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April 23rd, 2009
11:50 PM ET

President Obama's Armenian dilemma

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/POLITICS/04/06/obama.turkey/art.obama.mon.gi.jpg caption="President Obama and Turkish President Abdullah Gul hold a joint news conference Monday."]

Dave Schechter
CNN Senior National Editor

Armenian-Americans have April 24 circled on their calendars and they’ll be paying close attention to what President Obama says – or does not say – about that day.

Armenians call April 24 their day of remembrance, marking the day in 1915 that they say Turks began a campaign to destroy their community, a period of several years that resulted in deaths of between 1 million and 1.5 million Armenians.

The Armenians call it a genocide.

The Turks reject that language. From the Turkish perspective, there were killings, but on both sides of an ethnic conflict. World War I was underway, this was not a deliberate program to exterminate a people, the Turks say, and they claim that Armenians overstate the number of casualties.

“Race extermination” is what then-U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau Sr. called it in cables to the State Department. The word “genocide” itself did not enter the lexicon until some 30 years later.

This is a sensitive issue, not only for Americans of Armenian and Turkish descent, but also for U.S. foreign policy. For many of the more than 1 million Armenian-Americans, this is where the rubber of candidate Obama’s campaign promises meets the road of President Obama in the Oval Office.

As a senator and presidential candidate, Barack Obama repeatedly stated that the Armenian genocide is fact – not myth – and that he supported an oft-proposed but narrowly defeated Congressional resolution recognizing the slaughter as “the Armenian genocide.” In a Jan. 19, 2008, campaign statement, candidate Obama said, “As a senator, I strongly support passage of the Armenian Genocide Resolution (H.Res.106 and S.Res.106), and as President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide." Those positions helped Obama win endorsements from Armenian-American organizations and community support measured at more than 80 percent.

But as President, he avoided use of the word “genocide” in front of his hosts during his recent trip to Turkey. “Well, my views are on the record and I have not changed views,” President Obama said during a news conference with Turkish President Abdullah Gul.

That left many Armenian-Americans wanting more. Obama "missed a valuable opportunity to honor his public pledge to recognize the Armenian genocide," Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, told the Los Angeles Times.

To understand the passion of Armenian-Americans on this issue, consider this excerpt from a 2007 article by Michael Crowley in The New Republic: “Most Armenian-Americans are descended from survivors of the slaughter and grew up listening to stories about how the Turks, suspecting the Orthodox Christian Armenians of collaborating with their fellow Orthodox Christian Russians during World War I, led their grandparents on death marches, massacred entire villages, and, in one signature tactic, nailed horseshoes to their victims' feet. . . Turkey's refusal to acknowledge the guilt of their Ottoman forbears infuriates Armenians, leaving them feeling cheated of the sacred status awarded to Jewish Holocaust survivors.”

So Armenian-Americans anticipate April 24 and whether, now that he is in the White House, President Obama will repeat what he has said before about the Armenian genocide.

On that day, “the President has a well-timed opportunity to deliver on the change he promised, to honor the pledges he made and to affirm the U.S. record on the Armenian Genocide,” the Armenian Assembly of America said in a statement. “...we fully expect him to honor his pledge and affirm the historical truth of the Armenian Genocide. We encourage all people of goodwill to help us end the cycle of genocide denial by becoming an Ambassador of Affirmation and send a letter to President Obama," the Assembly’s Executive Director Bryan Ardouny said in the statement.

President Obama will face the community’s expectations yet again if the House of Representatives votes in favor of a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide, a resolution that has been introduced for several years and was re-introduced in March.

That resolution calls on the President to "accurately characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1,500,000 Armenians as genocide."

The resolution’s primary backer is Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., whose district includes the largest concentration of the nation’s roughly 1.5 million Armenian-Americans.

Crowley’s 2007 article dealt with the historical and diplomatic issues attached to the resolution and the money the Turkish government has spent to hire big-name Washington lobbyists, including former leaders of Congress, to lobby against the resolution.

