Armenia: Obscure issue could challenge a President Obama

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 14, 2008 

WASHINGTON -- The two major presidential candidates differ sharply over an Armenian genocide commemoration, with Republican John McCain opposing it and Democrat Barack Obama supporting it.

The policy clash could make a political difference in California's San Joaquin Valley and other regions with sizable Armenian-American populations. McCain may have more to lose, in the short term. But in the long run, Obama may have more to prove.

"Support for the genocide resolution is important in the presidential race and can have a significant impact," said Barlow Der Mugrdechian, coordinator of the Armenian Studies Program at California State University, Fresno.

The potential short-term political cost is readily apparent. Estimates of the number of Armenian-Americans range from 385,000, in the 2000 Census, to more than 1 million. Many track the genocide issue closely.

By contrast, only 117,000 U.S. residents nationwide claimed Turkish ancestry. In comparing grassroots political strength, the Armenian-American community wins hands down.

"There are many Armenians in states such as Michigan and Florida," Der Mugrdechian noted. "Since the race is expected to be close in these states, and many others, the Armenian vote could prove to be the difference."

The long-term challenge is different. If Obama is elected, he would face tremendous pressure from the State Department, the Pentagon, other countries -- and maybe even his own advisers -- to back away from emphatic Armenian genocide language. That is what other presidents have done.

In 1988, for instance, a campaigning George H.W. Bush declared the United States should "acknowledge the attempted genocide of the Armenian people." As president, Bush instead stressed "the differing views of how the terrible events of 1915-23 should be characterized."

Bush's son, while campaigning in 2000, similarly referred to a "genocidal campaign" against the Armenians. Once elected, he avoided the genocide term, and his State Department withdrew a U.S. ambassador who dared use it.

"I think the Armenian community is very leery of any candidate who says he will support a genocide resolution, because those promises haven't necessarily been kept," said Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa. "When push comes to shove, the State Department gets in there and has its way."

Genocide is what Armenian-Americans and many scholars say happened in the dying years of the Ottoman Empire, between 1915 and 1923. By this account, the slaughter and violent exile of more than 1 million Armenians met the legal definition of genocide and should be commemorated as such.

Genocide means the systematic and intentional destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious or national group.

"There was a genocide that did take place against the Armenian people," Obama said while campaigning earlier this year.

He hasn't been very active on the issue in his four years in the Senate, despite serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Obama has not co-sponsored the Senate's Armenian genocide resolutions, and he did not attend confirmation hearings for President Bush's nominees to serve as U.S. ambassador to Armenia.

Obama's rhetorical support now for recognizing the genocide nonetheless helped secure the endorsement in January of the Armenian National Committee of America. It's a view long held publicly by Obama's vice presidential candidate, Sen. Joseph Biden, the Delaware Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It's also a position being deployed on the campaign trail.

Samantha Power, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Harvard scholar who has advised Obama on foreign policy, posted on YouTube a campaign-style video explicitly addressed to the Armenian-American community. Power declared that a President Obama would "call a spade a spade" and publicly acknowledge the genocide.

McCain's position is the polar opposite, as he cites the diplomatic and strategic risks associated with alienating Turkey.

"I was disappointed that many in Congress were ready to legislate a historical judgment of the Armenian genocide whatever the cost to our relations with Turkey," McCain declared in Iowa last October. "Turkey is essential to stabilizing Iraq, containing Iranian power, and encouraging economic and political reform in the Arab world. We should be strengthening our partnership, not erecting new barriers to it."

One form of recognition would be in the form of a congressional resolution. Earlier this year, though, a resolution collapsed in the House after appearing to come close. Radanovich said he does not "see that coming back anytime soon."

The alternative path is a presidential proclamation. Each April, presidents present a public statement about what happened between 1915 and 1923. The question thus becomes: Will the statement include the word genocide?

Power, a strong proponent of Armenian-American issues, no longer has a formal role advising Obama. One top adviser, Anthony Lake, was national security adviser to President Bill Clinton during the period that Clinton avoided the genocide word in his annual proclamations. Another top Obama adviser, Susan Rice, was Clinton's assistant secretary of state when Clinton blocked a genocide resolution authored by Radanovich.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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