President Obama’s Message to Turkey: Let’s Agree to Disagree About the Armenian Genocide

President Barack Obama’s statement at a joint news conference on April 6 with Turkish President Abdullah Gul—“(M)y views [on the Armenian Genocide] are on the record and I have not changed my views”—may be translated to mean that the United States and Turkey should agree to disagree about the genocide.

During his much-anticipated visit to Turkey by both Turks and Armenians, Obama adroitly played to both sides of the street. For his Armenian constituents he mentioned his having views on the genocide that are well known, and for his Turkish audience he capitulated to the need to assuage the Turkish leadership. What happened to his conviction that the Armenian Genocide is not only an historic fact, but that there is a moral imperative requiring his administration to recognize it?

The Turkish leaders wisely co-opted his moral sensibilities by having him address the Turkish Grand National Assembly, a rare honor for a western dignitary. It must be granted that it would have been difficult for Obama to be forthright on such an emotional issue in that particular venue, but a much stronger enunciation of his views and a more balanced evaluation of the Turkish-Armenian normalization process could have been made.

However, a cynic might wonder whether his side trip to Turkey to pay homage to a government that has utterly failed to honestly address the issue of the Armenian Genocide—an established historic fact—was orchestrated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Obama himself, to give cover to his expected muted expression of support for the April 24 message to the Armenian people.

This is not an overly critical analysis of his speech to the Turkish Grand National Assembly when his comments are evaluated with respect to the various issues relating to normalization.  When he claims that Turkey is a critical ally and an important part of Europe, it only encourages the Turkish government’s continued veiled threats that passage of any genocide resolution by the United States Congress would do irreparable harm to what Obama sees as a  “critical” Turkey-U.S. relationship.

In his speech in the Grand National Assembly, Obama said, “(A)t the end of World War I Turkey could have succumbed to the foreign powers that were trying to claim its territory….[b]ut Turkey chose a different future. You freed yourself from foreign control.” Did “foreign control” include Armenian claims to their historic lands? How does he presume that this so-called “success” affected the legitimacy of the independent Armenia that was promised in the Treaty of Sevres and eliminated by the subsequent Treaty of Lausanne? Wasn’t this the purpose of the genocide unleashed by the Ottoman Turkish government: to clear eastern Turkey—the western provinces of historic Armenia—that was continued under Ataturk during the years between Sevres and Lausanne?  Its purpose was to prevent legitimate Armenian territorial claims from being implemented. Are these territorial rights to be forgotten in the name of normalization? Evidently so.

Perhaps the most telling of the several disturbing comments made by Obama occurred when he said  that “there has been a good deal of commentary about my views, [but] this is 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.” How anyone can believe that this comment before the Turkish National Grand Assembly is a step in the right direction is difficult to understand. Juxtapose Gul’s statement as he stood next to Obama when he expressed the long-standing determination of the Turkish government to tie normalization to a Turkish-Armenian commission to study the totality of events that occurred during the period from 1915 through 1923. “It is not a political, but an historic issue. That’s why we should allow historians to discuss the matter.”  Does Obama believe exculpatory evidence exists to support Turkey’s view that the Armenian Genocide never occurred? If so, how does this square with his campaign rhetoric (January 2008) that  “(T)he Armenian Genocide is not an allegation…but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence…”

Add to this Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s statement the previous Friday in London when he maintained that “(F)or Turkey, it is impossible to accept a thing [the Armenian Genocide] that does not exist.”  How can Turkey’s position, emphatically stated and maintained as official policy through decades of obfuscation and revisionism, fail to raise serious doubts in Obama’s mind as to the Turkish leadership’s desire or ability to deal objectively with Armenia? If it hasn’t, it should.

Not having strengthened Turkey’s position vis-à-vis Armenia sufficiently, Obama continued: “We have already seen historic and courageous steps taken by Turkish and Armenian leaders. These contacts hold out the promise of a new day. An open border would return the Turkish and Armenian people to a peaceful and prosperous coexistence that would serve both of your nations. That is why the United States strongly supports the full normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia.”

On what basis, one might ask, would normalization be achieved that would be beneficial to Armenia and its long-term interests?  In an interview with journalists on April 6, the President is quoted as saying that he is not interested in the United States in any way tilting these negotiations.” Would not recognizing the Armenian Genocide  “tilt these negotiations” toward Armenia? If that is so, how does this affect Genocide recognition by his administration? Conversely hasn’t his deference to Turkish interests tilted the negotiations toward Ankara?

Praising Turkey’s leadership, President Obama went on to say  “…that…[Turkey is] …poised to be the only country in the region to have normal and peaceful relations with all the South Caucasus nations.” This comment certainly could not have pleased either Moscow or Tehran. He continued to say that “… to advance that peace, …[Turkey] can play a constructive role in helping to resolve the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict, which has continued far too long.”  How is “constructive role” to be interpreted? For whose benefit? Azerbaijan’s? How do these comments expressed before the Turkish National Grand Assembly affect the future of our brothers and sisters in Artsakh? It effectively strengthens Baku’s demands by reinforcing the United States position that any settlement must maintain the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. This all but eliminates the likelihood of Artsakh ever achieving a free and independent status. Is this why their lives and homes were sacrificed?

President Obama’s performance in Turkey cannot be viewed as having any beneficial impact on Armenian interests; just the opposite is true. Unfortunately, it significantly bolstered the Turkish position in the ongoing process of “rapprochement.” How much better it would have been if President Obama had been less eager to have Armenia bear the burden for his obsequious performance before the Turkish Grand National Assembly.

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Michael Mensoian

Michael Mensoian, J.D./Ph.D, is professor emeritus in Middle East and political geography at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a retired major in the U.S. army. He writes regularly for the Armenian Weekly.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for showing us that Obama is a fraud when it comes to promises he made to Armenian during his campaign. I almost beleived that he would take a stand when he had the opportunity and challenge the Turkish Government to recognize “a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence…”. He should have just been honest with the Armenians and not made false statements. I am glad I did not vote for him.

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