Wrenching as it is to American and international audiences, the ad hominem assault on the US Ambassador-designate to Azerbaijan during the Senate confirmation process aims far beyond the nominee. Matthew Bryza and his spouse are the incidental targets in this attempt to undermine US-Azerbaijan and US-Turkey relations. The militant Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) has orchestrated this effort with two allied Senators during the US mid-term elections.
The post of US ambassador in Baku has been vacant since July 2009. US-based Armenian advocacy groups such as ANCA are interested in prolonging that hiatus. They seek to affect US policy by leveraging their capacity for obstruction. Their allies are in effect rewarding the radical political element, closely linked with the irredentist Dashnaktsutiun (Armenian Revolutionary Federation), within the larger Armenian diaspora.
On September 21, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recommended to the full Senate to approve Bryza’s nomination. The vote was 17 in favor and two opposed, after a grueling July 22 hearing, with an extensive follow-up of written questions and answers in the ensuing two months. The two dissenters, Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer of California and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, proceeded on September 22 to place a hold on the nomination, thus preventing it from reaching the Senate floor for a confirmation vote.
The process might seemingly be blocked for months to come. Not long ago, Menendez single-handedly blocked the Senate confirmation of the US ambassador-designate to Armenia, career diplomat Richard Hoagland, for two years, until the George W. Bush administration withdrew that nomination. Menendez wanted the nominee to break with US policy and recognize an Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey 1915-1918 –although such a gesture could by general reckoning gravely damage US-Turkey relations.
Whether Senators Boxer and Menendez espouse any coherent strategic vision regarding the South Caucasus seems doubtful in light of their record. Their stance is primarily linked with US electoral arithmetic. Boxer faces a tough challenge to her Senate seat this coming November in California; whereas Menendez chairs the Democratic Party’s Senatorial Campaign Committee, with a direct stake in the outcome of the upcoming mid-term elections. For similar reasons, the Obama administration seems to tolerate the blocking of its own nominee by these Senators from its own party, at least until after the elections.
The questions to Bryza thus far have been answered to the apparent satisfaction of all but these two committee members. The hostile questions have generally echoed ANCA’s prosecutorial press releases; and were then played up again by the same organization to its own voting-bloc constituency (ANCA media releases, September 13, 14, 21, 22).
For example, the nominee has been criticized for failing to criticize Azeri positions or endorse Armenian positions, in his role as co-chairman of the tripartite mediating group (Russia-US-France) on the Karabakh conflict. Such criticism, however, ignores a mediator’s obligation to remain impartial as long as the negotiating process continues; lest his mission (and, thus, the status of the US as mediator) be disqualified. Bryza has also been aggressively confronted with criticism of two US Administrations’ decisions since 2002 to waive (suspend for one year at a time) Section 907 of the “Freedom Support Act,” which places significant constraints on US government-to-government relations with Azerbaijan.
His detractors have wrongly accused the nominee of maintaining relations one-sidedly with Azeri and Turkish officials. The decade-long record shows, however, that Bryza has carefully cultivated equidistant relations with Baku and Ankara as well as Yerevan, being equally welcome in the three capitals, and also in Tbilisi. Few US officials in any region of the world, and none in this region, enjoy comparable access at the highest levels of all the governments involved, and the insights based on such access. As the confirmation process moved into high gear, a US-based Greek Cypriot advocacy group joined ANCA in opposing Bryza’s nomination. The Cyprus Action Network of America (media release, September 13) accuses Bryza of supporting the then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s 2007 proposals to resolve the Cyprus conflict and overcome the island’s division. In this case as well, the nominee had represented the US government’s policy.
Bryza’s spouse, the scholar Zeyno Baran, has been accused during the confirmation process over her Turkish origin and supposed “official connections” in that country; whereas in reality, Baran’s published work has criticized what she regards as flaws in the post-2002 Turkish government’s policies. It is unprecedented in US politics to attack a public official with reference to the spouse’s origin, membership in editorial boards of journals, past work on energy policy (a topic on which Baran’s work is consistent with US and EU declared energy policies), and even over their wedding.
One influential US editorial page has listed Boxer sarcastically as a Senator from Armenia (“Barbara Boxer, D – Armenia,” The Wall Street Journal, September 20) for blocking the Bryza nomination. However, the government of Armenia has not joined this battle at all. Yerevan has worked reasonably well with Bryza in his previous capacities as US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and co-chair of the mediating group in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.
In the US Armenian diaspora, the mainstream American Assembly of America (AAA) has also stopped short of opposing Bryza’s nomination. While promoting Armenian interests against Azerbaijan during the confirmation process as always, the AAA did not attack the nomination, and refrained from welcoming the hold on it. Instead, the AAA found significant points of agreement in the US position on the Karabakh conflict, as represented by Bryza under top-level State Department instructions, both before and during the confirmation process (AAA media release, September 22).
By seeking to block and derail this nomination, ANCA and its supporters are actually attempting to change US policy on the South Caucasus, in line with ANCA’s uncompromising nationalist politics. They have targeted Bryza precisely for representing US policy loyally and impartially, during more than ten years of work on the South Caucasus.