President Donald Trump on Monday carefully avoided the term “genocide” in marking the slaughter of Armenians during the reign of the Ottoman Empire, following the lead of his Democratic and Republican predecessors.
Using diplomatic language remarkably similar to that deployed by President Barack Obama and others, Trump instead used the White House’s annual Armenian Remembrance Day statement to recall what he characterized as the “Meds Yeghern, one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century.”
The phrasing of the annual statement is closely watched by the government of Turkey, a key NATO ally that strenuously objects to the word “genocide.”
The Armenian phrase “Meds Yeghern” is commonly translated as “great calamity” or “great crime.” It effectively refers to genocide but lacks the same international heat.
“Beginning in 1915, one and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred or marched to their deaths in the final years of the Ottoman Empire,” Trump recounted. “I join the Armenian community in America and around the world in mourning the loss of innocent lives and the suffering endured by so many.”
Released without fanfare Monday morning, Trump’s three-paragraph statement further welcomed “the efforts of Turks and Armenians to acknowledge and reckon with painful history, which is a critical step toward building a foundation for a more just and tolerant future.” The overall statement was about half the length of Obama’s 2016 statement.
We must remember atrocities to prevent them from occurring again.
President Donald Trump
Armenian-American advocacy organizations, and lawmakers from California and other states with significant Armenian-American populations, were quick to blast Trump’s words as inadequate.
“The president’s statement fails to stand up for human rights and is inconsistent with American values, and represents the same kind of capitulation to Turkish authoritarianism which will cost more lives,” declared Armenian Assembly of America co-chairs Anthony Barsamian and Van Krikorian.
Presidents of both parties traditionally issue statements marking April 24, which in 1915 was reckoned as the start of what Armenians and historians later came to call a genocide. The term “genocide” itself, though, has become politically loaded.
While campaigning for Armenian-American votes, Obama and Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton pledged to use the word genocide if elected. Once in the White House, they backed off in the face of pressure from Turkey and the advice of diplomats and national security professionals.
An exception was Ronald Reagan, who on April 22, 1981, issued a proclamation citing “the genocide of the Armenians” that preceded the Holocaust. Reagan was a former California governor.
In a tweet Monday, Obama’s United Nations ambassador, Samantha Power, said she was “very sorry that, during our time in office, we in the Obama administration did not recognize the Armenian Genocide.”
Trump did not make a similar campaign promise, but he came under the same pressure as his predecessors. Among other tools, Turkey retains a potent U.S. lobbying force that includes some former members of Congress, such as former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo.
“President Trump is effectively outsourcing U.S. genocide-prevention policy to (Turkish President) Recep Erdogan, an arrogant and authoritarian dictator who clearly enjoys the public spectacle of arm-twisting American presidents into silence on Turkey’s mass murder of millions of Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians and other Christians,” said Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America.
Trump has called Erdogan on two occasions, most recently on April 17 to congratulate him on the outcome of a Turkish referendum that tightened his grip on power.
On Capitol Hill, in what amounts to an annual exercise, 10 California members of the House of Representatives from both parties are among the co-sponsors of a resolution that says “the proper commemoration and consistent condemnation of the Armenian genocide will strengthen our international standing in preventing modern-day genocides.” The resolution shows no sign of advancing.