Monday, February 2, 2009

President Barack Obama sworn in amid high hopes

First published on January 23, 2009 at Armenian Reporter web site.

Armenian-Americans outline priorities in joint letter
by Emil Sanamyan

Barack Obama, joined by his wife Michelle, takes the oath of office to become the 44th president of the United States, Jan. 20, 2009. AP Photo: Elise Amendola

Washington, - In a joint letter, twenty leading Armenian-American organizations warmly welcomed the election and inauguration of Barack Obama, who on January 20 was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States.

Establishing priorities

The letter, dated January 17, was signed by major Armenian-American advocacy, civic, religious, charitable, and educational organizations "on behalf of some two million Americans of Armenian heritage." In the letter, Mr. Obama was asked to keep his pre-election promises to properly recognize the Armenian Genocide, support Armenia's development and security through the expansion of bilateral ties, and work toward a lasting peace with Azerbaijan on the basis of the right of Karabakh Armenians to self-determination. (See full text of the letter.)

Rep. Frank Pallone (D.-N.J.), the founding co-chair of the congressional Armenian Caucus, expressed hope that "the new administration will bring about change in U.S. foreign policy" toward the Caucasus.

"The Georgia-Russia war has shed light on the importance and troubles of the region," Mr. Pallone told the Armenian Reporter this week. "I am confident that President Obama's policies will be fair and robust leading to improved relations between the nations of the Caucasus."

On the subject of affirmation, the Armenian-American letter stressed that "the term, Armenian Genocide, is the only one that can meaningfully be used to characterize the crime committed by Ottoman Turkey." The community groups said they expected that, unlike both the Bush and Clinton administrations, President Obama would show "firm and principled leadership in clearly and unambiguously ending the sad chapter of the U.S. Executive Branch's capitulation to pressure from Turkey."

Facing entrenched opposition

In 2000, 2004, and 2007, when congressional resolutions affirming the U.S. record on the Armenian Genocide came close to a vote in the House of Representatives, the measure's opponents argued that while the Genocide is a fact, its public recognition would undermine U.S. security interests and even the lives of U.S. military personnel in Turkey and Iraq.

In his inaugural address, President Obama promised the world to "reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." He added that the United States has "duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world" to remain true to American values.

Over the past decade, Turkey's concerns have taken priority over these values among the U.S. political class. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the new White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, opposed past congressional resolutions on the Armenian Genocide.

The community letter noted, however, that the president himself, the vice president, the secretary of state, and several other senior members of the administration have been active and outspoken in their support for such resolutions.

Turkish officials indicated they will continue to oppose third countries, especially the United States, from speaking out on the issue on the threat of retaliation.

Opponents of affirmation have also been heartened that in addition to several statements of support for Armenian-American concerns, the Obama campaign has stressed the need to "restore the strategic partnership with Turkey."

The position outlined in a campaign fact sheet, "A stronger partnership with Europe for a safer America," did not address Armenian issues directly, but promised to deal with the "terrorist threat" posed to Turkey by Kurdish rebels and "support the promotion of democracy, human rights, and freedom of expression in Turkey and its efforts to join the European Union."

In anticipation of these concerns, the community letter notes, "The inevitable consequence of Turkey's refusal to acknowledge" the Armenian Genocide "has been its inability to adapt to the changing realities in the region. Rather than being a factor for peace, Turkey has actively contributed to increased tension in the South Caucasus."

Recalling campaign support

Also this week, "Armenians for Obama" issued its final activity report detailing the role Armenian-Americans played in the Obama campaign.

The report recalled that "Armenians for Obama led a base of several hundred organizers, thousands of activists, and several hundred thousand voters to help deliver victory" for Barack Obama.

The group worked to turn out voters in swing states, generating community endorsements and media coverage, and encouraging financial contributions, including $1.5 million donated by businessperson and philanthropist Kirk Kerkorian to the Denver 2008 Democratic Party Convention Host Committee, as well as numerous smaller donations.

Joining inaugural events

Echoing Mr. Obama's call for service, the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) launched a food drive ahead of Martin Luther King Day on January 19.

On January 20, scores of Armenian-Americans both from Washington area and arriving from as far as the Republic of Armenia braved freezing temperatures to join nearly two million Americans on the National Mall to welcome Barack Obama into the presidency.

Eleeza Agopian volunteered as an usher for the inaugural parade route. She described the day as "14 of the most interesting, coldest, and exciting hours I've experienced since moving to Washington" from Southern California in 2006.

"In the evening, we were invited into the president's box and sat a few feet away from President Obama and Vice President Biden" observing the inaugural parade, Ms. Agopian told the Armenian Reporter.

"I was very proud of our country for coming together and to vote for someone who doesn't fit the mold," said Karoon Panosyan, an Illinois native who moved to Washington several years ago and was out with the crowds on Inauguration Day.

"Americans seem to have a more positive attitude and are willing to contribute in order to make this country a better place," she added.

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