"The resolution would be insulting to Turkey and would be very poorly received," James H. Holmes, a retired U.S. ambassador who is now president of the American Turkish Council, told McLatchy newspapers. He added that "some very significant commercial opportunities" might be put at risk.

The U.S. government wants to maintain good relations with Turkey for reasons that include U.S. military basing in that country, Iraq as its next-door neighbor and its potential role in the Middle East peace process, as well as those trade considerations.

So keep watch on April 24 or thereabouts as Barack Obama finds himself caught between positions he’s repeated over the years and the challenges he faces as President of the United States.

Crowley, writing in The New Republic a couple of weeks ago, pointed out that it’s one thing to make such statements as a candidate and something altogether different to do so as President of the United States. “But the question is whether Obama reiterates those views in his official capacity. That's what the Armenians have been desperate to see him to. And while there are sound arguments against inflaming the Turkish public with such an act, that is what Obama, as a candidate, explicitly promised he would do,” Crowley wrote.

In 1948, a United Nations convention defined genocide as acts “committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” In 2009, President Obama might have to decide whether this definition fits what happened to the Armenians nearly a century ago.

soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. Volkan, California

    Mrs Karen,

    Watch the news? Turkey has agreed to discuss the matter and Armenia ran away. Ignorance is your worst enemy.

    April 28, 2009 at 7:38 pm |
  2. Volkan, California

    Mrs Elisha Miller,

    As a quarter Turkish, you should be ashamed of yourself. Please do not call yourself Turkish even quarter. We have pictures too, we have press releases too. You want to see those as well? Turkey is ready to discuss the matter in a round table discussion. If you think, the evidence is so strong, why not come to table? Why drag it forever? Why not go to the human rights courts? Why not go to international courts? Why run away? Did you ever think about that? If the evidence is so strong, why are you hesitating? Do you know the population of Armenians back then? All recorded if you want to search and find out the truth. Where are the bodies if there was mass killings?

    April 28, 2009 at 7:35 pm |
  3. Elisha Miller

    Mrs. Erkin Baker,

    The Armenians are not lying about the genocide. There are pictures, testimonies, and press records - not just from Armenians - regarding the genocide and death march. The Holocaust Museum recognizes the genocide. Surpressing the truth is an attempt to cover shame, but it wouldn't have been your shame. Your comments are attempting to justify a murderous regime. Does having an 100,000 army justify a 1.5 million genocide? You should feel ashamed of yourself. Condemn murder, don't justify, hide, or protect it, just because you're Turkish, Mrs. Erkin.

    I'm a quarter Turkish. I'm sorry for the Armenian genocide.

    April 26, 2009 at 3:52 am |
  4. Ege Yildirim

    I hope Armenians and Armenian Americans can one day find a more appropriate raison d'etre than this hate culture based on propaganda, distortion of historical facts for political gains and hypocritical moral claims.

    I respect Armenian culture for its cultural and artistic accomplishments. I hope one day a joint Turkish-Armenian expedition can work to safeguard the ancient capital of Ani, located in NE Turkey by the Armenian border, where Armenia is exploding dynamite at a mine and causing damaging vibrations to their own cultural heritage.

    I respect and feel thankful for the Turkish citizens of Armenian ethnicity in my country and the contributions they make to the legacy of multi-cultural Anatolia. I also love the Armenian friends I am making in life.

    As for the genocide claims, I hope one day the world will stop being blind to the points that:

    – Armed Armenian Ottomans killed many Turkish Ottomans, in similar numbers as vice versa. Why are these not acknowledged? Makes one think of the notorious Christian bias against the Moslem world.

    – Armenian ASALA terrorists killed 70+ innocent people as part of their political cause starting in the 1980s. Do people know enough about this?

    – As a similarly aggressive, academic form of terrorism, historians/ scholars refusing to be bullied into admitting 'genocide' have been harassed and threatened. Why would Armenians resort to such violent acts if they trusted that truth was on their side?

    – Why are Turkey's offers for a joint historical research commission refused by Armenians? Again, is someone afraid that the real truth will be revealed one day, despite all this desperate, extreme lobbying?

