WASHINGTON (AP) — Turkey has become so pivotal to U.S. goals in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East that President Barack Obama included it on his first overseas tour. But relations between the countries could be at risk unless Obama is willing to break a campaign promise to describe as "genocide" the killings of Armenia’s by Ottoman Turks almost a century ago.
Such a declaration would infuriate Turkey, which could complicate U.S. military operations in the region by withholding cooperation.
This is not an obscure historical debate that Obama can avoid easily.
It will be on the mind of government officials, media and the public when Obama arrives in Turkey on April 5.
Just weeks later, Obama must decide how to deal with the issue in a statement to mark the annual Armenian remembrance day, April 24.
Also, a resolution will be introduced soon in the House of Representatives that describes the killings as genocide. The House almost passed a similar resolution two years ago, but congressional leaders did not bring it up for a vote after intense pressure from then-President George W. Bush and top members of his administration.
The Obama administration has not said what they will do on either the statement or the resolution. The State Department said it is considering the issue and the White House declined to comment directly.
"At this moment, our focus is on how, moving forward, the U.S. can help Turkey and Armenia work together to come to terms with the past," said Mike Hammer, a spokesman at the White House’s National Security Council.
The emphasis dovetails with an argument that the Turkish government has been making: A U.S. statement on genocide could scuttle current diplomatic attempts at rapprochement between Muslim Turkey and Christian Armenia. The distrustful neighbors have no diplomatic ties, and their border has been closed since 1993 because of a Turkish protest of Armenia’s occupation of land claimed by Azerbaijan.
In September, Turkish President Abdullah Gul became the first Turkish leader to visit Armenia, where he and Armenian President Serge Sarkisian watched their countries’ football teams play a World Cup qualifying match. The Armenian government appears to be interested in further talks.
Armenian-American groups and supporters in Congress are focused on passing a genocide resolution and argue that it should not undermine diplomatic efforts.
Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenia’s were killed by Ottoman Turks around World War I, an event widely viewed by scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey denies that the deaths constituted genocide, however, contending the toll has been inflated, and the casualties were victims of civil war and unrest.
Previous presidents, including George W. Bush and Bill Clinton avoided the word, even after committing in their campaigns to use it as president. Armenian groups are pointing to Obama’s more extensive and unequivocal statemen’s on the issue.
"The Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence," Obama said in a January 2008 statement on his campaign Web site. "America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides. I intend to be that president."
Other Obama administration officials, including his secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, made similar commen’s about the killings before joining the administration and have yet to comment since.
Obama’s trip inevitably will focus attention on the dispute.
"The Obama administration was in a very difficult position before the trip was announced," said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Turkey research program. "With this trip, the expectations have been raised on the Turkish side that he will avoid use of the word genocide, and meanwhile, he will almost certainly see increased pressure from the Armenian lobby prior to the trip."
Obama could influence the congressional leadership on whether to allow a new resolution to proceed. Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, chief sponsor of a draft resolution now being circulated, said the administration has not discouraged him.
While a congressional resolution would not reflect the administration’s policy, Turkey threatened serious reprisals when the last resolution was considered.
Schiff said he expects Obama to maintain his support.
"We are working to persuade the administration that the president needs to follow through with the commitment that he made, and we are hopeful and optimistic that he will," the lawmaker said.
It is not clear whether the resolution has adequate support in Congress, where argumen’s about the security implications of the U.S.-Turkish relationship have resonated.
Democratic Rep. Robert Wexler, a chairman of the Congressional Turkey caucus, said he is confident that lawmakers will consider concerns about U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and "a historic dispute between Turkey and Armenia that if resolved, could benefit the quality of life of tens of millions in that region."
Consideration of the resolution in 2007 came at a time when U.S.-Turkish relations were under strain because of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and other issues.
In a more cordial atmosphere, Washington and Ankara are now consulting on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Turkey has said it is ready to serve as an exit route. The Incirlik air base in Turkey has been used for transfer of U.S. troops and equipment to Iraq and Afghanistan. Turkey also could be a useful mediator with U.S. antagonists such as Iran and Syria.