Politics & Government

Amid Armenia’s troubled past, U.S. politicians tread carefully

Ghostly Armenian remembrances haunt the nation’s capital, heartbreaking, but often incomplete.

An abandoned bank building stands empty downtown, the site of a long-planned Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial that’s buried beneath spectacularly acrimonious litigation. It’s near the White House, whose centennial commemorative statement Friday will omit the word “genocide.”

“I know there are some who are hoping to hear different language this year,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz, “and we understand their perspective, even as we believe that the approach we’ve taken . . . remains the right one.”

On Capitol Hill, too, lawmakers go only so far in remembering what started in the Ottoman Empire on April 24, 1915.

This year, once again, lawmakers have introduced commemorative resolutions intended to get Congress on record endorsing the phrase “Armenian genocide.” The phrase, adopted by many historians, as well as state and foreign governments, summarizes the horrific events from 1915 to 1923, when, by some estimates, upward of 1.5 million Armenians died at the end of the Ottoman Empire when the government began a violent campaign against the Armenian minority.

The events occurred in parts of what’s now Turkey, as well as parts of present-day Syria and Iraq.

Historians and governmental bodies have characterized the catastrophe as genocide, a term first recognized in international law in 1948 as referring to actions intended to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

Turkey, a key NATO ally, vigorously disputes the accuracy of the genocide term.

The House of Representatives and Senate resolutions, once again, face long prospects at best. Underscoring their seemingly bleak fate, House Speaker John Boehner said in 2007 that it would be “irresponsible” to bring a genocide resolution to the House floor that would so deeply alienate Turkey.

“What happened 90 years ago ought to be a subject for historians to sort out, not politicians here in Washington,” Boehner said then.

There is, in fact, a certain predictability to the political narrative arising from the phrase “Armenian genocide.” Disappointment becomes a refrain. Still, for all the perennial frustrations, commemorations do happen.

President Barack Obama, while avoiding the term “genocide” as he heeds Turkey’s sensitivities and what Schultz called “our ability to work with these regional partners in the present,” will, nonetheless, issue a statement. He dispatched Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew to represent the United States at commemorative services Friday in Yerevan, Armenia.

The congressional resolutions themselves, even if doomed to fall short of passage, draw substantial support. The House version, introduced last month, has 56 co-sponsors, and the Senate version, introduced Monday, has 16.

“More than 20 countries, 43 U.S. states and Pope Francis have unequivocally affirmed the Armenian genocide and it is time for the United States to join them,” declared Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California.

Home to tens of thousands of Armenian-Americans, California in particular is a stronghold for remembrance efforts. This year, 21 of the House resolution’s co-sponsors represent California districts.

Two of the four House members joining the Obama administration’s delegation to Armenia are from California: Reps. Jackie Speier and Anna Eshoo, both Democrats from the San Francisco Bay Area.

“We in the United States Congress must speak to this issue,” Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told several hundred participants at a Capitol Hill commemorative service Wednesday night.

One of several senators running for the Republican presidential nomination, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, signed a March 27 letter urging Obama to use the phrase “Armenian genocide.” Rubio’s Texas rival, Sen. Ted Cruz, did not sign the group letter, but he issued his own statement last Saturday invoking the phrase.

Obama opined in similar fashion while still a senator, but changed his tune in the White House. The diplomatic crosscurrents he now navigates were hinted at in a full-page Washington Post ad Thursday, in which the Turkish American National Steering Committee stressed the “pain and complexity of the past” while saying “there is no academic consensus” about the 1915-23 events.

The program Wednesday night, which convened in a large, third-floor room of the Cannon House Office Building, epitomized the kinds of things lawmakers can do short of passing resolutions.

House members such as Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., waited their turn to speak in a room adorned with black-and-white photographs of slaughter and starvation. Another California Democrat with a large Armenian-American constituency, Rep. Adam Schiff, hustled in after spending an hour on the House floor reading the names of roughly 1,000 Armenians who’d died.

Officials with the Armenian Assembly of America and the Armenian National Committee of America greeted lawmakers as allies in a common cause, while Armenian National Institute Director Rouben Paul Adalian enthused over efforts to create a virtual museum online.

“We wanted to have a museum open on April 24, and this mechanism is one that is accessible,” Adalian said.

The online exhibit is also a shadow of the long-discussed Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial, which was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in October 2003. Planners spoke of opening the museum by 2011.

Planning for the brick-and-mortar museum eventually collapsed amid intense conflict among different factions. The four-story bank building is now owned by the Minnesota-based Cafesjian Family Foundation.

“Much of the parties’ work to achieve their dream of a museum appears to have been for naught, which is regrettable,” Judge Robert L. Wilkins of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit noted in a decision last year that capped years of expensive litigation.

Nor is the legal dispute entirely done. Next month, a D.C. Superior Court judge will hold a hearing on a lawsuit in which the Cafesjian foundation seeks to dissolve the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial organization.