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Armenia, Turkey, And The Candidates - Of the Art of Triangulating on Genocide

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The following piece was produced as part of Huffington Post's OffTheBus project.

Turkey is threatening to invade Iraq and cut commercial ties with the United States in retaliation of the House Foreign Affairs Committee passing a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide, but don't count on the presidential candidates to take a strong stand on the issue.

House Resolution 106 is only the latest in a long series of congressional attempts to acknowledge the genocide of 1915, which is to this day denied by Turkey. Turkey has launched an all-out effort against the resolution, enlisting the help of many former politicians turned lobbyists - especially former Rep. Dick Gephardt, a big advocate of similar resolutions in the 1990s but who now has become a the leader of the Turkish lobby - and threatening to strike back if the bill is approved by Congress.

Proving the efficiency of this multi-million blackmail campaign that also included full page ads in the Washington Post and aggressive mailings to congressmen, many representatives stunningly reversed course in the past few weeks. Washington Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott, originally one of the bill's co-sponsors, flip-flopped and was quoted by the Seattle Times saying that there is no evidence of a genocide. "The issue in large measure is between the Armenian Christians and the Muslim Turks," he said. "We are being asked to pick a winner."

But this past Wednesday, enough representatives stood their ground for H.R. 106 to pass the House Foreign Affairs Committee. It was a close vote, though: 27 to 21, with most votes in favor coming from Democrats. Leadership is vowing to submit the bill to a full House vote by mid-November - and a similar resolution has been introduced in the Senate and has already attracted thirty-two co-sponsors.

This would force all the presidential candidates who are in the House and the Senate to record a public vote on the issue. With Armenian-American voters politically powerful in California, Michigan, and New Jersey - all states that are at the forefront of the primary and the general election battle, the candidates will surely be careful to not alienate a key constituency.

But a survey of the presidential field - and quick phone calls to the congressional offices of all of those sitting on Capitol Hill - shows that candidates are remarkably unengaged on this potentially explosive issue. The only aide to have a precise answer to my question was Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo.

Tancredo is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and he voted "nay" last Wednesday. Asked for an explanation, his aide told me, "The current government is not responsible for what happened a hundred years ago, pretty much." Then why was he originally a co-sponsor of the bill? The House database indicates that Tancredo jumped on board on April 19th - and suddenly changed his mind on June 27th. Did he have a sudden revelation about historical responsibility during those two months?

At least Tancredo has an official statement about the matter. Ron Paul, also a member of the committee, did not take part in the vote, and his office had nothing to tell me about his stance on H. R. 106.

The two other House members running for president - Republican Duncan Hunter and Democrat Dennis Kucinich - are both co-sponsors of the resolution. But that apparently does not mean anything, as Jim McDermott is still on the list. Asked whether the congressmen stood by their commitments, neither of their offices could provide me with an answer. Kucinich's aide said they "could not comment on the matter" of a future vote, and Hunter's was not aware of anything relating to H. R. 106. It was rather surprising to find that they could not even respond that co-sponsoring a bill was a measure of support and indicate that their future vote would be in favor.

In the Senate, three of the presidential candidates are co-sponsoring the equivalent senatorial bill: Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, and Sam Brownback (24 out of 32 of the co-sponsors are Democrats). But calls to their Senate offices also provided me very little information as to whether these three would stay committed to the bill and whether they would take active measures to push for it - which is unfortunately as telling as if they had given me a precise answer.

I obtained a similar result with the other senatorial offices, but at least past statements from the candidates can give us an idea of where they stand on the issue. Joe Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, and thus the senator who would have to push this measure through, has supported similar bills in the past. In fact, he co-sponsored Senate Resolution 320 in 2006 in the 109th Congress. He also released a statement this past April 24th, the day of remembrance of the Armenian Genocide. John McCain, on the other hand, has explicitly rejected use of word genocide - consistently referring to 1915 as "massacres" - and has voted against similar bills in the past.

And then there is Barack Obama, who seems guilty of massive triangulation. He has repeatedly acknowledged that what took place was a genocide and accused the Turkish government of denial, most famously at a videotaped conference on April 12th. But asked whether this means he would vote in favor of a recognition resolution, Obama stalled: "I think the fact that I am on the Foreign Affairs Committee means that we maybe more sensible to some of the internal dynamics diplomatically around the issue."

One thing that is too certain, unfortunately, is that whoever the next president is will oppose any attempt to recognize the genocide. Hillary Clinton might be supporting the resolution now, but her husband's Administration was the biggest obstacle to the resolution's late 1990s version. And George Bush's reversal shows how seriously the executive branch takes the Turkish threats.

In 2000, Governor Bush wrote a public letter pledging to finally bring the US to full recognition of what happened in 1915. "The Armenians were subjected to a genocidal campaign that defies comprehension and commands all decent people to remember and acknowledge the facts and lessons of an awful crime in a century of bloody crimes against humanity," he wrote. "If elected President, I would ensure that our nation properly recognizes the tragic suffering of the Armenian people."

Last week, President Bush was reduced to begging Congress to reject H.R. 106. "This resolution is not the right response to these historic mass killings," he argued, avoiding the G-word just as he has in the past seven years. But with Turkey's stunning blackmail over a merely symbolic bill extending as far as threatening to invade northern Iraq, it is time for Congress to call their bluff.