As a rising St. Louis politician in the mid-1970s, Richard Gephardtwas among a dynamic group of aldermen dubbed "The Young Turks." Soperhaps it's not surprising that, 30 years later, the formerDemocratic minority leader of the House of Representatives has agedinto an Old Turk. This spring, Gephardt has been busy promoting hisnew favorite cause--not universal health care or Iraq, but theRepublic of Turkey, which now pays his lobbying firm, DLA Piper,$100,000 per month for his services. Thus far, Gephardt'sachievements have included arranging high-level meetings forTurkish dignitaries, among them one between members of the Turkishparliament and House Democratic leaders James Clyburn and RahmEmanuel; helping Turkey's U.S. ambassador win an audience with askeptical Nancy Pelosi; and, finally, circulating a slim paperbackvolume, titled "An Appeal to Reason," that denies the existence ofthe Armenian genocide of 1915.
Few people would place the Armenian genocide on their top ten--oreven top 1, 000--list of the day's pressing issues. In fact, manyAmericans would likely be at a loss to explain who or what theArmenians are, much less what happened to them 90 years ago. Not soin Washington. For the past several years, U.S. representatives,lobbyists, and foreign emissaries have been locked in a viciousstruggle over a resolution in Congress that would officially deemas genocide the massacre of up to 1.5 million ethnic Armenians inthe Ottoman Empire. The Turkish government has fought this effortwith the zeal of Ataturk-- enlisting a multimillion-dollar brigadeof former congressmen and slick flacks, as well as a coterie ofAmerican Jews surprisingly willing to downplay talk of genocide.But the Armenian-American community has impressive politicalclout-- enough that a majority of House members have nowco-sponsored the resolution. And that means a ferocious finalshowdown is looming, one so charged that this arcane historicaldispute could even interfere with the war in Iraq.
Even more striking than the historic Turkish-Armenian hatredfestering in the halls of Congress, however, is the wayWashington's political elites are cashing in on it. Take Gephardt.While the Turks and Armenians have a long historical memory,Gephardt has an exceedingly short one. A few years ago, he was aworking-class populist who cast himself as a tribune of theunderdog-- including the Armenians. Back in 1998, Gephardt attendeda memorial event hosted by the Armenian National Committee ofAmerica at which, according to a spokeswoman for the group, "hespoke about the importance of recognizing the genocide." Two yearslater, Gephardt was one of three House Democrats who co- signed aletter to then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert urging Hastert toschedule an immediate vote on a genocide resolution. "We imploreyou," the letter read, arguing that Armenian-Americans "have waitedlong enough for Congress to recognize the horrible genocide."Today, few people are doing more than Gephardt to ensure that thegenocide bill goes nowhere.
It's one thing to flip-flop on, say, tax cuts or asbestos reform.But, when it comes to genocide, you would hope for high principleto carry the day. In Washington, however, the Armenian genocideindustry is in full bloom. And Dick Gephardt's shilling isn't eventhe half of it.
Representative Adam Schiff may be the first person elected toCongress through the politics of the Armenian genocide. Back in2000, Schiff was a California state senator challenging Republicanincumbent Jim Rogan. The Burbank-area district is home to 75,000Armenian-Americans, or about 10 percent of the population, many ofthem desperate to see Washington brand the Turks as genocideartists. In September of that year, Hastert paid a campaign visitto the district and delighted Armenians by vowing to call a vote ona genocide resolution (which Rogan had co-sponsored). It's possibleHastert was stirred by questions of historical guilt. But, as oneGOP campaign official admitted, the vote would also happen to offerRogan "a very tangible debating point" against Schiff.
Mass murder may be strange fodder for a debating point. But inAmerica's tight-knit Armenian community, it can seem that peoplewant to debate little else. Most Armenian-Americans are descendedfrom survivors of the slaughter and grew up listening to storiesabout how the Turks, suspecting the Orthodox Christian Armenians ofcollaborating with their fellow Orthodox Christian Russians duringWorld War I, led their grandparents on death marches, massacredentire villages, and, in one signature tactic, nailed horseshoes totheir victims' feet. (The "horseshoe master of Bashkale," theOttoman provincial governor Jevdet Bey was called.) Turkey'srefusal to acknowledge the guilt of their Ottoman forbearsinfuriates Armenians, leaving them feeling cheated of the sacredstatus awarded to Jewish Holocaust survivors.
It wasn't until the mid-1970s that the Armenian community, whichtoday numbers up to 1.4 million, grew active enough to press itscase in Washington. At first, few people here took them seriously.After a fruitless House debate about the genocide in 1985, forinstance, one Republican scoffed at "the most mischief-making pieceof legislation in all my experience in Congress." But the causegained traction in the 1990s, thanks largely to then-SenateRepublican leader Bob Dole, who never forgot the Armenian doctorwho treated him after he was severely wounded in World War II.
