Samantha Power, a former special adviser to President Barack Obama, on Friday expressed regret at his failure to ensure an official U.S. recognition of the 1915 Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey during his tenure.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) in Yerevan, Power said Obama did not honor a key election campaign pledge because he did not want to jeopardize a rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey and feared that Ankara could obstruct U.S. efforts to defeat the Islamic State extremist group.
Power, who advised Obama on foreign policy and human rights before serving as U.S. ambassador to the United States from 2013-2017, also blamed the “very volatile personality” of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Obama referred to the Armenian genocide as a “widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence” when he ran for president in 2008. He said that if elected he will officially recognize the World War One-era slaughter of some 1.5 million Armenians as genocide.
During that presidential race, Power famously recorded a five-minute video that urged Americans of Armenian descent to vote for Obama because of his stance on the genocide issue.
“I have great regret that we did not manage to go all the way to full recognition in the way that we had promised,” Power told RFE/RL during her first-ever visit to Armenia. “I really believed going into the White House that we would.”
“But in 2009, which was really the year that we would have done it right at the beginning, President Obama made clear that his view of the facts had not changed and everybody knew his view,” she said. “But he felt that the Armenian-Turkish normalization was at a very important and very fragile stage.
“Then, I think, at the hundred anniversary [of the genocide in 2015,] when it would have been another opportune time to recognize, we had just been granted access to Turkish bases to fight ISIS (Islamic State).”
“Turkey is a very powerful and large country that’s a NATO ally and has a lot of weight,” added the former U.S. official. “President Erdogan of course is a very volatile personality. So that also meant that some of the threats that he made were deemed more credible frankly.”
Power made clear that she thinks none of these factors justified Obama’s decisions. “There is really no excuse because, as I wrote before I became a U.S. government official, there really is never a good time to do it,” she said. “There is always going to be some set of issues and equities on the other side of the argument.”
Obama reportedly came very close to recognizing the genocide in an April 2015. While avoiding the politically sensitive word, he implicitly praised Pope Francis for calling the 1915 mass killings “the first genocide of the 20th century.” He also paid tribute to Henry Morgenthau, America’s World War One-era ambassador in Constantinople who tried to stop what he saw as a “campaign of race extermination.”
Obama’s 2015 statement followed a reportedly heated debate within his administration. The Associated Press reported at the time that an explicit recognition of the Armenian genocide was advocated by administration officials who deal more directly with human rights issues. Power was said to be among them.
Power said on Friday that the current and future U.S. administrations should follow the example of two dozen other nations and “defy the bullying that genocide deniers have done.” Asked whether she thinks President Donald Trump may do so, she said: “Trump is so volatile. Maybe we wake up one morning and there’ll be the tweet that we’ve all been waiting for: recognizing the genocide.”
In any case, the former Obama administration official went on, Armenians should keep fighting for greater international recognition of the genocide. They have already made major progress in that endeavor, she said, arguing that “there is almost nobody in any doubt around the world about the events of 1915.”
Power was visiting Armenia as a new member of an international committee that will select this weekend the latest winner of an annual humanitarian award created in memory of the Armenian genocide victims.
The Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity award was established in 2015 by three prominent Diaspora Armenians: philanthropists Ruben Vardanyan and Noubar Afeyan, and Vartan Gregorian, the president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. It is designed to honor individuals around the world who risk their lives to help others.