National Journal Article on H.Res.106

The National Journal
November 10, 2007

Ethnic Epic

By Julie Kosterlitz
[email protected]

Armeni an-Americans and the Turkish government use different
strategies in their ongoing battle over a genocide resolution

By the time the Armenian-Americans from Detroit arrived in
Washington on October 25 – one of several such contingents from
around the country – to try to rescue their decades-long dream, it
was already too late.

Just two weeks earlier, the House Foreign Affairs Committee had
approved the Affirmation of the United States Record on the
Armenian Genocide Resolution, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.,
vowed to bring it to a floor vote. But since then more than a dozen
co-sponsors had withdrawn their support, under intense pressure
>From the government of Turkey, its high-wattage Washington
lobbyists, and a Who’s Who of Bush administration officials and
military leaders.

By day’s end, the measure’s lead sponsor, Democrat Adam Schiff –
whose Los Angeles-area district includes a significant Armenian
enclave – would write Pelosi asking her to postpone the vote.

The Motor City delegation, however, was not conceding. "We’ll
tighten our belts, stand shoulder to shoulder, and continue to
struggle until this is passed," said Narses Gedigian, a retired
Ford Motor manager and the Detroit director of the Armenian
National Committee of America. "It is going to pass," echoed banker
Ralph Kourtjian just before the group returned to the airport that
day.

The long-running battle in Congress between the Turks and Armenians
is instructive, a study in both clashing viewpoints and the two
different ways that political power is applied: the Turks’ use of
the diplomatic leverage of a foreign government versus the
Armenians’ use of the ballot-box clout of an American ethnic group.
At issue is how the U.S. government will refer to the mass
slaughter and deadly deportations of more than a million Armenians
in the Ottoman Empire during World War I.

Whether it was genocide – a systematic effort to eradicate a
national, racial, religious, or ethnic group – as Armenian-
Americans and most genocide scholars contend, or a tragic but more
nuanced event, as the Turkish government and a few scholars argue,
may seem like an arcane historical debate. But the outcome bears
directly on the core identity of both the sizable Armenian-American
disapora and the Republic of Turkey, a vital U.S. ally.

In a technical sense, the Turks’ government-to-government
realpolitik has triumphed, preventing a full House vote three times
since 2000. But even Turkey’s allies recognize that the grassroots
Armenian lobby has effectively fought them to a draw. The issue
keeps coming back, and each skirmish raises its profile.

"One of the major problems has been that it’s the Turkish
government that has led the charge in presenting the Turkish
position, and there’s a need to get Turkish-Americans involved and
to be more active citizens," says Lincoln McCurdy, the former
longtime director of a pro-Turkish business group. It is a problem
that McCurdy and some prominent Turkish-Americans are now hoping to
remedy.

Part of the Armenian-Americans’ power comes from the focus and
persistence they bring to the issue. "The Turks thought, ‘After the
first generation, they [Armenians] will forget.’ I’m second
generation, and the third are still on it," says Kourtjian, whose
fellow lobbyists included college senior Ani Hagopian and Karine
Birazian, who put a nursing career on hold to become an Armenian
National Committee organizer.

The Armenian diaspora has consciously nurtured this sense of
identity through close-knit families; the Armenian Apostolic
Church; and, in many communities, separate Armenian schools and
newspapers. The passage of time has actually boosted the Armenian
community’s political strength. Those from second and third
generations bring more affluence, education, and sophistication to
the cause than do their traumatized, mostly working-class parents
and grandparents.

They have had particular success outside Washington: 40 state
governments have recognized an Armenian holocaust. And Armenian-
Americans successfully lobbied the Massachusetts Legislature in the
late 1990s to require that school children be taught about the
Armenian genocide.

Now the younger generation is making its case through popular
culture. Author and Colgate University professor Peter Balakian’s
2004 book about the Armenian genocide and the Americans response,
The Burning Tigris, was a best-seller. Prominent Armenian-Americans
helped underwrite the 2006 PBS documentary The Armenian Genocide,
and the Armenian-American members of the Grammy-winning heavy-metal
group System of a Down wrote a song about the genocide and put
information booths at their concerts.

The fourth estate has also been lobbied. In 2003, The Boston Globe
began allowing unqualified use of the term "genocide" to describe
the events of 1915 after meeting with Armenian activists, and in
2004 The New York Times did the same.

Armenian-Americans are also poised to erect a visible symbol of
their cause in the nation’s capital: an Armenian Genocide Museum,
to be housed in a historic former bank building just blocks from
the White House. Despite legal wrangling among donors, sponsors vow
to complete the project by 2011.

