April 24, 2021
It was the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency when Aram Hamparian was headed out for lunch near Embassy Row and recognized a member of former President Barack Obama’s national security team.
The Armenian American who serves as executive director of an Armenian advocacy group braced for an awkward encounter.
It was Obama, after all, who left the Armenian community crestfallen when he reneged on a campaign promise that the United States would formally recognize as genocide the slaughter of up to 1.5 million Armenian civilians nearly a century earlier.
But as the two chatted, Hamparian didn’t get another excuse. What he heard from the former national security official was remorse.
“We were on the wrong side of that issue,” the former official said. “We should have gotten that right.”
That former official was Antony Blinken.
Now, Blinken serves as secretary of state and he has helped right a wrong that Obama alums — from President Joe Biden on down — have long regretted.
Today, on the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, Biden has done what no other U.S. president had done, largely out of fear of alienating Turkey — formally designate the now century-old massacre as a genocide. The slaughter began in 1915 during the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, primarily in what is modern-day Turkey.
It was Biden himself in 2009, then vice president, who called Hamparian’s group, the Armenian National Committee of America, to break the news of Obama’s decision to back off of his promise, citing a vow from the government of Turkey, a NATO ally, that it would improve relations with Armenia. Despite years of pressure, Obama refused to make the designation official, choosing instead — on his last Armenian Remembrance Day in office — to call it a massacre and the “first mass atrocity.”
Interviews with current and former diplomats, elected officials and Armenian American leaders familiar with how Biden made the decision tell the story of a new president and the upper ranks of his national security team, many of whom carried regret over having failed to recognize the atrocities when they were previously in power.
On the campaign trail in 2019, Biden was at a Boston-area fundraiser hosted by Larry Lucchino, former Boston Red Sox president and CEO, when he saw Anthony Barsamian, co-chair of the Armenian Assembly of America, and reached out his hand.
“I know how important the Armenian Genocide is to you. Of course it’s genocide,” Biden said, according to Barsamian. “I didn’t even need to say anything. He led with that.”
After Biden’s election, members of Armenian groups were invited on two calls with the Biden team, one during the transition and another weeks after Biden took office, according to a person on the call who described the conversations to POLITICO. The second call, headed by Philip Reeker, acting secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, focused in part on the genocide but stopped just short of making a full-blown promise.
The Armenian community had heard promises before.
In 2000, then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert was on the cusp of bringing a resolution before Congress but reneged after phone calls from then-President Bill Clinton and his policy appointees urged against it — a move that ultimately cost one of his GOP colleagues, Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.), his seat.
Weeks later, Rogan paid the price in his district, where there is a large Armenian community, losing reelection to then state Sen. Adam Schiff.
For Armenians, it was a long road with barriers small and large. They fought with newspapers for years to stop referring to the slaughter as an “alleged” genocide or for putting the word genocide itself in quotes.
But they also grew savvy after decades of Washington inaction, realizing that if an incoming president didn’t come through in the first year of his tenure, it was almost certain not to happen.
For the last several months, this meant a major push in Congress and frequent contact with their legislative champion, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). Menendez had carried a 2019 resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide, which was viewed as a watershed moment after Congress overwhelmingly approved it.
Menendez hammered away at the issue in the confirmation hearings of Blinken and U.S. Agency for International Development nominee Samantha Power — an Obama alumnus who has publicly expressed regret over not recognizing the Armenian genocide during that tenure. While Menendez upped the public pressure, the senator was convinced Blinken and his team wouldn’t back out of the designation — even if they wanted to. On the campaign trail, the president and his top aides had signaled that the official designation was a priority, making a promise a year ago today to recognize the genocide. Menendez felt the administration was boxed in, according to a source familiar with the senator’s thinking.
An already frosty U.S. relationship with Turkey may have also given the administration a bit more license to make the genocide designation official. Biden previously caused a stir with Turkey after referring to Erdogan as an “autocrat.” Last year, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Ankara after the Turkish government purchased air defense systems from Russia.
Biden has long vowed to make global human rights a priority. In less than 100 days, his administration has authorized sanctions on top Russian government officials in retaliation for the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, harshly criticized China over the clampdown on democracy in Hong Kong, and warned governments from Ethiopia to Myanmar about the consequences of endangering civilian lives.
On Friday, Biden talked to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan — the first time they had spoken since Biden took office — to inform him of the impending designation. The White House’s official readout of the conversation, however, did not include that crucial detail.
Today’s designation marks decades of efforts by the Armenian community, an advocacy effort that was often outmanned and outspent by Turkish lobbyists who showered Washington powerbrokers with cash and warned that the genocide recognition would jeopardize relations with a key ally.
But Biden’s decision was also decades in the making.
“This is something that he’s expressed to me on numerous occasions for 20 years,” said Dick Harpootlian, a longtime Biden friend. Harpootlian, a South Carolina state senator and former Democratic party chair who is also of Armenian descent, grew up with family members recounting atrocities to him. Harpootlian brought the issue up nearly every time he’d see Biden, he said. “He had no hesitancy in referring to what happened as a genocide.”
On Saturday, when the president’s statement finally came, Biden didn’t mince words.
“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. Beginning on April 24, 1915, with the arrest of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople by Ottoman authorities, one and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in a campaign of extermination,” the president said. “We do this not to cast blame but to ensure that what happened is never repeated.”