In a keenly anticipated message to the Armenian community in the United States, Obama used instead the Armenian phrase Mets Yeghern, or Great Calamity, to mark the 94th anniversary of the World War One-era mass killings and deportations.
“Each year, we pause to remember the 1.5 million Armenians who were subsequently massacred or marched to their death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire,” read a statement released by him on Armenian Remembrance Day. “The Meds Yeghern must live on in our memories, just as it lives on in the hearts of the Armenian people.”
Obama made clear at the same time that he stands by his earlier public statements on the subject. During his election campaign Obama repeatedly referred to the 1915-1918 slaughter of more than one million Ottoman Armenians as genocide and pledged reaffirm such declarations once in office.
"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," he said in a January 2008 statement on his campaign website. "America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides. I intend to be that president."
Obama implied on Friday that he will not utter the word now to avoid antagonizing Turkey and setting back its ongoing rapprochement with Armenia. “My interest remains the achievement of a full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts,” he said. “The best way to advance that goal right now is for the Armenian and Turkish people to address the facts of the past as a part of their efforts to move forward.”
“I strongly support efforts by the Turkish and Armenian people to work through this painful history in a way that is honest, open, and constructive,” he added. “To that end, there has been courageous and important dialogue among Armenians and Turks, and within Turkey itself. I also strongly support the efforts by Turkey and Armenia to normalize their bilateral relations.”
The U.S. president cited and welcomed in that regard the announcement by the Turkish and Armenian governments that they have agreed on a “roadmap” for the normalization of bilateral ties. The Turkish-Armenian agreement, many details of which are still not known, was announced less than two days before Obama’s statement. Analysts believe that the timing all but precluded a formal U.S. recognition of the genocide.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul predicted earlier on Friday that Obama will likely stop short of announcing such recognition. Gul told reporters that they discussed the question "very broadly" during Obama's visit to Turkey earlier this month and that the U.S. president "is now better informed."
Armenian-American leaders were quick to denounce Obama’s stance. One prominent campaigner called it a “setback” for the Armenians. “The guy broke his word and lost a massive amount of credibility,” he told RFE/RL.
"Today's statement does not reflect the change the President promised," Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America said in a statement. "His failure to affirm the proud chapter in U.S. history, the American response to the first genocide of the 20th century, has needlessly delayed the cause of genocide affirmation and diminishes U.S. credibility with regard to genocide prevention."
The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), another influential advocacy group, voiced its “sharp disappointment” with Obama’s failure to honor his campaign pledge. “In falling short of his repeated and crystal clear promises … the President chose, as a matter of policy, to allow our nation’s stand against genocide to remain a hostage to Turkey's threats,” Ken Hachikian, the ANCA chairman said in a statement.
Both the ANCA and the Assembly are now expected to step up their efforts to push through the U.S. Congress a draft genocide resolution introduced by them recently. It has already been co-sponsored by over 100 members of the House of Representatives, including Nancy Pelosi.
Pelosi urged Armenian-American organizations on Wednesday to intensify their grassroots activities aimed at facilitating the passage of the bill. The White House has not yet formulated its position on the bill.