Jackson Diehl: The House's Ottoman Agenda

Roundup: Talking About History

Can a nonbinding congressional resolution really matter? Most are ignored by everyone except the special interests they are usually directed at. Even the House's recent resolution on Iraq was dismissed by both President Bush and Democratic antiwar leader John Murtha. Yet a vote expected next month on a nonbinding House resolution describing a "genocide" in the Ottoman Empire beginning in 1915 has the potential to explode U.S. relations with Turkey, sway the outcome of upcoming Turkish elections and spill over into several other strategic American interests, including Iraq and Iran.

So, yes: The Armenian Genocide Resolution sponsored by Rep. Adam Schiff does matter, logically or not. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul spent several days in Washington last month lobbying against it, though the Turkish-American agenda is chockablock with seemingly more important issues. Friends of Turkey in Washington, from American Jewish organizations to foreign policy satraps, are working the Hill; so is the Bush team. On the other side is the well-organized and affluent Armenian American community, 1.4 million strong, and some powerful friends -- including the new House speaker, Nancy Pelosi.

Here is a debate that could occur only in Washington -- a bizarre mix of frivolity and moral seriousness, of constituent pandering, far-flung history and front-line foreign policy. And that's just on the American side; in Turkey there is the painful struggle of a deeply nationalist society to come to terms with its past, and in the process become more of the Western democracy it wants to be.

Start with the pandering: Schiff, a Democrat from Los Angeles, cheerfully concedes that there are 70,000 to 80,000 ethnic Armenians in his district, for whom the slaughter of Armenians by the Young Turk regime during World War I is "anything but ancient history." Local politics also explains why a resolution that has failed numerous times in the past 20 years is suddenly looking like a juggernaut: Pelosi, of San Francisco, also has many Armenian supporters....

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