Fight or Flight: Embassies Must Pick Right Battles on Capitol Hill

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Viewed from one perspective, Turkey’s ag-gressive lobbying campaign in the fall of 2006 to derail a U.S. congressional resolution calling on President Bush to describe the deaths of up to 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 as “genocide” was a clear victory for Turkey.

The resolution—which once had 225 House co-sponsors and was strongly supported by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.)—has now been set aside and may not return for several years. The Turkish government, working through its embassy in Washington and several prominent D.C. lobbying and public relations firms, launched a tough, aggressive and very public campaign to defeat the resolution.

Assisted by the Bush administration, the Turkish government escalated its efforts after the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved the non-binding resolution in early October, warning U.S. lawmakers that its cooperation with the United States in the Iraq war would be imperiled by passage of the resolution in the full House.

Turkey argued that the deaths of more than 1 million Armenians in 1915 was part of a broader tragedy arising from the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the onset of World War I. It said the tragic episode should be reviewed by a panel of historians from both Turkey and Armenia who would then issue a report.

After intense lobbying by the Bush administration and Turkey—during which a number of the legislation’s co-sponsors took the unusual step of announcing they now opposed a bill that they once supported—the measure in the House was set aside.

The resolution’s supporters vowed to bring it up at another time, but they have not said when and do not appear confident that it will pass anytime soon. The resolution’s opponents, meanwhile, seem triumphant.

But viewed from another perspective, Turkey’s victory was a partial, even a Pyrrhic, one. By raising the stakes in the debate over a non-binding congressional resolution, the Turkish government ensured that this chapter of its history would be discussed extensively by U.S. and global news outlets for several weeks.

Articles in scores of American newspapers and extensive television news coverage focused intensely on the tragedy of the Armenians. For instance, C-SPAN ran a half-hour segment on “The Armenian Genocide” in early October. Days after the rancorous debate in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a Borders bookstore in downtown Washington placed a book at the front of the store called “A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility” by Taner Akcam, a Turkish historian who argues that modern Turkey has failed to come to terms with the mass killings.

Rep. Brad Sherman, a Democratic congressman from California who is a strong supporter of the Armenian resolution, told The Washington Diplomat that the Turkish government actually played into the hands of the resolution’s supporters.

“The Turkish Embassy completely misread what we were trying to do. It was never our ultimate goal to pass a resolution in Congress. A non-binding, even symbolic, resolution doesn’t do anything. It was always our goal to try to educate the world about the Armenian genocide. And with its aggressive efforts to kill the resolution, Turkey helped us do this in ways that exceeded our wildest dreams,” Sherman said.

“When we started working on the resolution this year, my highest hope was that we might get a story on page six of the New York Times,” he explained. “Because Turkey has fought us so hard and so publicly, the story about the Armenian genocide was on the front pages of newspapers across the world for a couple of weeks. Now everyone in the world knows about the Armenian genocide. I can’t claim that we planned it this way, but this issue has been publicized far beyond what we believed was possible. For this, I thank the Turkish government.”

Turkish officials, however, argue that it was critical to respond to what they saw as an unbalanced resolution—the passage of which would have been unfair to Turkey and damaging to its reputation.

But the episode raises important questions about what embassies should do to protect their interests in Congress. Should embassies always fight back when they believe legislation is moving through Congress that is inimical to their interests? And when they respond, how should they fight back? Should they launch an aggressive, high-profile campaign or try to work under the radar screen? Or should they just ignore the resolution when fighting back would inadvertently raise the profile of the issue?

There are no easy answers, but after interviews with more than a dozen think tank leaders, current and former lawmakers, and congressional staffers, it seems clear that embassies need to fully understand the different types of legislation considered by Congress, carefully weigh each measure’s real and symbolic impact, and respond—when responses are warranted—in a strategic way.

Analysts agree that an embassy should be aggressive when issues arise in Congress that affect its country’s national security and economic prosperity. After all, Washington is a city of advocacy and diplomats should be prepared to defend their nations and debate issues. But they should be far more cautious when responding to non-binding measures that are designed to make points rather than change actual policy. So there are times when embassies should let measures go, especially when responding to them would do little more than draw attention to the controversy.

