Turkey pays these men handily to defend its many interests in Washington. But one mission overrides all the others: blocking an official U.S. government declaration that the Ottoman Turks committed genocide against the Armenian people at the end of World War I. For years, lobbyists for Turkey have smothered congressional efforts, fueled by America's vocal Armenian community, to pass a resolution recognizing the genocide. They warn that such a blasphemy of Turkey's founding fathers would ignite public outrage there, alienating a moderate Muslim ally and perhaps costing the United States access to an air base vital for Iraq operations. The result has been a classic perennial Washington issue that mostly serves to appease interest groups and enrich lobbyists, much like asbestos reform or tax loophole fights--except, in this case, there are up to 1.5 million murdered innocents involved.
But, as Barack Obama prepares for his upcoming state visit to Ankara in early April and the day of a traditional presidential statement to the Armenian-American community that follows a couple of weeks later, this debate may finally be coming to a head. Obama is the first American president elected after explicitly promising to invoke the dreaded G-word. And, thus, a trip designed to defuse tension between the United States and the Muslim world will have the small matter of genocide culpability hanging over it like a foul odor.
As a candidate, Obama was perfectly clear. "The facts are undeniable," he said in a January 2008 statement. He called the massacre not an allegation or matter of opinion--many Turks maintain that the killing resulted from anarchy accompanying the Ottoman Empire's collapse--but a clear exercise in race-based killing: "As president," he vowed, "I will recognize the Armenian genocide." Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, who said America's "morality" and "credibility" demanded such a statement, agreed. And why not? Last year, all were presidential candidates looking for easy ways to sound bold and noble, not to mention courting Armenian-American votes and money.
But, now that Obama is in the Oval Office, the world may seem rather more complex than it did on the campaign trail. The smell of capitulation is in the air. "At this moment, our focus is on how, moving forward, the United States can help Armenia and Turkey work together to come to terms with the past," a National Security Council spokesman told the Los Angeles Times last week. When a top Turkish official emerged from a recent meeting with National Security Advisor Jim Jones, he sounded sanguine on the question, declining to say whether Obama was standing by his campaign promise, yet adding cheerily that he and Jones "went through all these issues in a very friendly and cooperative manner."
Obama has also been joined by a new cadre of influential advisers. Take his chief of staff. When Congress considered a genocide resolution in late 2007, then-Representative Rahm Emanuel opposed it. The new State Department official with purview over Turkey, Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Phillip Gordon, has warned about a possible anti-American backlash in Turkey resulting from recognition, and, in 2006, Gordon wrote that "[u]ltimately, historians, not governments, should be the ones to decide these sensitive issues." Jones has close ties to the Turkish military from his time as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. And Obama's defense secretary, Robert Gates, strongly opposed the 2007 resolution, which he feared could result in Turkey cutting off supply lines the United States relies on to support its troops in Iraq.
Obama can be forgiven for dodging the explosive subject of genocide while he is a guest in Ankara next week. But, when the Armenians' annual day of genocide remembrance comes on April 24, the White House will be expected to release a statement. In the past, these proclamations have been exercises in strained euphemism. Last year, for instance, George W. Bush lamented "mass killings and forced exile" and "epic human tragedy"--but did not use the term "genocide." The Armenian-Americans who supported Obama in November (John McCain never endorsed genocide recognition) expect him to use the occasion to say the magic word.
But sources on Capitol Hill and those familiar with Ankara's thinking both predict Obama will punt on the issue. "I fully expect him to fold," laments one human rights activist who wishes otherwise. "I would be shocked if he didn't." But the real shock should be in seeing Obama break such a clear promise. Reasonable people can differ on whether recognizing the genocide is worth the possible consequences. It is not debatable, however, that Obama made a promise, or that he ran as a man of integrity and principle. To be sure, Obama's high-minded rhetoric has always concealed a deeply rooted pragmatism (think of the convenient difference between troops and "combat troops" in Iraq). But there is a line between pragmatism and hypocrisy, and Obama may be about to cross it.
Last week, Aram Hamparian, the genial executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, sat in his Dupont Circle town-house office surrounded by books with titles like The Banality of Denial and Blood and Soil and recounted how his grandparents had been forced out of their villages by the Ottomans and marched through the Syrian Desert. Hamparian said he wasn't nervous that the cause he has worked on for years will once again lose out to Turkey's strategic clout. "The basic civics-class understanding of the situation should be that folks run for office on a certain promise, and they should govern that way," Hamparian said. Hopelessly naive words? In Barack Obama's Washington, they shouldn't be.
Michael Crowley is a senior editor of The New Republic.