January 19, 2018 (released January 19, 2018)
By Nahal Toosi
Two top aides to former President Barack Obama say his administration failed by not officially declaring that the mass slaughter of Armenians roughly 100 years ago constituted genocide — a topic that threatens America’s fragile relationship with Turkey.
"It was a mistake," said Ben Rhodes, who served as a deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration. "We should have recognized the Armenian genocide."
"I'm sorry," added Samantha Power, Obama's ambassador to the United Nations. "I'm sorry that we disappointed so many Armenian Americans."
The two shared their regrets earlier this week in response to an audience question during an episode of Pod Save the World, a podcast hosted by Tommy Vietor, another former Obama aide. Their statements were unusually frank given the sensitivity of an issue that has bedeviled U.S. presidents for years.
Historians mark 1915 as the start of the yearslong slaughter of some 1.5 million Armenians. The genocide took place during the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, primarily in what is modern-day Turkey, during and after World War I.
Turkish leaders detest the notion that their country's founding fathers may have committed genocide, arguing that there was no organized campaign to murder Armenians. Most major U.S. and Europeans historians disagree with that, although their opinion is not unanimous.
Turkish leaders have warned for years that official U.S. recognition of an Armenian genocide would inflict grave harm on their relationship with Washington, potentially including ending U.S. access to a military base in southern Turkey. Several European countries have formally recognized the massacre as a genocide, usually drawing diplomatic retaliation from Turkey.
Turkey is a NATO member and the U.S. relies on its cooperation on several Middle East issues, including the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group.
As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama promised that he would formally recognize an Armenian genocide as historical fact. But as president, he passed up multiple chances to do so, including in 2015, when Armenians marked the 100th anniversary of the atrocities.
"Every year there was a reason not to," Rhodes explained. "Turkey was vital to some issue that we were dealing with, or there was some dialogue between Turkey and the Armenian government about the past."
"Frankly, here's the lesson, I think, going forward: Get it done the first year, you know, because if you don't it gets harder every year in a way,” Rhodes added.
Power, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for a book criticizing America's historical inaction toward genocide and mass killing, suggested that the administration was "played a little bit" by Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and others invested in delaying a genocide declaration.
Erdogan was well-attuned to the U.S. political mood and calendar, and he and others would hold out the possibility that by uttering the word "genocide" Obama might derail ongoing attempts at rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia.
Armenian Americans were bitterly disappointed in Obama's failure to fulfill his campaign promise. The comments by Rhodes and Power did little to appease community leaders who felt it was too little, too late.
"The time for anyone to get this issue right is when they're in office," said Aram Suren Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America. "I think that everything they acknowledge now, they understood then."
Hamparian added that there's another person his community would like to hear from: "President Obama should explain why he didn't honor his pledge. And I think he owes us an apology—he owes the American people an apology."
In the podcast discussion, Power insisted that the former president meant well and always was considering the bigger picture.
Obama is a "consequentialist," Power said. "He always thought, 'OK, I could feel good, I could meet a campaign promise and deliver for the Armenian Americans to whom I've made this promise. And then what? What if it sets back this thing [the diplomatic dialogue] that could be much more promising?' I think he really believed that it could have that perverse effect, because he was told that by people who studied the region and knew the region."
Ultimately, U.S. officials won't be able to keep tip-toeing around the truth of what happened, Power added.
"Just tell the truth. It's safer in the long run," Power said.