Joe Lieberman: Choosing Arms Deals Over Principles

It may be an obscure issue for most Americans – a foreign policy matter that dates to an event that occurred in the early part of the 20th Century. But for Armenian Americans what the U.S. Congress has said and done about the mass murder of 1.5 million Armenians in World War I matters a lot.

The issue came back to me in the run up to the August 8th Primary between Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont when I chatted with Sean Smith, the departed manager of Lieberman’s primary campaign at a New Britain candidate forum. “Sorry we lost you on this one,” Smith said regarding my support for Ned Lamont. “You lost me 16 years ago,” I replied.

There have been many reasons given this year about the disenchantment of Connecticut Democrats in their junior Senator. But the words I heard from Senator Lieberman on the Armenian issue 16 years ago were the beginning of my political disenchantment with him. In February, 1990, Joe Lieberman could have cast a vote that would have confirmed a commitment to high principles and morality in America’s foreign policy. At issue was a resolution introduced by Senator Bob Dole (R-KS), the minority leader, to commemorate the mass killing of Armenian civilians during World War I by the Ottoman Turks. The symbolic vote for S.J. 212 would have made April 24, 1990 “a national day of remembrance of the 75th anniversary of the Armenian genocide of 1915-1923,” according to a Reuters report in The New York Times that year. The Armenian National Committee of America observed that Lieberman “voted to kill this measure despite the Connecticut Armenian community’s extensive efforts to educate him on the Armenian genocide and Lieberman’s own insistence that American foreign policy be founded on moral principles.”

Lieberman said no to this symbolic vote –siding with the first Bush administration and Republican Dick Cheney – despite harsh criticism from the Armenian American community. Subsequently, Lieberman reversed his position saying in 1992 “we must remember the Armenian Genocide and other abuses of state authority against ethnic minorities.” The flip flop would once again allow Lieberman to be on both sides of an issue.

When Lieberman and Cheney became the vice presidential nominees in 2000, Sasha Boghosian, a public affairs consultant and advocate of Armenian interests, wrote: “The November general election is without a doubt the most important for the United States of America. Unfortunately it is a tossup between two tickets that are mediocre at best (and downright uncooperative and dangerous at worst) on Armenian issues.”

I never would have known about S.J. 212, let alone remember it in 2006, had I not attended a Lieberman appearance at the University of Hartford after the resolution failed in the Senate 16 years ago. Lieberman, then two years into his Senate term, was sharing his positions on several issues when he volunteered why he did not support the resolution on honoring the Armenian victims. “I shouldn’t tell you this,” Lieberman said. Lieberman received a call “from a defense contractor in Fairfield County” who did business with Turkey. The contractor didn’t want to offend the Turkish government. Lieberman agreed and voted against the resolution. [Who says he never listens to the wishes of his constituents?]

Lieberman had plenty of company in opposing the 1990 Armenian resolution. The Bush Administration opposed this gesture of sympathy because of the geopolitics of the region and a reluctance to offend Turkey. Opposing the official commemoration in 1990, Lieberman opted for what has been a career-long penchant for militarism and military spending over human rights and diplomacy. His vote on the Armenian question, like his intransigence on Iraq policy today, showed that a well-honed image as a senator of principles and high morals on foreign policy has always been more cosmetic than real. Siding with a fat cat arms dealer from Fairfield County was more important to Lieberman than showing a measure of sympathy for the victims of one of the last century’s human tragedies.

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