Dispatch October 2008

McCain's Armenia Problem

"In the superheated world of ethnic grievance politics, rarely do presidential elections feature such a clear contrast between two candidates. In California, New Jersey, Michigan and Nevada, that contrast could hurt McCain."

Some Republicans like Edgar Hagopian predict that a President Obama would renege on his pledge just as President Bush did, but Obama’s supporters praise the sincerity of his commitment to Armenian-American concerns and point to his familiarity with these issues. “This is an individual who is more knowledgeable about Armenian-Americans than most candidates are and have been,” said Rep. Pallone, the New Jersey Democrat who co-chairs the Caucus on Armenian Affairs. Obama spoke about the Armenian genocide well before launching his campaign, and many activists take that as reassurance that his stance is more than an electoral gimmick. Elizabeth Chouldjian, a spokesperson for the ANCA, and Areen Ibranossian both cited an Obama press conference during a congressional trip to Azerbaijan in 2005. Asked about his support for genocide affirmation in a country that has a tense relationship with Armenia, Obama did not shy away from reiterating his stance, a moment Ibranossian described as “extraordinary.” “He had no reason to put out his neck and defend himself,” he said.

From the archives:

Bystanders to Genocide
The author's exclusive interviews with scores of the participants in the decision-making, together with her analysis of newly declassified documents, yield a chilling narrative of self-serving caution and flaccid will—and countless missed opportunities to mitigate a colossal crime. By Samantha Power

Nearly all of Obama’s backers also point to his relationship with a high-profile adviser who is ironically no longer part of his campaign. In her work on genocide prevention and in her book A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power has focused on the international community’s failure to recognize genocides like the one that decimated the Armenians in 1915, arguing that a proper understanding of past catastrophes is crucial to preventing genocides in the present. Power resigned from the campaign after calling Hillary Clinton a “monster” in March, but many in the Armenian community believe her outlook has shaped Obama’s foreign policy views.

The campaign’s January 19 statement, for instance, connected the recognition of the Armenian genocide with broader issues of genocide prevention. “A principled commitment to commemorating and ending genocide,” the statement said, “starts with acknowledging the tragic instances of genocide in world history.”

The contrast between Obama and McCain extends more broadly to the United States’ relationship with the Republic of Armenia. Obama’s January 19th statement pledged to maintain Armenian foreign aid and to move toward a resolution of the Karabagh conflict that would respect the “principle of self-determination”—language close to Armenian demands. The ANCA’s Elizabeth Chouldjian praised Obama’s positions as “the strongest we’ve gotten from a candidate in over ten years.” (The ANCA endorsed Obama in January, just as it supported John Kerry in 2004; the group remained neutral in the 2000 election.) On the other hand, John McCain has remained largely silent on these issues, an attitude his critics deride as worrisome indifference.

The California-based Armenians for Obama group plans to educate Armenian-American voters about these differences. The organization is conducting extensive phone bank operations to contact as many Armenian-American voters in swing states as possible. “Our first objective is to make sure that all Armenians know Obama’s stance on issues,” said Ibranossian, the group’s chairman. “We take Obama’s message and try to make it more consumable by Armenian-Americans, more relatable to their concerns.”

Ibranossian argued that extensive outreach in large Armenian communities in the Detroit and Las Vegas regions could prove decisive. “If we can get them out to vote,” he said, “that could make the difference in swinging the election from red to blue.” Armenian Republicans are mounting an effort of their own to help McCain, but they are getting a late start and the organization they are relying on—the National Organization of Republican Armenians (NORA)—has been largely inoperative over the past eight years.

Like many others before him, Obama will have to weigh conflicting interests if he gets to the White House. Georgetown’s Cory Welt points out that Obama “has been insistent on the importance of reaching out to international partners and that Turkey will be one of the countries that he will want to reach out to. He will quickly find the genocide issue to be an obstacle.”

Until then, Obama’s position has given hope to many Armenian-Americans—even to those who are not planning on voting for him. A spokesperson for NORA and a McCain supporter, Peter Musurlian is nonetheless hopeful that President Obama might finally succeed in moving the United States towards genocide recognition. “I wouldn’t cry in my beer if Obama is elected, I would say let’s look at what he does on April 24th,” he said, in a reference to the commemorative date of the Armenian genocide. “Hopefully he will do better than President Bush.”

Presented by

Daniel Nichanian is an intern at The Atlantic.

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