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Robert Fisk: Obama falls short on Armenian pledge

It was clever, crafty – artful, even – but it was not the truth. For in the end, Barack Obama dishonoured his promise to his American-Armenian voters to call the deliberate mass murder of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915 a genocide. How grateful today's Turkish generals must be.

Genocide is what it was, of course. Mr Obama agreed in January 2008 that "the Armenian genocide is not an allegation... but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide... I intend to be that President." But he was not that President on the anniversary of the start of the genocide at the weekend. Like Presidents Clinton and George Bush, he called the mass killings "great atrocities" and even tried to hedge his bets by using the Armenian phrase "Meds Yeghern" which means the same thing – it's a phrase that elderly Armenians once used about the Nazi-like slaughter – but the Armenian for genocide is "chart". And even that was missing.

Thus once more – after Hilary Clinton's pitiful response to the destruction of Palestinian homes by the Israelis (she called it "unhelpful") – Mr Obama has let down those who believed he would tell the truth about the truth. He didn't even say that Turkey was responsible for the mass slaughter and for sending hundreds of thousands of Armenian women and children on death marches into the desert. "Each year," he said, "we pause to remember the 1.5 million Armenians who were massacred or marched to their death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire." Yes, "massacred" and "marched to their death". But by whom? The genocide – the deliberate extermination of a people – had disappeared, as had the identity of the perpetrators. Mr Obama referred only to "those who tried to destroy" the Armenians.

Instead, he waffled on about "the efforts by Turkey and Armenia to normalise their bilateral relations" – a reference to the appeal of landlocked Armenia appeal to reopen its border with Turkey thanks to Swiss mediation (via another of America's favourite "road maps") – and the hope that Turkish and Armenian relations would grow stronger "as they acknowledge their common history and recognise their common humanity". But the only real improvement in relations has been an Armenian-Turkish football match.

Turkey is still demanding a commission to "investigate" the 1915 killings, a proposal the poverty-broken Armenian state opposes on the grounds (as Obama, of course, agreed before he became President) that the genocide was a fact, not a matter in dispute. It doesn't have to be "re-proved" with Turkey's permission any more that the Jewish survivors of their own genocide have to "re-prove" the crimes of the Nazis in the face of a reluctant Germany.

Armenian historian and academic Peter Balakian – speaking as he stood by a 1915 mass grave of Armenians in the Syrian desert – was quite frank. "What is creating moral outrage," he said, "is that Turkey is claimed to be trying to have a commission into what happened – when the academic world has already unanimously agreed on the historical record." So much, then, for one-and-a-half-million murdered men, women and children.