The Word Obama Can’t Bring Himself to Say
In April, there is a Washington ritual as predictable as budget debates and cherry blossoms.
This is the month that Armenian lobbyists, public relations groups, diplomats, grassroots activists, celebrities and a handful of sympathetic lawmakers attempt to convince the U.S. government — and the president, in particular — to use the word genocide to describe the killing of more than 1 million Armenians living in the eastern reaches of the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
The ritual begins with letters circulating around both houses of Congress calling for federal recognition of the Armenian Genocide. That is usually followed by letters cautioning against the term because it would damage relations with Turkey, a key U.S. ally.
As April 24 approaches, the anniversary of Red Sunday when hundreds of Armenian leaders and intellectuals were murdered or deported, lawmakers such as Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who represents almost 80,000 Armenian-Americans, will take to the floor of the House to make a direct appeal to his colleagues to pass a resolution recognizing the massacre as a genocide. In April 2013, Schiff gave a four-minute speech entirely in Armenian, a language he doesn’t speak. The resolution wasn’t even taken up for a vote.
The resolutions are rarely voted on and never passed.
And when the actual anniversary arrives and the president makes a statement, as every president for the past two decades has done, that statement never includes the g-word.
But this year is the 100th anniversary and some wondered if this would be the time President Obama honored a promise he made on the campaign trail in 2008 to use a word that would be cause for arrest in Turkey. There were signs that the centennial was ratcheting up the stakes. Kim Kardashian, America’s most famous Armenian, traveled — with her husband Kanye West and sister Khloe — to her ancestors’ homeland to express her solidarity on the issue. Pope Francis, much to the chagrin of the Turkish government, called the events the “first genocide of the 20th Century” in a speech at St. Peter’s Basilica, adding that “concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.”
President Obama had recently reversed a 50-plus year policy on Cuba and initiated the first direct communications with the Iranian regime in more than 30 years. But on Tuesday, his staff told Armenian-American groups in a meeting at the White House not to get their hopes up.
Most scholars do not dispute that hundreds of thousands — most believe around 1.5 million — Armenian innocents died during World War I. The only remaining question is what to call it.
The term genocide — part Greek, part Latin — was coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who immigrated to the United States, in the 1940s. His original definition, meant to replace the nondescript phrase “mass murder,” codified in the UN’s 1948 Convention on the Prevention of Genocide, referred to “acts committed with intent to destroy in part or in whole a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.” For reference, Lemkin used what happened to the Jews of Europe as well as the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire, claiming both were instances of attempts to wipe out entire populations.
Robert Melson, the former president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, says, “There is no question in my mind that the Young Turks intended to destroy the Armenian community during the First World War.” He said he was first convinced by reading the memoirs of Henry Morgenthau Sr., the U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the time, who received reports from across the empire and wrote to officials at home that the Armenians were falling victim to a “campaign of race extermination” at the hand of their own government.
Turkish officials and their allies don’t dispute that massacres took place — in 2014 then-Turkish Prime Minister and current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called what happened “inhumane,” a historic concession for a leader of Turkey. Nor do they dispute the Armenian community’s suffering at-large, but they recoil at the word genocide and the implication that ethnic Turks, who also suffered during the war, should be held responsible.
“1915 was the bloodiest year during World War I,” Cemil Cicek, the Speaker of Turkish Parliament, told me during an interview at the Ambassador’s residence earlier this year between meetings with various members of Congress, including Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).
“When there’s war, there’s always pain, there’s always suffering. And this pain and suffering was valid for all the people living in the Ottoman Empire, be they Turkish, Kurdish, Arab, Armenian, Circassian, or other ethnic backgrounds. So we cannot say that only a certain segment of that society experienced that pain.”
Genocide, Turkish officials note, is not just an academic term — it has a legal framework due to the United Nations and carries tremendous implications in international courts and tribunals. Further, a court would need to find the current Turkish government, which is a successor to the Ottoman Empire but not analogous to its predecessor, as responsible for the actions of the Ottoman regime.
“A person or nation is not guilty until otherwise proven,” Cicek told me.
But whether or not an international court would be able to find the Turkish government responsible for the Ottoman Empire’s actions during World War I, all the scholars of genocide I spoke with and U.S. officials speaking off the record agreed the word was appropriate. A number of other nations, including Canada, Chile, France, Italy and the Netherlands, as well as the European Parliament, have passed resolutions calling the massacres a genocide. Forty-three U.S. states have called it a genocide. Presidential candidates — Democrat and Republican, including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Hillary Clinton — have all used the term.
On January 19, 2008, while campaigning before the all-important California primaries, Obama was even more specific about how he would end the dance if elected: he said in a statement “as President I will recognize the Armenian genocide.”
But sitting U.S. presidents — with the exception of Ronald Reagan who referred to the “genocide of the Armenians” in a statement on the Holocaust in 1981 — do not use the word.
