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President Obama breaks a promise to call the Armenian genocide a genocide

President Obama issued a statement Friday commemorating Armenian Remembrance Day. Once you know the background, you can’t help but notice that nowhere in Obama’s 389-word statement does the word “genocide” appear.

A man lights candles during a religious service last Friday at an Armenian church in Tbilisi marking the anniversary of mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915.
REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili
A man lights candles during a religious service last Friday at an Armenian church in Tbilisi marking the anniversary of mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915.

On April 24, 1915, about 300 Armenian intellectual and professional leaders in the Ottoman Empire’s capital of Constantinople were rounded up, beginning a three-year killing spree that resulted in the deaths of about 1.5 million Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Turks.

The anniversary of that date, which fell on Friday, is the day Armenians and others observe in remembrance of that genocidal campaign.

The government of modern Turkey denies that these deaths can accurately be described as a genocide, and it pressures its allies not to adopt the word. Turkey claims that the number of deaths has been overstated, and that they occurred more or less accidentally when the Ottomans were trying to move a potentially troublesome Armenian population out of the war zone in the middle of World War I, and that a significant number of Turks were killed by Armenians. The overwhelming majority of neutral historians rejects these claims and agrees that the killings were genocidal. The International Association of Genocide Scholars affirms that “genocide” is the proper term. Other groups have concluded that the killings had the earmarks of genocide, as defined by international law.

Armenians around the world seek to have the G-word applied. Politically active Armenian-Americans seek to have Congress, and an American president, declare that their ancestors were victims of genocide, indeed the first major genocide of the 20th century. A presidential declaration employing the word “genocide” seems to be the top Armenian-specific goal that Armenian-Americans bring into each presidential campaign.

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In 2000, Gov. George W. Bush attracted significant political and financial support from Armenians by promising that, if elected, he would embrace the term genocide. After taking office, he reneged — at the behest of Washington’s Turkish allies — and even used his influence to prevent Congress from adopting a non-binding resolution using the term “genocide.”

In 2004, Sen. John Kerry promised that he would call it a genocide. Although I had written previously about the Armenian genocide (more on that below), I first learned of the U.S. political aspect of the issue in 2004 when I stumbled onto a fund-raiser of “Armenian-Americans for Kerry.” Kerry got the Armenian support in 2004, but, as you also may have heard, lost the election.

As a U.S. senator, Barack Obama supported that congressional resolution, which is sponsored every year. In 2008, as a presidential candidate, Obama stated:

“As a senator, I strongly support passage of the Armenian Genocide Resolution and as President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.”

Candidate Obama also referred to his “firmly held conviction that the Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. The facts are undeniable. An official policy that calls on diplomats to distort the historical facts is an untenable policy.” He particularly slammed the Bush Administration for shamefully firing its own ambassador to Armenia for, as Obama said, “properly us[ing] the term ‘genocide’ to describe Turkey’s slaughter of thousands of Armenians starting in 1915.”

The worm turns
On Friday, President Obama issued a statement in commemoration of the annual “Armenian Remembrance Day.” If you read it without knowing the background, you would probably say “Wow, this guy is pretty worked up about what the Ottoman Turks did to the Armenians.”

President Obama refers to the killings as “one of the great atrocities of the 20th century.” He says that 1.5 million Armenians were “massacred or marched to their death.” The events “must live on in our memories, just as it lives on in the hearts of the Armenian people,” Pres. Obama implores. Referring to his previous commitments, the presidential declaration goes on:

“I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view of that history has not changed. My interest remains the achievement of a full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts.”

“Reckoning with the past holds out the powerful promise of reconciliation,” Obama preaches, adding that his “interest remains the achievement of a full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts.”

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He adds that “the contributions that Armenians have made over the last ninety-four years stand as a testament to the talent, dynamism and resilience of the Armenian people, and as the ultimate rebuke to those who tried to destroy them.”

President Obama says he reaches out to Armenian-Americans with “a sense of friendship, solidarity, and deep respect.”

It’s a beautifully crafted statement, full of emotion and a touch of poetry. It is tougher on Turkey than the government of Turkey thinks an ally should be, and Turkey has officially complained that Obama didn’t mention all the Turks that died at the hands of rebellious Armenians.

He refers to his own previous statements, which priminently featured the word “genocide.” And he uses synonyms, such as the reference above to an effort to destroy the Armenian people. But once you know the background, you can’t help but notice that nowhere in Obama’s 389-word statement does the word “genocide” appear.

And there’s the rub. He promised, explicitly, that he would do it. And when the time came, he broke the promise.

