By Emil Danielyan
U.S. President George W. Bush has again declined to describe as “genocide” the 1915 slaughter of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, in an annual message to the Armenian-American community which hoped to capitalize on the recent deterioration in U.S.-Turkish relations.
Bush used instead phrases like a “horrible tragedy” and “appalling events” to refer to the mass killings and deportations, steering clear of further confrontation with Turkey, a leading U.S. ally in the Middle East. But significantly, other U.S. officials welcomed a recent international study that dealt a major blow to Ankara’s long-running denial of the genocide.
“The suffering that befell the Armenian people in 1915 is a tragedy for all humanity, which the world should not forget,” Bush said in a written statement issued late Thursday. “I join the Armenian-American community and Armenians around the world in mourning the horrendous loss of life.”
“As we remember those who perished and suffered, we salute the nation of Armenia, and Armenians everywhere. The United States is grateful for the contributions of Armenian Americans to our national life,” he said.
Bush’s statement was, predictably, denounced by the two leading U.S.-Armenian advocacy groups. “We are deeply disappointed at President Bush's statement; we had hoped for something better,” Joan Ablett, a spokeswoman for the Armenian Assembly of America, told RFE/RL.
The more radical Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) used tougher language, accusing Bush of breaking a “February 2000 campaign pledge to properly recognize the Armenian Genocide.” "Sadly, today again we witnessed the continuation of this Administration's policy of complicity in the Turkish Government's denial of the Armenian Genocide," the ANCA chairman, Kenneth Hachikian, said in a statement.
The ANCA was particularly angered by Bush’s de facto expression of support for the controversial Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) which has been trying to improve relations between the two nations through addressing, among other things, the genocide issue. Hachikian, whose organization is strongly opposed to the U.S.-sponsored initiative, found the move “offensive.”
In his long-awaited statement, Bush said: “I also salute our wise and bold friends from Armenia and Turkey who are coming together in a spirit of reconciliation to consider these events and their significance. I applaud them for rising above bitterness, and taking action to create a better future.”
Bush noted that the reconciliation initiative has already yielded unspecified “significant achievements.” It was not clear whether he referred to a recent genocide study commissioned by the TARC and conducted by the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), a New York-based human rights organization. It concluded that the slaughter of some 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians “includes all of the elements of the crime of genocide.”
The U.S. ambassador to Armenia, John Ordway, hailed the ICTJ report on Friday. “I think that the report that was prepared and issued by the Center for Transitional Justice at the request of TARC was a very solid and strong contribution to the dialogue and the discussion that has to take place between Turkey and Armenia and between Turks and Armenians,” Ordway told a news conference in Yerevan.
The Armenian-American community has for decades pushed for the U.S. government’s recognition of the 1915 massacres as genocide. The Assembly and the ANCA were close to clinching an appropriate resolution by the U.S. Congress in the fall of 2000. However, a last-minute intervention by then President Bill Clinton thwarted the effort. The Bush administration has similarly opposed the use of the word “genocide,” anxious not to upset Turkey.
The Armenian lobbying groups hoped that the White House will reconsider this line after Turkey’s Islamist-oriented government refused to allow U.S. troops to invade Iraq through Turkish territory -- a decision that strained relations between Washington and Ankara. However, they failed to drum up massive support for genocide recognition. Only 168 members of Congress, little more than in 2002, signed a petition urging Bush to term the tragedy a genocide.
According to an Armenian source in Washington familiar with the Bush administration’s thinking, Bush’s statement contained encouraging messages for the Armenian side. “It reveals a U.S. strategy of step by step bringing the Turkish government to accept genocide recognition itself,” he told RFE/RL. “It is a statement for the Turkish government more than for the Armenian people.”
On Wednesday, the day before the Armenian Genocide commemorations, Bush had a telephone conversation with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said afterwards that the two men discussed the situation in Iraq and Turkey’s economic problems. He made no mention of Turkish-Armenian relations.
“The two reaffirmed the strong relations between the United States and Turkey, long-time friends and allies,” Fleischer said.