Political Notebook

Obama will mark 1915 Armenian catastrophe but won’t call it genocide

Thousands watch as the Armenian Genocide Memorial is officially unveiled during a ceremony at Fresno State in 2015. Organizers plan an event at noon Friday, April 22, 2016 at the memorial to mark the 101st anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
Thousands watch as the Armenian Genocide Memorial is officially unveiled during a ceremony at Fresno State in 2015. Organizers plan an event at noon Friday, April 22, 2016 at the memorial to mark the 101st anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Fresno Bee file

President Barack Obama is about to issue his annual Armenian proclamation, summoning horrific memories but junking, once again, a campaign pledge by omitting one politically charged word.

The president’s impending proclamation, which White House officials discussed Thursday with disappointed Armenian-American activists, will be his eighth in a row that carefully steers clear of saying “genocide.”

Obama’s persistent White House avoidance of the phrase “Armenian genocide,” and the continued stalling of a related congressional resolution backed by many California lawmakers, leaves Armenian-American activists looking to the next president.

“We never give up,” said Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America.

But neither do Turkish officials, myriad lobbyists or diverse foreign policy experts, who warn about dire consequences if a U.S. president or the Congress formally opines about what some say is a matter of disputed history.

“This president, the last administration and the previous one before that have been concerned about our relations with Turkey, and they haven’t wanted to offend the Turkish government,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said Thursday.

Costa is one of 66 members of the House of Representatives, including 23 from California, who are co-sponsoring a resolution that calls for “Turkey’s full acknowledgment of the facts and ongoing consequences of the Armenian Genocide.” The bill has gone nowhere since it was introduced 13 months ago.

As early as Friday, the White House will release Obama’s proclamation timed to the April 24 commemoration of what the president last year called “the first mass atrocity of the 20th century.”

From 1915 to 1923, the White House recounted last year, “one and a half million Armenians perished” as they were “deported, massacred and marched to their deaths” in the final years of the Ottoman Empire.

The 2015 proclamation did not call it a genocide.

On Thursday, the White House’s National Security Council staff briefed Hamparian on this year’s Armenian proclamation. Hamparian said he was told the language would be “consistent” with last year’s. Most significantly, this means it won’t include the word genocide.

“It represents a retreat in the face of foreign pressure,” Hamparian said, adding that the decision, while not surprising, is a “sharp disappointment.”

As an Illinois senator, and as a first-time presidential candidate, Obama aligned himself with Armenian-Americans in summoning the phrase “Armenian genocide.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a book subtitled “America and the Age of Genocide,” Samantha Power, released a campaign-season video assuring Armenian-Americans that Obama would “call a spade a spade.”

Once elected, Obama named Power his United Nations ambassador. Then, like Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush before him, Obama shied away from the word “genocide.” None of his seven Armenian proclamations since 2009 have used the term.

Which is to say, past positions do not guarantee future presidential behavior.

“Clearly, they have sidestepped this issue in deference to the Turkish government,” Costa said.

In past debates, genocide-resolution critics have cautioned that the language could further roil an already turbulent region and strain relations with a strategically placed NATO ally. American warplanes make heavy use of the country’s Incirlik Air Base.

Nonetheless, three of this year’s remaining presidential contenders, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont – an independent who’s running for the Democratic nomination – Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Republican Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, when he was in the House, have co-sponsored Armenian genocide resolutions.

Republican businessman Donald Trump has not taken a public stance.

Democrat Hillary Clinton supported an Armenian genocide resolution while in the Senate, but as Obama’s secretary of state she backed off and reportedly called the issue “a matter of historical debate.”

Helping to shape that debate is a legion of lobbyists retained by the Turkish government.

This year, Justice Department filings show, Turkey has agreed to pay $1.7 million to a lobbying group headed by former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt. Some of this will be passed through to subcontractors.

Other former congressmen-turned-lobbyists have also been retained by Turkey, to handle a variety of issues that go beyond bottling up a genocide resolution.

Meanwhile, in another frustrating turn for Armenian-Americans, a former bank building in downtown Washington once envisioned as the home for an Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial is being marketed as potential retail or restaurant space after plans for the museum collapsed amid litigation and acrimony.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10

Armenian genocide commemoration events

Friday, April 22

9 a.m.: Commemoration and flag-raising at the Fresno City Hall flag pole, 2600 Fresno St. Invocation, speakers include Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and activist Raffi Hamparian, and the Sounds of Freedom Band will perform. The flag will be raised by Homenetmen Scouts and Fresno High School JROTC. After, wreath laying at grave of Soghomon Tehlirian, Ararat and Masis cemeteries, 250 N. Hughes Ave., Fresno.

Noon: Commemoration in front of the Armenian Genocide Monument at Fresno State near the Satellite Student Union. Matthew Jendian, chair of the Department of Sociology at Fresno State, will deliver the keynote address. The program will also feature recitations and musical performances.

Saturday, April 23

10 a.m.-6 p.m.: Every 30 minutes music will be played by Saint Mary’s Armenian Apostolic Church Bell Choir of Washington, D.C. Those in attendance can place flowers by the Memorial of the Unknown Armenian Martyr and Soghomon Tehlirian Monument. Ararat and Masis cemeteries.

6:30 p.m.: Religious and civic service at the First Armenian Presbyterian Church, 430 S. First St., Fresno. With speaker Vahram Shemmassian, the Homenetemen Scouts will begin the program with a processional down the aisle of the sanctuary and will place the Armenian and American flags. The Charlie Keyan Armenian Community School students will sing the Armenian and American national anthems and few other Armenian songs. A reception will take place in the social hall following the program.

Sunday, April 24

10 a.m.-6 p.m.: Every 30 minutes music will be played by Saint Mary’s Armenian Apostolic Church Bell Choir of Washington, D.C. Ararat and Masis cemeteries.

2 p.m.: Honoring the saints and celebrations of lives, Armenian Genocide Monument at Fresno State. Attendees are encouraged to bring and lay flowers at the monument in remembrance of lives that were lost. There will be models dressed in traditional Armenian costumes from different regions of Armenia, children will perform traditional Armenians dances, musical performances, and crafts for children.

Related stories from Fresno Bee