Obama marks Armenian tragedy but doesn't say 'genocide'

McClatchy NewspapersApril 24, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Friday broke a campaign pledge but mollified Turkey by formally remembering the mass killings of Armenians without using the diplomatically loaded term "genocide."

In a much-anticipated White House statement, Obama took note of the "great atrocities" that occurred in the Ottoman Empire from April 24, 1915, until 1923. While saying that 1.5 million Armenians were "massacred or marched to their death," the president said that the most important thing now was to look ahead.

"I strongly support efforts by the Turkish and Armenian people to work through this painful history in a way that is honest, open and constructive," Obama declared.

The president also twice used the Armenian phrase "meds yeghern," which often is translated as "great calamity."

The most important part of his statement, though, was the word that was missing. Armenian-American activists and their political allies denounced the 389-word statement as a sellout because it didn't characterize the events as genocide.

"I am outraged," said Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., a co-sponsor of a congressional Armenian-genocide resolution. "The president chose, for political reasons, to abandon his commitment to the Armenian people."

Bryan Ardouny, the executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America, charged that Obama's "failure . . . diminishes U.S. credibility with regard to genocide prevention," while Armenian National Committee of America Chairman Ken Hachikian voiced "sharp disappointment" with the president's "retreat."

Obama's carefully calibrated statement was consistent with the traditional advice of Pentagon and State Department professionals, who warn against alienating Turkey. It reversed the promise he made while seeking Armenian-American votes, however.

"As president, I will recognize the Armenian genocide," Obama said on his campaign Web site.

Samantha Power, an Obama adviser and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, accentuated the point with a widely viewed YouTube campaign video addressed to Armenian-Americans. Now a member of the National Security Council, Power said then that Obama would "call a spade a spade and speak truth" about the historic events.

Once in the White House, however, Obama became subject to the broader diplomatic and military considerations that have prompted presidents before him to retreat from similar promises. Turkey is a crucial U.S. ally within NATO — bordering Iraq and Iran — and Turkish officials say the 1915-1923 wartime events remain subject to interpretation.

In a two-day visit to Turkey earlier this month, Obama stressed the important ties between the United States and the strategically located nation of 78 million people. Turkish officials have warned consistently that the United States could lose commercial opportunities and military advantages, which include the use of Turkey's busy Incirlik Air Base, if an insulting genocide commemoration were issued.

"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," said Lincoln McCurdy, the president of the Turkish Coalition of America.

The Turkish and Armenian governments, with Switzerland as a neutral mediator, are working to normalize their long-strained relations. Diplomats have warned against any incendiary U.S. statement that might interfere with these talks, described in a recent joint Turkish-Armenian statement as reaching "tangible progress and mutual understanding."

"I suspect they think they're making real progress on their dialogue, and they want to see it completed," said Rep. Jim Costa, a California Democrat and genocide-resolution supporter who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Presidents George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush broke similar pledges. President Bill Clinton, too, leaned on congressional leaders not to pass genocide commemoration measures.

In 2000, only minutes before debate was set to start in the House of Representatives, then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert yielded to Clinton's request not to bring the genocide resolution, authored by Radanovich, up for a vote.

Hastert is now a lobbyist with the firm Dickstein Shapiro, one of a number that Turkey hired to press its cause on Capitol Hill. Turkey pays $35,000 a month for help from Hastert and his team, Justice Department foreign-agent filings show. Turkey is paying former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt's firm, DLA Piper, $100,000 a month, filings have shown.

Currently, 107 House members co-sponsor a nonbinding resolution that says, "The failure of the domestic and international authorities to punish those responsible for the Armenian genocide is a reason why similar genocides have recurred and may recur in the future."

A similar resolution fell short in the last Congress, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said she'll bring it to a vote only if it attracts at least 218 co-sponsors.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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