“In this business, it’s very easy to win the battle and lose the war,” said Bill Frenzel, a former Republican member of Congress who is now a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. “In this case, I guess you could say that Turkey won, but I’m not sure I can tell you what they won.”

Frenzel said embassies can sometimes overreact to non-binding congressional resolutions. “I think foreign governments get too excited about what the U.S. Congress does. Oftentimes, when the House or Senate passes a non-binding resolution, there is absolutely no effect. These resolutions are meaningless,” he argued. “I guess embassies can waste their money hiring expensive Washington lobby and PR firms to kill these resolutions if they want, but I would save my money for legislation and issues that actually matter.”

A senior congressional staffer involved in foreign policy issues who asked not to be identified agreed with Frenzel. “In a perfectly rational world, countries would let these resolutions get introduced, get passed and then disappear into the ether, almost totally unnoticed. But countries have sensitivities and domestic politics that dictate their responses. They often hire high-priced lobbying and communications firms that tell them to fight back hard,” the staffer said.

“There is also some misunderstanding about a congressional resolution. In the United Nations, a resolution is substance. Things can happen after a resolution is approved. In the U.S. Congress, a resolution is not substance. It’s basically just us blowing off steam,” the staffer added.

Congress does play a significant role in shaping America’s international policies so embassies naturally pay attention to what is happening on Capitol Hill. Although the president is the main foreign policy actor, the Constitution delegates more specific foreign policy powers to Congress than to the executive branch. For instance, the president is designated as commander in chief and head of the executive branch, but Congress is given the power to declare war and authorize and spend funds.

In addition, the president can negotiate treaties and nominate foreign policy officials, but the Senate must confirm them. Congress is also empowered to raise and support armies, establish rules on naturalization, regulate foreign commerce, and define and punish offenses on the high seas.

Over the decades, Congress has made it a practice to consider non-binding resolutions that pertain to other countries’ domestic affairs and history. These resolutions are often pushed by powerful expatriate communities in the United States that want Congress to speak on a contemporary or historical issue that is important to their communities.

Analysts say two high-profile congressional debates last year illustrate how non-binding resolutions emerge and how embassies try to influence the debate and outcome in Congress.

In the spring of 2007, the House considered a resolution calling on Japan to offer an official public apology for the actions of the Japanese military in the 1930s and 1940s in which hundreds of thousands of women from Japanese-occupied countries in Asia were victims of sexual enslavement.

The Japanese government has issued several apologies for the treatment of so-called “comfort women,” including one in 1993 that was reaffirmed by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. However, a number of U.S. lawmakers believed that other statements by Abe were far more ambiguous about the comfort women episode.

California Rep. Mike Honda, a Democrat who is Japanese-American, said it was important for Japan to be clear and unequivocal about its regret for the suffering of comfort women. He asked the House Foreign Affairs Committee to hold a hearing on the matter, which it did in February, and he also pushed a resolution seeking a clear apology from Japan.

Abe, then the prime minister, met with U.S. lawmakers in April and told them that he agreed with the 1993 apology, which acknowledged the culpability of Japan in this painful matter. But Abe and his government did not agree with the U.S. resolution, so in June, Japan’s ambassador in Washington, Ryozo Kato, sent a letter to five House leaders, including Speaker Pelosi, saying that adoption of the House resolution would “almost certainly have lasting and harmful effects on the deep friendship, close trust and wide-ranging cooperation our two nations now enjoy.”

The embassy’s Web site had a special section on the comfort women issue, which outlined various public statements made by Japanese leaders on the matter. It also warned that adoption of the resolution “would be harmful to the friendship between the U.S. and Japan.”

Honda told The Washington Diplomat that he believes the turning point in the debate occurred when a full-page ad signed by several members of the Japanese parliament was published in the Washington Post on June 14 disputing that there were ever any comfort women.

The Japanese Embassy said the ad was sponsored by a private group and it “was neither sponsored by, nor associated with the Government of Japan.” Nevertheless, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Lantos and many others reacted sharply to the ad, saying it was a classic example of a “blame the victim” strategy that damaged Japan’s credibility.

