CAMPAIGN VOW TO CALL ARMENIANS’ DEATHS ‘GENOCIDE’ TO BE TESTED
by Glenn Kessler
March 19 2009
For years, President Obama has not minced words about labeling as
"genocide" the deaths of Armenians more than 90 years ago during the
demise of the Ottoman Empire. Nor have Secretary of State Hillary
Rodham Clinton and Vice President Biden.
All three regularly signed letters to President George W. Bush
demanding that he recognize "the mass slaughter of Armenians
as genocide" and saying that such an act "would constitute a
proud, irrefutable and groundbreaking chapter in U.S. diplomatic
history." During last year’s presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly
insisted that, as president, he would "recognize the Armenian
"An official policy that calls on diplomats to distort the historical
facts is an untenable policy," Obama said in a statement dated
Jan. 19, 2008.
Obama’s pledge may have been smart politics: His campaign rival,
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), infuriated Armenian Americans when he said
it was unfair to blame present-day Turkey for the deaths. But now
that Obama is president, his pledge has put him in a diplomatically
difficult position. The question of calling the deaths a genocide has
returned just as Obama is preparing for a visit next month to Turkey,
which firmly rejects such a label.
"There is no substitute for speaking plainly when you are talking
about mass murder," said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who introduced
this week a resolution calling on the president to publicly recognize
a genocide and whose district contains the largest concentration of
Armenian Americans in the country. "I hope he will use the opportunity
to prepare Turkey for U.S. recognition and to encourage Turkey to
have an open examination of its past."
The Armenia resolution is but one example of how a candidate’s narrowly
tailored and effective foreign policy appeals can become problematic
once he is in office.
Clinton, for instance, has come under fire from some conservative
Jewish groups for criticizing Israeli plans to demolish homes in East
Jerusalem — which Palestinians want to make the capital of a future
Palestinian state — during her recent trip to Israel.
"She used to be very strong on a united Jerusalem, and now that’s
out the window," said Morton A. Klein, president of the Zionist
Organization of America, citing a September 2007 position paper from
Clinton’s campaign. "I am beginning to wonder if she just said what
she needed for the Jewish vote."
Administration officials argue that Obama has made huge strides in
fulfilling many of his campaign promises on foreign policy. They
point to his moving to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo
Bay, Cuba; ordering the withdrawal of troops from Iraq; appointing a
special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian peace; and reaching out to Syria,
Russia and other countries on bad terms with the Bush administration.
But officials also acknowledge that Obama’s pledge on Armenian genocide
poses a tricky diplomatic balancing act.
"Our focus is on how, moving forward, the U.S. can help Armenia and
Turkey work together to come to terms with the past," said National
Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer. "It is important that countries
have an open and honest dialogue about the past. At the same time,
we want to work closely with both Turkey and Armenia on the key issues
that confront the region."
Few people deny that massacres killed hundreds of thousands of Armenian
men, women and children during and immediately after World War I. But
Turkish officials and some historians say that the deaths resulted
from forced relocations and widespread fighting when the 600-year-old
Ottoman Empire collapsed, not from a campaign of genocide — and that
hundreds of thousands of Turks also died in the same region during
U.S.-Turkish relations are on an upswing after a dismal period
immediately after the invasion of Iraq. Turkey, a NATO member, also
plays an increasingly important role in the Middle East, the Caucasus
and the Balkans.
Ahmet Davutoglu, the chief foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister
Recip Tayyip Erdogan, said he stressed that point in meetings this
week with senior administration officials. He also made the case that
Turkish-Armenian relations are improving in the wake of Erdogan’s
recent visit to Armenia, and that any U.S. resolution on genocide
would only set back that progress.
"There is a process, and everyone should strengthen this process and
not try to weaken it," Davutoglu said in an interview. "We hope that
the discussions on the Armenian issue do not affect this process in
a negative sense."
Davutoglu sidestepped a question of what would happen if Obama raised
the Armenian issue before or during his trip to Turkey. "His visit
will be a historic visit in terms of U.S.-Turkish relations," he
said. "We think the success of this visit is essential."
But the administration’s outreach to Turkey must be balanced against
the high hopes that Obama inspired among Armenian Americans. For
decades, they feel they have been disappointed by presidents on the
genocide debate. Only President Ronald Reagan, in 1981, referred to
"the genocide of the Armenians."
Among other things, the proposed House resolution calls on the
president to use his annual message to "accurately characterize the
systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1,500,000 Armenians as
genocide." Obama repeatedly has said he would embrace that language.
"This is the change he promised, and this is the change we expect,"
said Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the Armenian Assembly