Connoisseurs of tea leaves will note that President Obama, in his statement today on Armenian Remembrance Day, was very careful to avoid use of the word "genocide" in describing the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during the First World War. The killings, he explained, were "one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century," the Armenians were "brutally massacred" by the Turks and endured "unspeakable suffering" at the hands of the collapsing Ottoman regime. But the identification of the ethnic Christian Armenian population by the Islamic government of Turkey in 1915, and its policy of mass eradication and expulsion, was described by the president with very nearly every available term except the most accurate: "genocide."
This is of interest for two reasons. First, it constitutes a broken presidential promise. Senator Obama was (correctly) critical of the George W. Bush administration when it, too, deliberately avoided use of the term "genocide"—in violation, as well, of candidate Bush's pledge in 2000 to recognize the Armenian Genocide. Senator Obama was (also correctly) critical of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when, in 2006, she summarily dismissed the United States ambassador to Armenia for employing the term "genocide" to describe the Armenian Genocide. "I shared with Secretary Rice," Obama said at the time, "my firmly held conviction that 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."
The second reason of interest is that President Obama has evidently adopted the same rationale about the word "genocide" that has governed the actions of every administration since Ronald Reagan. That is, the official Turkish position on the issue is that the Armenian Genocide was not a genocide, and that since Turkey is a strategic ally of the United States and fellow NATO member, and violently objects to use of the word "genocide," the United States chooses to mollify Turkey and insult the Armenians, by strict avoidance of the term "genocide."
It may be argued (although I would not make the argument) that Turkey's status in relation to United States foreign policy might once have rationalized such craven behavior on the part of the American government. But it is very difficult to claim that Turkey, especially since the election of the Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdogan as prime minister nine years ago, remains an American ally in any meaningful sense of the term. Not only has Turkey deliberately thwarted successive American initiatives in the region—beginning with its refusal to allow U.S. troops to cross the Turkish frontier into northern Iraq in 2003, which unquestionably cost American lives—it has proved consistently, indeed increasingly, hostile to an ally of particular importance to the United States in the region: Israel.
There is an instructive irony in this. Because Turkey was, once upon a time, strategically aligned with Israel (indeed, was Israel's only Muslim ally in the Middle East) the Israeli government, and many of its supporters and advocates in the United States, shared the doctrine of the Turkish regime that the Armenian Genocide was not a genocide—an opinion, by the way, rejected by the vast majority of Israeli scholars and historians. Now that Prime Minister Erodgan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party have turned so decisively against the state of Israel there must undoubtedly be some recognition in Jerusalem that deferring to Turkey's genocide denial extracts a certain moral cost.
Israel's deference to a onetime Muslim patron, however, cannot begin to explain President Obama's behavior. The Obama administration has freely accused any number of governments in the world of committing atrocities, including genocide. Moreover, the Turkish denial of the Armenian Genocide has left Turkey wholly isolated on the subject among historians, dependent on the support of a microscopic number of scholars and journalist-advocates, either resident in Turkey or dependent on largesse from Ankara. Yet it is difficult to comprehend President Obama's attitude except in personal terms: For whatever reason, the president of the United States seems to have developed an unusually close relationship with one of the world's most prominent and proactive Islamist statesmen and, accordingly, places Recep Tayyip Erdogan's sensibilities ahead of his country's interests and the historical record.
I have said, as an American of part-Armenian extraction, that there are considerably more important issues of concern to Armenia and its friends than official recognition of the Armenian Genocide—which, in any case, is a settled question. First among these is the establishment of diplomatic and commercial relations with neighboring Turkey. But Turkey's near hysterical devotion to genocide denial is a persistent obstacle to such progress and, of course, both troubling and revealing about Turkey. Very nearly as troubling, in fact, as President Obama's status as an enabler.