Proposed Bill Calls For Reconciliation Between Turkey And Armenia


Wall Street Journal
April 3 2015

By Byron Tau

WASHINGTON–Bringing a new approach to a long-running Capitol Hill
standoff, a Turkish-American coalition is pushing a new bill in
Congress that will call for reconciliation and dialogue between Turkey
and Armenia while sidestepping the question of whether the 1915 mass
killing of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire was genocide.

Armenian and Armenian-American advocacy groups have long pressed the
U.S. government to officially call the killings genocide, while the
Turks have fought hard against such proposals in the U.S. and abroad.

The issue has been debated in Congress for years, without a resolution,
and the new bill may run into similar difficulties.

The new proposal, to be introduced by Rep. Curt Clawson (R., Fla.),
will call on President Barack Obama to “work toward equitable,
constructive, stable, and durable Armenian-Turkish relations” by
establishing a new presidential task force aimed at rapprochement.

This year marks the 100th year anniversary of the massacres–giving
advocates and lobbyists renewed ammunition in the battle between
the two countries over how the mass killings are remembered and
commemorated by historians and governments.

The historical consensus is that as many as 1.5 million Armenians
were killed by the Ottoman Empire in what is now Turkey. Turkey says
the issue of whether the killings were genocide isn’t for modern-day
governments to decide, contests the number of deaths and argues those
killed were casualties of a larger armed conflict.

The bill, which is being pushed by a new advocacy group called the
Turkish Institute for Progress, aims to be a counterweight and a
potential alternative to another controversial piece of legislation
that would call the 1915 killings a genocide. The proposal has existed
in some form for years.

The Turkish-American coalition has retained the lobbying firm Levick
Strategic Communications to push the reconciliation proposal as a
possible alternative to the genocide bill.

“What we’ve seen year after year for over a decade is Armenia focused
on a resolution that is divisive and causes rancor,” said Connie Mack,
a former Republican member of Congress and a lobbyist for Levick.

This new effort is “about moving forward. It’s about the next 100
years,” said Mr. Mack. The institute isn’t lobbying for or against the
separate genocide resolution and doesn’t have an official position
on it. The rapprochement bill and the genocide bill aren’t mutually
exclusive and members could, in theory, sponsor both, he said.

The reconciliation proposal is already drawing a furious reaction
from Armenian-American groups, who are a powerful and well-organized
lobbying force across the country.

“Congressman Clawson’s measure is Orwellian. He strips out any
mention of the Armenian genocide from a resolution that deals
with Turkish-Armenian relations — which is both unprincipled and
impractical,” said Aram Hamparian, the executive director Armenian
National Committee of America. “The genocide issue stands at the very
center of Turkish-Armenian relations.”

“U.S. interests can be advanced by both countries acting to cultivate
peace and understanding,” said Mr. Clawson, the bill’s sponsor,
in a letter to fellow members of Congress seeking support.

Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and one of the most
vocal members of Congress on the issue, likened the proposal for
a reconciliation commission to setting up a presidential panel to
debate whether the Holocaust occurred.

“That might be something that Holocaust deniers would applaud, but it
suggests that there’s a credible case to be made that the Holocaust
didn’t happen. There is no credible case that to be made that the
Holocaust didn’t happen and there’s no credible case to be made that
the Armenian genocide didn’t happen,” Mr. Schiff said.

Mr. Schiff and a bipartisan slate of lawmakers reintroduced their
genocide resolution last month with about 40 sponsors. That is down
sharply from the more than 200 lawmakers who signed on to the bill
in 2007.

In 2007, with Democrats in control of Congress, the genocide
bill cleared the House Foreign Affairs Committee before falling
victim to a lobbying campaign by both Turkey and the George W. Bush
administration. The Bush administration and lawmakers of both parties
at the time feared the diplomatic repercussions of alienating Turkey,
a strategic U.S. ally in the Middle East.

Those concerns persist today about the proposal labeling the massacres
a genocide.

“Undertaking this course of action would not only be morally
shortsighted but it would alienate one of our last allies in the
region who is working hand-in-hand with U.S. soldiers and our allies
to combat ISIS and give refuge to hundreds of thousands of innocent
refugees from the Syrian Civil War,” wrote Rep. Bill Shuster in a
letter to colleagues this year.

The Turkish Institute for Progress was formed earlier this year. The
Institute says it has no connection to the Turkish government and
its lobbyists at Levick aren’t registered under provisions governing
representatives of foreign governments.

“TIP is currently supported by a number of American businesses
and independent donors seeking a more progressive solution to mend
Armenian and Turkish relations,” Derya Taskin, the group’s president,
said in a statement. The group declined to name the business or donors
supporting it, citing fear of retaliation.

The Turkish government–which couldn’t not be reached for comment
through the embassy–has a number of prominent Washington lobbyists
on its payroll. The country has the firms of both former Democratic
House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt and former Republican House Speaker
Dennis Hastert on retainer. Turkey last month re-signed another $1.7
million contract with Mr. Gephardt’s firm.

The White House declined to take a position on legislation that is
still being drafted and has yet to be officially introduced.

As a candidate, Mr. Obama promised to use the word “genocide” as
president to describe the mass killings and said the evidence was
“undeniable.” But since he took office, he’s avoided the term,
calling the events “atrocities.”

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