With Rogan's seat on the line in 2000, a first-ever vote on agenocide resolution seemed a sure thing--that is, until the Turkishgovernment mobilized its lobbying team, led by former RepublicanHouse Speaker Bob Livingston, its $700,000 man in the field. In astate of affairs one furious Republican described to Roll Call as"ridiculous," Livingston found himself battling a measure meant toprotect the very House majority he had briefly presided over justtwo years earlier. A Turkish threat to cancel military contracts,including a $4.5 billion helicopter deal with a Fort Worth-basedcompany, ensured the opposition of powerful Texas Republicans likeTom DeLay. Hastert was cornered. But he found cover in BillClinton, who warned that Turkey might shut down its American-runIncirlik air base, from which the United States patrolled theno-fly zone over northern Iraq. Citing Clinton's objections,Hastert pulled the bill. Rogan tried to accuse Clinton of playingpolitics, and someone sent out a last-minute mailer featuringSchiff next to a Turkish flag. But it wasn't enough, and Schiffbeat Rogan by nine percentage points.
The episode--by showcasing crass partisan politics, expensiveaccess- peddling, sleazy political attacks, corporate lucre, andthe specter of geostrategic calamity--opened a new era in Armeniangenocide politics. "That was sort of the first introduction to howaggressive the Turks are," says one former Republican congressman.
For the next six years, Turkish lobbying mostly kept the Armeniangenocide resolution off the Washington agenda. Then came a calamityfor the Turks: the 2006 midterm elections. Suddenly, Democrats, whohad always been more supportive than Republicans of the Armeniancause, were in power. Even worse, California Democrats withArmenian-American constituencies ascended to senior leadershippositions. Among them was the new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who,with thousands of Armenian-Americans in her Bay Area district, hasspoken passionately on the subject. "This Armenian genocide is achallenge to the conscience of our country and the conscience ofthe world. We will not rest until we have recognition of it," shedeclared in 2001. Likewise, one of Pelosi's closest confidantes,California Democrat Anna Eshoo, is the granddaughter of an Armenianwho resents the notion that her grandma's memories of genocideamount to "a fairy tale." And even Democratic Party chairman HowardDean, not previously known for his interest in Transcaucasianaffairs, paid a recent visit to the Armenian capital of Yerevan andtoured a national genocide memorial, where he declared that "[t]hefacts are that a genocide occurred."
It's little wonder, then, that proponents of the genocide resolutionlike Adam Schiff have never been so optimistic. "This is the bestopportunity we've had for a decade," the tanned and mild-manneredHarvard Law graduate told me in his Capitol Hill office recently.Which is also why, warns Schiff, "we're seeing the strongestpushback from the Turkish lobby that I've ever seen."
A few weeks ago, I called the Turkish Embassy to request aninterview. A couple of days later, I heard back--not from theembassy, but from an American p.r. consultant employed by theTurks. He suggested we meet the next day at a Starbucks. I foundhim in a corner behind a glowing white iBook. He had longslicked-back hair, a, seersucker suit, and a blinking Bluetoothearpiece, and looked ready for a power lunch with the sharky agentAri Gold from "Entourage." He informed me our conversation would beoff the record, before launching his well-honed argument againstthe genocide resolution.
My Starbucks contact wasn't the only Turkish emissary who prefers tooperate in the shadows. Another D.C.-based operative, who spoke tome from a hotel room in Ankara, where he was chaperoning a veryprominent Democrat, also insisted that the substance of ourconversation be off the record. He asked that I not even reveal hisidentity. "I don't have a dog in this hunt," he insisted, despitehis place on the Turkish payroll. "My only hunt is for truth."
The truth, as the Turks see it, is simple: There was no genocide.The Armenian death toll is exaggerated, and most died from exposureor rogue marauders during mass relocations. (One Turkish activisteven cheerily assured me that, after the relocations, "everyone wasinvited back.") The Turks say that the G-word implies an intentthat can't be proved. This stance is more than just a matter offierce national pride. The Turks are terrified at the prospect ofhuge financial and territorial reparations for the Armenians.("[C]ash," drools one Armenian nationalist blogger, "lots ofcash.")
So, instead of doling out lots of cash to the Armenians, Turkeyshowers Washington with political operators more than happy toargue their case--for the right price. Few niches of Washingtonlobbying are as lucrative as the foreign racket, which explains whymore than 1,800 lobbyists are currently registered to representmore than 660 overseas clients. Thus the Turks have found noshortage of willing pitchmen. Turkey currently maintains expensivecontracts with at least four different Washington lobbying and p.r.firms. The result is that unsuspecting congressmen and staffersfrequently find themselves badgered by well-heeled Turkishemissaries. Not long ago, one lobbyist invited a seniorcongressional aide to dinner at his suburban mansion. When hearrived, the aide was surprised to find himself surrounded by Turkskeenly interested in his views on the genocide bill. (This time,the hard sell backfired; the staffer indignantly retorted that hebelieved a genocide had taken place, causing the lobbyist's face togo "ashen.")
