On Saturday, April 24, for the first time in 40 years, an American president summoned the courage to use the accurate term to describe a century-old war crime.
"Each year on this day, we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring," President Joe Biden declared, in the White House's annual message marking the National Day of Remembrance of Man's Inhumanity to Man.
Previous residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., most brazenly Biden's former boss Barack Obama, had shied away from using the word genocide to describe the organized Turkish slaughter of more than 1 million Armenians from 1915–1923, despite campaigning piously on the promise to call evil by its proper name. (Donald Trump never made that promise, though George W. Bush did.)
Why the cowardice? Because the subject is considered near taboo in Turkey, due to any whiff of suggestion that the sainted founder of the post-Ottoman country, Kemal Ataturk, might have his fingerprints near a crime scene. Over the years, Ankara has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on increasingly ineffective diplomatic efforts to prevent its fellow NATO members from using the g-word, implicitly threatening to revoke America's access to the strategically important Incirlik Air Base.
As former U.S. ambassador to Armenia John Marshall Evans—who was encouraged to resign from the State Department after publicly uttering the word "genocide" in conversation with the passionate Armenian-American diaspora—explained to me a decade ago, "Turkey is a hugely important ally, and little landlocked Armenia, population 3 million at best, is never going weigh in those scales in such a way as to even make a showing." From Washington's point of view, it was too much potential real-world pain for too little linguistic gain.
So what changed in 2021? Congressional impatience with the increasingly authoritarian Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for one. The House and Senate in late 2019 each overwhelmingly passed, over Trump's objections, resolutions stating that "it is the policy of the United States to commemorate the Armenian Genocide through official recognition and remembrance."
Ankara and Washington have been at loggerheads over U.S. support for Syria Kurds (who Turkey regards as terrorist threats); Turkey's purchase of Russian missiles (which America believes could jeopardize NATO technology secrets), plus Erdoğan's human rights record, which Biden finds more appalling than his predecessor.
In a December 2019 interview with The New York Times, Biden called Erdoğan an "autocrat" and vowed to take "a very different approach to him now, making it clear that we support opposition leadership," helping them "to be able to take on and defeat Erdogan. Not by a coup but by the electoral process."
In a television address this weekend, Erdoğan called Biden's new wording "groundless and unfair," adding: "We believe that these comments were included in the declaration following pressure from radical Armenian groups and anti-Turkish circles." Erdoğan also advised his U.S. counterpart to "look in the mirror," since "we can also talk about what happened to Native Americans, Blacks and in Vietnam."
Many libertarians and other skeptics of U.S. military adventurism get tetchy when Washington escalates adjectives to describe faraway slaughter. For decades, "humanitarian interventionists" such as Madeleine Albright and Samantha Power and their neoconservative counterparts on the right have used the g-word, and in Power's case the Armenian genocide recognition explicitly, as a necessary precursor to the use of force. Obama, with Power's encouragement, used the spectre of a possible "massacre," "slaughter," and "mass graves" in Benghazi to justify his disastrous war of choice in Libya.
But the standard for language should be accuracy, not how words might be leveraged into disagreeable policy. One of the reasons that foreign policy "realism" has gotten such a bad name is that all too often it has been conflated (by practitioners as well as commentators) with realpolitik—with the situational ethics and conscience-straining two-facedness required by maneuvering through a fallen world.
In fact, it is interventionism that requires such grubby compromises, as I have argued when writing about Samantha Power and her ilk. We would care much less about the owners of Incirlik Air Base if we stopped using it so damned much. Using precise language undistorted by political necessities—which, to be fair, does not come naturally to the State Department—need not be a trigger to war. After all, Ronald Reagan, the last sitting U.S. president to use the phrase "Armenian genocide," was able to issue clear-eyed condemnations of several regimes he had zero intention of bombing.
The Biden administration could—but almost certainly won't—use America's long-overdue presidential recognition of the Armenian genocide to more firmly decouple language from interventionism, thus freeing up space for more blunt but less fraught international relations. As Thomas Jefferson said in the famous quote, whose overlooked emphasis is mine: "Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none."