D.C. Angers Turkey Over Armenia

The House Committee vote to label Turkey's mass killing of Armenians during World War I as a "genocide" followed one of the most intense, and unusual, battles on Capitol Hill in recent memory. The measure passed despite a lobbying blitz from the Turkish government, which hired an army of K Street lobbyists to fight it. The team included former House majority leader Dick Gephardt, who as a congressman had cosponsored genocide resolutions but switched sides in March when his firm signed a $1.2 million-a-year contract to represent the Turks. The flip-flop resulted in some awkward phone calls for Gephardt. "Dick, if memory serves me, didn't you used to support this?" New York Rep. Eliot Engel says he told Gephardt during a call urging him to oppose the measure. (Gephardt did not return calls seeking comment.) President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates also made late appeals, fearing that the move would endanger diplomatic relations as well as Turkish defense contracts with major U.S. firms. Even Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, got involved, warning visiting House members in Baghdad that the measure would be a "big mistake," according to Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen, because it might disrupt supply lines that run through Turkey.

But the opposition couldn't overcome a well-organized and emotional push by Armenian-American groups to get the U.S. government to acknowledge the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, the precursor to modern Turkey. (Turkish officials call it a "tragedy," not a "genocide.") When California Democratic Rep. Jane Harman, a cosponsor of the resolution, suggested it was "the wrong time" for a vote, she was confronted by protesters in her district chanting, "Hypocrite, liar, genocide denier!"

The Armenian push was also boosted by campaign contributions: Annie Totah, co-chair of the Armenian American Political Action Committee, told NEWSWEEK she has raised "hundreds of thousands of dollars" for Democratic candidates and recently joined Hillary Clinton's finance committee. (Clinton is a cosponsor of the resolution in the Senate.) Totah, for her part, believes Turkey is overreacting. "They should stop acting like this is World War III," she said. But Turkish officials are unlikely to be mollified, especially if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi follows through on a pledge to bring the measure to the House floor. If that happens, Turkey is likely to retaliate, says Egeman Bagis, a top adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. How? By sending troops, over U.S. objections, into northern Iraq to crack down on Kurdish rebels. "You can't insult an entire nation like this," he said.