Seven Years of Obama Falling Short on a Campaign Promise to Armenians
Friday marks the 100th anniversary of the start of what President Barack Obama has called "one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century," when as many as 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were "brutally massacred or marched to their deaths" during World War I.
Past U.S. presidents have not called that tragedy a genocide out of deference to Turkey, the country that emerged after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and now is a NATO country and U.S. ally. But as a presidential candidate, Obama promised to "recognize the Armenian genocide" if he were elected. In a statement on his campaign site, he 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."
Since taking office, Obama has not called the tragedy a genocide and his administration has actively discouraged Congress from using the word as well. Turkey acknowledges the deaths happened, but refuses to call them a genocide. This week, when Germany formally recognized the killings as genocide, Turkey pulled its ambassador from Berlin. When Congress came close to passing resolutions acknowledging the genocide in 2007 and 2010, Turkey recalled its ambassador in Washington.
Over the years Obama has released statements calling on countries to "recognize painful pasts" to build a better future, the way the U.S. has, with the hope of motivating Turkey and Armenia to engage diplomatically.
Below is a brief overview of seven years of White House statements on Armenian Remembrance Day on April 24. In many ways the statements are nearly identical, but each year the White House tried new, and ultimately unsuccessful ways to split the middle ground between his campaign promise and U.S. relations with Turkey.
In his first statement as president, Obama called the killings "one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century." The president also introduced a phrase that would, in later years, become routine: "I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view of that history has not changed." It appears in every statement going forward.
He went on to call for a "full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts," and argued that the "best way to advance that goal right now is for the Armenian and Turkish people to address the facts of the past as a part of their efforts to move forward." He praised talks between Armenia and Turkey and encouraged the countries to normalize relations.
In March 2010, the Obama administration pressured the Democratic House not to advance a resolution approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee that would have acknowledged the genocide. At the time the U.S. wanted Turkey to back sanctions against Iran. From his statement that year:
I salute the Turks who saved Armenians in 1915 and am encouraged by the dialogue among Turks and Armenians, and within Turkey itself, regarding this painful history. Together, the Turkish and Armenian people will be stronger as they acknowledge their common history and recognize their common humanity.
That was the only year Obama recognized Turks who saved Armenians in his annual statement.
"Contested history destabilizes the present and stains the memory of those whose lives were taken, while reckoning with the past lays a sturdy foundation for a peaceful and prosperous shared future," Obama wrote in his statement on the 96th anniversary. Obama said that he supported "the courageous steps taken by individuals in Armenia and Turkey" toward that goal of discussing their shared history.
A year later, Obama praised individuals in Turkey and Armenia for discussing the killings, and encouraged their governments to join the conversation as well. "We applaud those Armenians and Turks who have taken this path, and we hope that many more will choose it, with the support of their governments, as well as mine," he wrote. Similar wording appears in the next two years, and is the only mention of Turkey in the statements.
"We recognize those courageous Armenians and Turks who have already taken this path, and encourage more to do so, with the backing of their governments, and mine," Obama wrote.
In December 2013 the New York Times noted that the U.S. and Turkey's foreign policies were diverging, particularly in Egypt, Syria, and there was growing mistrust between the two countries. In 2014 the White House's Armenian Remembrance Day statement mentioned Turkey just once. "We recognize and commend the growing number of courageous Armenians and Turks who have already taken this path, and encourage more to do so, with the backing of their governments, and mine," Obama wrote.
Advocates for the use of the word genocide hoped that Obama would fulfill his promise on the 100th anniversary. Instead, as the Associated Press reported, after a week of debate the White House decided against using the term, but promised to use Friday's anniversary to "urge a full, frank and just acknowledgement of the facts." The White House has been urging "full" "frank" acknowledgements of the "facts" since 2009.
On the centennial, Obama called the events of 1915 "horrors," "terrible carnage," and "the first mass atrocity of the 20th century," and went long on the work the U.S. has done to help Armenians then and now. He called it a moment to "reflect on the importance of historical remembrance, and the difficult but necessary work of reckoning with the past."