On Anniversary for Armenians, Obama Avoids the Word Genocide
By Michael A. Fletcher
As a candidate for president, Barack Obama said 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."
But as president, he has avoided using the word "genocide" to describe the mass killings of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians in Turkey during the fall of the Ottoman Empire. During his recent visit to Turkey, he refrained from using the term "genocide," and instead referred to the "terrible events of 1915." And he avoided using the explosive term again today in an official statement marking the 94th anniversary of the massacres.
"Each year, we pause to remember the 1.5 million Armenians who were subsequently massacred or marched to their death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire," Obama said. He went on to say, "History, unresolved, can be a heavy weight," also without invoking the word "genocide."
Obama defended the change in rhetoric, saying it does not reflect any shift in his views, but rather his desire not to cool warming relations between Turkey and Armenia. "My view of that history has not changed," Obama said. "My interest remains the achievement of a full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts. The best way to advance that goal right now is for the Armenian and Turkish people to address the facts of the past as part of their efforts to move forward."
Earlier this week, Turkey and Armenia announced that they had agreed in principle to normalize relations, a possible breakthrough in a bitter dispute over century-old massacres. U.S. officials said the Obama administration had been quietly working to push the agreement forward, with the American president meeting privately with leaders of the two countries during his trip to Istanbul earlier this month, and Obama acknowledged the progress in his statement. Just yesterday, Vice President Biden called Armenian President Sargsian to applaud the progress and reiterate the administration's support for the process.
While President Ronald Reagan issued a statement recognizing genocide, Obama has followed the path of other presidents who promised to describe the killings as a genocide, only to abandon that pledge once elected.
The issue is sensitive for both Turks and Armenians. Turkey's position is that the number of killings have been overstated and that the Armenians who died were victims of a civil war.
"History is replete with examples of false narratives born from bigotries that advance a political agenda rather than the truth," read a letter sent to Obama by a coalition of 53 Turkish-American organizations. "The Armenian claim of passive victimhood stands on such shaky historical footing."
Armenians, meanwhile, say the killings were planned by Turks and they have long sought formal recognition of what they see as a genocide.
A resolution recognizing the killings as genocide is pending in Congress. Still, most American leaders have deferred to strategic interests, since Turkey is a key majority-Muslim ally.
"Political considerations -- whether Turkish threats, prospects for Turkey-Armenia dialogue, or in any other form -- should never stand in the way of America's willingness to condemn the Armenian Genocide, or any genocide, and to stand up for the truth," said Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America.
By contrast, Turkish American leaders were happy with Obama's statement.
"We applaud President Obama for deferring to historians to settle the long-standing debate over the events of 1915-1918. This tragic period in history led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Christians alike," said Lincoln McCurdy, president of the Turkish Coalition of America. "President Obama has sent a clear message to America and the world that his administration will not sacrifice long-term strategic allies for short-term political gains."
Posted at 2:31 PM ET on Apr 24, 2009
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