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« Morning Thoughts: Center Stage | Blog Home Page | The Bloody Ninth »

When Non-Binding Is Binding

Ninety years ago, in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire and World War I, more than one million Armenians died, possibly at the hands of the Young Turk regime. This week, the House Foreign Relations Committee takes up a resolution condemning those deaths as genocide. But House Resolution 106, the Affirmation of the United States Record on the Armenian Genocide, is more than just a non-binding resolution. In the years it has been proposed, the bill has cost at least one Congressman his seat in the House, and now Turkey is threatening greater consequences.

The bill, first advanced by then-Rep. James Rogan (R-CA), came close to the floor in the late 1990's. After President Clinton urged Speaker Dennis Hastert to pull the bill, Rogan lost his seat, to Democrat Adam Schiff, who took up the cause. Now, Schiff has an ally in Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a co-sponsor of the resolution, and the measure is undergoing hearings in committee. Pelosi and Schiff are far from alone: The bill has a total of 225 congressional co-sponsors.

Turkey's response has been subtle, but strong. With representation from three top lobbying firms in Washington, one of America's strongest allies with a foothold in the Middle East has suggested it may be less willing to assist America if a resolution goes through. A recent poll, cited by the Washington Post today, shows 83% of Turks would oppose their country helping the U.S. in Iraq if the resolution goes forward. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan put in a phone call last week to President Bush warning on the dangers of passing the resolution.

The American foreign policy community realizes the problems with adopting the resolution, as well. Turkey ended some military agreements with France after the French National Assembly criminalized any denial of a genocide.

A letter with signatures from all eight former Secretaries of State who are still alive went to Pelosi earlier this week, and three ex-Defense Secretaries warned Turkey could go as far as to cut off access to an air base used for operations in Iraq. The State Department and the Bush Administration, like the Clinton Administration before it, are vehemently opposed to the measure because of the foreign policy ramifications.

There are historical questions surrounding the deaths, as well. Turkey maintains that the deaths were the result of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, not an organized genocide, and that thousands of Turks perished as well.

Still, say proponents, to pass the bill recognizing the genocide would be a renewal of American commitment to preventing genocide around the globe. How, they ask, can the U.S. take action in Darfur without recognizing other, previous genocides? Opponents say regardless of the moral dilemma, modern reality is that the resolution will hurt U.S.-Turkish relations at a time when America needs allies in Iraq.

Turkish and Armenian lobbying groups in Washington have spent millions battling over the issue. According to the Post, Turkey pays more than $315,000 a month to the three well-connected lobbying groups, while last year alone the Armenian Assembly of America spent $3.6 million to lobby Congress.

For some, the issue is relevant and hugely important as the United States tries to remake its image in the world. For others, including the Washington Post editorial board, the resolution promises more trouble for troops in Iraq. Many will criticize Congress for a do-nothing session, but at times, even a non-binding resolution can cause widespread consequences.