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Showdown Set in ‘Genocide’ Debate

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is threatening a confirmation fight in an effort to press the Bush administration to reverse America’s longstanding policy of avoiding the use of the word “genocide” to describe the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to vote September 7 on the nomination of Richard Hoagland as ambassador to Armenia, after committee members put a hold on his confirmation due to concerns that he had skirted acknowledging the scope of the killings, in keeping with the administration line and the wishes of Turkey. The current American ambassador to Armenia, John Evans, was fired last spring, generating widespread speculation that his dismissal came as the result of public comments in which he uttered the term “genocide.”

The question of what to call the killing and deportation of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey in 1915 has long flummoxed the American government, whose lengthy alliance with Turkey has proved an invaluable asset in America’s dealings in the region. Turkey sharply objects to the use of the term “genocide” to describe what happened to the Armenian population during World War I, and has for decades lobbied its NATO allies to avoid adopting the moniker.

Maintaining good will between the United States and Turkey — even as relations between the two countries have frayed somewhat in recent years — remains a top priority for the Bush administration, experts say, particularly as Islamic movements take increasing hold in the Middle East. And equally important, experts say, is Israel’s friendship with Turkey, a rare nation with a Muslim majority that has supported the Jewish state since its inception.

The administration’s reluctance to allow its top Foreign Service officer in Armenia to use the word genocide “is a manifestation of the interest that the U.S. takes with Turkish relations,” said Morton Abramowitz, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a former American ambassador to Turkey. “The U.S. has always been in the position of trying to avoid the use of the term ‘genocide,’” he said. “It’s a continuing issue that has gone on for many years and, for a variety of reasons, the U.S. has hesitated to take a position to avoid alienating an ally.”

Abramowitz also stressed the significance of Turkey’s strategic value to Israel. “It’s important to have a secular state with a large Muslim population that recognizes Israel and has trade and military relationships with it,” he said.

At Hoagland’s initial June 28 confirmation hearing, a chorus of senators grilled the veteran Foreign Service officer, who currently serves as ambassador to Tajikistan, on a wide range of questions surrounding both his own views and the official American line on the Armenian genocide debate. Senate Foreign Relations Committee members who raised questions and have since held up the vote include Democrats John Kerry of Massachusetts, Barbara Boxer of California and Joe Biden of Delaware, and Republicans Norm Coleman of Minnesota and George Allen of Virginia. At that hearing, a vote was pushed back to midsummer, and was later put on hold again until this fall.

Coleman, one of the GOP’s two Jewish senators, has emerged as an outspoken advocate of changing American policy on the issue. He has said that he will continue to oppose Hoagland’s nomination in protest of the government’s unwillingness to recognize the Armenian genocide.

“I continue to be deeply troubled by the United States refusal to recognize the historically documented mass killings of Armenians in 1915 as ‘genocide,’” Coleman said in a statement released in early August. “As someone of the Jewish faith, I bring great sensitivity to the issue of recognizing the reality of genocide.”

Coleman’s view is reflective of a belief, held by many in the community, that Jews have an ethical obligation to recognize another ethnic group’s genocide. Others take a more pragmatic approach, placing Israel’s strategic interest over other moral considerations.

Despite vociferous support among some Jewish lawmakers for the Armenian community’s position that refusing to use the word “genocide” amounts to an injustice, American Jewish groups have traditionally sided with Turkey in the matter.

Every year on April 24, the day that Armenians commemorate the killings, a resolution calling for the use of the controversial term is proposed in Congress and then beaten back. Some Jewish groups claim credit for ensuring that such a resolution never passes.

Jewish advocacy groups, including the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, B’nai Brith and American Jewish Committee “have been working with the Turks on this issue” for more than 15 years, said Yola Habif Johnston, director for foundations and community outreach at Jinsa.

“The Jewish lobby has quite actively supported Turkey in their efforts to prevent the so-called Armenian genocide resolution from passing,” she said.

However, she added that Jinsa was the only Jewish group that last year backed off from supporting Turkey because of its recent criticism of Israel and its failure to cooperate with the United States in the Middle East.

Relations between the two countries have been strained during the last several years, since a political party with Islamist roots, the Party of Justice and Development, known as AKP, swept to power in Turkey in the 2002 elections. AKP, many analysts said, has shifted Turkey’s orientation away from the West and pushed the regional ally toward stronger ties with other Muslim nations, including Iran and Syria.

One of the first signs of Turkey’s changing priorities came just before the start of the Iraq war, when Turkey denied America’s request to stage an attack from Turkish soil. During America’s first war with Iraq in 1991, Turkey’s decision to let the United States use its air space was seen as an integral component of the war’s strategy.

An official at the Consulate General of Israel declined to comment on Hoagland’s nomination, saying that diplomats from his country do not comment on internal American affairs.

Some Armenian activists say that sinking Hoagland’s nomination is not their ultimate goal. “We’re trying to draw attention to the fact that the U.S. policy of avoiding saying the word ‘genocide’ is unacceptable, immoral and historically inaccurate,” said Harut Sassounian, publisher of the California Courier, an English-language Armenian newspaper. (California is home to the largest Armenian population outside of Armenia.) “It’s the policy that’s at issue, not Ambassador Hoagland,” he said.

Sassounian countered the argument that acknowledgement of the Armenian genocide would lead to a fissure in the American-Turkish alliance. The United States already passed resolutions in 1975 and 1984 recognizing the genocide and there was no fallout then, he said.

Prior to Hoagland’s nomination, 60 members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asking for a full disclosure of why Evans, the current Armenian ambassador, was let go. They did not receive a response.

Many observers point to an incident in 2005 when Evans addressed an Armenian group in California, declaring, “I will today call it the Armenian Genocide,” as the precursor to his recall. Shortly after that, observers say, he was forced to retract his statement and was also stripped of the “Constructive Dissent Award” that he was scheduled to receive from the Foreign Service Association.

A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on both Evans’ firing and Hoagland’s nomination, saying that it was a matter for the White House. A spokesperson for the White House also declined to comment while the nomination was still pending.

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