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Turkey Lashes Out at U.S. Lawmakers for Armenian ‘Genocide’ Measure

October 11, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: In Turkey today, there were street protests decrying a vote by a committee of the U.S. Congress. That vote labeled as “genocide” the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in the early 20th century.

Turkish politicians joined demonstrators in Istanbul, denouncing the vote of American politicians. Erkan Onsel is vice president of Turkey’s Labor Party.

ERKAN ONSEL, Vice President, Turkish Labor Party (through translator): The United States of America legitimized the Armenian genocide claim, which has swung over Turkey’s head like a stick and which has posed a threat to Turkey for years. The U.S. has made it clear once again that it targets Turkey.

KWAME HOLMAN: Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, also harshly criticized the non-binding resolution, telling the state-run news agency Anatolia, “Some politicians in the United States have once again sacrificed important matters to petty domestic politics, despite all calls to common sense.”

And late today, the Turks recalled their ambassador to Washington.

The Bush administration had lobbied hard against a resolution sure to upset a key American ally that plays a crucial support role for U.S. forces in Iraq.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: We all deeply regret the tragic suffering of the Armenian people that began in 1915, but this resolution is not the right response to these historic mass killings.

ROBERT GATES, Secretary of Defense: Seventy percent of all air cargo going into Iraq goes through Turkey. About a third of the fuel that they consume goes through Turkey or comes from Turkey.

KWAME HOLMAN: But despite the administration’s pressure, the Democratic-controlled House Foreign Affairs Committee adopted the resolution by a vote of 27-21.

REP. BRAD SHERMAN (D), California: There are those who’d say that, every time we discuss this resolution in committee, it’s an irritant to our relationship with Turkey. That’s the best reason to vote for it here and on the floor. Let us do this and be done with it. We will get a few angry words out of Ankara for a few days, and then it’s over.

KWAME HOLMAN: Some Republicans voted for the resolution, but most opposed it, saying the timing was particularly bad.

REP. DAN BURTON (R), Indiana: The strongest ally in the area, and has been for over 50 years, is Turkey. And I just don’t understand why we’re going to cut our nose off, shoot ourselves in the foot at a time when we need this ally.

KWAME HOLMAN: Democratic leaders say they will bring the measure before the full House within weeks, a promise welcomed by the country’s several hundred thousand Armenian-Americans, some of whom were on hand for the committee vote.

ARTIN MANOUKIAN, Armenian-American: My grandfather was a survivor. I think it’s a day of relief somehow, and I think I’m starting getting that quest for justice. And I hope that, down the road, we will have that.

HAIG HOVSEPIAN, Armenian National Committee: We were standing strong on this historical record. We were not being coaxed into being silent by somebody who calls themselves an ally of ours.

KWAME HOLMAN: The dispute came amid rising tensions along the Turkish-Iraqi border, where Turkish troops have been skirmishing with Kurdish nationalist guerrillas. Within days, President Gul is expected to ask parliament for authority to cross the Iraqi border and engage Kurdish guerrillas, known as the PKK.

"Not aimed" at modern Turkey

Mark Parris
Former Ambassador to Turkey
I don't think that anybody who's ever visited Turkey can be in any doubt that Turks, at all levels, of all levels of education and all parts of the country, view this kind of a resolution as criticism.

RAY SUAREZ: Margaret Warner takes the story from there.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on all this, we get two views. California Democrat Tom Lantos is the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. He voted for the resolution yesterday.

And Mark Parris, a retired career diplomat, served as U.S. ambassador to Turkey during the Clinton administration. He's now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and directs their project on Turkey.

Welcome to you both.

Congressman Lantos, this happened nearly 100 years ago. The House has passed this same resolution twice, once in the '70s and once in the '80s. Why do this now? What are you trying to accomplish?

REP. TOM LANTOS (D), California: Well, let's put it in perspective. Nazi Germany was responsible for the Holocaust, and the Ottoman Empire was responsible for this genocide. We have the highest respect for and the best friendship with the democratic modern Germany and with the democratic and modern Turkey.

This is not a criticism of Turkey. This is not a criticism of the Turkish people today or of the Turkish government today, and our Turkish friends know this.

This is one of those events, Margaret, which has to be settled once and for all: 1.5 million utterly innocent Armenian men, women and children were slaughtered. And the Turkish government, until now, has intimidated the Congress of the United States from taking this measure.

This is not aimed at them, and they know it very well. I'm glad that the ambassador was called back for consultation. Hopefully, he will be able to explain to his colleagues that this has nothing to do with contemporary Turkey.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Ambassador, why has Turkey reacted so sharply to this resolution, which, as the congressman says, was not aimed at what Turkey is today, modern Turkey, which wasn't even a country then?

MARK PARRIS, Former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey: I think, inevitably, criticism is in the eyes of the beholder. And you visited Turkey. You visited Turkey, as well. I don't think that anybody who's ever visited Turkey can be in any doubt that Turks, at all levels, of all levels of education and all parts of the country, view this kind of a resolution as criticism and, frankly, as interference in their own responsibility for coming to terms with their own history.

There are a lot of Turks who recognize and, frankly, admit -- and use words like "genocide" -- that this is a part of their history that they've got to come to terms with. I don't know any of them who believe that this will assist that discussion going forward or make it easier for them to deal with neighboring Armenia.