    It is incredible how the dominant world media falls for such faulty narratives.

    It took some centuries for people to see that the world was round and not flat, despite propaganda by the Church. Let's see how long it will take for the world to start seeing this issue in an objective manner...

    Respectfully,

    Ege

    April 25, 2009 at 4:05 am |
  5. karen

    That is a lie? Where is the documentation. Armenians have nothing to hide. If they are demanding justice, there has to be truth behind this. The Armenians have not closed any archives nor do they intend to. As far as evidence, there is a large amount of evidence, whether witnesses or video and picture documentation, it would be obscene to deny this fact.

    April 25, 2009 at 12:27 am |
  6. Sara Saran

    Obama is a an honest smart man. He MUST realize that when 4million Turks and other folks died- most at the hands of the Armenians and their imperial invading "bosses" Russians and French- there is more than the unethical propaganda machine wants us to believe..
    Several repected historians dispute the Armenian Diaspora version of the WW I events and they are called names and threatened.
    I want to be able to attend a Turkish or related event here once without Armenian gangs disrupting, attacking, burning something or bombthreating the event.
    They should leave their hatred behind when they come to the US and not dictae US policy on hatred at the expense of other US citizens.

    April 24, 2009 at 8:07 pm |
  7. Jill Kurt

    Historians of the Ottoman Empire refute the genocide charge.

    Professor Bernard Lewis' summary rebuttal below of the Armenian genocide narrative is perhaps the shortest summary by a historian of why the President was RIGHT in not calling this a genocide, but wrong to imply that he still personally held that view.
    Statement of Professor Bernard Lewis Princeton University (look for it online as a video statement):

    "What happened to the Armenians was the result of a massive Armenian armed rebellion against the Turks, which began even before war broke out, and continued on a larger scale. Great numbers of Armenians, including members of the armed forces, deserted, crossed the frontier and joined the Russian forces invading Turkey. Armenian rebels actually seized the city of Van and held it for a while intending to hand it over to the invaders. There was guerilla warfare all over Anatolia. And it is what we nowadays call the National Movement of Armenians Against Turkey. The Turks certainly resorted to very ferocious methods in repelling it. There is clear evidence of a decision by the Turkish Government, to deport the Armenian population from the sensitive areas. Which meant naturally the whole of Anatolia. Not including the Arab provinces which were then still part of the Ottoman Empire. There is no evidence of a decision to massacre. On the contrary, there is considerable evidence of attempt to prevent it, which were not very successful. Yes there were tremendous massacres, the numbers are very uncertain but a million nay may well be likely. The massacres were carried out by irregulars, by local villagers responding to what had been done to them and in number of other ways. But to make this, a parallel with the holocaust in Germany, you would have to assume the Jews of Germany had been engaged in an armed rebellion against the German state, collaborating with the allies against Germany. That in the deportation order the cities of Hamburg and Berlin were exempted, persons in the employment of state were exempted, and the deportation only applied to the Jews of Germany proper, so that when they got to Poland they were welcomed and sheltered by the Polish Jews. This seems to me a rather absurd parallel."

    April 24, 2009 at 7:03 pm |
  8. Chris Torossian

    Thank you Mr. President Obama, the hate that kept African-Americans out of office for so many years, is the same hate being placed upon Armenians every time there is genocide denial. As an Armenian American, it hurts every year. Every year that we worked to get recognition, the United States government tells us our work was failure. They tell us this by not recognizing the Armenian Genocide. And to Mrs. Erkin Baker, how dare you. You said that Armenians have not spoke the historical truth about what happened in 1915. So would that make Henry Morgenthau (American Ambassador to the region in 1915) a liar as well? That is a third party accounting for the atrocities which took place 94 years ago. You also said that there was a trial for those Ottoman officials, yes, IN TURKEY! They were exiled. Of course they would not be convicted in their own country. You brought up the point that America did not have any evidence, then what would you call official documents by an Ambassador of the United States, or numerous articles printed by United States newspapers during the time of this Genocide, what about German soldiers who encouraged Hitler to not go through with the Holocaust because they saw the pain first hand, what about Hitler mentioning the Armenian Genocide in his speech, what about the hundreds of photos that have been published. I realize that was a run on sentence, but this is not an essay. Finally, what about my Great Grandma crying as she is telling me about hiding from Ottoman troops as she watched them cut off her brothers head and use it as a soccer ball. So to Erkin Baker and all others alike, your ignorance can and does hurt. For us who have spent countless nights preparing rally's, writing speeches, phone banking, and doing everything we can so that our ancestors can get the justice that they deserve.