If the diaspora’s cause was previously hurt by the perception that
it involved an Old World blood feud, it had increasingly been
helped by the rise of a separate anti-genocide movement over the
past decade.

After Americans’ belated recognition of the unchecked ethnic
slaughter in Rwanda in 1994, an informal network of academics,
human-rights activists, and Jewish Americans has been organizing to
stop and prevent similar tragedies. The creation of the
International Association of Genocide Scholars, as well as Samantha
Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2003 book, A Problem From Hell, have
both fostered the issue’s rising importance. In the past few years,
grassroots groups were created to stop the massacre of civilians in
Sudan’s Darfur region. Armenian-American groups have joined the
Save Darfur Coalition, the Genocide Intervention Network, and
others.

The anti-genocide movement, in turn, has helped give the Armenians’
cause more contemporary relevance. "Turkey’s policy of denying the
Armenian Genocide gives license to those who perpetrate genocide
everywhere," the officers of the International Association of
Genocide Scholars wrote in a letter to members of Congress earlier
this year in support of the House resolution. "Little by little, we
see the growth of an [anti-]genocide political constituency," says
Aram Hamparian, a third-generation Armenian-American who heads the
Armenian National Committee of America, one of the diaspora’s two
Washington-based lobby groups.

The anti-genocide movement has also helped Armenians to make
inroads with another powerful lobby that has to date sided with
Turkey: American Jewish organizations. Because Turkey has been one
of Israel’s few friends in the region, such Jewish groups as the
American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, and B’nai
B’rith International have opposed the Armenian genocide
resolutions. Until recently, the Turkish Embassy also retained PR
consultants Jason Epstein, a former lobbyist for B’nai B’rith, and
Lenny Ben-David, a former deputy chief of mission at Israel’s
embassy in Washington, in part as liaisons to Jewish leaders.

In August, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with
Jewish leaders in New York and pressed them to help block the
resolution.

Increasingly, however, local Jewish groups are siding with Armenian
groups. In August, under pressure from chapters in New England, ADL
President Abe Foxman finally called the events of 1915 "tantamount
to genocide" but still said the House resolution was a
"counterproductive diversion" that could put Turkey’s Jewish
community at risk.

The Armenian-Americans’ public lobbying has convinced some that
Turkey’s reliance on powerful high-level advocates – paid or
otherwise – is no longer sufficient.

Turkey’s latest victory took far more effort than its prior one in
a Republican-controlled Congress. At that time, the secretary of
State merely sent a letter of opposition, Schiff said, but this
time, President Bush, the secretaries of State and Defense, members
of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. David Petraeus all lobbied
House members in "the most intensified effort I’ve seen."

Turkey also had to supplement its prominent Republican lobbyist,
former House Speaker Bob Livingston, R-La., with a high-priced
Democratic one, former Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., who
had supported the resolution as a member of Congress.

Even so, Schiff argued, Turkey won mainly due to a last-minute turn
of world events. After Iraqi-based Kurdish rebels attacked Turkish
soldiers in mid-October, the Bush administration argued that the
measure jeopardized U.S.-Turkish relations just when the United
States was urgently seeking to dissuade Turkey from invading
northern Iraq. A successful floor vote, Schiff argued, is now just
a matter of time – and timing.

Some Turkish-Americans seem to fear that he is right. A small,
affluent group has hired McCurdy to start the Turkish Coalition of
America to help create a grassroots lobby. The sponsors, whom
McCurdy won’t name, have provided a budget of "well under $1
million."

Forging an effective lobby, McCurdy acknowledges, will be tough.
The Turkish-American community is about a third the size of the
Armenian one, McCurdy says, and is "one of the most fragmented
ethnic groups in the United States," in part because Turkey is
officially secular and emigrants lack the built-in sense of
community that Armenians get from their church.

Up to now, the closest thing to a grassroots lobby has been the
Assembly of Turkish American Associations, an umbrella group for 60
local organizations. But for most of the past year, the assembly
has been embroiled in an internal power struggle from which it is
only now beginning to re-emerge.

Instead, most of Turkey’s nongovernmental lobbying support in the
United States has come from the American Turkish Council, the
business group that McCurdy founded. The council’s board is chaired
by Brent Scowcroft, national security advisor for President H.W.
Bush, and includes executives from Lockheed Martin, Northrop
Grumman, and other defense firms.

McCurdy is holding seminars to teach Turkish-American groups around
the country how to get involved in the political process.

That the Turkish lobby relies so heavily on McCurdy – a self-
described Christian Anglo from Indiana – is emblematic of how far
that effort has yet to go.

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