The fine print of the White House statement
President Obama’s statement on the Armenian Remembrance Day this year is longer than usual. As a reporter that has read his statements for the past six years, I can say that most of the wording has remained the same. But there are a lot new developments this year. And Prime Minister Erdoğan’s pre-emptive statement of condolence is unfortunately not one of them.
President Obama has nicely inserted the term “Meds Yeghern” into the terminology, ever since his first statement on the issue after he became president. Even for scholars that defend opposing views on the genocide issue, this is an important step. For us, Turkish citizens, the events that took place in 1915 are nothing less than a big catastrophe that killed hundreds of thousands of our ancestors. They were, after all, our ancestors too. Obama’s move has made all of us face the fact sometimes naming something in its native language, and in a naive way can be more powerful that labeling it with a slogan.
Obama’s statement makes clear once again that his views that Armenians faced genocide have not changed and acknowledgement of the facts makes Turkey stronger. The word “acknowledgement” has also come up in the Department of State’s spokeswoman Jen Psaki’s statement. The U.S. now sees Prime Minister Erdoğan’s statement as “accepting the facts and events of 1915” which may/may not create trouble in the future.
Under the heavy shadow of the Syrian crisis, a new element has been injected into the White House statement on Armenia. And this seems to be the biggest surprise factor. The reference to the American Committee for Syrian and Armenian Relief, a relief organization now known as the Near East Foundation, is a new and big element in the statement. The NEF is not just an Armenian Lobby group, but a very old (founded in 1915) and respected relief organization that funds humanitarian efforts in the entire Middle East. The NEF had a budget of $70 million even in 1920 and the last U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, sat on its board. It received support from various American presidents. Ironically, The NEF does not use the word “genocide” on its website, which signals an important distinction among other Armenian Groups.
The NEF website statement gives us an idea about the scale of suffering: “This money was used to save the lives of at least a million people amid the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire; treat more than 6 million patients in NEF-run clinics throughout the region; establish orphanages and provide education to over a 100,000 Armenian children orphaned in the upheaval.”
By referring to the NEF, the White House is also signaling Ankara where to go for appeal. The NEF in the U.S. probably has the largest database of Armenian and other refugees and their grandchildren that left the Ottoman territories for America. The White House is also signaling that Turkey’s hospitality towards old Armenians that had to flee Kassab in Syria does not go unnoticed, but Turkey’s support for the extreme Sunni groups, arm shipments in Syria are still troubling.
The White House statement came late in the afternoon in Turkish time. President Obama and his NSC team were all in Japan for an official visit. This makes obvious that the statement had been written long before Prime Minister Erdoğan’s pre-emptive strike, yet Washington probably debated parts of it. The lack of a referral to Erdoğan’s words in the White House statement is a signal to Ankara that “actions should speak louder than mere words.” So all the headlines that cheer for the prime minister and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu’s statements that refer to “sending the ball to the other side’s court” does not mean anything outside of Turkey’s borders. As parliamentary speaker Cemil Çiçek has said, “The aim of 2015 is convincing world Parliaments about the Genocide” and a mere condolence would not do the trick. Ankara has to step up to the challenge and start normalization.