    April 24, 2009 at 3:48 pm |
  9. Mary Ann

    Obama issued a statement on April 24 referring to the Armenian Genocide as "medz yeghern" – the Armenian phrase for "great Genocide"... I wonder if that is his solution to the dilemma – calling Genocide but in Armenian so that only Armenians understand the phrase?

    April 24, 2009 at 3:24 pm |
  10. Sevda

    You cannot call this a "genocide" because hundreds of thousands of Ottoman Turks died as well. This is inaccurate. I do not support it and am disgusted by the propeganda set forth by the Armenian government.
    If Armenians are unhappy with Turks, why do millions of them take refuge in Turkey today?

    April 24, 2009 at 2:32 pm |
  11. Narineh

    Evidence against Turkey was destroyed – so of course they are now "willing" to open their archives...There is enough proof out there in historical documentation and news articles during that time. 1.5 million IS genocide. It was an attempt to wipe out a race of people that posed a threat to Turkey – that IS the definition of genocide. How about Hitler being quoted saying "Who, after all remembers Armenians today?" He thought he could do the same and get away with it. I feel sorry for the Turkish citizens of today, it is not their fault, they are taught lies about these injustices and horrible disgusting events that took place that made up the genocide that took the lives of so many of my family members and left my great-grandmother an orphan – she is lucky she survived to tell the story. The United States DOES have the authority and must set an example to the world that crimes against humanity cannot go unpunished or they will only repeat themselves. We are seeing that now in Darfur.

    I can go on and on but I will leave it at that for now.

    April 24, 2009 at 2:31 pm |
  12. Lus

    and we all thought Obama was different—real leader….such a shame that he also got addicted to the luxurious life at White House…and forgot who he is and what he really stands for as a person and a leader of a great nation….

    April 24, 2009 at 1:43 pm |
  13. Joel

    I don’t want Armenian and Turkish policy makers to bring their political fight in the US. If I have to hold a side, of course I would be taking the US ally Turkey’s side, instead of Russia’s and Iran's best ally Armenia.

    April 24, 2009 at 1:43 pm |
  14. Ergun Kirlikovali

    There has never convened a “competent tribunal”, as foreseen by the article 6 of the 1948 U.N. Convention on Genocide where the accused were given a chance of fair representation, cross-examining the evidence, and producing own evidence in defense. Therefore, a genocide verdict does not exist. How can one deny something that does not legally exist?

    Genocide charges are political and cannot be substantiated with historical evidence.

    That is why the Armenian claimants have never resorted to legal ways to establish the veracity of their claims .

    That is also why Armenia still does not come forward to accept Turkey’s 2005 offer of creating a joint commission of historians, scholars and researchers to sort out the contentious and complex matter.

    Turkish offer still stands.

    April 24, 2009 at 1:30 pm |
  15. Volkan, California

    Turkey is willing to discuss history but Armenians are avoiding. Armenian historical documents prove that Armenians have armed their community against the Ottoman Turks. Ottomans agreed to relocate the Armenians away from the war zone to keep them out of harms way and prevent them to be a trouble for the Ottoman troops fighting the Russians and other fronts. There is no evidence of a planned killing of a certain race or culture. There is no such thing Armenian Genocide. These allegations is the only thing they can hang on to raise the Armenian patriotizm. Armenians are afraid of losing their identity. Their allegations cause discrimination and hatret between communities. This is totally against the American way of living. The Turkish American who live peacefully are being threatened today. History shows the violence of Armenians. They killed several innocent Turkish consulars in cold blood and showed it as a heroic act. Those people have kids and a family. They had nothing to do with the conflict. Turkey is willing to discuss these allegations in a fair and unbiased way. Armenia should face the truth and come to the table to discuss it.