The Turks insist that they need these expensive fixers andaggressive tactics to counter America's relentless Armeniangrassroots lobby. In addition to Gephardt (who did not respond to arequest for comment), Turkey contracts the services of DavidMercer, a connected Democratic fund-raiser and protege of the lateDemocratic Party chairman Ron Brown. The Turks also pay $50,000monthly to the Glover Park Group, a powerhouse Democratic firmstocked with connected former Clinton White House aides JoeLockhart and Joel Johnson, for p. r. services. That work includedadvice on shaping an April full-page New York Times advertisement,which called for a new historical commission (which the Armenianscall a sham) and urged Washington to "support efforts to examinehistory, not legislate it."
But the kingpin of Turkish advocacy is Bob Livingston, whoselobbying firm, the Livingston Group, has hauled in roughly $13million in Turkish lucre since 2000. Livingston, best rememberedfor his comically brief stint as House Speaker-elect at the heightof the Clinton impeachment debacle (before he tearfully admittedhis own extramarital affair and resigned from Congress indisgrace), has lobbied on a range of issues dear to Turkey's heart.But it's his tireless fight against the genocide resolution thatmakes him a hero in Ankara. Back in 2000, Livingston's teampersonally contacted 141 different members of Congress in thefive-week run-up to the aborted vote. And on October 19, the daythe vote was canceled, Livingston met personally with Hastert toensure its demise. Mission accomplished.
Likewise, when Adam Schiff tried to pass a symbolic House amendmentrelated to the genocide in 2004, Livingston's firm again spranginto action. As detailed in a recent Public Citizen study offoreign-agent public lobbying records, the firm immediatelybarraged GOP leaders like DeLay and Hastert with e-mails and faxes.Its team also badgered everyone from top House aides to officialsat the National Security Council, the State Department, thePentagon, and Vice President Dick Cheney's office. Livingston'soffice even called the House parliamentarian, apparently hoping tothrow a procedural wrench into Schiff's gears. Against thisonslaught, Schiff's puny amendment didn't stand a chance. For itswork in 2004, Turkey paid the Livingston Group $1.8 million.
But, while Bob Livingston may be the winner of the Turkish lobbyinglottery, the prize for biggest hypocrite is still up for grabs.Dick Gephardt isn't the only lobbyist who has flip-flopped on thegenocide (though he gets points for having his firm distribute "AnAppeal to Reason," the genocide-denying pamphlet that offers astrangely postmodern assessment of the imprecise nature ofhistory--a convenient stance if your forbears committed massmurder--including a quotation attributed to philosopher KarlPopper, contending that "our knowledge is always incomplete").There's also former Democratic representative Steve Solarz of NewYork. Solarz was one of the first backers of a genocide resolutionway back in 1975. By 2000, he was working with Livingston to defeatit, raking in $400,000 for his efforts.
It's not just the lobbyists whose stance on the genocide seemssuspiciously malleable, however. Seven House members who haveco-sponsored the resolution this year have already changed theirpositions. One is Louisiana Republican Bobby Jindal, who on January31 added his name to the co-sponsor list--but then withdrew hissupport the same day. Lobbying records show that, also on January31, Livingston called Jindal and spoke to him about the resolution.(Jindal's office didn't respond to requests for comment.) Othershave seemingly positioned themselves less on the basis ofhistorical or moral considerations than on good old pork politics.Gunay Evinch, a representative of the Assembly of Turkish AmericanAssociations, recalls how one House resolution supporter privatelyexplained his position: "I don't believe it was technicallygenocide, " the congressman said. "But I need highway funds."
Earning a special commendation for dubious behavior is Washington'sJewish- American lobby. In one of this tale's strangest twists, theTurks have convinced prominent Jewish groups, not typicallyindifferent to charges of genocide, to mute their opinions. InFebruary, Turkey's foreign minister convened a meeting at aWashington hotel with more than a dozen leaders of major Jewishgroups. Most prominent groups now take no official position on theresolution, including B'nai B'rith, the American Israel PublicAffairs Committee (aipac), and the American Jewish Committee. Theissue "belongs to historians and not a resolution in Congress,"explains Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman, who outrightopposes the resolution. "It will resolve nothing." But it's alsoclear that Turkey's status as Israel's lone Muslim ally counts fora lot, too. "I think a lot of Israelis agree," Foxman told me. (Oneperson involved in the fight offers a more cynical explanation:"Jewish groups don't want to give up their ownership of the term'genocide.'")
