House Panel Shines Spotlight on Turkey

ANCA inters with Rep. Howard Berman

WASHINGTON—Republican and Democratic members of Congress called into question Turkey’s reliability as a U.S. ally, highlighted its deteriorating relationship with Israel, and addressed a range of issues from Armenian Genocide denial to its repression of Christian minorities and the occupation of Cyprus, during a three-hour House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing held Wednesday, reported the Armenian National Committee of America.

In his opening remarks, Chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) outlined five policy area concerns related to U.S.-Turkey ties, including Ankara’s efforts to enhance its standing in the Middle East by criticizing Israel, Turkey’s ties with Hamas, its denial of the Armenian Genocide, ongoing occupation of Cyprus, and the lack of press freedom in Turkey.

“It is critical that Turkey acknowledge the genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire against the Armenian people during World War I,” noted Chairman Berman.  “That’s why this Committee has repeatedly passed measures recognizing the Genocide and calling on the President to do likewise. I believe that Turks, once they come to terms with their past, will discover that they have relieved themselves and their children of an immense moral burden,” he concluded.

“We want to thank Chairman Berman and Representatives Costa, Smith, Royce, Sires, Bilirakis, Berkley, and Mack for shedding much needed sunshine on the many failings of our government’s weak response to a leadership in Ankara that is increasingly and openly acting against both U.S. interests and American values,” said ANCA Executive Director Aram Hamparian.

House Foreign Affairs Committee members energetically questioned the four panelists appearing at the hearing: Dr. Soner Cagaptay, Senior Fellow of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey and Azerbaijan Ross Wilson; Dr. Ian Lesser,  Senior Transatlantic Fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States;  and,  Dr. Michael Rubin, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a Senior Lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.  The insights and analysis offered by the panelists on U.S.-Turkey ties, while frequently critical of Turkey, included two direct attacks on Armenian Genocide recognition. The first was by Dr. Rubin, who questioned the historical truth of the Armenian Genocide and the second was by Dr. Cagaptay, who specifically urged Congress to block U.S. affirmation of the Armenian Genocide.

 Concerns about Turkey’s human rights record were raised repeatedly during the hearing.  New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith noted “Prime Minister Erdogan’s denial of the Armenian Genocide has been compounded, in my opinion, by his denial of the genocide in Darfur. When the ICC indicted Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir, the Prime Minister said, ‘No Muslim could perpetrate genocide.’ What does that say about his judgment?”  Ambassador Wilson’s response to the question was simply, “I can’t try to justify any of that or defend any of it,” sidestepping specific questions about the Armenian Genocide.

California Republican Ed Royce described Turkey’s relations with Armenia and Greece as “very frayed,” stating that he sees “no rapprochement” in its relationship with these countries.  “Turkey’s blockade of Armenia remains intact; you still have 40,000 of its soldiers in Cyprus. Clearly you can work out some sort of an arrangement to take a lot of those soldiers back to Turkey,” continued Royce.  He cited the important role the U.S. can play in pointing out Turkey’s problems in an effort to identify positions that “are in the long term interest of peace and stability in that region of the world.”

Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ) was blunt in his characterization of Turkey’s foreign policy in the region, stating: “Through my eyes, I see Turkey as the bully in the corner, especially when it comes to Cyprus, when it comes to Armenia, when it comes to even Greece at times, and now even Israel. Is this the projection that the Turkish people want the government to project on the world?” When responding to the Congressman’s question, none of the panelists chose to address Turkey-Armenia relations.

Central California Democrat Jim Costa challenged Armenian Genocide denial remarks made by Dr. Michael Rubin earlier in the hearing. “I think there is pretty overwhelming historical consensus that it [the Genocide] actually occurred,” explained Rep. Costa, who asked the panelists to comment on the state of the stalled Turkey-Armenia Protocols.  Panelists called for a recommitment by both the Armenian and Turkish governments to the effort, with Dr. Lesser emphasizing the importance of Turkey’s renewed efforts “without necessarily linking outlying issues such as Nagorno Karabagh.”

Representative Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) focused on the lack of religious freedom in Turkey stating, “The U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom has listed Turkey on its watch list the last two years.  In its April 2010 report that documented the persecution of minority religions in Turkey.” Rep. Bilirakis went on to note that “both the Greek and Armenian churches are not allowed train clergy, I think as you know, in Turkey.”  He then asked:  “When will religious tolerance become a reality in Turkey, in your opinion?”  Panel responses were varied, with Dr. Rubin stating, tersely, “Shortly before Saudi Arabia gets religious freedom.”

Rep. Shelley Berkley shared a long array of concerns beginning with Turkey’s relationship with Israel and Iran.  “Add that to the refusal to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, the continuous and ever more lethal incursions into neighboring Kurdistan, the treatment of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the extraordinary gall for criticizing Israel when they themselves have occupied Cyprus for 36 years, it’s become increasingly evident to me that we need to take a hard look at our relationship with Turkey, reassess whether it is in our continuing national interest to continue it, whether they, in fact, have our interests in mind and whether they can continue to be thought of as truly reliable allies.”

Congressman Connie Mack of Florida was perhaps the most direct in his dismissal of unhindered U.S. loyalty to Turkey commented, “a minute ago, we heard a question ‘What can we do to get Turkey back?’ Give me a break. We need a paradigm shift in this committee and in this discussion. We are the United States of America – the land of the free and the home of the brave. I believe it is time the Administration takes a firm stance on the side of freedom.” Instead, Rep. Mack suggested, the question should be “How can Turkey get America back?” Later in the hearing, he clarified his stance on Turkey by stating “Turkey’s actions are not forgivable.”

By contrast, several Members of Congress, including Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA), Michael McMahon (D-NY), William Delahunt (D-MA), Dan Burton (R-IN) and David Scott (D-GA) strived, in their remarks and questions, to present a positive view of Turkey, in the face of broad and growing bipartisan concerns about the Erdogan regime.

 The complete video and submitted testimony is available at: http://foreignaffairs.house.gov/schedule.asp?showdate=3D7/28/2010

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