A House resolution to acknowledge the Armenian genocide narrowly moved out of a key legislative committee Thursday, a day after the Obama administration cautioned against a vote that it feared could jeopardize Armenia’s and the United States’ relations with Turkey.
The resolution by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) declared that 1.5 million Armenians were killed between 1915 and 1923 in a campaign “conceived and carried out by the Ottoman Empire.”
The legislation moved out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on a 23-22 vote after an impassioned discussion in which some members expressed fears that the resolution could adversely affect American military operations in Iraq.
“It’s never been convenient, but we do these things not out of convenience,” Schiff said after the vote. “We do this because it is right, and if we don’t recognize the tragedies that pass, we put ourselves at risk of seeing their repetition.”
While most members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs agreed that the atrocities constituted genocide, many raised concerns about the diplomatic implications of passing the legislation.
Turkey, a NATO ally and partner in the United States’ military operations in Iraq, has previously expressed strong opposition to congressional efforts to recognize a genocide that Turkish officials say never happened.
In 2007, Turkey recalled its ambassador as similar legislation moved out of the committee, prompting concerns that the nation would refuse to allow U.S. troops to move through its borders and into Iraq.
Some representatives Thursday were concerned that the resolution’s approval would jeopardize relations and create obstacles for U.S. military operations that currently benefit from Turkish cooperation.
“There’s no question that these things happened, but the question is: Is it the right thing today to pass this type of resolution?” said Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), the ranking Republican on the House subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. “What good is it going to do? I don’t see that it’s going to do anything."
The White House also expressed concern that the resolution could stump a fledgling dialogue between Armenia and Turkey, which recently produced a set of protocols through which the nations plan to establish regular diplomacy.
Members of the committee acknowledged that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently spoke with them about the importance of allowing Turkey and Armenia to come to a mutual understanding on the genocide and other concerns.
Clinton had also urged Rep. Howard Berman (D-Valley Village), chairman of the committee, to put off a vote on the resolution, White House spokesman Adam Abrams said.
“Secretary Clinton called Chairman Berman [Wednesday], and in that conversation the secretary indicated that further congressional action could impede progress on normalization of relations,” Abrams said.
But Berman and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), who serves on the committee, refuted claims that the timing for an official stance on the genocide was wrong because it could hurt the Armenia-Turkey talks.
They argued that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not plan to allow his nation’s parliament to ratify the diplomatic protocols and proceed into further relations with Armenia until other concerns were addressed between the countries.
“These protocols are basically dead unless we do something to shake things up,” Sherman said.
Other committee members, including Rep. Edward Royce (R-Fullerton), who wrote California’s resolution acknowledging the genocide, urged passage of the bill despite fear of its potential consequences.
“It reads ‘the Ottoman Empire,’” Royce said of the bill. “The Turkish government was not involved in this. The Ottoman Empire was. It is important that this government doesn’t lose sight of truth versus propaganda. Right versus wrong.”
At the risk of jeopardizing relations with Turkey, the resolution would send an important message, said Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.).
“This House, this Congress, this government of the United States is a friend of Turkey’s,” Smith said. “But friends don’t let friends commit crimes against humanity, or act as accomplices by allowing their denial.”
The bill now moves to the House for consideration, where a similar measure sponsored by Schiff died in 2007.
While the committee’s action Thursday was an important step, proponents of the resolution were anticipating a continuing fight.
“We are not going to fool ourselves and think that it’s going to be a downhill run from here on,” said Leonard Manoukian, co-chairman of the Armenian National Committee’s Glendale chapter. “Actually, the work only gets more difficult from here on out.”