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.
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.
Mr. Bush referred to a "genocidal campaign" against Armenians in 2000 before becoming president but has since avoided the G-word in the Armenian context. Yet he has been willing to call killings in the Sudanese province of Darfur "genocide."
Some say that only proves the point that taking such a stance is possible when less is at stake. "Although there's been much speechifying about the Darfur situation, for instance, the US has taken no effective action to respond to the suffering of the people there simply because the US has no serious interests in Darfur. It's not uplifting or inspiring," Mr. Bacevich adds, "but it's the way international politics works."
Other examples: Burma, Dalai Lama
Other recent examples of taking the moral high ground when there appears to be little practical risk include Burma, as well as official reception of the Dalai Lama on his visit this week to Washington, experts say. "The recent case of Myanmar or Burma demonstrates that it's easiest to take the moral high ground when there are no countervailing interests to take into consideration," says Mr. Henriksen. "We don't have strong ties or significant trade with that country, so we're not risking a lot there."
The White House did make an effort to assuage China's concerns about the Dalai Lama's visit by emphasizing his place as a religious and not a political leader, and by keeping his Tuesday visit to the White House to private quarters and not the Oval Office. Bush said his admiration of the Dalai Lama stems from the leader's support for religious freedom. "I do not think it's going to seriously damage relations" with China, he added.
Although national interests may reign supreme in determining conduct on such issues, a contributing factor is domestic politics, including the influence of one-issue lobbying groups. In matters of foreign policy, the power of ethnic organizations in a nation of immigrants also enters the picture, experts say. "The truth is that this action by Congress, on a historical event they have no competence to render judgment on, has nothing to do with foreign policy and everything to do with domestic politics," says Bacevich.
The measure has been sought by representatives from districts in California, New Jersey, and Michigan, with large concentrations of Armenian-Americans. That aspect of the issue points up what Henriksen calls "ethnic politics." "It true with the Cuba issue, where a pragmatic approach might say we should open up their system with more trade and exchanges," he says. "But the Cuban-Americans have a tight check on that."
The Armenian resolution also raises the question of what place the US – and in this case the US Congress – has in prompting other countries on moral issues. In supporting the Armenian resolution, Rep. Brad Sherman (D) of California says, “If we hope to stop future genocides, we need to admit to those horrific acts of the past.”
Some countries such as Cyprus would also like the US to use its close ties to Turkey to influence it in its actions in the region. The Cypriot government says Turkish forces in the northern portion of the island have systematically destroyed Orthodox Christian churches and icons – acts it says should interest the US.
But others say overt US pressure and high-profile symbolic measures are unlikely to prompt countries on sensitive issues. “The question becomes, if you pass this [Armenian resolution] is it going to make the Turks more or less likely to face the past, and the answer is, probably less likely,” says Mr. Korb. Noting that Argentina is “coming to grips” with the human rights violations of its military dictatorship, he adds, “Imagine if we had passed a resolution telling them to do it. It’s hard to see how that would have helped.”