What’s in the Word “Genocide?”

The one thing that is clear about the furor now arising over the Obama administration’s decision to commemorate the centennial of the slaughter of one-and-a-half million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I without calling it a “genocide” is that the president is indeed breaking a campaign pledge. He’s doing so for much the same reason his predecessors refused to use the g-word: Turkey is a strategically important NATO ally, while Armenia is not. At the moment, Turkey is deeply engaged in the fight against Islamic State.

Without question, if Obama refers to “genocide” on Friday, there will be real-life repercussions. Although the Turks have gradually accepted that something terrible was done by the Ottomans in 1915 to members of a despised minority whose population center lay athwart the border with the war enemy and ancient rival Russia, they deny it meets the intent standards for “genocide.”

To be clear, Americans can say all sorts of graphic things about 1915 so long as they avoid the “g-word.” And there will be a high-level American presence at the centennial commemoration–just not high enough or clear enough, as this terse description from AP indicates:

Tuesday’s announcement, accompanied by word that the treasury secretary, Jacob Lew, will attend a ceremony in Armenia on Friday to mark the anniversary, was made shortly after the secretary of state, John Kerry, met with Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, in Washington.

In brief comments to reporters at the State Department, neither Kerry nor Cavusoglu mentioned Armenia or the upcoming 24 April anniversary.

It will be interesting to see if Obama’s action–or inaction–here joins the litany of errors being cited by Republican presidential candidates, and if they will follow Obama’s earlier example of promising to say the fateful words about what happened to the Armenians. If so, and any of them become president, don’t be surprised if they “betray” their pledge too.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.