On April 24, 2009, what is known in Armenia as Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, President Obama released a statement that reflected the diplomatic obligations of his new position. Two months earlier, he had become officially commander-in-chief of a military engaged in two wars in Muslim countries, one of which was on Turkey’s southern border.
“History, unresolved, can be a heavy weight,” Obama said. “Just as the terrible events of 1915 remind us of the dark prospect of man’s inhumanity to man, reckoning with the past holds out the powerful promise of reconciliation. I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view of that history has not changed.”
But something did change — instead of using the word genocide, he inserted the Armenian phrase “the Meds Yeghern,” meaning great crime. The next year, 2010, he again called it the “Meds Yeghern,” and “one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.” In 2011, just after civil war had broken out in another of Turkey’s southern neighbors, Syria, the statement again said “my view of that history has not changed” and he again called it the “Meds Yeghern.”
Armenian-Americans hoped that something would change in August 2013, when Obama tapped Samantha Power, a former journalist and academic, to serve as his Ambassador to the United Nations. Power wrote a book in 2002 called A Problem from Hell about U.S. policy in response to genocide and in 2008 urged Armenian-Americans to vote for Obama as a champion of human rights, through her role as a foreign policy adviser to the campaign. Her book referred repeatedly to what happened to the Armenians as an example of genocide. But only seven months after Power took office, a revolution in Ukraine, only a few hundred miles across the Black Sea from Turkey, jolted Eastern Europe’s stability — the region’s strongest NATO member again became a vital bulwark against Russian expansionism. Since entering the Obama administration Power has stopped uttering the words “Armenian genocide” entirely.
When the anniversary came around in 2014 Power was silent and the statement again read “Meds Yeghern.”
Armenian-American groups tuned into the issue couldn’t care less about diplomatic considerations and believe President Obama’s flip-flop is tantamount to genocide denial.
“It’s his decision. He’s an adult, right?” said Aram Hamparian, President of the Armenian National Committee of America, the largest Armenian-American advocacy group. “People [in the administration] who’ve been involved in the issue for a while, they’re more remorseful, they recognize their moral culpability.”
ANCA, along with the Armenian Assembly of America, wield multi-million dollar budgets and command vast networks of Armenian-American activists dedicated to the issue of genocide recognition. Rep. Schiff calls them the embodiment of a true grass-roots movement and he tries to mimic their perseverance with his own. This year Schiff says he is planning to spend an hour on the house floor reading names of genocide victims.
But Connie Mack, a former Republican Congressman from Florida who now works for Levick, a crisis PR firm currently on contract with the Turkish Institute for Progress, says the Armenians have gone too far. Mack said that many members of Congress are sick of the constant attacks from the Armenians and that support is dwindling.
“If you don’t acknowledge that the events in 1915 are genocide, they go after you. Not only from what they say on their blogs and in the press, but they fund your opponents, and it becomes an all-out campaign against you,” he told me. “I know members are tired of that and it’s one of the reasons there’s been a drop in support.”
Mack told me that the best chance the genocide resolution had of passing was during Nancy Pelosi’s speakership. Pelosi is from California and has been a vocal advocate of using the word genocide. In 2007, just after Pelosi took over as Speaker, a pro-Armenian Genocide resolution garnered 212 co-sponsors. This year’s boasts only 43.
“They’re shooting themselves in the foot,” said Mack. “Every day.”
Matthew Bryza, a former U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan, told me that ANCA helped torpedo his nomination by claiming he was a genocide denier for following U.S. government policy and refraining from using the term while he was working in the White House. ANCA encouraged top Democrats from states with significant Armenian-American communities — Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) — to oppose his nomination and ultimately Bryza needed a recess appointment.
In recent years, the Turkish government has contracted former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt’s lobbying shop, Gephardt Government Affairs — the latest contract carried a price-tag of $1.7 million. The Turks also rely on the support of lobbyists from Dickstein Shapiro and Greenburg Traurig, which include former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), former Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark), and other D.C. notables on payroll.
The potency of this well-heeled lobby became apparent in October 2013 when an Armenian scholar, Dr. Hagop Martin Deranian, released a book on a rug that had been woven by Armenian orphans. The rug was a gift to former President Calvin Coolidge made in Ghazir, Lebanon by children who had escaped the massacres. The rug was meant to commemorate a proud chapter in American history, when American philanthropists raised today’s equivalent of $1.7 billion for the Near East Relief organization that helped survivors in the area. Deranian planned a book signing at the Smithsonian and requested that the rug be released from White House storage and displayed at the event. But, according to the Washington Post, the White House refused to loan the rug and the event was canceled.
Eventually, after complaints from Rep. Schiff, Armenian-American organizations and others, the rug was displayed at the White House Visitor’s Center for six days alongside a vase made by French victims of World War I and flowering branches from Japanese earthquake survivors. The exhibition was titled “Three Gifts to the Presidents in Gratitude for American Generosity Abroad.”
