By Frederic Frommer, Associated PressMinnesota Senator Norm Coleman said Wednesday he will vote against President George W. Bush's selection to become the next ambassador to Armenia because the nominee refuses to describe the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians as genocide.
According to the Armenian National Committee of America, Coleman is the first senator to say publicly that he will vote against the nomination of Ambassador-designate Richard E. Hoagland. Several other senators have expressed misgivings.
"My problem isn't with Hoagland," Coleman, a member of Bush's Republican Party, said in a telephone interview. "I continue to be troubled by our policy that refuses to recognize what was a historical reality."
The Bush administration does not question that Turkish troops killed or drove from their homes 1.5 million Armenians starting in 1915 but has omitted the word genocide to describe it. Turkey strongly objects to the use of the word genocide, and U.S. policy-makers are wary of antagonizing an important strategic NATO ally.
On Tuesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on which Coleman serves, postponed a vote on Hoagland's nomination until next month. The committee has 10 Republican members and eight Democrats. Elizabeth Chouldjian, a spokeswoman for the Armenian committee, said nine of the 18 have misgivings over the Hoagland nomination.
"We welcome Mr. Coleman's action, because quite frankly, it's a question of effectiveness for a U.S. ambassador," she said. "Is it effective for an ambassador to Armenia to deny the Armenian genocide? It is effective for him to be taken seriously as a diplomat in Armenia? The answer is no."
"As someone of the Jewish faith, I bring a heightened sensitivity to the reality of genocide and mass murder and the importance of recognizing it for what it is," Coleman said. "I was brought up believing you never forget the Holocaust, never forget what happened. And I could not imagine how our ambassador to Israel could have any effectiveness if he couldn't recognize the Holocaust."
In May, the White House announced the recall of the current ambassador to Armenia, John Evans, two years into the normal three-year diplomatic term. Last year, Evans told Armenian-Americans, "The Armenian genocide was the first genocide of the 20th century." Sixty members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice protesting that Evans was being punished for his reference to "genocide." In a separate letter, Democratic Senators Edward Kennedy and John Kerry of Massachusetts demanded an explanation from Rice for Evans' recall.
"It absolutely was cut short because of that," Coleman said, referring to Evans' use of the word genocide. "That I also found to be troubling. Evans was a good ambassador. To me, it's almost bizarre diplospeak that you have barred our ambassadors from using a single word; that in effect you had the removal of an ambassador who used that single word, genocide, even though it's true."
Asked whether Evans was recalled for using the word genocide, State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez would only say, "U.S. ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the president."
At a Foreign Relations Committee hearing in June, senators failed to get Hoagland to use the word genocide. "I have not received any kind of written instruction about this," Hoagland said at that hearing. "I simply have studied the president's policy. I've studied the background papers on the policy. And my responsibility is to support the president."
(Photolur photo: Coleman pictured during a May 2005 visit to Armenia.)