resident 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.