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U.S. stance careful as Armenia recalls horror of 100 years ago

Armenian women hold torches during a march to commemorate the centennial of what many call the first genocide of the 20th century, in Jerusalem on Thursday. (Associated Press)
Armenian women hold torches during a march to commemorate the centennial of what many call the first genocide of the 20th century, in Jerusalem on Thursday. (Associated Press)
Michael Doyle Tribune News Service

WASHINGTON – 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 today 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 today 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.

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.

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