President Barack Obama, wary of damaging relations with Turkey amid growing unrest in the Middle East, won’t use the 100th anniversary of the massacre of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire to declare the brutal episode a genocide.
Despite Obama’s campaign promise in 2008 to “recognize the Armenian Genocide” as president, the White House on Tuesday issued a carefully worded statement on a high-level administration meeting with Armenian groups that avoided using the term “genocide.”
An administration official said Obama, who will mark the centennial this Friday, would similarly avoid using the word. The term angers Ankara, which denies that Ottoman Turks carried out a genocide.
“We know and respect that there are some who are hoping to hear different language this year,” the official said. “We understand their perspective, even as we believe that the approach we have taken in previous years remains the right one – both for acknowledging the past, and for our ability to work with regional partners to save lives in the present.”
The news came as a disappointment to Armenian-American groups, who have lobbied the administration to use the word “genocide” to describe the systematic killing of more than 1 million ethnic Armenians in 1915.
“President Obama’s surrender to Turkey represents a national disgrace. It is, very simply, a betrayal of truth, a betrayal of trust,” said Ken Hachikian, the chairman of the Armenian National Committee of America.
Even some of Obama’s allies decried the decision. California Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic leader of the House Intelligence Committee, said he was “deeply disappointed” by the decision to avoid the word genocide.
“How long must the victims and their families wait before our nation has the courage to confront Turkey with the truth about the murderous past of the Ottoman Empire?” Schiff wrote in a statement. “If not this President, who spoke so eloquently and passionately about recognition in the past, whom? If not after one hundred years, when?”
The government of Turkey often registers complaints when foreign governments describe the historical event using that word.
Last week, Pope Francis used “genocide” to describe what happened a century ago. In response, the Turkish Foreign Minister recalled the ambassador to the Holy See for “consultations.”
The United States has consistently avoided using “genocide” to describe the atrocity. In 2006, the U.S. ambassador to Armenia was reportedly removed from his post because he advocated for the use of “genocide” to describe the killings.
Obama, a U.S. senator at the time, criticized the ambassador’s dismissal. Two years later, when he was running for president, he declared in a lengthy statement that he shared “with Armenian Americans – so many of whom are descended from genocide survivor – a principled commitment to commemorating and ending genocide.”
But like presidents before him, the realities of diplomacy intervened once he took office. In the first six years of his presidency, Obama avoided using “genocide” when commemorating the April event. With Turkey positioned as a key partner in the fight against ISIS terrorists, this year appears no different.
“We recognize that this centennial is of great significance both to the Armenian people and to all those who fight against modern day atrocities,” the administration official said. “We are focused on making clear both in our statements and through our actions that we mourn the loss of every person who was so brutally murdered in the events that began in 1915, even as we recommit our efforts to bring about a world free of atrocities.”
The White House said Treasury Secretary Jack Lew would represent the United States at the centennial events in the Armenian capital Yerevan on Friday. Two high-level officials – chief of staff Denis McDonough and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes – met with Armenian-American leaders on Tuesday to discuss the anniversary.
“They pledged that the United States will use the occasion to urge a full, frank, and just acknowledgement of the facts that we believe is in the interest of all parties,” the White House said.
The administration is also consulting with Turkish officials on the issue. In a meeting at the White House Tuesday, National Security Adviser Susan Rice encouraged Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu “to take concrete steps to improve relations with Armenia and to facilitate an open and frank dialogue in Turkey about the atrocities of 1915,” according to the White House.