I want to be mature and reasonable about such matters. Turkey is an important U.S. ally of long-standing, borders on Iraq and Iran and Syria (and the independent state of Armenia) and has one of the most developed democracies in the Muslim world. The argument is fundamentally historical, and not everyone cares as much about history as I do. Pissing off Turkey is not something to be done lightly.

But all of those reasons were well-known before Obama made his commitment to recognize the Armenian genocide. Like many Americans, I want to believe Obama represents an important break from the politics of lies and fancy spin, a break that has to do with honesty, integrity and promise-keeping. I still do believe that, but not on this matter.

If he wasn’t going to keep the promise, he shouldn’t have made it.

The excellent online factchecker, Politifact, which has launched an “Obameter” to track Obama’s fidelity to his campaign promises, lists his promise to the Armenians as No. 511, issued an update after Friday’s statement that concludes: “Obama’s April 24th statement still doesn’t meet the terms of his promise, and the Obameter stays at Promise Broken.”

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I asked Lou Ann Matossian of Minneapolis,  a past president who currently serving as director of cultural and external affairs of the Armenian Cultural Organization of Minnesota, for her reaction to Obama’s artful dodge. Speaking as an individual and not for the ACOM, Matossian emailed me that:

“Avoiding the word genocide at Ankara’s behest has become a modern form of genocide denial or collusion in genocide denial. For President Obama to do so in our own language, against our community’s usage, against his promises, and against our urgent request, is deeply offensive.”

The reference to “our own language” alludes to this, in Obama’s official statement:

“The Meds Yeghern must live on in our memories.”

Meds Yeghern is an Armenian phrase, which translates as “great calamity,” Matossian said, adding: ” A tornado is a ‘great calamity.’ A genocide is a crime. The concept of crime implies the concept of justice. ‘Genocide’ has a meaning in international law. “Calamity” (yeghern) has none.”

Obama may have hoped that the use of the Armenian phrase would communicate extra respect. Apparently, to Matossian, it was one more way to avoid using the G-word, that Obama had promised to use.

Matossian concluded: “President Obama has now missed two opportunities to fulfill his promise to affirm the Armenian Genocide as such. [The first missed opportunity was on a state visit to Turkey, when Obama was asked about the massacres and answered without the use of ‘genocide.’] The Armenian Genocide resolution now before Congress will be his third opportunity. The President, the Vice President, and the Secretary of State all have strong records on this commemorative legislation. The Bush White House lobbied hard against the Armenian Genocide resolution. What will the Obama White House do?”

By the way, I have asked the White House press office for any explanation the White House might want to make of President Obama’s official statement. I haven’t received a reply. If I get one, I will surely pass it along.

Two last things and I will thank you for your patience and let you get on with your day.

Thing One:

My own strong feelings about the Armenian genocide date from an interview I did for the Strib, in 2000, with Vahakn Dadrian, an eminent historian of the killings. The details that stuck with me were about how the Turks killed the Armenians. Quoting from that piece:

      “The way the Armenians were killed are staggeringly grisly and provide a macabre contrast to the relatively bureaucratic and hi-tech methods that the Nazis would employ 25 years later.

In a policy that Dadrian said was ‘unparalleled in the annals of human history,’ the Turks ‘decided to rely not on soldiers but on bloodthirsty criminals.’ Dadrian said 30,000 to 35,000 convicts were released from prison to participate in the slaughter.

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With a world war raging, Dadrian said, Ottoman officials were anxious not to waste bullets or powder on the Armenians, so they employed four main methods to kill the Armenians:

  • Many were beaten to death or killed with daggers, swords and axes.
  • Massive drowning operations were conducted in the tributaries of the Euphrates River and the Black Sea. Bargeloads of Armenians were intentionally sunk. Dadrian, quoting [Henry]Morganthau [who was U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman court at the time], said that in places the Armenian corpses became so numerous that the rivers were forced out of their beds, in one case changing   the course of a river for a 100-meter stretch.
  • The method that Dadrian called “the most fiendish” was to pack Armenian women and children into stables or haylofts and then set them ablaze, burning the victims alive. Dadrian estimated that about 150,000 were killed by this method.
  • Hundreds of thousands more died of hunger, thirst or exposure during forced marches in the desert. Dadrian said the Armenians were told they were being relocated but were marched along routes chosen to maximize the chances that none of the marchers would survive.”

Thing Two:

With credit to Ben Smith of Politico who found this YouTube video: Samantha Power, a genocide scholar whom I admire who also served as an Obama foreign policy adviser and who now works for the National Security Council, made this video to appeal to Armenian-Americans to support Obama, based on the fact that he was “a person who can actually be trusted.”