WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama declined Friday to call the 1915 massacre of Armenians a genocide, breaking a key campaign promise as his presidency nears an end.
Obama, marking the upcoming Armenian Remembrance Day, called the massacre the first mass atrocity of the 20th century and a tragedy that must not be repeated. Yet he stopped short of using the word "genocide," a phrase he applied to the killings before he became president in 2009.
"I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view has not changed," Obama said.
Armenian-American leaders have urged Obama each year to make good on a pledge he made as a candidate in 2008, when he said the U.S. government had a responsibility to recognize the attacks as genocide and vowed to do so if elected. Obama's failure to fulfill that pledge in his final annual statement on the massacre infuriated advocates and lawmakers who accused the president of outsourcing America's moral voice to Turkey, which staunchly opposes the genocide label.
"It's a Turkish government veto over U.S. policy on the Armenian genocide," Aram Hamparian, head of the Armenian National Committee of America, said in an interview. "It's like Erdogan imposing a gag rule very publicly and an American president enforcing that gag rule." He was referring to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Historians estimate that as many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks in an event widely viewed by scholars as genocide. Turkey, a key U.S. partner and NATO ally, denies the deaths constituted genocide and says the death toll has been inflated.
Though Obama administration officials have debated using the genocide label in the past, this year's deliberations come as Obama seeks Turkey's assistance in fighting the Islamic State group — especially along Turkey's long border with Syria. The U.S. and its European partners are also counting on Erdogan to help stem the influx of migrants to Europe.
If Obama felt pressure not to offend Turkey during a critical time, he wasn't alone among world leaders. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has faced intense criticism for allowing the possible prosecution of a TV comic for writing an intentionally offensive poem about Erdogan.
Hamparian said officials from the White House's National Security Council and the Atrocities Prevention Board that Obama established told him Thursday that calling it genocide would introduce uncertainty in the region during a time when Turkey is playing a key role in a range of priorities. He said it was hypocritical for Obama to call every year for "a full, frank, and just acknowledgment of the facts" while refusing to acknowledge them himself. "It's like, 'You should do this, but I won't,'" Hamparian said.
Obama's calls for transparency about the massacre played a prominent role in his presidential campaign, held up by Obama as an example of the type of sorely needed straight talk about foreign affairs and historical events. Samantha Power, one of his key campaign surrogates and now his U.N. ambassador, issued a roughly five-minute video imploring Armenian-Americans to vote for Obama precisely because he would follow through on his promise.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he was "gravely disappointed" Obama would leave office with the campaign pledge unfulfilled. Schiff has introduced legislation calling on the president to urge Turkey to fully acknowledge the genocide.
"Remaining silent in an effort to curry favor with Turkey is as morally indefensible as it will be ineffectual," Schiff said.
The White House released Obama's annual statement on the massacre while the president was traveling in London. White House officials declined to comment on the broken campaign promise.