One hundred years ago this week, the Ottoman empire began its methodical killing of Armenians in areas of present-day Turkey. An estimated 1.5 million Armenians are believed to have been killed during the massacre. Throughout the previous century, the event became highly politicized in international affairs. Turkey has repeatedly denied accusations that the event was a “genocide,” while at least 24 other nations have officially used that term. The anniversary of this historical event has brought the term back to the international spotlight, with many calling for President Obama to acknowledge the genocide on behalf of the U.S.
As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama had the following to say: “My firmly held conviction [is] that 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. As President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.” As a president nearing the end of his tenure, Obama still has not fulfilled that campaign promise. In this historic anniversary year, his administration has once again fallen short. The White House called today for “a full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts,” but carefully avoided use of the word “genocide.”
According to The Guardian, Obama made this cautious decision after receiving opposition from the State Department and Pentagon. This is unsurprising, especially considering Turkey’s status as a U.S. and NATO ally. The Turkish government has a history of attempting to avoid the “genocide” label, and any use of that terminology could threaten the U.S.’s partnership. In an unstable Middle East, losing Turkey’s allegiance could be a dangerous move for Washington. The U.S. also needs the continued support of the Turkish government in its campaign against ISIS.
The president’s refusal to acknowledge the genocide might be more than just cautious. According to the Wall Street Journal, Turkey’s Islamist government has been shifting away from its military dependence on the West. They’re nearing a deal with China to build their missile defense system, a move which a Western official told the Wall Street Journal is “making NATO very uncomfortable.” Turkey appears to be positioning itself in a more independent manner, and a wrong move by the U.S. or its NATO allies could shift the country's allegiances. The refusal to use the term “genocide” is a concession to Turkey, making their missile defense choice between China and NATO a much less obvious one.
The refusal is also, of course, a human rights concern. Armenians and millions of activists around the world have been waiting years for an official U.S. acknowledgment. Even Pope Francis has referred to the killings as “the first genocide of the 20th century.” It seems clear how Obama truly feels about the issue, as he’s deliberately stated his personal opinion in public before. Yet officially recognizing the event as a genocide could have disastrous foreign policy consequences. It might not be the most honest or noble move, but for now it’s most likely in the U.S.’s best interest.
Photo Source: WikiCommons, Karaian/Flickr