President Barack Obama will once again stop short of calling the 1915 massacre of Armenians a genocide, prompting anger and disappointment from those who have been pushing him to fulfill a campaign promise and use the politically fraught term on the 100th anniversary of the killings this week. Officials decided against it after opposition from some at the State Department and the Pentagon.
After more than a week of internal debate, top administration officials discussed the final decision with Armenian-American leaders Tuesday before making it public.
"The president and other senior administration officials have repeatedly acknowledged the historical fact that 1.5 million Armenians were massacred and marched to their death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire," White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Wednesday. "As we have said in previous years, a full frank and just acknowledgment of the facts is in all of our interests, including Turkey's, Armenia's and America's."
As a senator and presidential candidate, Obama did describe the killings of Armenians as "genocide" and said the U.S. government had a responsibility to recognize them as such. As a candidate in January 2008, Obama pledged to recognize the genocide and at least one of his campaign surrogates — the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power — recorded a nearly five-minute video at the time imploring Armenian-Americans to vote for Obama precisely because he would keep his word on the issue.
But Obama has never used that description since taking office, mainly out of deference to Turkey, a key U.S. partner and NATO ally, which is fiercely opposed to the "genocide" label.
Tuesday's announcement, accompanied by word that Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew will attend a ceremony in Armenia on Friday to mark the anniversary, was made shortly after 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 April 24 anniversary.
The White House later said National Security Adviser Susan Rice met with Cavusoglu and encouraged him to take "concrete steps to improve relations with Armenia and to facilitate an open and frank dialogue in Turkey about the 1915 atrocities."
Historians estimate up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks, an event widely viewed by scholars as genocide. Turkey, however, denies the deaths constituted genocide and says the death toll has been inflated.
Negative reaction to the announcement was intense from both the Armenian-American community and members of Congress who have championed the Armenian cause.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said he was "deeply disappointed" by the president's decision.
"The United States has long prided itself for being a beacon of human rights, for speaking out against atrocity, for confronting painful chapters of its own past and that of others," said Schiff. "This cannot be squared with a policy of complicity in genocide denial by the president or Congress."
The head of one of the Armenian-American groups briefed on the decision by White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes went further.
"President Obama's surrender to Turkey represents a national disgrace," said Ken Hachikian, the chairman of the Armenian National Council of America. "It is, very simply, a betrayal of truth, a betrayal of trust."
This post has been updated.