All of them believe this will be a major setback, because it is perceived as a major insult to Turkish credibility, honor by a long-standing ally. So why do they feel this way? They're human beings; they know something terrible happened.

At some level, I'm sure that they've recognized that that's going to have to be dealt with. But they don't appreciate third parties coming in and legislating the means by which they should reconcile themselves with their own history and with their neighbors.

Fallout from the measure

Tom Lantos
D-Calif
I think they understand that we are allies, we have been NATO partners for over half a century. And I think it is demeaning to the Turks to claim that they will take such an irresponsible action.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, let me stay with you and ask you, so what is the likely fallout, other than recalling the ambassador?

MARK PARRIS: Well, we don't know. And my guess is that the Turkish government, as we sit here today, doesn't know. If this were happening in a vacuum, they would look at this issue and their interests and how to deal with it.

It comes at a time when they're also dealing with another problem relating to the United States, as your lead-in suggested, the loss of over 30 citizens in the last two weeks to PKK terrorists that they believe we haven't done...

MARGARET WARNER: Kurdish.

MARK PARRIS: ... Kurdish terrorists -- our part to deal with in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Defense Secretary Gates, Congressman, raised the specter that Turkey might yank its support or its approval for the United States to use an important air base in southern Turkey to bring in material and supplies into the troops in Iraq.

REP. TOM LANTOS: I have a much higher regard for the intelligence of our Turkish friends and for their sense of responsibility than to predict that. I don't think they will do that. I think they understand that we are allies, we have been NATO partners for over half a century. And I think it is demeaning to the Turks to claim that they will take such an irresponsible action.

Let me give you another example, if I may, of just a few weeks ago. The imperial Japanese government used tens of thousands of young Asian women and girls as military prostitutes. We passed the resolution in my committee denouncing this.

This was not aimed at the current democratic government of Japan; it was aimed at the wartime military government of Japan. And while the Japanese government made some critical comments briefly, the whole thing has blown over. This will blow over.

I think it's important, at a time when genocides are going on in Darfur and elsewhere, not to be an accomplice in sweeping an important genocide under the rug.

Waiting on a House floor vote

Mark Parris
Former Ambassador to Turkey
I think a lot depends on what happens on the House floor, if it comes to a vote. And I think one of the reasons that the Turkish initial response will probably be restrained is that they want to see what will happen there.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Ambassador, do you think this will blow over in Turkey?

MARK PARRIS: I'd be surprised. I think a lot depends on what happens on the House floor, if it comes to a vote. And I think one of the reasons that the Turkish initial response will probably be restrained is that they want to see what will happen there. And they wanted to decide, frankly, what they're going to do about this PKK problem on their border.

MARGARET WARNER: Is the government under any pressure to do more? What is the feeling among the Turkish sort of body politic about the cooperation that Turkey is giving the United States in the Iraq war?

MARK PARRIS: Well, there's a sense that they are playing an important role. I think the fact is that more Turks have died in Iraq than any other nationality, because their truck drivers are an important part of the supply effort there. And our use of their facilities in Incirlik and the port in Adana to bring in heavy transport is critical.

There is, therefore, a very strong expectation among the Turkish public that this cannot be allowed simply to blow over. They're expecting their leadership to do something to show that third countries' legislatures cannot interfere in their history.

MARGARET WARNER: So if this doesn't blow over, are you saying, Congressman, that this nonetheless was worth the risk?

REP. TOM LANTOS: One of the worst things that happened to the United States in recent years has been the plummeting globally of our moral authority. This is a significant step in restoring the moral authority of U.S. foreign policy.

U.S. foreign policy was strong when it was based on a sound foundation of a moral authority. It's Abu Ghraib and similar episodes which have diminished our standing globally. And the international community is not critical of the fact that the United States calls a genocide a genocide.

Pro-contemporary Turkey resolution

Tom Lantos
D-Calif
We shall explain in exquisite detail that we consider Turkey our friend, our democratic ally, and we expect to be that for generations to come. This is an ugly chapter in Turkish history which the House Foreign Affairs Committee described as such.

MARGARET WARNER: So if the Turkish government makes clear -- as the ambassador seems to be suggesting -- that a vote in the full House could really put the cooperation at risk, it sounds like you would not recommend holding back?

REP. TOM LANTOS: Well, let me say one other thing, if I may. Next week, I am bringing to the committee a very strong pro-contemporary Turkey resolution. We shall explain in exquisite detail that we consider Turkey our friend, our democratic ally, and we expect to be that for generations to come. This is an ugly chapter in Turkish history which the House Foreign Affairs Committee described as such.

MARGARET WARNER: Would that allay Turkish concerns?

MARK PARRIS: With due respect to the congressman who I've known for a long time, it simply won't wash. The Turks -- the fine distinctions here are going to be totally lost on the Turkish general population and their politicians and the military. They will view this as part of a pattern of American ignoring of Turkish interests, including the problem in northern Iraq, which is resulting in killing of Turkish citizens and soldiers as we speak today.

MARGARET WARNER: So are you saying -- briefly, are you saying that a vote in the full House, that's the red line for Turkey's government?

MARK PARRIS: You can see graduated responses up to a vote in the House to indicate that the Turks are serious about this. I think a vote in the House will precipitate something that the Turkish political leadership can take to its population and say, "We've shown we're serious; honor is served."

MARGARET WARNER: Former Ambassador Mark Parris, Congressman Tom Lantos, thank you.

REP. TOM LANTOS: It's a pleasure.