President Joe Biden became the first commander in chief to officially recognize that the 1915 massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire was a genocide, in a move that fulfilled a campaign promise and illustrated how Washington isn’t as worried as it once was about angering Turkey. “The American people honor all those Armenians who perished in the genocide,” Biden said in a statement Saturday, which is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. “Let us renew our shared resolve to prevent future atrocities from occurring anywhere in the world. And let us pursue healing and reconciliation for all the people of the world.”
President Donald Trump and his predecessors had largely chosen to dance around the issue in order to avoid angering Turkey. The closest a U.S. president had come to this kind of statement was Ronald Reagan, who referred to the “genocide of the Armenians” in passing In a 1981 statement on the Holocaust but that was not followed up by a formal recognition. George W. Bush had vowed to recognize the genocide during the 2000 presidential campaign but didn’t end up following through as Turkey ended up becoming a key ally in the Iraq invasion. Barack Obama also said he would recognize the genocide during the 2008 presidential campaign but never ended up doing it during the eight years he was commander in chief.
Although Turkey recognizes that lots of Armenians were killed by Ottoman forces in 1915, it vehemently disputes the claims of genocide. Turkey made its displeasure clear on Saturday. “We entirely reject this statement,” Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, wrote on Twitter. “We have nothing to learn from anybody on our own past. Political opportunism is the greatest betrayal to peace and justice.” The ministry issued a statement saying the United States had opened “a deep wound that undermines our mutual trust and friendship.”
The recognition, which comes after a long lobbying campaign by members of Congress and Armenian-Americans, reflects how Biden is prioritizing human rights as well as the worsening relations between the United States and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It also shows how Biden is “aware that for the first time in many years, Erdogan needs the U.S. more than Washington needs him,” notes NBC News. Biden had told Erdogan of his decision in a call Friday in what was reported to be a tense conversation. The issue was left out of the official statements about the call.