The House adopted the comfort women resolution in a voice vote on July 30. Honda said the measure was necessary because Japan had not offered a sincere apology and the vote by Congress could begin a healing process.

“The House sent a clear message to our good friend, the government of Japan, that historical reconciliation is not just a concept to be championed, but has very real consequences in the lives of the many women who were institutionally victimized during World War II. Historical reconciliation is crucial to prevent future atrocities,” he said.

“Japan basically told us to butt out of their domestic affairs,” Honda charged. “I don’t see it that way. The incident occurred during a World War and some of the families of victims live in this country. This is about telling the truth about the past. Japan as a mature, democratic country should not be afraid if we tell the truth. I’m afraid that some in Japan haven’t come to terms with what happened.”

Honda does not blame Japan for trying to defeat his resolution, but said the country’s strategy was not effective. “I had no problem with Japan lobbying against the bill. That’s their right. If they wanted to spend money to do this, that’s their business.

“Were they effective? Well, the resolution passed unanimously, so you can judge for yourself,” said Honda, noting that there is “no evidence” the House vote has since affected the U.S.-Japan bilateral relationship.

The second public battle over non-binding congressional resolutions in 2007 concerned the labeling of the Armenian “genocide.” Versions of the resolution have been before the U.S. Congress for two decades, championed by a small but active and influential Armenian-American community.

On Jan. 30, 2007, a resolution was introduced in the House that urged President Bush to recognize as genocide the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turks. The House version had 225 sponsors by midsummer, more than the 218 needed to assure passage in the House. A companion measure in the Senate had 32 sponsors, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

After a highly charged debate, the House Foreign Affairs panel approved the resolution on Oct. 10 with a 27 to 21 vote. In the weeks before the committee’s vote—and especially in the two weeks after the House panel’s action—the Bush administration worked hard to have the measure shelved.

Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that House passage of the resolution would seriously complicate the U.S. relationship with Turkey. All eight living U.S. secretaries of state also sent a letter to Pelosi arguing that House passage of the resolution “would endanger our national security interests.”

According to public documents, the Turkish government spent more than 0,000 a month on lobbying and communications activities in the run-up to possible House consideration of the resolution. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal strongly opposing the measure. In addition, the Turkish Embassy ran full-page ads in several Capitol Hill newspapers saying the resolution would “impose a one-sided interpretation of the tragedies that befell upon many in the last years of the Ottoman Empire and would commit an injustice to those who are seeking the truth.”

With a number of the resolution’s sponsors dropping their support, the four lead sponsors of the measure wrote to Pelosi in late October and asked her to set it aside. “We believe that a large majority of our colleagues want to support a resolution recognizing the genocide on the House floor and that they will do so, provided that the timing is more favorable,” they wrote.

The entire episode has prompted some lawmakers to urge Congress to take a more cautious approach before wading into complex and highly charged historical debates that are very sensitive for other nations. They also point out that no country appreciates being lectured to by other countries, especially by the Americans.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican from Georgia who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the Armenia-Turkey and Japan-comfort women controversies demonstrate that Congress should take more care when considering non-binding resolutions.

“Words are powerful things in both domestic legislation and in international diplomacy. We need to be more careful up here in how we use language. I’ve never liked the idea of using words in legislation if their only purpose is to inflame someone or a situation,” Isakson said.

“I’m also reluctant in getting involved in interpreting the history of a country, especially if our interpretation would greatly complicate our current relationship with them,” he added. “We have enough problems as it is. We don’t need to create more problems for ourselves.”

But others counter that Congress will always consider these types of resolutions and thus, governments and embassies must be very careful in choosing what they respond to—and the extent to which they respond.

Thomas Henriksen, a foreign policy scholar at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, said embassies should think long and hard about whether waging a fight in Congress serves their broader public diplomacy interests. “Sometimes in politics, in diplomacy, in life, it’s just best to say, ‘I’m sorry’ and then to move on. Fighting back is not always the best strategy. It elevates an issue rather than just letting it disappear.”

About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999