The nonbinding resolution, narrowly approved last week by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has threatened to damage Washington's already-frayed relations with Turkey.
In response to the committee's vote, Turkey recalled its envoy to Washington and threatened to cut military cooperation with the United States, which uses an air base in Turkey as a resupply hub for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
U.S. President George W. Bush, the State Department, and an array of former senior U.S. diplomats strongly oppose the measure. Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, who begins an official visit to Washington today, will have a chance to hear the administration's view on the issue when he meets with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The resolution had appeared to have the necessary backing from Democrats to win passage in the full House of Representatives. But on October 17, a group of prominent Democrats suddenly withdrew their support.
Waning Democratic Support
They urged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat, California) not to go ahead with her plan to bring the measure to a full House vote. The group included Florida Representative Bob Wexler, who said the issue is not about Turkey or Armenia, but about the United States. Congress, he said, has a responsibility to act in the best interest of its soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that means protecting U.S.-Turkish relations.
"What we are asking is our own leadership to do what is right for the American, national, and strategic interest," Wexler told a news conference. "This is an extremely difficult issue. All of us feel extraordinary sympathy with the plight and the catastrophic death that the Armenian community suffered in the World War I period. But our responsibility, the bottom line, is to do what is right for our national security, well being of our troops."
Also withdrawing his support for the resolution was Pennsylvania Representative John Murtha, a leading opponent of the Iraq war. Murtha said the United States needs all the help it can get in the Middle East and should not be risking the support of a key ally. "You take Iraq, we've got a coalition of the willing -- there's nobody left," Murtha said. "We need every ally we can get. They're important to our effort in Iraq. We've got 160,000 troops in Iraq. This is important to the U.S. effort in Iraq, period."
Turkey denies that a systematic slaughter of Armenians took place, saying Armenians and Turks alike were killed in the clashes after Armenian groups sided with Russia in World War I.
Relations With Turkey 'Critical'
Bush, speaking at a news conference in Washington on October 17, reiterated his opposition to the resolution, warning that the measure would deal a blow to U.S. military interests in the region. "One thing Congress should not be doing is sorting out the historical record of the Ottoman Empire," he said. The resolution on the mass killings of Armenians beginning in 1915 is counterproductive. Both Republicans and Democrats, including every living former secretary of state, have spoken out against this resolution. Congress has more important work to do than antagonizing a democratic ally in the Muslim world, especially one that's providing vital support for our military every day."
The Democrats who withdrew their support said they did so to preserve good U.S. relations with Turkey at a critical time. But even as they spoke, Turkey's parliament was voting to give its government military authority to enter northern Iraq to do battle with several thousand Kurdish guerrillas based there -- a move Washington opposes.
Norman Ornstein, a foreign-policy scholar at Washington's American Enterprise Institute, says the U.S. government is right to be concerned about potential fallout from the resolution. Ornstein adds that he believes the resolution will be withdrawn because the potential margin of victory is so small, and because the damage caused by a vote would outweigh any benefits that might be achieved. He said a one- or two-vote margin of victory wouldn't even please the Armenian-American constituency, which has lobbied so hard for it.
"The fact is, we've got soldiers in Iraq who could be put in more jeopardy if Turkey decided to withdraw some of the cooperation they give to us," Ornstein said. "And this issue is clearly one of such enormous, intense, emotional interest to the Turkish government and to people in Turkey that you can imagine a kind of response from their government that would be injurious to us in the short run. And I think it's that fear that really motivated the people in Congress who were going to vote for this, to think twice."