ASHEVILLE, N.C. – Candidate Barack Obama repeatedly promised he’d call the almost century-old massacre of Armenians in Turkey a genocide. President Obama twice now has refused to do so.
Commemorating Armenian Remembrance Day on Saturday, Obama called the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians during World War I “one of the worst atrocities” of the 20th century and “a devastating chapter” in history. But he did not call it genocide.
Obama’s statement, issued as he and first lady Michelle Obama spent a weekend getaway here in western North Carolina, earned him criticism from all corners. The Turkish foreign minister said it was “unacceptable,” and activists took issue with the president’s tone in marking the 95th anniversary of the start of the slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks.
It is “a devastating chapter in the history of the Armenian people, and we must keep its memory alive in honor of those who were murdered and so that we do not repeat the grave mistakes of the past,” Obama said in his statement.
For Obama, referring to the killings as genocide could upend pledges to have a closer partnership with Turkey, a vital ally in a critical region. Steering around the word, however, put him at odds with his own pledges to recognize the slaughter as genocide.
Marking the grim anniversary of the start of the killings, the president said: “On this solemn day of remembrance, we pause to recall that 95 years ago one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century began.”
The statement was less than the full and frank acknowledgment he promised Jan. 19, 2008, when he vowed that as president, “I will recognize the Armenian genocide,” and repeatedly used the word.
Saturday, activists and officials from across the spectrum were quick to express disappointment.
“Today we join with Armenians in the United States and around the world in voicing our sharp disappointment with the president’s failure to properly condemn and commemorate the Armenian Genocide,” Armenian National Committee of America chairman Ken Hachikian said. “Sadly, for the U.S. and worldwide efforts to end the cycle of genocide, he made the wrong choice, allowing Turkey to tighten its gag rule on American genocide policy.”
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called Obama’s statement “not acceptable.”
“If we are going to share griefs for humanitarian reasons, then we would expect respect for our own grief as well,” Davutoglu said.
Obama is closely watching as Turkey and Armenia approach an end to the long-simmering feud between the nations. The two countries signed agreements for reconciliation in October, but the deals still need to be approved by their parliaments. The agreements call for the establishment of diplomatic relations and the reopening of their border.