Friday marks the 100th anniversary of the day the Armenian Genocide began, a solemn occasion that is annually marred by the United States government’s (along with many others’) refusal to label the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians a “genocide.” There were many who hoped that this year might be different, and that President Obama might make good on his 2008 campaign promise to “recognize the Armenian Genocide” as president. As my Banter colleague Mike Luciano noted earlier this week, then-Senator Barack Obama also supported a Senate resolution to recognize the Armenian Genocide, although he was not among the resolution’s 33 cosponsors.
President Obama’s failure to use the word “genocide” to describe the slaughter has become a vehicle for his opponents to attack him, and given the clarity of his campaign promise, it’s an arguably fair attack to level. This is one of those areas in which well-intentioned campaign promises run into the reality of governing. In some parallel universe, President Mitt Romney is taking heat for failing to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In President Obama’s case, diplomatic reality has prevented him from setting U.S. policy in a way that would offend the government of Turkey. If you wanted to argue that the U.S. exerts leverage over its allies for far less worthy causes, I’d be hard-pressed to disagree.
The absurdity of this position, however, reached new heights this week when President Obama released a statement in which he called the Armenian genocide (almost) every name in the book, including “Meds Yeghern,” which means “great crime” — essentially a synonym for “Armenian genocide” — and described the events as a genocide in every respect, save the name. But perhaps most absurdly, President Obama made explicit reference to his own personal recognition of the Armenian Genocide in the very statement in which he was unable to use the word “genocide”:
This centennial is a solemn moment. It calls on us to reflect on the importance of historical remembrance, and the difficult but necessary work of reckoning with the past. I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view has not changed. A full, frank, and just acknowledgement of the facts is in all our interests.
So even though President Obama still recognizes the Armenian Genocide out loud, you have to mentally click the link to find that out.
It’s easy to cast this issue as an act of cowardice, but President Obama’s supporters and/or his administration would point to the strategic importance of Turkey as an ally, the fact that the U.S. is pressing Turkey to acknowledge the genocide, and to President Obama’s own personal view on the subject.
Whichever way you feel about that, though, the most absurd part of this year’s controversy over the issue went largely unnoticed. At Thursday’s White House briefing, Al Jazeera America’s Mike Viqueira grilled Press Secretary Josh Earnest about candidate Obama’s promise, and was rewarded with a barrage of boilerplate (some of which could later be found in President Obama’s statement) that completely evaded his central question:
Mike Viqueira: Josh, you mentioned — you used the phrase “candid and frank,” so I’d like to quote back to you with when Senator Obama said when he was campaigning in 2008: “America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian Genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides. I intend to be that President.” He used the genocide word then; he won’t use it now. Armenian groups say he’s betrayed them. Has he betrayed them?
Josh Earnest: Mike, the President has spoken forcefully about the value and importance of acknowledging that particular tragic incident in history. And the President has spoken to that repeatedly. And as we have traditionally done in the past, we’ll acknowledge the anniversary tomorrow in a statement from the President.
Now, anyone listening to that would probably conclude that Earnest was perhaps unable to answer, due to diplomatic constraints, the central issue of why the United States government can’t or won’t use the g-word. As it turns out, though, someone from the White House actually had answered that question several days earlier:
An administration official said Obama, who will mark the centennial this Friday, would similarly avoid using the word. The term angers Ankara, which denies that Ottoman Turks carried out a genocide.
“We know and respect that there are some who are hoping to hear different language this year,” the official said. “We understand their perspective, even as we believe that the approach we have taken in previous years remains the right one — both for acknowledging the past, and for our ability to work with regional partners to save lives in the present.”
That article, co-authored by CNN Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta, contains several more quotes from this “administration official,” further explaining the administration’s reasoning, and its efforts to urge “full, frank, and just acknowledgement” of the facts.
What you might not realize, but what is obvious to anyone who works this beat, is that this was not a case of Jim Acosta cornering someone like Denis McDonough in an office and getting these quotes out of him, these were carefully workshopped talking points delivered, in all likelihood, via email from a White House official whose name rhymes with Shmosh Schmearnest. Some of them even wound up in Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz’s briefing book the next day.
Yet when it came time for Earnest to face reporters in person, who could pull apart and examine those quotes and the reasoning behind them, it was as though he had never spoken them, because journalistically speaking, he hadn’t. By using reporters to put out background quotes (a very common practice), the administration gets to have its cake and eat it, too. They get their explanation on the record, but without having to face the kind of public cross-examination that occurs in the briefing room.
Background quotes are a practical, if overused, fact of life for White House reporters, but on an issue like the Armenian Genocide, people deserve an explanation with a name behind it, no matter how uncomfortable that might be.