The Armenian Resolution Strikes Back

Ömer Taşpınar
Omer Taspinar headshot
Ömer Taşpınar Former Brookings Expert

December 20, 2010

The season for the regular tension between Ankara and Washington came earlier than expected. We should not be surprised if Turkish-American relations soon enter “crisis management” mode.

The issue at hand will once again be the usual predicament: the Armenian genocide resolution. Every year it is the same story. The sense of déjà vu is becoming painfully cyclical. Despite this familiar routine, there are a couple of factors changing the dynamics this year.

The first one is the early timing. The Armenian issue usually enters the agenda before April 24, the date for “Genocide Remembrance Day.” Considerable pressure on the president of the United States begins usually a few weeks in advance by congressional attempts to pass a non-binding resolution first from the Committee on Foreign Relations and then from the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Earlier this year, as you will remember, the resolution narrowly passed the House committee with just one vote. So, it was up to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, from the Democratic Party, to bring the resolution to the floor for a vote. Pelosi did not do so, probably because of the busy political agenda of the House and perhaps because the resolution did not have the support it needed to pass.

I was personally surprised that she did not try before the November mid-term elections. The circumstances appeared optimal around September. The Democrats desperately needed all the votes they could get from the American people. The Armenian lobby also must have had a sense of urgency. It was obvious that the Republicans would win and that chances of an Armenian genocide resolution would diminish. And, of course, most importantly, there was the dismal state of Turkish-American relations. After all, it is no secret that Turkey’s image in the American Congress hit an all-time low this year.

Over the last six months, two major developments poisoned Turkey’s perception among U.S. legislators. The first was Turkey’s identification as a close ally of Iran. Turkey’s “no” vote in the United Nations Security Council concerning sanctions against Iran not only damaged its already tainted image in Congress, but it also infuriated the Obama administration. The day before Turkey voted no, President Barack Obama called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and tried to convince him during a 45-minute conversation to vote either “yes” together with the transatlantic (NATO plus EU) community or in the very worst case abstain.

The fact that Turkey voted the way it did clearly demonstrated that Ankara was more concerned about its leverage with Iran or its relations with Brazil than setting back its relations with Washington on a very critical issue for which President Obama had spent considerable political capital. To expect that there would be no consequences for defying the American agenda in such a blatant way is naïve. In that sense, there is nothing surprising in the way the Armenian issue will become more difficult to surmount.

The second development, which somewhat unfairly turned Turkey’s image from bad to worse, is the Mavi Marmara incident. Despite the fact that Turkish citizens were killed by Israeli soldiers in international waters, the whole affair came to be seen by the US Congress as pro-Iran and pro-Hamas and as Turkey challenging Israel. Given the influence of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington and particularly in Congress, it should not be surprising that Turkey’s version of the story falls on deaf ears.

At the end of the day, on two crucial issues — Iran and Israel — Turkey is on the wrong side of the House of Representatives. Under such circumstances, the Armenian lobby should not face a major challenge getting its way in passing the genocide resolution. Now, just before Christmas, Pelosi must be calculating that there is one last chance before the new House, with its new Republican majority, begins the new year. We will see on Tuesday if the House of Representatives will have the numbers and the will to vote on this issue. The next couple of days will be critical. Needless to say, the whole situation is highly embarrassing for a country like Turkey, with such high ambitions on the world stage.