In Turkey, Obama delicately avoids talk of 'genocide'

McClatchy NewspapersApril 6, 2009 

ISTANBUL, Turkey — The world was simpler when Barack Obama was campaigning for votes. Candidate Obama could charge that a country such as Turkey carried out a long-ago genocide, wooing votes from the descendants of more than a million Armenians slain by the Turks, and vowing not to back down from tough talk if elected.

Now, visiting that same country as president, Obama has changed his words, if not his worldview. Courting the Muslim world and a crucial ally in a tinderbox part of the world, President Obama said Monday that he still held the same views about what the Turks did to the Armenians.

He carefully avoided using the word genocide, however, and strove instead to prod the Armenians and the Turks — not to mention Armenian supporters at home — to turn away from a painful past and focus instead on improving relations.

The challenge of fulfilling a campaign promise without offending his hosts forced Obama to navigate between U.S. politics and international diplomacy as he wrapped up an eight-day trip to Europe and the doorstep of Asia that helped punctuate his transition from candidate to world player, all while remaining ever the politician.

As a presidential candidate, Obama bluntly characterized the deaths of Armenians here nearly a century ago as genocide. The flash point is the deaths of as many as 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the Turks starting in 1915, as World War I raged and the Ottoman Empire started to break apart.

"There was a genocide that did take place against the Armenian people," Obama said during the campaign. "It is one of these situations where we have seen a constant denial on the part of the Turkish government and others that this occurred."

Mindful that other presidents have promised to call it genocide only to change their tune once in office, Obama campaign adviser Samantha Power told Armenian-Americans at the time that Obama was different.

"He's a true friend of the Armenian people and an acknowledger of the history," she said. "I hope you in the Armenian community will take my word for it, but if not . . . pay attention . . . to everything that comes out of that person's mouth, Barack Obama's mouth, because he's a person who can actually be trusted."

Saying the word as president, however, would chill relations and perhaps even cost support from Turkey, which Obama deems crucial to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as his broader outreach to the Muslim world.

"I have not changed views," he said when he was asked about his stance with Turkish President Abdullah Gul standing beside him earlier Monday in Ankara.

He didn't use the word "genocide," however, nor did he repeat the condemnation he made as a presidential candidate while he was courting Armenian-Americans.

Speaking later to the Turkish Parliament, he sidestepped the question of genocide, referring to it only as "the terrible events of 1915."

"While there has been a good deal of commentary about my views, this is really about how the Turkish and Armenian people deal with the past," he said. "We have already seen historic and courageous steps taken by Turkish and Armenian leaders. These contacts hold out the promise of a new day."

Attending a reception Monday evening at the Dolmabahce Palace along the Bosporus strait in Istanbul, Obama met the foreign ministers of Turkey and Armenia to discuss normalizing relations and to "urge them to complete an agreement with dispatch," according to a senior Obama administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity as a matter of policy.

The descendants of the Armenians, many of them in California and elsewhere around the United States, have long sought a formal recognition of what they and many historians say was a planned genocide. A resolution is pending in Congress.

The Turks, however, have called the Armenians victims of a civil war, and reject the characterization of genocide.

Obama's refusal to use the word genocide on his visit, as well as his focus on improving relations between Armenians and Turks, probably will make it even more difficult for sponsors to win congressional approval of the resolution calling the deaths a genocide.

"The biggest issue on the U.S.-Turkish agenda . . . is the Armenian-genocide resolution," said Bulent Aliriza, the director of the Turkey Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, a national-security research center.

The diplomatic consequences would be significant at a time the United States is steadily improving relations with Turkey, which blocked U.S. troops from transiting its territory in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The United States is particularly keen on better relations as it seeks Turkey's help in winding down American involvement in Iraq and steps up the war in Afghanistan.

"None of the areas of cooperation . . . will materialize if (the genocide resolution) passes," Aliriza said. "The Turks will undoubtedly retaliate, and we may go into a deep freeze in the U.S.-Turkish relationship if it passes."

Obama also used his visit to Turkey, a secular Muslim country, to reach out.

"The United States is not at war with Islam. In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical in rolling back a fringe ideology that people of all faiths reject," he told the Turkish Parliament.

He added, however, that he seeks a better relationship with the Muslim world beyond fighting the al Qaida terrorist network.

"We will listen carefully, bridge misunderstanding and seek common ground," he said. "We will be respectful, even when we do not agree."

He also planned to speak directly to people from Turkey and throughout the region in a televised town-hall meeting in Istanbul.

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