Armenian sway over US lawmakers

BBC News, UK
Oct 12 2007

Armenian sway over US lawmakers

By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News, Washington

Despite a direct appeal by US President George W Bush, lawmakers in
the US have backed a description of the mass killings of Armenians by
Ottoman Turks after 1915 as genocide.

The issue of what happened to the Armenians remains hugely divisive

While Armenia welcomed the vote by a panel in the US House of
Representatives, Turkey condemned it as "unacceptable" and has
recalled its ambassador to Washington for "consultations".

Turkey accepts there were mass killings in 1915-17 but denies it was

Ahead of the vote, senior administration officials warned that if the
resolution passed, Turkey could cut access to military bases needed
for US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Its passage "would do great harm to our relations with a key ally in
Nato and in the global war on terror", Mr Bush said from the White
House Rose Garden.

Nonetheless, the non-binding resolution passed the House Foreign
Affairs Committee by 27 to 21, a first step towards holding a full
vote in the House of Representatives.

Given that Armenians represent only about 1.5m of America’s 300m
population, what has won them such influence over the US Congress –
and perhaps the nation’s foreign policy?

Organised lobby

Part of the answer lies in the organisation and determination of the
Armenian-American lobby groups, says Dr Svante Cornell, of the
Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University.


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The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) and the Armenian
Assembly of America (AAA) are among the most powerful.

Another factor is that the Armenian-American community is largely
concentrated in important states such as California, Michigan and
Massachusetts, Dr Cornell said.

"You have basically a number of places where the Armenian issue is
very important in local politics – especially for anybody wanting to
get elected in California," he said.

"The Turkish lobby is much less organised and much less rooted in an
electorate than the Armenian lobby."

Wednesday’s resolution was written by Democratic Representative Adam
Schiff, whose California district is home to the country’s largest
ethnic-Armenian community.

‘Sobering’ choice

Of course, the vote – both for and against – was also based on
representatives’ competing sets of principles.

Q&A: Armenian ‘genocide’
Armenia resolutions

Opening the debate, Tom Lantos, the committee’s Democrat chairman,
acknowledged that the resolution posed a "sobering" choice.

"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 the uniform of the United States armed services to pay an
even heavier price than they are currently paying," he said.

Divisions within the committee ultimately crossed party lines, with
eight Democrats voting against the measure and eight Republicans
voting for it.

Opponents of the resolution argue it could endanger US national
security and that now is not the time to have the debate.

Supporters draw a parallel between the mass killing of Armenians and
what is happening in the Darfur region of Sudan today – and say the
US must speak now if it is to maintain credibility on human rights.

Dr Rouben Adalian, of the Armenian National Institute in Washington,
told the BBC’s World Today: "In a world where genocide continues to
occur, there is something to be said about acknowledging past
genocides as a way of preventing other."

‘Close-knit community’

For Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the AAA, the passage of the
resolution "was a historic step forward" in ending what he calls the
"denial campaign" of the Turkish government.

We have a very vibrant, passionate, educated constituency that
feels very strongly and passionately about this

Bryan Ardouny,
Armenian Assembly of America

"We very much appreciate the support of the whole Armenian community
around the country but also the members of Congress who stood their
ground and voted yes for the resolution," he said.

The AAA has worked very closely with the sponsors and co-sponsors of
the resolution, he said, as well as talking to members of Congress
from both parties about the issue.

The close-knit Armenian-American diaspora has also been at work
educating other communities and writing to politicians, Mr Ardouny

"The response has been great in terms of activism throughout the
entire Armenian-American community," he said.

"One of the consequences of the genocide was that Armenians came to
the US. My grandparents were genocide survivors – they came to this
country, they got an education, they became part of the American

"We have a very vibrant, passionate, educated constituency that feels
very strongly and passionately about this and the fact it’s still
being denied – this is something that’s painful."

‘Heavy blow’

Of course, some people argue that it is not the place of legislators
to decide history – especially on an issue as fiercely contested as
this one.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul called the US vote unacceptable

Ankara’s decision to recall its ambassador for consultations may be
just the first in a series of steps as it considers future US-Turkish

Turkish President Abdullah Gul criticised some US politicians as
having "sought to sacrifice big problems for small domestic political
games" in pursuing the resolution’s passage.

Dr Cornell saw it as a "strategic reality that this will deal a very
heavy blow to US policy in the Middle East and with regard to Iraq".

The US has already lost much support among the Turkish people in
recent years, he said.

The resolution is expected to come to the full House before the
session adjourns on 16 November.

Back in 2000, a similar resolution failed when it was withdrawn from
the floor of the Republican-controlled House at the urging of then
President Bill Clinton, who said it could put at risk American lives
and further inflame tensions in the Middle East.

Seven years later, it remains to be seen whether the
Democrat-controlled House will heed the warnings of Mr Bush.

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