Turkey vs. Armenia and Why it Matters to President Obama

The White House is asking Congress to drop legislation that labels a massacre of Armenians by Turkish forces in 1915 as genocide, but the House Foreign Affairs Committee is calling for a vote, despite pressure that included a phone call from the United States top diplomat Secretary of State Clinton to the chairman of the committee.

Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Representative Howard Berman (D-CA) told the committee that even if the Turks as well as the United States felt the resolution would have “terrible consequences” for U.S./Turkey relations, he urged the members to vote in favor of the legislation. “I believe the Turks, however deep their dismay today, fundamentally agree that the U.S.-Turkish alliance is simply too important to get sidetracked by a non-binding resolution passed by the House of Representatives,” Berman said in his opening remarks. “At some point, every nation must come to terms with its own history. And that is all we ask of Turkey.”

The White House says President Obama, who supported the legislation when he was a member of the Senate and running for President, has not changed his position. “The President's position on the events of 1915 is well known and his view of that history has not changed,” National Security Spokesman Mike Hammer said in a statement. ”The President spoke yesterday with President Gul and expressed appreciation for his and Prime Minister Erdogan's efforts on normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia, and pressed for rapid ratification of the protocols.”

The resolution on the Armenian genocide was also brought up under the administration of President George W. Bush when the House tried to pass the non-binding resolution in 2007. At the time, President Bush ran into the same problem the Obama administration is now facing, recognizing the genocide, but asking the House not to pass the resolution so as to maintain good relations between the United States and Turkey. The United States maintains the Incirlik military base in Turkey which is used as a main hub for training missions for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2008, then candidate Obama released a statement saying he supported the Armenian Genocide Resolution and that “as President I will recognize the Armenian genocide.” However, that statement may come back to haunt the current President who recently has used softer language when asked about the use of his wording.

In April 2009 when Obama visited Turkey he was pointedly asked about his 2008 remarks during a joint statement with Turkish President Abdullah Gul. Obama danced around his previous comments, choosing instead to focus on the future. “What I'd like to do is to encourage President Gul to move forward with what have been some very fruitful negotiations. And I'm not interested in the United States in any way tilting these negotiations one way or another while they are having useful discussions.” Obama said.

And on the same trip, the President made sure to mention the genocide, thought not by name, at an address to the Turkish Parliament, but asked the two countries to work together going forward. “while there's been a good deal of commentary about my views, it's really about how the Turkish and Armenian people deal with the past,” Obama said. “And the best way forward for the Turkish and Armenian people is a process that works through the past in a way that is honest, open and constructive."

Meanwhile, the legislation, even if it were to make it out of committee, may not be destined for the floor. Nadeam Elshami, the spokeswoman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who in the past has been supportive of the bill, is saying it’s a process. “We’ll look at this one step at a time,” Elshami told Fox News.