Obama’s “Meds Yeghern” and U.S.-Turkish Relations

April 24, 2015, marked the 100th anniversary of the tragic events that took place in the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire in 1915, which Armenians worldwide commemorate as genocide, a classification Turkey has vehemently rejected and has insisted should be left to historians and not be an international political issue. After weeks of speculation over what he would say in the annual Armenian Remembrance Day statement on this significant anniversary, President Barack Obama used for the seventh time the term Armenians themselves use for genocide: “Meds Yeghern.” This decision to refrain from using the English word was communicated on April 21 to leaders of the leading Armenian-American organizations by Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.

The key factor in Obama’s choice was clearly the anticipated negative reaction by Turkey to the use of the word and the likely harm to U.S. national security interests, coupled with the possible benefits of not using it. Senior administration officials quoted by the Associated Press on April 22 confirmed that Obama’s decision had been based on an evaluation of “the damage it would cause to U.S.-Turkey relations at a critical time—notably when Washington needs Ankara’s help in fighting the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq—would far outweigh the immediate benefits.”

National security aspects of this issue had also proved to be decisive with previous administrations. After resolutions calling for official recognition of genocide in Armenia had passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee four times and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee once in the past 15 years, each administration had intervened to dissuade the congressional leadership from bringing them to a floor vote. President Bill Clinton himself in 2000, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in 2005 and 2007, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010 and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough in 2014 all justified their interventions by stressing the importance of maintaining good relations with this vital ally.

Although many countries have recognized the genocide not only in the past but also in the lead up to the Centenary, the United States is conspicuous by its absence from that list. Admittedly, President Jimmy Carter had referred in 1978 to “a concerted effort made to eliminate all the Armenian people, probably one of the greatest tragedies that ever befell any group.” His successor, Ronald Reagan had also used the word in 1981 when he said “like the genocide of the Armenians before it, and the genocide of the Cambodians which followed it—and like too many other such persecutions of too many other peoples—the lessons of the Holocaust must never be forgotten.” However, they, along with their successors, refrained from using the word on April 24. Similarly, Congress never adopted any of the many resolutions that were introduced over the years despite strenuous efforts by the influential Armenian-American lobby and its supporters.

Despite this record, there was Turkish concern as the Centenary drew near that either Obama or Congress would deviate from this approach. After all, prior to his election in November 2008, then-Senator Obama had urged recognition and said that he would do so as president. One of his closest advisers during the campaign, Samantha Power, now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize–winning book on genocide, which began with a chapter on the tragedy of Armenians in 1915, had underlined Obama’s promise by publicly pledging to Armenian-Americans that as president he would act in accordance with his conviction on this issue.

Obama’s increasing attention to his legacy before his departure from the White House in January 2017 and his perception of the likely impact on it of the failure to follow through on his previous commitment was noted in Ankara. The decision in November 2014 to display at the White House a carpet woven by Armenian orphans who had survived the events of 1915, which had previously been withheld from public viewing, was seen as a possible harbinger of trouble. The perceptible deterioration of Turkey’s previously positive image in Washington and growing criticism of Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy—exemplified by the March 18 letter from 74 senators to Secretary of State John Kerry in which they expressed concern over human rights and press freedom in Turkey—had also deepened this concern.

In addition to personal considerations he was once again balancing, Obama also received renewed congressional pressure in the lead-up to the Centenary. On March 18, a resolution was reintroduced in the House of Representatives calling on him to fully acknowledge “the facts and ongoing consequences of the Armenian Genocide.” On March 27, 15 senators sent Obama a letter in which they called on him to “attend the main commemorative event in Yerevan, Armenia on April 24 in order to send a powerful message that the United States recognizes the magnitude and full meaning of the Armenian Genocide.” On April 20, a resolution was also reintroduced in the Senate with a reference to the statement Pope Francis made during a special Vatican Mass on April 12 with the president of Armenia in attendance, during which he said that “the first genocide of the twentieth century struck the Armenia people.” These initiatives were accompanied by calls for recognition in major American newspapers such as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

