Campaign Vow to Call Armenians' Deaths 'Genocide' to Be Tested

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 20, 2009

For years, President Obama has not minced words about labeling as "genocide" the deaths of Armenians more than 90 years ago during the demise of the Ottoman Empire. Nor have Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Biden.

All three regularly signed letters to President George W. Bush demanding that he recognize "the mass slaughter of Armenians as genocide" and saying that such an act "would constitute a proud, irrefutable and groundbreaking chapter in U.S. diplomatic history." During last year's presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly insisted that, as president, he would "recognize the Armenian genocide."

"An official policy that calls on diplomats to distort the historical facts is an untenable policy," Obama said in a statement dated Jan. 19, 2008.

Obama's pledge may have been smart politics: His campaign rival, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), infuriated Armenian Americans when he said it was unfair to blame present-day Turkey for the deaths. But now that Obama is president, his pledge has put him in a diplomatically difficult position. The question of calling the deaths a genocide has returned just as Obama is preparing for a visit next month to Turkey, which firmly rejects such a label.

"There is no substitute for speaking plainly when you are talking about mass murder," said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who introduced this week a resolution calling on the president to publicly recognize a genocide and whose district contains the largest concentration of Armenian Americans in the country. "I hope he will use the opportunity to prepare Turkey for U.S. recognition and to encourage Turkey to have an open examination of its past."

The Armenia resolution is but one example of how a candidate's narrowly tailored and effective foreign policy appeals can become problematic once he is in office.

Clinton, for instance, has come under fire from some conservative Jewish groups for criticizing Israeli plans to demolish homes in East Jerusalem -- which Palestinians want to make the capital of a future Palestinian state -- during her recent trip to Israel.

"She used to be very strong on a united Jerusalem, and now that's out the window," said Morton A. Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, citing a September 2007 position paper from Clinton's campaign. "I am beginning to wonder if she just said what she needed for the Jewish vote."

Administration officials argue that Obama has made huge strides in fulfilling many of his campaign promises on foreign policy. They point to his moving to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; ordering the withdrawal of troops from Iraq; appointing a special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian peace; and reaching out to Syria, Russia and other countries on bad terms with the Bush administration.

But officials also acknowledge that Obama's pledge on Armenian genocide poses a tricky diplomatic balancing act.

"Our focus is on how, moving forward, the U.S. can help Armenia and Turkey work together to come to terms with the past," said National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer. "It is important that countries have an open and honest dialogue about the past. At the same time, we want to work closely with both Turkey and Armenia on the key issues that confront the region."

Few people deny that massacres killed hundreds of thousands of Armenian men, women and children during and immediately after World War I. But Turkish officials and some historians say that the deaths resulted from forced relocations and widespread fighting when the 600-year-old Ottoman Empire collapsed, not from a campaign of genocide -- and that hundreds of thousands of Turks also died in the same region during that time.

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