The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee has narrowly passed another resolution recognizing the Ottoman-era mass killing of Armenians in Turkey as genocide. This was the second such resolution passed by the committee in less than three years and third in less than five years.
In 2007 when the House committee approved a resolution asking the U.S. president to recognize the Armenian killings as genocide, critics argued forcefully that the passage of such measure could put the U.S. troops in Iraq in harm's way and damage already deteriorating relations between Ankara and Washington.
Almost every member of the Bush administration, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, issued statements with stern warning of the dire consequences passage of the resolution would have for U.S. interests in Iraq and elsewhere in the wider Middle East.
The pressure from the Bush administration worked; though the committee passed the resolution, it was never sent to the full House of Representatives for a final vote.
Yesterday's vote was different. The pressure from the White House was not so visible and there were no public attempts to prevent the vote. The statements coming from the White House and the State Department repeated the same line, that Turkey and Armenia should move forward in implementing the protocols to normalize relations.
The Obama administration also refrained from taking sides publicly on the issue. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for one, had a chance to appeal to committee members not to consider the Armenian resolution when she was testifying before the House panel in late February.
It became known just hours before the vote on March 4 that Clinton had spoken with committee Chairman Howard Berman expressing concern that further congressional action could jeopardize the fragile process of rapprochement between Yerevan and Ankara.
Turkey's reaction to the vote has been furious. Turkey accused the Obama administration of not doing enough to stop the vote in the House committee, and has recalled its ambassador in Washington for consultations. The Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said today the Obama administration had not sufficiently put its weight behind efforts to block the vote.
Why were Obama administration officials reluctant to put strong pressure on Chairman Berman or on other fellow Democrats in the House committee, where they have a majority?
One reason could be the level of U.S. frustration with Turkey's leaders. The patience with Ankara's handling of the Armenian-Turkish issue may be running out. The administration was hoping that the protocols wouldn't be held hostage by domestic politics in Turkey and be delayed in the long process of parliamentary politicking.
President Barack Obama and Clinton have told Turkish leaders many times that they should not tie the ratification of the protocols to the resolution of other difficult issues, such as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Just a day before the committee vote, Obama urged his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul to speed up ratification.
Now that the House panel has passed the resolution, which could go to the full House for a vote at any time, the White House may now have a tool to break Ankara's unwillingness to move forward and normalize its relations with neighboring Armenia. The Obama administration can now say, "Ratify the protocols or the genocide resolution will go to the full House for a vote."
There is, however, another trend that is unlikely to be reversed. It's becoming increasingly difficult for a U.S. presidential candidate, including Obama, to promise Armenian-Americans to recognize their century-old tragedy as genocide, and then break that promise once elected president. How many times can Obama skip the word "genocide" in his annual proclamation on the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire? He already did last year. What will happen this year?
-- Harry Tamrazian