For its part, Turkey relied on the national security argument, which had proved decisive in the past. The Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu of Turkey had used his first meeting with the new U.S. ambassador, John Bass, last November to reiterate his country’s adamant opposition to any kind of recognition and warned that such action would have “a serious negative impact on all aspects of the relationship.” It is worth noting that in 2007 Ankara had recalled Ambassador Nabi Sensoy after a resolution was voted out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and had sent him back with a list of countermeasures Turkey would implement in the event of passage by the House of Representatives. During his meetings in Washington, significantly timed for April 20–21, Cavusoglu underlined his earlier warning personally to Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice. He followed up by publicly commenting that “if the administration changes its approach on this issue to the benefit of the Armenian side, naturally it will have a detrimental effect on Turkish-U.S. relations.” Whether by design or not, Obama’s decision was made public by the White House minutes after Cavusoglu’s meeting with Kerry.

Turkey underlined its resolve on this issue and indirectly reinforced its warnings to Washington as the Centenary drew near. Following the statement by the Pope, for example, Turkey immediately withdrew its ambassador to the Holy See and two days later President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned him “not to make similar mistakes again.” Even before the European Parliament voted on April 15 to recognize the genocide, Erdogan dismissed its action by saying that “whatever decision the European Parliament makes today, will go in one ear and out the other.” A similarly strong reaction followed Austria’s recognition on April 22, with the recall of the ambassador and a warning by the Turkish Foreign Ministry that the action would leave “permanent stains on Turkish-Austrian friendship.”

However, despite unwelcome developments elsewhere, Ankara remained focused on Washington and hopeful that its most important ally would not risk jeopardizing U.S. national security interests relating to Turkey. Parallel to diplomatic messages, Turkey encouraged unprecedented mobilization of Turkish-Americans who set up new organizations to counter Armenian-American efforts through campaigns such as “Let history decide,” which included placing advertisements in the Washington Post. Significantly, even after the revelation that the word Turkey did not want to hear would not be used, Erdogan cautioned Obama on April 22 by saying “I really do not want to hear something like this from him and do not expect it. Turkey’s standing in U.S. perception is known, its attitude on these events is known. He has a record of six years as president and I have a record of 12 years as prime minister and seven months as president. Throughout this period we have discussed this issue and I have conveyed my opinion and the need to leave it to historians.”

Although Obama did not use the word genocide, he used the words “atrocity,” “massacre,” “horrific,” and “carnage” yet again along with “Meds Yeghern.” He also reiterated that “his own view of what occurred in 1915 has not changed.” What was different in this statement compared to his earlier ones was that he “welcomed the expression of views by Pope Francis” and mentioned Raphael Lemkin, who had defined the term genocide in 1944 and then in a CBS interview in 1949 referred to what had “happened to the Armenians” in explaining why he became interested in genocide.

Notwithstanding a Turkish Foreign Ministry statement criticizing Obama’s words as in previous years, Erdogan himself refrained from commenting, and there was surely quiet relief in Ankara that a potentially dangerous moment in U.S.-Turkish relations had passed without serious damage. In sharp contrast, Erdogan condemned France and Russia the day after the Centenary—French president Francois Hollande and Russian president Vladimir Putin had attended the ceremonies in Yerevan. German president Joachim Gauck had made a statement recognizing the genocide on April 23 after which the German Bundestag had adopted a resolution to that effect, saying “they should first, one-by-one, clean the stains on their own histories.” Erdogan also said that he was “personally sad that Putin took such a step.” On April 30, the Turkish National Security Council, presided over by Erdogan, formally declared that all the decisions by foreign countries relating to this issue were “null and void.”

While the Centenary passed without a diplomatic crisis between Washington and Ankara, the issue continues to be a potential source of major tension in U.S.-Turkish relations. Although he chose not to use the word or to attend the Yerevan commemoration ceremonies, Obama could still recognize the genocide at some point during the remainder of his presidency. He could also do so indirectly by not intervening with respect to Congress, where there are draft resolutions in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. It is clear that pressure by Armenian-Americans, who have accused Obama of “once again surrendering to Turkey,” and others beyond that community, who also believe that there should be recognition, will continue. It is also important to recognize that the debate in Washington on this issue is not focused on what happened in 1915 but about whether, in spite of the national security implications, it should be recognized by the United States as genocide. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether Ankara will reciprocate Obama’s important gesture through closer cooperation in the near future in the fight against the Islamic State.

Bulent Aliriza
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program