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Despite Campaign Pledge, Obama Won’t Call 1915 Killings of Armenians ‘Genocide’

U.S. officials speaking to Foreign Policy said the White House had contemplated recognizing the genocide and alerted State Department officials who deal with Turkey to prepare for the potential diplomatic blowback.

WASHINGTON - AUGUST 08:  U.S. President Barack Obama pauses as he makes a statement at the State Dining Room of the White House August 8, 2011 in Washington, DC. Obama spoke on the economy, S&P downgrade and the loss of Navy SEAL members in Afghanistan.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - AUGUST 08: U.S. President Barack Obama pauses as he makes a statement at the State Dining Room of the White House August 8, 2011 in Washington, DC. Obama spoke on the economy, S&P downgrade and the loss of Navy SEAL members in Afghanistan. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Putting geopolitics above a longtime campaign promise, President Barack Obama will refrain from using the word “genocide” to describe the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians during World War I. The decision came after a senior delegation of Turkish diplomats traveled to Washington to meet with White House officials and three days before the 100th anniversary of the mass killings.

U.S. officials speaking to Foreign Policy said the White House had contemplated recognizing the genocide and alerted State Department officials who deal with Turkey to prepare for the potential diplomatic blowback.

In the end, though, the White House decided against using the term. Administration officials relayed the decision to a group of Armenian-American leaders Tuesday afternoon, prompting an immediate backlash from those who have spent decades trying to get Washington to recognize what many historians describe as the first genocide of the 20th century.

“President Obama’s surrender to Turkey represents a national disgrace,” Ken Hachikian, the chairman of the Armenian National Committee of America, said in a statement. “It is, very simply, a betrayal of truth, a betrayal of trust.”

Many officials at the State Department opposed the decision for fear of losing Turkey’s cooperation on a host of key issues, most notably the war against the Islamic State militant group, which has seized control of large swaths of Syria and Iraq. Turkey hosts a training camp for anti-ISIS fighters and owns an air base the United States wants more access to.

“Is this the time to kick Turkey in the balls given everything that’s going on in the region?” said a former congressional aide with years of experience working with Washington’s highly active Armenia lobby.

To date, no sitting U.S. president has ever verbalized the word “genocide” when referring to the atrocities committed against Armenians in the early years of World War I. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan issued a written proclamation about the “genocide of the Armenians,” but subsequent diplomatic headaches prompted his administration to reverse course and drop all explicit references to that term.

Successive administrations have made hedged statements about the genocide, but the Obama administration had come under particularly intense pressure to make a firm declaration given a campaign promise that candidate Obama made in 2008.

“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,” then-Sen. Obama said in a statement. “As president I will recognize the Armenian genocide.”

That promise remains unfulfilled as the president juggles the impulses of idealism and realpolitik at a time of intense tumult in the Middle East.

Obama’s State Department, like its predecessors, has repeatedly tied itself in knots over the issue for fear of jeopardizing relations with Turkey — a NATO member whose ties to the United States have cooled under the leadership of its Islamist president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The United States is currently seeking more cooperation from Erdogan in its war against the Islamic State, but key differences over the civil war in Syria have strained relations between the two allies.

While Ankara supports the training and equipping of Syrian rebels to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Washington wants rebels to take the fight to Islamic State militants in Syria first.

Turkey could have retaliated against a genocide declaration by refusing to allow the United States to use an air base in Incirlik for armed airplanes and drones. Currently, Ankara only allows Washington to use the base for unarmed surveillance flights, despite Washington’s desire for more operational flexibility.

As a part of a joint U.S.-Turkish program, the country also hosts a camp that will begin training about 200 Syrian rebels next month.

Recognition of the genocide would have amounted to a major victory for the Armenia lobby, a smattering of U.S.-based diaspora groups that have made acknowledgement of the genocide their defining issue for decades and enjoy strong support from California lawmakers. Through their efforts, 43 U.S. states have used the term in legislation or proclamations.

At the federal level, Presidents George W. Bush and Obama narrowly defeated separate initiatives in the House to vote on recognition bills in 2007 and 2009. Both presidents acted out of the same desire: not to jeopardize U.S.-Turkish relations.

It’s unclear what factor ultimately swayed the White House away from recognizing the genocide. On Tuesday, Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu held two high-level meetings with U.S. officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

The White House said that Rice encouraged Cavusoglu to improve relations with Armenia and “facilitate an open and frank dialogue in Turkey about the atrocities of 1915.”

It also released a statement “making clear” that the United States “mourn[s] the loss of every person who was so brutally murdered in the events that began in 1915.”

The statement falls short of recognizing the genocide, a move that will reanimate the Armenia lobby and its many fellow travelers in Congress.

“I’m deeply disappointed that the president, once again, will fail to properly describe the extermination of 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1923 for what it was — genocide,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who has pushed for recognition legislation for years. “How long must the victims and their families wait before our nation has the courage to confront Turkey with the truth about the murderous past of the Ottoman Empire?”

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