ASHEVILLE — President Barack Obama, who as a candidate vowed to use the term genocide to describe the Ottoman slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians nearly a century ago, once again declined to do so on Saturday as he marked the anniversary.
Trying to navigate one of the more emotionally fraught foreign policy challenges, Obama issued a statement from his weekend getaway here commemorating the victims of the mass killings but tried to avoid alienating Turkey, a NATO ally, which adamantly rejects the genocide label.
“On this solemn day of remembrance, we pause to recall that 95 years ago one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century began,” Obama said in the statement, which largely echoed the same language he used on this date a year ago. “In that dark moment of history, 1.5 million Armenians were massacred or marched to their death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire.”
When he was running for president and seeking votes from some of the 1.5 million Armenian Americans, Obama had no qualms about using the term genocide and criticized the Bush administration for firing an ambassador who dared to say the word. As a senator, he supported legislation calling the killings genocide.
“As president I will recognize the Armenian Genocide,” he said in a statement on Jan. 19, 2008. He said “the Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact.” He added, “An official policy that calls on diplomats to distort the historical facts is an untenable policy.”
Two years later, as president, he used none of that sort of language, though Obama hinted to Armenians that he still felt the same way. “I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view of that history has not changed,” he said. “It is in all of our interest to see the achievement a full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts.”
The issue has been a point of contention in Congress as well. In March, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted narrowly to condemn the mass killings as an act of genocide, defying a last-minute plea from the Obama administration to forgo a vote that threatened to jeopardize the U.S.-backed efforts toward Turkish-Armenian reconciliation.
Turkey, which acknowledges the killings but denies that they were a planned genocide, briefly recalled its ambassador from Washington in protest.
On Saturday, the Armenian National Committee of America, an advocacy group based in Washington, condemned the “euphemisms and evasive terminology” and called Obama’s statement “yet another disgraceful capitulation to Turkey’s threats.”
“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,” said Ken Hachikian, the committee’s chairman.
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