When I asked White House spokespeople about the rug, they refused to answer questions about who in the White House made what decision. They referred me to the National Parks Service for information on the exhibition at the White House Visitor’s Center, which it runs. The National Parks Service wouldn’t speak on the phone, but did give me the text accompanying the rug: “Orphaned during World War I, the Armenian girls at Ghazir created the largest (4.4 million knots) and most sophisticated rug ever to be produced in their orphanage workshop,” the plaque read.
A single word was, again, absent.
This year, the 100th anniversary, the issue is going into overdrive.
Kim Kardashian’s visit was thoroughly documented on Instagram and Kanye’s free concert in Armenia’s capital ended with a viral video-producing jump into a lake.
Obama is unlikely swayed by someone whose foreign policy initiatives are covered by TMZ, but the Pope is a different matter.
Pope Francis’ comments at a service in Vatican City were lauded by Armenians and led to heightened media scrutiny. On April 18, the World Values Network took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, accusing President Obama of “appeas[ing] the Turkish tyrant.” That same day Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz released a statement announcing his support for genocide recognition.
But that doesn’t change diplomatic reality. Turkey is a key strategic NATO ally, especially in U.S. efforts to combat ISIS across its border, counterbalance Iranian strength in the region and block Russian expansionism across the Black Sea in Ukraine and to its East in the Caucasus.
The subject of Russia is where appeasing Armenian-Americans or the nation of Armenia, a tiny country with a population of 3 million and multiple Russian bases, becomes most problematic. During the Cold War Turkey’s NATO membership provided a key bulwark against the Soviet Union, of which Armenia was then a part. The U.S. saw little strategic value in using the word genocide since it would embolden a Soviet client and alienate a key ally. With Russia renewing its expansionist tendencies, the United States’ alliance with not only Turkey, but also its close ally Azerbaijan — both of which are majority Muslim — could be seen as vital. Adil Baguirov, the founder of the U.S. Azeris Network which opposes using the word genocide, framed the debate bluntly: “Frankly, who’s a bigger ally? Is it a NATO country like Turkey or is it a country with a Russian base like Armenia?”
Of course, Turkey hasn’t been a particularly loyal ally. Since the rise of ISIL in Iraq and Syria, Turkey has come under fire for refusing to let NATO use its Incirlik base to bomb ISIL and for a host of other cooperation issues.
Regardless, it’s hard to imagine that with ISIL entrenched across Iraq and Syria, Iran funding militant groups and Yemen on the brink of collapse that the U.S. would want to alienate anyone in the region. The Pope’s comments were praised by Armenians, but resulted in the Turkish Ambassador being withdrawn from the Vatican and a thorough condemnation from the Turkish president. There’s no telling how Turkey might react to a major trading partner and military ally making a similar comment.
Armenian groups counter that this is simply Turkish bluster. They point out that Turkey is still eager to join the European Union despite the fact that the European Parliament which has called it a genocide in multiple resolutions.
One former American diplomat who has drafted official U.S. government statements on the issue, but due to current professional constraints asked to speak anonymously about the issue, told me that he believes there’s a way to thread the needle and use the word genocide without alienating Turkey.
“Say genocide occurred,” he told me, and that “the victims were overwhelmingly Armenian, but not exclusively so. Many proponents of calling it the ‘Armenian genocide’ will say the atrocities occurred not only in 1915 but dated back to the late 1800s in which there were mass killings of Armenians, but also when there were deportations and pogroms against Turks from and in the Balkans.”
“I think the big problem for so many Turks is the equating of the Armenian Genocide or whatever we call it with the Holocaust,” he said. No two atrocities should be made analogous as such, he said.
But using the word alone, without a greater push for Turkey to end its blockade of the Armenian border, issue reparations, or develop the economy of Armenia, does nothing to improve the plight of one of the poorest countries in the region. Armenia’s GDP per capita is less than half that of Azerbaijan and less than two-thirds that of Turkey.
Rep. Solomon Ortiz, a former Democrat from Texas who now consults with the Turkish Institute for Progress and has consistently opposed using the word, told me it would do little benefit for anyone, even if historians consider it the truth and even if Armenians believe it could form a basis for future reparations.
“We have to be realistic, look at all that’s happening around the world,” Ortiz told me.
On April 16, the White House press secretary was asked whether the President will use the word genocide this year. “The President and other senior administration officials have repeatedly acknowledged as historical fact that 1.5 million Armenians were massacred,” Josh Earnest said. “A full, frank, and just acknowledgement of the facts is in the interest of everybody, including Turkey, Armenia, and the United States.”
The White House has not yet posted a public schedule for President Obama on April 24 and the press office declined multiple requests for comment on his plans. Reports from a meeting with Armenian-American groups at the White House indicate that Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will travel to Armenia for the 100th anniversary ceremonies on Friday.
The president told him not to use the word genocide.
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