All Quiet on the Eastern Front

Did a business deal with Bell Helicopter doom a resolution to recognize the Armenian genocide?

Some 85 years have passed since untold numbers of Armenians died in Eastern Turkey at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, but the historical fact of that genocide has caused ripples in a most unlikely place: the Bell Helicopter division of Textron Inc. in Fort Worth.

A resolution put before Congress in Washington last week and then abruptly pulled after a last-minute call from the president to the House speaker condemned what Armenians say was the mass murder of more than one million of their people by the Turks between 1915 and 1923. The Turkish government, which has never acknowledged that the deaths took place and claims the event amounted to a quelling of civil unrest, threatened that if Congress passed the measure, both business and diplomatic relations with the United States would suffer.

"This is not a wise move," said Namik Tan, a spokesman for the Turkish embassy in Washington about the proposed resolution the day before it was scheduled to be voted on in the House. "You yourself, would you like to be seen as the sons and daughters of people who committed these acts?"

Although Tan and other Turkish government officials didn't publicly specify what the consequences might have been if the resolution passed, there was plenty of speculation.

At Bell Helicopter Textron, Chief Executive Officer Terry D. Stinson said he believed the resolution threatened a pending $4 billion contract to produce 144 attack helicopters for Turkey. That contract could create hundreds of jobs in Texas. "Congressional action on [the proposed measure] will have a real and very negative impact on this opportunity," Stinson wrote in a September 25 letter to U.S. Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, chairman of the House International Relations Committee. A copy also was sent to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert.

Many analysts credit Hastert for bringing the resolution, long sought by Armenian-Americans, to the forefront last week. When Hastert visited the California congressional district of U.S. Rep. James E. Rogan in August, he promised Rogan's Armenian constituents that he would carry a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide to the House floor. By doing so, the speaker shored up Rogan's re-election chances in a district with 20,000 voting Armenian-Americans. Rogan was one of the House managers of the impeachment of President Clinton, and Democrats had targeted him for ousting.

But the measure, advocates pointed out, had broad support on both sides of the aisle, including the backing of two top Democrats, Richard Gephardt of Missouri, the minority leader, and David Bonior of Michigan, the minority whip.

With the exception of the speaker, however, the other Republican congressional leaders--all Texans and therefore vulnerable to the sting of lost Bell Helicopter jobs--showed little enthusiasm for the resolution.

Majority leader Dick Armey said he would schedule the measure for a vote, if that's what Hastert wanted. But Armey, who, like Reps. Kay Granger (Rep.) and Martin Frost (Dem.), has hundreds of North Texas' 6,272 Bell Helicopter employees residing in his district, said he would be unlikely to support the congressional action condemning the pre-World War I slaughter. Armey's press aide S. Kevin Washington insisted that Armey's position had nothing to do with a threat to Bell Helicopter but stemmed rather from foreign policy and strategic reasons.

"Those allies are necessary to us," Washington said, while Bell Helicopter's contract is "a business issue, a private issue between a company that is located in our part of the world and Turkey."

Other Texas members of Congress had been more explicit in their opposition to the measure. Granger, who has the Bell Helicopter facility in her Fort Worth district, signed a letter sent to the House Committee on International Relations last month expressing concern over loss of the attack helicopter contract as well as possible damage to the United States' alliance with Turkey. A Bell Helicopter spokesman said Turkey had chosen Bell Helicopter's products in a "beauty contest" of prospective manufacturers last month, prevailing over an Israeli-Russian consortium. The company spokesman said Bell Helicopter expected to negotiate the final terms of a deal with Turkey later this month.

In Washington, the widespread concern was that Turkey would, in reaction to the resolution's passage, shift away from its strategically significant role as Muslim allies in a part of the world generally hostile to the United States.

But, as it turned out, the House never got to vote on the recognition of Armenian genocide.

Late in the evening last Thursday, about 15 minutes before a scheduled House vote on the resolution, President Clinton telephoned Hastert. According to a press release from the Speaker's office, the president asked the congressional leader to pull the resolution from the floor. The speaker said he had done a head count, and enough votes existed to pass the measure.

"I have accepted this request," Hastert said in his statement. "The president believes that the passage of this resolution may adversely impact the situation in the Middle East and risk the lives of Americans. This is not an idle request. We all know that the situation in the Middle East is unusually tense."

Earlier, the president had sent his representatives from the State Department and the military to object to the resolution.

For the Armenians, Turkey's threats were just that: threats. "I think the U.S. and Turkish relations runs very deep," says Ross Vartian, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America, a group representing 8,000 members which joined with 14 Armenian groups to form a coalition to support the resolution.

Over the decades, Turkey has fought any recognition of its World War I genocide, which is widely acknowledged by historians. But this time, Vartian says, "The Turks have been much more shrill." Vartian has little sympathy for the Texas representatives' reaction to the Turkish threats.

The Armenians weren't surprised by the midnight-hour political machinations. Turkey, they say, has succeeded with strong-arm tactics, halting similar resolutions in France and at the European Union in Brussels. But the massacre--to which Adolf Hitler referred when he advanced the argument that the rest of the world would look away from his extermination of Jews--is accepted in academic circles.

As far as the role that Texas representatives in Washington--and Bell Helicopter--had in getting the resolution brushed aside, Vartian offers an alternative scenario. "I can't imagine what Texas would say if they wanted to sweep a chapter of their state's history with Mexico under the rug because of a business deal," Vartian says.

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