Armenian genocide: why Obama won't say the words

President Obama's campaign promise – to refer to Armenian genocide – remains unfulfilled on the 100th anniversary of the start of the killings. US-Turkey relations hold sway, but the president also suggested his true feelings.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama speaks to members of Congress and other guests in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 21, 2015, to thank those who supported a compromise that permanently changed how Medicare pays doctors. Also on Tuesday administration officials said that Obama will once again stop short of calling the 1915 massacre of Armenians a genocide, prompting anger and disappointment from those who have been pushing him to use the politically fraught term. Top administration officials discussed the decision with Armenian-American leaders.

As a presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama promised, if elected, to refer to the Turkish mass killing of Armenians that began in 1915 as genocide.

But on this anniversary, the 100th, President Obama has once again avoided the word. In a statement released Thursday night, he referred to the genocide only as “the first mass atrocity of the 20th century."

“Beginning in 1915, the Armenian people of the Ottoman Empire were deported, massacred, and marched to their deaths,” Obama said. “Their culture and heritage in their ancient homeland were erased. Amid horrific violence that saw suffering on all sides, one and a half million Armenians perished.”

The reason for Obama’s reticence: Turkey, and its role as a key ally in NATO and in the conflicts of the Middle East. Armenia, a nation of 3 million people in the Caucasus, pales in geostrategic importance.

Turkey vehemently objects to references to the killings as genocide, promising permanent diplomatic harm in relations with countries that do so. The Turkish government acknowledges that Armenians died during the war, but adds that many Muslim Turks also died. Armenians are Christian. 

In his statement, Obama seemed to go out of his way to signal that he does in fact view the Armenian slaughter as a genocide, without using the actual word.

“I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view has not changed,” the president said. In characterizing the numbers of those killed, generally estimated at between 1 million and 1.5 million people, he chose the highest figure.

Obama also welcomed “the expression of views by Pope Francis, Turkish and Armenian historians, and the many others who have sought to shed light on this dark chapter of history.”

At least 25 countries, including Germany, Austria, France, and Russia, call the atrocity a genocide. On April 12, Pope Francis referred to “genocide” when celebrating a mass at St. Peter’s Basilica to commemorate the 100th anniversary.

The Armenian-American community expressed its dismay in a statement Friday.

“We are deeply disappointed President Obama has chosen to break his promise and stand apart from the global community on speaking the truth about the Armenian Genocide on its 100th Anniversary,” wrote the Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee of America, an umbrella organization of more than 20 Armenian-American groups.

The committee also accused the president of, once again, turning "a blind eye to genocide for political expediency." 

Obama’s position is all the more noteworthy, given that his UN ambassador, Samantha Power, is an authority on genocide. In 2003, she won a Pulitzer Prize for her book “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.”

One of America’s strongest advocates for recognition of the Armenian genocide has been former Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas, the GOP’s 1996 presidential nominee. Armenian-American surgeon Hampar Kelikian, who fled the Ottoman Empire in 1919, had helped the young Mr. Dole regain some use of his right arm, which was severely injured in World War II. Dole remained close to Dr. Kelikian until the surgeon's death in 1983.

[Editor's note: The text of the first paragraph has been changed to reflect the fact that in 1981, President Reagan referred to the Armenian slaughter as genocide. Also, the United States recognized the genocide in 1951 in a statement submitted to the International Court of Justice.]

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