicately, it would be wise to bear in mind that if we exhibit insensitivity to subjects that are important to Turkey, it will take a similar approach to issues that are important to us. The Turks know very well how to keep their own political and historical accounts."

Israel and the U.S. administration went into action, preparing background material to explain to the 140 members of Congress that supported the bill the serious security repercussions likely to follow its passage. President Clinton recruited General Henry Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Secretary William Cohen, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and members of the Jewish lobby to warn them that if the bill were passed, not only would America's policy toward Iraq and the peace process be irreparably damaged, but American soldiers could end up paying with their lives. The terror attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen, which resulted in the deaths of 17 American sailors, contributed to the general atmosphere.

This well-orchestrated effort did the job. Dennis Hastert stated that it was impossible not to take the president's letter into full consideration, and that consequently, he had decided to remove the bill.

"Turkey was saved at the last moment from the greatest defeat in the history of its foreign policy," wrote Dedat Ergin in the Hureit daily. In a warning tone familiar in these parts, he continued, "Armenia needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Armenia. Armenia is a landlocked country, and its only outlet to the West is via Turkey. Does Armenia seek to lock itself up because of its tendency to burrow into the history of its relations with Turkey, or does it aspire to a better future for its population?"

"I am not surprised at the decision," said an American diplomat. "After all, our priorities in foreign policy are not determined by us but rather by other countries, wars abroad, ethnic conflicts or events beyond our control. We could insist and decide that the Armenian issue concerns matters of justice and conscience; we could say that we have to make order in history, define everything precisely and commemorate formally and by law the mass murder of the Armenians as genocide. But one must bear in mind that those who are alive today are the ones who will have to deal with the results of that decision. Sometimes one has no choice but to subjugate the moral agenda to the diplomatic one."

Perhaps if Monica Lewinsky had never existed; if Clinton had not been a candidate for impeachment; if Congressman Rogan had not acted to have him impeached and if Rogan's battle with his Democratic rival had not been so fierce - the Armenians would not have had the chance to have their genocide upgraded to the level of a Congressional bill. Turkey would not have threatened the American administration, and the administration would not have had to capitulate on the matter. The history of the Armenians will apparently have to wait for the next round

Copyright Ha'aretz, all rights reserved, 2000