    April 24, 2009 at 1:05 pm |
  16. Aram Ettibaryan

    The Genocide of Armenians can not be forgotten and the demands to state the truth will never be waived. The reconciliation is impossible without the truth to be told – there should be no precondition for that and there should be no precondition for nations to live in piece. Armenia did a step forward and “passed the ball” to Obama ...

    We all hope Obama will keep his words – these words matter not only for Armenians but for Americans, Turks and for humanity in general:

    – "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. The facts are undeniable."

    – "America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian Genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides. I intend to be that President."

    – "As a senator, I strongly support passage of the Armenian Genocide Resolution (H.Res.106 & S.Res.106), and as President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide"

    April 24, 2009 at 12:55 pm |
  17. Erdal Atrek

    Armenians have always been tools of Great Power diplomacy. Russia and England armed them and led them to revolt to expedite the breaking up of the Ottoman Empire. England published boatloads of war propaganda books during World War I, and, in fact if there were a Genocide, would be in the best position to know and acknowledge it, but does not. The U.N. does not, and the United States does not.

    The simple truth is that Armenians are again being used by various countries which try to keep Turkey out of the European Union by dangling a Genocide issue, or by others that still want a piece of Turkey, preferably The Straits. A minority Armenian political party, which is a remnant of the Armenian revolutionary activities is also clamoring for land and reparations, appealing to jingoistic tendencies. As for the various resolutions passed in California and other states acknowledgeing an "Armenian genocide", this is nothing more than ignorant politicians pandering to Armenian votes and money.

    If indeed those claiming an "Armenian genocide" had real evidence, they would long have accepted that historical evidence be assessed by a neutral international body to reach a verdict. Turkey and Turks do not claim that nothing happened, but that what happened has been blown out of proportion, has been looked at entirely from one side, and Turks have been demonized for political reasons.

    it is my humble opinion that as long as Armenians keep believing World War I propaganda which is perpetuated today, they will not be able to avoid being used for purposes of others.

    April 24, 2009 at 12:34 pm |
  18. Mark Metin

    The allegation of so-called Armenian Genocide is false

    (see US NAVY Rear Admiral M. L. Bristol’s statement below).

    He was the High Commissioner sent to Anatolia to investigate allegations of Armenian atrocities. He wrote in March 1921:

    “ I see that reports are being freely circulated in US that the Turks massacred thousands of Armenians in the Caucasus. SUCH REPORTS ARE REPEATED SO MANY TIMES IT MAKES MY BLOOD BOIL. The Near East Relief has the reports from Yarrow and our own American people, which show that such Armenian reports are ABSOLUTELY FALSE. The circulation of such reports in the US, without refutation, is an OUTRAGE …”

    From US Library of Congress: Bristol’s Papers.

    April 24, 2009 at 11:59 am |
  19. eddie

    I think its time The United States stop looking the other way because ofTurkish goverments ugly threats against the U.S. our presidents in the past have acnowleged the Armenian Genocide, and The President has promised the Armenians he would formally recognise the Genocide. its time,

    April 24, 2009 at 11:57 am |
  20. Dr. Robert Odabashian

    When will America stand up to Turkey...how long will Turkey continue to bully America...The Armenian GENOCIDE was GENOCIDE...PLAIN AND SIMPLE...I lost relatives as did all Armenians...Hitler acknowledged it when he began the murder of the Jews...Dozens of countries around the world have acknowledged it...the majority of US States have acknowledged that it was GENOCIDE...God help Americ if we aren't brave enough to acknowledge it also...Turkey...it's about time to fess up to your past history and what you did...it's time to grow up...

    April 24, 2009 at 11:24 am |
  21. frieda

    hmmm....interesting my comments were never published.

