Obameter: Did Obama break his promise to Armenians?

April 27, 2009
Source: Newsweek (New York)

By Katie Connolly

As 100th day of Obama's presidency approaches, this tracker by Politifact is worth a click. The Obameter, as it is called, has numbered Obama's campaign promises and is tracking which promises have been kept, broken, stalled and compromised. Out of the 514 promises Politifact counted, Obama has kept 27, broken 6, compromised on 7 and stalled on 3. They also identify 63 promises which are "in the works". So overall, it seems that Obama is keeping many more promises than he is breaking.

But deciding whether a promise has been kept or broken can be tricky. The latest promise Politifact has analyzed is Obama's campaign pledge to recognize the Armenian genocide. As a Senator, Obama criticized the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for recalling US Ambassador to Armenia John Evans after he used the term genocide to describe the systematic violence against Armenians by the Ottoman Empire around the time of World War I. Some estimates put the resulting death toll at 1.5 million Armenians. (You can read Senator Obama's letter to Rice on the Armenians for Obama website.) Today, Turkey still refuses to use the term genocide to describe these atrocities and State Department employees are instructed not refer to the killings as such. In a 2006 letter to Secretary Rice, Obama wrote “I believe that the controversy over Ambassador Evans’ use of the term “genocide” underscores the fact that the current U.S. position is untenable....The occurrence of Armenian genocide in 1915 is not an “allegation”, a “personal opinion” or a “point of view”. Supported by an overwhelming amount of historical evidence, it is a widely documented fact.” A January 2008 statement on Obama's campaign website said "I also share with Armenian Americans – so many of whom are descended from genocide survivors - a principled commitment to commemorating and ending genocide. That starts with acknowledging the tragic instances of genocide in world history. As a U.S. Senator, I have stood with the Armenian American community in calling for Turkey's acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide."

April 24 is Armenian Remembrance Day and the President issued a statement reflecting on the tragedy. He did not use the word genocide (nor did he use it on his recent trip to Turkey) so Politifact determines that the promise has been broken. Their argument is that Obama had indicated in the past that the use of the word itself is important. But Obama's statement did include this reference: "I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view of that history has not changed. My interest remains the achievement of a full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts." He also used the Armenian term "Meds Yeghern" (translation: "the Great Calamity") which Armenians coined to refer to the tragedy before the word genocide was conceived.

Perhaps ironically, this is not a "frank" statement of his belief that the actions constituted genocide, but it's definitely a hat tip in that direction. So is that really a broken promise? Is it a compromise? I wasn't sure, so I emailed a politically savvy Armenian friend for perspective. Here’s what my friend wrote:

“Obama has used recent progress in normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey as an excuse to not use the word genocide in his April 24th statement. It provides cover because he says he doesn't want to have the genocide issue take over U.S. relations. But it is common knowledge that the genocide recognition that Armenians have advocated for decades is a public declaration to the world, whether through a Presidential statement or a House resolution. And when Obama claimed that he would recognize it during the campaign, that is what he was referring to. That statement compelled Armenian-Americans to support Obama's candidacy more ardently than they had previously.

The bottom line is this: even though he says his views haven't changed and yes, his previous views did clearly articulate his acknowledgment of the genocide, his campaign promise was that as President he would acknowledge the Armenian genocide. Using Meds Yeghern, in everyone's view, doesn't count. Using that word barely acknowledges the genocide to Armenians and it's not us who need reminding. We need it acknowledged to the rest of the world using the only word that can possibly characterize such atrocities.”

So I’m going to agree with Politifact and count it as a broken promise, but one that may be salvaged in the future. Turns out this promise stuff ain’t easy.