The Turks have also conspicuously hired some lobbyists with strongJewish ties. Their payroll includes a Washington firm calledSouthfive Strategies, which bills itself as "a Washington D.C.consulting boutique with access to the White House, congressionalleadership, and influential media organizations." Southfive is runby Jason Epstein, a former Capitol Hill lobbyist for B'nai B'rith,and Lenny Ben-David, an Israeli-born former deputy chief of missionat Israel's Washington embassy and a longtime aipac staffer whoseprevious firm, IsraelConsult, also worked for Turkey.
Some Jewish leaders, to be sure, find such realpolitik less thantasteful. "It is obscene for us, of all people, to quibble aboutdefinitions," one prominent California rabbi recently told theJewish Journal. But, when I asked one Jewish-American aligned withthe Turks whether he truly believes that genocide didn't takeplace, he stammered that "the verdict" is not in, before adding,"If you're asking do I sleep at night, I do."
Strange as it may be to find a World War I massacre on the 2007Washington agenda, even more bizarre is the possibility that it mayprecipitate an international crisis. At one March Housesubcommittee hearing, Adam Schiff got a rare opportunity to grillSecretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Angry over the Bushadministration's opposition to the Armenian genocide resolution,Schiff pressed Rice: "Is there any doubt in your mind that themurder of a million and a half Armenians between 1915 and 1923constituted genocide?" Schiff even pointedly appealed to Rice'sbackground in "academia." But the ever-disciplined Rice wouldn'tbite. "Congressman, I come out of academia. But I'm secretary ofstate now. And I think that the best way to have this proceed is for... the Turks and the Armenians to come to their own terms aboutthis."
What Rice didn't say is that the Turks, should their lobbyingfirepower fail to stop the genocide bill from moving forward, havean even mightier weapon to brandish: the war in Iraq. As they didin 2000, the Turks are hinting they will shut down Incirlik, a farmore dire threat now that Incirlik supplies U.S. forces occupyingIraq. Administration officials also fear Turkey might close theHabur Gate, a border point through which U.S. supplies flow intonorthern Iraq. In an April letter to congressional leaders, Riceand Defense Secretary Robert Gates bluntly warned that a Houseresolution "could harm American troops in the field [and] constrainour ability to supply our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan."
That prospect may even be dragging U.S. troops themselves into theTurkish counteroffensive. Or so says Frank Pallone, a New JerseyDemocrat and lead co- sponsor of the genocide resolution. "[TheTurks] have had American soldiers call members of Congress and say,'Don't vote for this, because I am going to be threatened inIraq,'" Pallone says. (A Turkish embassy spokesman denied knowledgeof this.)
The Turks also warn that branding them as Hitleresque is sure toenrage Turkish nationalists and heighten tensions on the closedTurkish-Armenian border. If the resolution is passed, "it's goingto be a heavy, heavy blow," says Murat Lutem, a Turkish embassyofficial. "The upheaval will be so significant that the governmentwon't be able to say, 'Let it be.'" That's one reason some Turkishnewspapers, with their sudden interest in Capitol Hill politics,have recently read like Ottoman versions of Roll Call. The Turksare especially fixated on the Armenian ally Nancy Pelosi, whom oneTurkish columnist disdained as "an uncompromising iron lady."
Faced with such intense Turkish opposition, however, Pelosi mayprove less iron lady than diplomat. Democratic aides say thepotential for geostrategic mayhem weighs heavily on her--never mindher 2005 declaration that "Turkey's strategic location is not alicense to kill." And after she rebuffed earlier meeting requestsfrom such Turkish dignitaries as Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, herrecent willingness to meet the Turkish ambassador may be revealing.
Still, senior Democratic aides say Pelosi could pressahead--possibly in early fall. Meanwhile, a Senate counterpart tothe House bill already has 30 co- sponsors, including Harry Reidand Hillary Clinton. And so Dick Gephardt has his work cut out forhim. But not without a growing toll on his reputation. Even inmodern Washington, where it's taken for granted that everyone hastheir price, flip-flopping on genocide has the ability to shock.One person dismayed by Gephardt's reversal is Anna Eshoo. Eshoosays she was recently in an airport with former ConnecticutRepresentative Sam Gejdenson, one of the three co- signers onGephardt's 2000 pro-resolution letter to Hastert, when the pairspotted Gephardt. "Look who's here!" Eshoo mockingly exclaimed. "HeyDick, the Kurds are looking for you!" Gejdenson sardonically chimedin--referring to another foe of Gephardt's Turkish client. Eshoosays it was just teasing among old friends. But, she pointedly addsof the former House Democratic leader: "Clearly this is not aprinciple of his. This is business."