    Why, because I criticized Obama? is this blog censors comment ?

    Obama is a typical politician and there is no CHANGE and no HOPE in his recent actions in regards to Armenian genocide.

    He gave us his word before election, and now he does not want to honor his own promise. that's the new "change" and "hope" for you.

    April 24, 2009 at 11:00 am |
  22. Erkin Baker

    On October 5th, 2000, The spokesperson for the United Nations stated that "(The) United Nations has not approved or endorsed a report labeling the Armenian experience as Genocide". And, to date, the U.N. position has not changed.

    Conveniently, the Armenians hide the fact that they had territorial demands from the Ottoman government for lands on which they were a minority, and that they formed an army of over 100,000 men who fought against their country, thus starting a civil war. The portrait they paint as having been innocent civilians do not speak the historical truth.

    After World War I, the British Crown, who had overseen the occupation of the Ottoman capital, brought 144 Ottoman occfficials to the island of Malta to try them for war crimes. After two years of searching through evidence (including those of the United States) no evidence was found to convict the Turks of the intention of killing the Armenians for their ethnicity or religion; and all the Turks were sent back home.

    No media outlet, the parliament or congress of any country, nor the President of the United States has the authority to classify past tragic events as"genocide" without due process of an International court. The Turks have invited historians and judicial experts to study their, and others' archives; yet, the Armenians refuse to open their archives in Yerevan, Beirut, or Boston.

    Why?

    Mrs. Erkin Baker
    St. Louis, USA

    April 24, 2009 at 10:07 am |
  23. Eva Garibian

    We feel like today's statements from Joe Biden, a long time supporter of the recognition of genocide, is such a poor detour from what should be done and what was promised and that it is a very weak distraction for American-Armenians. we feel it was far reaching to create something in the interim to become an excuse not to do the RIGHT Thing. we don't believe in the agreement announced because such agreement is impossible without the resolution of Nagorno Karabagh and the border is not open today. we are being bamboozled again. the president discussed change and yes we can. i say President Obama show us CHANGE that equals the Truth and not a political denial yet again as hostage of Lobbies and of Turkey. Enough is enough. we worked so hard to help get you elected because we believed our 94 year struggle for honor and closure were in your hands. don't let us down please.

    April 23, 2009 at 11:54 pm |
  24. mary lou

    As an armenian american, i can only hope that someday peoples lives will be worth more than commerical opportinities to all governments around the world. We have been promised over and over again by politicans, wanting something from us, that the day will come when they will stand up and say, Yes, it was Genocide but regrettfully that day has not come. I voted for Mr. Obama and his wave of change, but i fear once again he will toe the line like everyone before him but i still have hope that one day the truth will be told and the record set straight

    April 23, 2009 at 10:19 pm |
  25. Amara Manoogian

    Thank you CNN for bringing the Armenian Genocide issue to the forefront of your reporting. Tomorrow marks a very important day for so many Armenians around the world. It is a testament to the strength, pride , and character of a people who's ancestors have endured such atrocities. It is insulting when former ambassadors, who by the way are representing freedoms that the United States holds high, are lobbying against the passing of the resolution. Even worse, when they say that part of the reason for not passing the resolution is because of "commercial opportunities" tells the Armenian Americans that money is more important than their ancestor's lives and the Armenian homeland (now part of present day Turkey and Azerbaijan).

    Again, I would like to thank Dave Schechter for making this blog today, and I hope that CNN continues their strong reporting on national and world news.

    April 23, 2009 at 7:41 pm |
  26. lela

    Hi.. i think president Obama overdoing to be nice with everybody,i am from caucus, between Armenia and Turkey.is not that simple named or avoided fact, either side will not be happy

    April 23, 2009 at 7:26 pm |
  27. kenneth higgins, Tallahassee FL

    Turkey is the biggest ally to US. Obama knows that now and he will never mention genocide. He did what he need to do to get elected. US needs Turkey for many reasons. Actually US needs Turkey more than she needs Armenians.

    April 23, 2009 at 7:20 pm |

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