U.S. Vote on Armenian Genocide Swayed by Geo-Politics

By Michelle Singerman | 2008-01-01 12:00:00

On November 11, 2005 David Irving, a British historian, was arrested in Austria for the crime of publicly diminishing or justifying the Holocaust. Charges against him were based on the new UN General Assembly resolution against denying the Holocaust.

On Oct. 11, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives sat down to vote on Resolution 106. The issue at stake had haunted the Armenian people and international relations since the beginning of the 20th century: the annihilation of 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire between 1915-1923. U.S. House Resolution 106 was a vote to label those mass killings of Armenians as genocide. The government of Turkey, on the other hand, has consistently used intimidation to suppress evidence about Turkish responsibility for those atrocities. If the committee adopted the resolution, it would then go forward for votes in both full houses of Congress.

The vote to term a humanitarian crisis as genocide should be based on humanitarian reasoning and founded within international law by the 1948 Geneva Convention. However, Simon Payaslian, Professor of Modern Armenian History and Literature at Boston University, says that humanitarian arguments are not enough to determine the decision. As with most other present day decisions, such factors as power and economics typically outweigh the primary considerations. And, as we would soon discover, the vote to take place in the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs would be no different.

Payaslian contrasts two approaches to international relations and foreign policy: the humanitarian and the "realpolitik" approach. He sees Resolution 106 as a prime example the latter.

"Even if you have community leaders lobbying in favor of Resolution 106, whenever the Armenian question has come up, ultimately realpolitik -- geo-political and geo-economic considerations -- have gained the upper hand," he says.

Payaslian says that foreign policies always reflect domestic policies. Currently, there is a struggle for power in Washington. There is the Democrat Party, trying to assert its dominance over domestic and foreign policy, while there is also the Republican Party, "determined to pursue its own policies, regardless of what members of Congress are demanding," he says.

It's About An Air Base

Turkey is an important Middle Eastern ally for the United States. Turkey's Incirlik Air Base has been a vital tool for NATO since the organization's inception in the early 1950s. Post-9/11, Incirlik has been used as a military hub by the US Army for missions in both Afghanistan and Iraq. US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has stated that 70 per cent of U.S. air cargo for Iraq goes through the Incirlik Air Base.

The positive relation between Turkey and the US is one reason the Turkish Army had not yet mobilized troops to the Turkey-Iraq border against the PKK (Kurdistan Worker's Party), whose goal is to create an independent Kurdish state within Turkey's borders. The PKK has stepped up attacks on Turkish soldiers from inside Iraq.

In the days leading up to the House Committee's vote, strong warnings came from both American and Turkish sides attempting to tip the vote toward a negative outcome. They were also trying to remind Committee voters what the outcome might trigger.

In the eyes of such countries as Argentina, Belgium, Canada, France, Italy, Russia and Uruguay-- among 20 countries that have already formally recognized the mass killings of Armenians as genocide--the US vote seemed not to be influenced by humanitarian concerns. Turkish officials had threatened to limit access to Incirlik if the US Congress voted for genocide. Turkey had also warned the US that their advice against responding to PKK attacks by mobilizing troops would not be taken so seriously if the US labelled the old atrocities as genocide.

As reported on BBC News, President Bush warned the House Foreign Affairs Committee before it was to begin debates: "This resolution is not the right response to these historic mass killings." He added that the yes vote would do "great harm" to inter-country relations.

Another statement exhibiting America's priorities was made by Tom Lantos, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. He said, "We have to weigh the desire to express our solidarity with the Armenian people...against the risk that it could cause young men and women in uniform of the Unites States armed services to pay an even heavier price than they are currently paying." Gates also reminded the House of the importance of Incirlik and warned that access to airfields and roads in Turkey could be severely limited if the resolution is passed.

Yet even with strong warnings from the Republican side, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted "yes" to label the eight-year long atrocity genocide. On Oct. 11, it passed a non-binding vote by 27 to 21 of its members.

But the Bush administration immediately went into damage control. Both President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed regret at the Committee decision and made phone calls to Turkey.

The Committee vote is the first step needed to move the vote through Congress. Spokesman for the State Department Tom Casey said US diplomats were reaching out to Turkish counterparts to express their opposition to the vote and to let Turkey know they hope the full House vote defeats the resolution. Casey added that State Department and White House officials would try to persuade House members to vote against it, the BBC reported.

The day after the resolution passed, Turkey mobilized troops to the Iraq border. George Shirinian, executive director of Toronto's division of the Zoryan Institute, pointed out that Turkey also recalled its U.S. ambassador for one week--albeit only one week.

What Would Turkey Really Do?

Payaslian refers to this move and other threats as "diplomatic theatrics." He does not believe that Turkey will follow-up on its warnings. But he also says it is difficult to withdraw troops from a border once they have been mobilized.

"Even during the genocide, the Wilson Administration and the Young Turk Administration knew that, whatever the problems in terms of deportations and massacres, they would continue to maintain their bilateral relations," Payaslian says. "Hence Wilson...was requesting declaration of war against Germany, but not requesting declaration of war against Turkey."

Originally, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said if the vote came out of committee it would go to the floor before the end of next session, which would mean sometime in November. Yet, the effort to move the vote to Congress has now collapsed.

"We knew well in advance this [Resolution 106] bill would have passed because it had several hundred co-sponsors, which I think is unusual," Shirinian says. He notes after the vote, support for the bill suddenly diminished. He and Payaslian attribute the weakened support to lobbying by Republicans and threats by the Turkish government.

Payaslian said it is also possible that some other factor changed Pelosi's mind, such as a "Clinton effect" -- "A phone call to Pelosi saying `Why would you bring this up when we have American soldiers in Iraq? The Turkish military may be coming in and you are worried about something that happened 90 years ago?'"

A sobering statement by Dana Perino, President Bush's chief spokeswoman, one day after the vote, offers Payaslian's theory some plausibility.

"One of the reasons we opposed the resolution in the House yesterday is that the President has expressed on behalf of the American people our horror at the tragedy of 1915," Perino said. "But at the same time, we have national security concerns, and many of our troops and supplies go through Turkey. They are a very important ally in the war on terror, and we are going to continue to try to work with them. And we hope that the House does not put forward a full vote."

Hitler said in 1939 when about to attack Poland without provocation, "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?" The failure of the American government to take a serious stand on this issue sends a message to rebel leaders, warlords, and dictatorial governments around the globe that genocide can be excused or ignored. The wavering Bush administration cannot offer hope to victims of the Darfur genocide. And it has made the future of genocide intervention look much bleaker.

Michelle Singerman is a journalist in Toronto.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2008

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2008, page 21. Some rights reserved.

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