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How 'genocide' vote lost steam

A House vote to condemn mass killings of Armenians as 'genocide' has stumbled on pragmatic concerns.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 18, 2007


The sudden misgivings about a popular House resolution condemning as "genocide" the large-scale killings of Armenians more than nine decades ago illustrate a recurring tug of war in US foreign policy: when to take the moral high ground and when to heed the pragmatic realities of national interests.

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The measure, which would put the House of Representatives on record as characterizing as genocide the deaths of more than 1 million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, appeared on track to passage by the full House after the Foreign Affairs Committee approved it last week. But pressure from the White House – worried about the impact of the nonbinding measure on relations with Turkey, a crucial logistical partner in the war in Iraq – is now causing Republicans and Democrats who had supported the measure to reconsider.

"We regularly see the impulse of Wilsonian idealism, the emphasis on democracy and human rights, counterbalanced by the pragmatic demands of realpolitik. It's one of the constant dynamics of American foreign policy," says Thomas Henriksen, a foreign-policy scholar at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif. "We want to be the city on the hill, but then some overriding interests come up and we say, 'Oh, that's different.' "

In this case, the overriding interest appears to be keeping on good terms with Turkey, a NATO ally that opposed the war in Iraq but that allows the United States to use bases there as part of crucial supply lines to US troops and personnel in Iraq.

Prospects for a full House statement on Armenian genocide have been feeding nationalist flames in Turkey. The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already been battling heavy anti-American public opinion as it acts to address the problem of recurring attacks by Kurdish rebels from across the border in Kurdish Iraq.

For many in Turkey, including in the government, the US has not done enough in next-door Iraq and with its Kurdish allies to address the activities of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK – a group the US lists as a terrorist organization.

On Wednesday, the government won a vote in the Turkish parliament authorizing the military to undertake cross-border incursions into Iraq where the PKK is based. The destabilizing potential of such military operations is as worrying to the Bush administration as Turkish threats to end use of its air bases by the US.

US cautions Turkey

President Bush said at a press conference Wednesday that the US is making it clear to the Turkish government that sending large numbers of troops into northern Iraq would not be productive.

All these factors are beginning to weigh on House members, some of whom last week predicted easy passage of the genocide resolution. On Wednesday, a group of prominent Democrats from subcommittees on NATO and security in Europe urged Speaker Nancy Pelosi not to bring the Armenian resolution to a full House vote. Majority leader Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland said Tuesday he still thought the resolution would be brought to a vote, but he acknowledged that "a number of people … are revisiting their own positions." He said that would prompt a reevaluation of support for the measure and of timing of a vote.

"The fact is, if you get an increasing number of Democrats joining Republicans who already oppose this measure, it's not going to pass," says Lawrence Korb, a foreign-policy specialist at the Center for American Progress, a Democratic-leaning think tank in Washington.

The intense politicking on the issue further exemplifies how national interests tend to supersede all other concerns in international relations, experts say. "The United States, like any other great power, seriously considers moral issues only to the extent that those moral issues coincide with substantive interests," says Andrew Bacevich, who teaches foreign policy at Boston University's Center for International Relations.