Armenians spent April 24th in remembrance of the 1915 genocide that has consistently gone without official recognition by the US government. Presidents promise to recognize it when running for office, and conveniently forget to honor that commitment when confronted with the realpolitik of international relations. My friend Eric Black writes of his disappointment in the latest President to renege on his promise at the anniversary of the Meds Yeghern:
And there’s the rub. He promised, explicitly, that he would do it. And when the time came, he broke the promise.
I want to be mature and reasonable about such matters. Turkey is an important U.S. ally of long-standing, borders on Iraq and Iran and Syria (and the independent state of Armenia) and has one of the most developed democracies in the Muslim world. The argument is fundamentally historical, and not everyone cares as much about history as I do. Pissing off Turkey is not something to be done lightly.
But all of those reasons were well-known before Obama made his commitment to recognize the Armenian genocide. Like many Americans, I want to believe Obama represents an important break from the politics of lies and fancy spin, a break that has to do with honesty, integrity and promise-keeping. I still do believe that, but not on this matter.
If he wasn’t going to keep the promise, he shouldn’t have made it.
The excellent online factchecker, Politifact, which has launched an “Obameter” to track Obama’s fidelity to his campaign promises, lists his promise to the Armenians as No. 511, issued an update after Friday’s statement that concludes: “Obama’s April 24th statement still doesn’t meet the terms of his promise, and the Obameter stays at Promise Broken.”
Eric notes that Obama at least used the Armenian name for it, which translates to “Great Calamity” rather than genocide. Another friend with more interest in the matter, King Banaian, notes that George Bush used Meds Yeghern in his 2005 statement, too, but translated it into English. King also explains that the genocide issue matters more to the Armenian diaspora than to the Armenians in Armenia, maybe even more so now that Armenia and Turkey are coming closer to normalizing relations between the two countries. Be sure to read both posts.
Should we be surprised when a politician breaks a promise? Only if this is our first bull ride at the rodeo, and it certainly isn’t Eric’s. This isn’t the first time Obama has had an expiration date on a statement; we’ve been pointing out a series of promises Obama has made that have been broken or modified either during the campaign or after his election.
In this case, as it was with George Bush, the promise itself should not have been made unless the candidates seriously wanted a diplomatic breach with Turkey. Bush sold himself as more of a realpolitik politician, though, and less of an idealist, so the change didn’t come as a surprise — certainly not as big a surprise as Bush turning into a Wilsonian after 9/11. Obama sold himself as an idealist and as someone who had the integrity to tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may. It didn’t take long for Obama to disprove that.
How hard did that sell go? Here’s Samantha Power making that case in a four-minute video aimed specifically at the Armenian-American community. Power built her reputation on her uncompromising studies of genocides, which makes this about the hardest pitch one can make to a community aching for recognition of the 1915 genocide. I wonder if Power is ashamed of this performance today: