President Obama won’t recognize the mass killing of Armenian civilians during World War I as a genocide when he remarks upon the 100th anniversary of that event, according to Politico. President Obama’s three immediate predecessors have not referred to those killings as a genocide (President Reagan did), and Congress as a whole has not, either.
The expectation, it appears, was that Obama might break from contemporary U.S. policy now because the 100th anniversary of the events had occasioned a big increase in pressure on the issue from Armenian leaders. It’s self-evidently wrong for Obama to break, as he has, a campaign promise to recognize the genocide. But on its own, a president’s refusal to use the term “genocide” to describe the horrible suffering the Armenians underwent is quite defensible.
During the Iraq War years, conservatives argued it was incredibly irresponsible to for the U.S. to speak out on this question because it would anger Turkey, whose cooperation we needed. The stakes are definitely lower, though not negligible, now, but that doesn’t make recognition obligatory.
What the Turkish government and local militias did to the country’s Armenian Christians in 1915 and following was horrific — a great evil. But it is also a matter of legitimate historical dispute whether it amounted to state-directed genocide.
The Turkish state maintains a great deal of baseless historical fictions, including some about its brutal treatment of Armenians during World War I and in decades prior. But the idea that the Armenian deportations did not amount to state-directed genocide is not one of them. Indeed, there are a number of eminent historians who believe that the horrors either did not amount to genocide or that the evidence is too unreliable to say. (And this doesn’t even get into the worry that putting it on part with the Nazi Holocaust doesn’t make sense and risks cheapening the term.)
The U.S. president’s view of history shouldn’t be dictated by the Turkish government. But it seems quite reasonable for a president to refrain from pronouncing on a complicated, controversial historical question in a way that would offend an ally, and instead just stick to offering his sympathies to the Armenian people over the great suffering they endured. President Obama is sending a relatively high-level official (Treasury secretary Jack Lew) to the commemorations in Armenia this week — maybe there’s more he could do, but it shouldn’t have to involve arbitrary historical categorization.