Over the last forty years, a resolution has frequently come up in one or both houses of Congress declaring the killings of over a million Armenians in present-day Turkey during World War I a genocide. The resolution has always failed to pass. But each time it comes up Armenian Americans, Turks and our politicians have acted in the same way. It has become almost a ritual.
For Armenian-Americans it always entails an enormous effort, and ends in political abandonment. Getting a resolution passed is the principal purpose of leading Armenian organizations, which ceaselessly raise awareness and funds to lobby Congress and presidential administrations. Their effort is intense at election time, when monies are given and commitments exacted from candidates to support calling the events of 1915 a genocide. They always get much sympathy from presidential contenders, and sometimes, as with Mr. Obama, specific statements using the term genocide. Legislators also often pay attention to Armenian groups, particularly where there are large populations of Armenian descent, as in California.
But every time the resolution has come up, the results remind one of the famous antics of the unforgettable, hard-nosed Lucy in the comic strip Peanuts, who holds the football with her finger for the believing Linus to kick. As he rushes to kick the ball, she invariably pulls it aside and Linus bites the dust. So it is that the Armenians find themselves with presidents forsaking their promises or reverting to a low profile on the resolution and their subordinates taking the lead in opposition, or legislators who similarly back down for national-security reasons. Aggrieved Armenians resolutely reject the assertion that American national interests regarding Turkey are so compelling or so threatened that political leaders will always fear the consequences of Turkish anger in expressing support or voting for such a morally compelling resolution. They impressively join the fray, year after year, despite repeated failure.
For Turkey, the Armenian genocide issue in America, its major ally, has become increasingly contentious. The Turks vehemently deny genocide occurred; it is a matter of national honor in a country where nationalism remains very strong and politically potent. Ankara acknowledges that the huge numbers of Armenians and Turks were slaughtered, but as the result of a terrible war. Many fear passage of such resolutions will somehow ultimately lead Armenians to seek reparations from Turkey. They argue that the issue should be left to historians to determine, not legislators-although Turkish and Armenian historians agreeing on the matter seems far-fetched.
Turkish governments complain bitterly when resolutions are introduced in other countries and threaten vague but serious consequences-yet they rarely follow through with major measures, evidenced by the passage of such a resolution in France. The rage of the Turkish government and public is greatest when it gets congressional attention in the United States, setting off fears in Washington that the consequences could be very damaging in such important places as Afghanistan and Iraq. In America, as in France, Turkey cannot easily appeal to the public: there aren't many Americans of Turkish descent around, and not much of the electorate is interested. Instead they bring out all the heavy cannon they can to turn back the resolution-numerous lobbyists, the large military contractors, the American Jewish community (because, until recently, of the strong Turkey-Israel relationship) and most important, the executive branch. Passage of a resolution would be a huge domestic political blow for any Turkish government. Turkey's efforts have always worked.
This year Turkish government anger seemed greater over the resolution passing just the House Committee on International Relations, which has happened before. The Turks felt that the administration (as well as the American Jewish community, which they believe is monolithic) was insufficiently active in opposing the resolution. They recalled their ambassador and are considering other punitive measures. But after the administration's indeed belated opposition, the resolution appears not likely to even reach the floor. Things were much more bitter than usual this year because Ankara came up with a creative approach of proposing and working out agreements with neighboring Armenia to normalize frozen relations, which it also hoped would help postpone any genocide resolution in America indefinitely. But that effort, desirable on its own, stalled politically in Turkey-the Obama administration's expectation that the Turkish government would submit the agreements for parliamentary approval contributed to its delay in weighing in on the resolution. This year, on the commemorative date of April 24, how Mr. Obama-who used the genocide word as a candidate, but hasn't yet as president-speaks to the Armenian community will be closely watched and another storm is possible. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has remained very vocal on the whole issue.
For the American media, a genocide resolution is hardly an identifiable issue. Usually it gets a few inches in the middle of the paper, although this year's Turkish threats caught more press attention. In 1990, a quite extraordinary two-day debate took place in the Senate over a genocide resolution between the two party leaders, Senator Dole and Senator Byrd-and got barely a mention in the national press. I remember it because as our ambassador in Turkey I spent months lobbying some sixty senators to reject the resolution.
Most Americans who pay attention to the issue probably sympathize with the Armenians and believe historical evidence supports their claim of genocide. They tend to believe Turkey should come to grips with its past. Others question, whatever the history, that it is bizarre for the American Congress to express views of what happened one hundred years ago in wartime in another country. But all that pales for many congressmen and presidents, whatever their commitments in election times, to compelling foreign-policy concerns with Turkey.
Can this dynamic be changed? Not likely in the short run. The Armenian community will not give up. Moreover they believe that despite Turkey's growing international importance, its position on this issue is eroding. Some twenty countries have called events genocide-including Sweden, a strong supporter of Turkey's bid for EU membership, which only last week passed a genocide resolution by one vote. Even with the issue so deeply felt and politically explosive in Turkey, such governments aren't likely change their stance even as they search for ways to fend off resolution battles.
Perhaps over time and because of increasing public discussion in Turkey (a recent phenomenon) that will change. Conceivably our Congress may grow tired of the endless battle, but the politics are hard to put aside. Probably the best hope is the realization of Armenian-Turkish reconciliation, which will make it easier to proceed practically to better deal with horrible history. Meanwhile, stay tuned for the next episode.
Morton Abramowitz, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, was American ambassador to Turkey 1989-1991.