Hillary's Shifting Stance on the Armenian Genocide

Clinton's public views on the 1915 Armenian genocide have changed over the years. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

When Hillary Rodham Clinton was running for president in 2008, her stance on the slaughter of Armenians during World War I—the 100th anniversary of which is April 24—was clear. It was so clear, in fact, that she issued a statement bragging that "alone among the presidential candidates, I have been a long-standing supporter of the Armenian Genocide Resolution."

By using the label genocide to refer to the killings of Armenians when she was a senator from New York, Clinton was in keeping with many members of Congress. A resolution to recognize the systematic killing of ethnic Armenians by the Ottoman Empire has become a regular event in Congress. While the House adopted measures that refer to the slaughter of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks as a "genocide" in 1975, 1984 and 1996, the Senate has never approved such a measure for the president to sign.

"I believe the horrible events perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire against Armenians constitute a clear case of genocide," she wrote in 2008.

Clinton's stance changed little during her time in the Senate from 2001 to 2009.

But, as secretary of state for the Obama administration, Clinton spoke differently about the atrocity. She did not use the word genocide—a term long disputed by the Turkish government which was formed after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.

It's a shift that illustrates the difficulty Clinton faced balancing the interests of the Turks and collective memory. Clinton needed to woo Turkey, a U.S. ally and fellow NATO member, on issues ranging from the Iraq War to interdicting drug trafficking to pushing back against Vladimir Putin. And, historically, nothing has riled the Turks quite like calling what happened between 1915 and 1917 a genocide. Indeed, current Obama administration officials from Obama himself to U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power—who won a Pulitzer Prize for A Problem From Hell, her book about genocide written before Obama took office—have refrained from using the G-word.

On the other hand, not calling it a genocide stirs passions, too—not only among Armenians, but also among persons of all nationalities and ethnicities who have vowed not to be silent about what they see as attempts to liquidate entire peoples. Indeed, during the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama said the Armenian genocide was not a "viewpoint" but a "widely documented fact." In some European nations, denying the Armenian genocide is on par with denying the Holocaust. France, for example, passed a law making denial of the genocide a crime (the law was later overturned).

As for Hillary, she refrained from using the G-word at several key moments during her time as secretory of state for the Obama administration. In July, 2010, during an official five-day trip to Ukraine, Poland, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, Secretary Clinton paid a visit to the Armenian genocide memorial complex, located in Armenia's capital, Yerevan. For the Armenians, it was a symbolic moment—not quite an official recognition of the genocide by the United States, but close.

But soon after Clinton's visit to the memorial, the U.S. Embassy in Armenia released a statement that called it "a private visit…as a sign of respect for the 1.5 million Armenians who lost their lives in 1915." Not using the word genocide—and dubbing it a private visit, despite the fact that Clinton was in Armenia in her official role as secretary of state—struck many then and now as ducking the issue and it seemed to anger as much as allay qualms about the U.S. position.

Some Armenians, including Giro Manoyan, leader of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, a socialist-nationalist political party, were upset at the wording. "[I]f Hillary R. Clinton did not visit the Armenian Genocide Memorial in her capacity as the U.S. secretary of state, then the U.S. secretary of state has insulted Armenia and the Armenians for not doing so," Manoyan told ArmeniaNow.

A year and half later, at a January 26, 2012, State Department town hall meeting, Clinton was asked a question about the genocide by a State department staffer:

Regarding the atrocities that happened in the beginning of the 20th century that some would label the Armenian genocide, I am wondering why it is that we do not recognize it as such, and if it has to do with our classification of what a genocide is, or more to do with our relationship with Turkey. And given the recent legislation that was passed by lawmakers in France criminalizing the denial of the Armenian genocide, whether – what our stance is on that? My understanding is that Under Secretary [Wendy] Sherman was there recently, and I wondered if that came up and what our position is. Thank you.

In her response, Clinton stuck to President Obama's policy of not calling the event a genocide. "She went beyond even nonrecognition," Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, told Newsweek. Instead, Clinton labeled it "a historical debate" and argued that using the word 'genocide' "opens a door that is a very dangerous one to go through."

Here is Secretary Clinton's full answer from the State department's transcript of the event, available online:

Well, first, one of our great strengths is we do not criminalize speech. People can say nearly anything they choose, and they do, in our country. (Applause.) And so other countries, including close friends and allies like France, have different standards, different histories, but we are, I hope, never going to go down that path to criminalize speech.

I think it's fair to say that this has always been viewed, and I think properly so, as a matter of historical debate and conclusions rather than political. And I think that is the right posture for the United States Government to be in, because whatever the terrible event might be or the high emotions that it represents, to try to use government power to resolve historical issues, I think, opens a door that is a very dangerous one to go through. So the issue is a very emotional one; I recognize that and I have great sympathy for those who are just so incredibly passionate about it.

But I think the free market of ideas, the academic community, the open architecture of communication that is even greater now than it was in the past, are the proper fora for this kind of engagement, and that's where I hope it is worked out. And eventually, people will have their own conclusions, which needs to be respected, but we need to encourage anyone on any side of any contentious historical debate to get out into the marketplace of ideas. Muster your evidence, put forth your arguments, and be willing to engage, and that's what I think should happen on that too.

Now freed from her responsibilities as secretary of state, Clinton seems eager to use the G-word again. "Hillary Clinton has a record of expressing her own view that this was a genocide. She also has a record of promoting reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia and as secretary of state she personally worked to advance that goal," a Clinton aide told Newsweek.

The Clintons are no strangers to the often controversial issue of genocide. In 2008, former president Bill Clinton said that one of his greatest regrets from his eight years in office was not doing more to stop the Rwandan genocide which led to somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million deaths.

Some presidents have used the G-word, while others have refrained. In 1978, former President Jimmy Carter all but labeled the Armenian massacre as genocide—dubbing it "a concerted effort made to eliminate all the Armenian people, probably one of the greatest tragedies that ever befell any group."

In 1981, Ronald Reagan was more full-throated: "Like the genocide of the Armenians before it, and the genocide of the Cambodians which followed it—and like too many other such persecutions of too many other peoples—the lessons of the Holocaust must never be forgotten."