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Obama: Squaring the Circle on the Armenian Genocide

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On April 24th, 2009, President Barack Obama issued a statement commemorating Armenian Remembrance Day--the day when Armenians worldwide recall the genocidal assault on their community that ultimately took the lives of 1.5 million in the post-WWI era.

In the weeks leading up to the 24th, both Turks and Armenians held their breath in anticipation, or dread, of the language the President would use in describing the Armenian tragedy.

During the 2008 Presidential campaign, Obama had been forceful, not only in declaring that the events of 1915 were genocide, but in criticizing those who would not do so. In a statement issued on January 19, 2008, Obama said:

"As a U.S. Senator, I have stood with the Armenian American community in calling for Turkey's acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide...the Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact...An official policy that calls on diplomats to distort the historical facts is an untenable policy...as President I will recognize Armenian Genocide."

During his April 2009 visit to Turkey, President Obama carefully raised this sensitive issue during his address to the Turkish Parliament. By beginning with a lesson learned from US history, he sought to prod his hosts into dealing with their past:

"The Untied States is still working through some of our own darker periods in our own history...our country still struggles with the legacies of slavery and segregation, the past treatment of Native Americans...History is often tragic, but unresolved, it can be a heavy weight. Each country must work through its past. And reckoning with the past can help us seize a better future. I know there's strong views in this chamber about the terrible events of 1915. And while there's been a good deal of commentary about my views, it's really about how the Turkish and Armenian people deal with the past. And the best way forward for the Turkish and Armenian people is a process that works through the past in a way that is honest, open and constructive."

The stage was set for the 24th, with a great deal of speculation, but without anyone knowing for certain exactly how the new President would reconcile: his personal beliefs and his commitment to Armenian Americans; the importance he places on the US-Turkish relationship; and his desire to see a stable Turkish and Armenian future.

Then, two days before Remembrance Day, the Turkish and Armenian governments announced that they had agreed to a "road map" for normalizing relations. Concerned that he not disrupt this process, Obama's statement on the 24th reflected this development. In part, his statement read:

"Ninety four years ago, one of the great atrocities of the 20th century began. 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. The Meds Yeghern must live on in our memories, just as it lives on in the hearts of the Armenian people...I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view of that history has not changed. My interest remains the achievement of a full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts...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... 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 two governments have agreed on a framework and road map for normalization. I commend this progress, and urge them to fulfill its promise."

Some Armenian American organizations were outraged, others disappointed. Said one, "President Obama's refusal to push Turkey to recognize its genocide against Armenians--or even to use the 'g word'--fell far short of the clear promise he made as a candidate that he would, as President, fully and unequivocally recognize this crime against humanity."

One Armenian American publication, however, did note with satisfaction, that while Obama did not repeat the word genocide, he made clear that his position had not changed and he did use the Armenian term Meds Yeghern to describe the horrors of 1915.

For their part Turks were also displeased, with commentators from left to right agreeing with this editorial in Milliyet, "Obama made the harshest statement that has ever been uttered by a US President since Ronald Reagan. Yes, he did not use the word genocide, but his statement was harsh, unilateral, and accusing."

Faced with difficult choices, what Obama did was "square the circle." As another Turkish writer noted, "Obama made a statement...which annoyed both Ankara and the Armenians...it can be claimed that Obama, who annoyed everybody in an equal way, successfully attained his purpose."

As the White House now turns its attention, in May, to address the equally sensitive and complex challenges of the Middle East, there are lessons in the President's handling of this Turkish-Armenian conundrum for all to learn.