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Obama backs off pledge to declare Armenian genocide

The administration is considering postponing a presidential statement amid warnings that it would risk Turkey's help in the Mideast.

March 17, 2009|Paul Richter

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is hesitating on a promised presidential declaration that Armenians were the victims of genocide in the early 20th century, fearful of alienating Turkey when U.S. officials badly want its help.

President Obama and other top administration officials pledged during the presidential campaign to officially designate the 1915 killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks as genocide. Many Armenian Americans, who are descendants of the victims and survivors, have long sought such a declaration.

But the administration also has been soliciting Ankara's help on Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and other security issues amid Turkish warnings that an official U.S. statement would imperil Turkey's assistance.

Administration officials are considering postponing a presidential statement, citing progress toward a thaw in relations between Turkey and neighboring Armenia. Further signs of warming -- such as talk of reopening border crossings -- would strengthen arguments that a U.S. statement could imperil the progress.

"At this moment, our focus is on how, moving forward, the United States can help Armenia and Turkey work together to come to terms with the past," said Michael Hammer, a spokesman for the National Security Council. He said the administration was "encouraged" by improvements in relations and believed it was "important that the countries have an open and honest dialogue about the past."

Armenian Americans and their supporters, however, say policies that avoid offending Turkey merely advance Ankara's denial of brutal periods in its history.

An estimated 1.5 million Armenians were victims of planned killings by the Ottoman Turks as the empire was dissolving during World War I, an episode historians have concluded was a genocide. But Turkey and some of its supporters contend that the deaths resulted from civil war and unrest and that their numbers were exaggerated.

American presidents have long sought to avoid calling the killings a genocide, fearing repercussions from a NATO ally that is acutely sensitive to the charge. In 2007, the Bush administration argued for a delay in a congressional genocide resolution, saying that Turkish assistance was needed for the safety of U.S. troops in Iraq.

For Obama, the controversy comes at an especially sensitive time. He is visiting Turkey on April 5, and his views on the issue will command worldwide attention. Armenian Americans, meanwhile, have been pushing for a White House declaration on April 24, the annual remembrance day. Congressional supporters are also planning to reintroduce the genocide resolution soon.

Obama's visit to Turkey has become risky for the administration, said Mark Parris, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey. "Plopping the president down over there really does raise the stakes," said Parris, now co-director of the Brookings Institution's program on Turkey. "Now it can't be overlooked. . . . It could carry costs to his credibility."

Obama declared repeatedly during his campaign that the killings were genocide. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton are on record with similar positions.

But the Obama administration would like to use Turkey as part of the military supply line for Afghanistan. It also would like more help regarding Iraq, Iran's nuclear program, Russia and Mideast peace.

Relations between Turkey and Armenia began warming noticeably in September, when Turkish President Abdullah Gul became the first Turkish leader to visit Armenia. The countries are considering opening borders and embassies, initiating economic cooperation and establishing a historical commission.

But Parris said further openings to Armenia would carry domestic risks for Turkish leaders, who could be reluctant to do so if they thought Obama would declare a genocide on April 24.

Congressional supporters of the genocide resolution expressed frustration about the latest resistance.

"The argument that some are making now is only the latest incarnation of the same old tired refrain: that we should recognize the genocide -- just not this year," said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), one of the sponsors of the resolution.

Another advocate, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), said that though the strength of Turkey's cautions was declining, Turks remained influential with lawmakers who believed a halt in Ankara's aid could hurt U.S. troops. Sherman called it "their ugly ace in the hole."

Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, remained optimistic. Obama "is a man of his word and has been crystal clear on the issue," he said.

But Turks remain uneasy. Ali Babacan, the Turkish foreign minister, warned in a TV interview last week that Obama's visit didn't preclude a genocide declaration.

"The Turks fully understand that the danger of the [genocide] resolution is not going away," said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

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