By Emil Danielyan
The U.S. government on Wednesday explicitly disavowed its Yerevan-based ambassador’s public acknowledgement of the Armenian genocide, insisting that he expressed his personal views and did not signal a change in Washington’s policy on the issue.
In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, a senior official in the administration of President George W. Bush said it did not approve, authorize or have prior knowledge of Ambassador John Evans’s description of the mass killings and deportations of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as “the first genocide of the 20th century.”
“What Ambassador Evans decided to do really and truthfully was his own initiative that absolutely contradicts the policy of the U.S. government as articulated by our president,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “As Ambassador Evans said in his retraction, it is the president of the United States that outlines our policy on this matter and he does it every year on April 24.
“He did not coordinate with the U.S. government. He did not clear his remarks with the State Department.”
In a statement on Monday, Evans regretted “misunderstandings” resulting from his comments made at a series of meetings with Americans of Armenian descent late last month. “I used the term “genocide” speaking in what I characterized as my personal capacity,” he explained.
The envoy became the first U.S. government official since former President Ronald Reagan to have publicly referred to the 1915-1918 slaughter of some 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians as genocide. All of Reagan’s successors avoided using the term lest it upset U.S. ally Turkey, which maintains that the massacres did not constitute a genocide.
The current U.S. president, for example, has used phrases like “one of the great tragedies of history” and “annihilation of approximately 1.5 million Armenians” in his annual April 24 messages to the Armenian-American community. Bush’s statements are “the most authoritative possible statement of any U.S. policy,” according to the senior administration official who spoke to RFE/RL.
“So if the president’s policy hasn’t changed, there is nobody else in our government who could possibly have authorized Ambassador Evans to make such statements,” he added.
However, many in Armenia and its influential Diaspora in the United States believe that the very fact of a high-ranking American diplomatic affirming the genocide was hardly accidental.
Diaspora sources say Evans repeatedly drew Armenian-American leaders’ attention to an independent study which concluded that the Armenian massacres meet the definition of genocide set by a 1948 UN convention. The study was conducted and released in February 2003 by the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) at the request of the U.S.-backed Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission.
“Nobody should think this has occurred by accident or in a vacuum,” one informed source insisted on Wednesday.
There has been speculation that Washington is raising the genocide issue as part of a fresh push for the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations, a major U.S. goal in the region. Successive U.S. administrations urged Turkey to reopen its border with Armenia but to no avail.
The Bush administration official claimed that such tactics would be counterproductive. “Evans’s statement makes it more difficult to bring Armenia and Turkey together because of the reaction in Turkey,” he argued.
“My analysis of the Turks is that when you back them into a corner, they react very badly. They may change their views if you wear them down over time. But backing them into a corner is not wise. We need to bring them along to examine the past, to accept the horrors that really happened in 1915 step by step.”
But according to a government-connected U.S. scholar who chaired TARC throughout its existence from 2001-2004, top U.S. officials used the genocide issue when they pressed Ankara to lift Armenia’s blockade in summer 2003. David Phillips writes in his new book that Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul was told during a visit to Washington that that would be the “best way” to keep the U.S. Congress from recognizing the Armenian genocide. Phillips says the Turks did not open the border because the U.S. pressure on them subsequently eased due to a deteriorating situation in Iraq.
The administration official said Washington continues to push for an open border but could not say whether these efforts could yield tangible results this year. “We are doing all sorts of diplomatic initiatives that the Armenian and Turkish governments are well aware of to get to the point where all the borders are open and all diplomatic ties are restored,” he said. “I think that we are making progress.”