Short-Term Politics Trumps US Strategy in the South Caucasus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 193

Center for American Progress President John Podesta in Turkey. (Daily News)

A new study from the Center for American Progress, the think-tank closely linked with the Obama White House, urges the US government to adopt a new, “comprehensive policy” toward Georgia and the Russia-Georgia conflict (“A New Approach to the Russia-Georgia Conflict,” October 2010, The new approach implicitly removes Georgia from the framework of a US strategy in the South Caucasus-Caspian region. Instead, it treats Georgia in isolation from that region; and, in practice, subordinates US policy toward Georgia to the goal of protecting the administration’s own relationship with Russia.

The abandonment of a regional strategy is also apparent in the administration’s policy toward Azerbaijan. That strategy, while it existed, had treated Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey as parts of a whole: linchpins in the East-West energy corridor to Europe, a bridge from Central Asia to the European Union, and a foundation for regional security arrangements under Western aegis. Successfully initiated during the Clinton administration, and continued less successfully under the Bush presidency, this strategy seems consigned to oblivion by the current White House.

In a recent speech to the Turkish business association TUSKON in Ankara, Center for American Progress President and CEO, John Podesta, described former President Bill Clinton’s 1999 visit to Turkey as a tour of mosques, ancient monuments, and dispensing earthquake relief. The speech, however, omitted the oil and gas pipeline projects and the conventional arms control agreements, which were signed during that same Clinton visit as parts of a coherent US strategy in the South Caucasus. Although delivered to a business audience, the lengthy speech made no reference to Turkey’s present and prospective role in Caspian energy transit to Europe; and never mentioned Turkey’s regional partners Georgia and Azerbaijan. Instead, Podesta urged Turkey again on the administration’s behalf to  open  unconditionally the border with Armenia: “This is a major priority for the Obama administration, and senior US officials have spent considerable time in support of this initiative … It is my hope that we will see a revival of these initiatives soon” (, October 19).

This border-opening proposal stems mainly from US electoral politics. During the 2008 campaign, candidate Barack Obama had pledged to support US recognition of an Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey, but could not deliver it as president without destroying US-Turkey relations. In lieu of genocide recognition, and to defuse US Armenian pressure toward that goal in Congress, the administration initiated a rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia, centered on reopening the border unconditionally, in Armenia’s economic interest.

Under this proposal, Azerbaijan and Turkey would in effect bear the costs of the administration’s electoral calculus. The trade-off involves Turkey breaking ranks with Azerbaijan, while Armenia would desist from seeking genocide recognition in the US, thus easing pressure on the administration from its US-Armenian voters. Codified in the October 2009 Zurich protocols, the US initiative has stalled since December 2009-January 2010 as Turkey would not lightly abandon Azerbaijan, while Armenia would not give up its trump card of the genocide recognition campaign. Nevertheless, some US officials such as Assistant Secretary of State, Philip Gordon, now suggest (as has Podesta in Ankara) that the administration awaits a more favorable context for re-launching that proposal, calling again for ratification of the Zurich protocols (Armenian Reporter, October 18;, October 20).

Opening the border unconditionally would remove the only major positive incentive by which Azerbaijan and Turkey can persuade Armenia to withdraw its troops from Azerbaijani districts around the Armenian-inhabited Karabakh. Opening of borders in return for withdrawal of Armenian troops from those districts is the trade-off that has all along underpinned the Azerbaijani-Turkish common position on the Karabakh conflict. This joint position does not oppose the opening of borders as such; on the contrary, it proposes to open the Azerbaijan-Armenia border as well as the Turkey-Armenia border, as part of the first stage of resolving the Karabakh conflict. This conditional linkage is also basic to the ongoing process of negotiations under the “Minsk Group” co-chairs’ mediation.

Breaking this linkage could derail that negotiating process. It would also further undermine Azerbaijan’s heavily-tested confidence in a resolution through peaceful means. Asking Turkey to turn away from Azerbaijan could fracture the mutually indispensable partnership between these two countries, which the US had encouraged when a US strategy for this region existed.

Unilateral, unconditional opening of the Turkish-Armenian border may cause Turkey to lose Azerbaijan, while pushing Baku into seeking Russia’s support for regaining those Armenian-occupied districts. Russia would undoubtedly exploit the situation in trying to change Azerbaijan’s Western orientation and its role in energy projects of Western interest. The Obama administration in any case is taking a back seat to Russia in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict-resolution negotiations.  In August, Yerevan prolonged the basing of Russian forces in Armenia for almost half-a-century, and authorized possible increases in Russian forces based in that country. This development with region-wide implications does not seem to have occasioned a reassessment of US policy.

The proposal for unilateral border-opening alienated Azerbaijan, a US strategic partner, without inducing Armenia to distance itself from genocide-recognition efforts in the US, as the administration had hoped.  The administration seemed willing to trade off a strategic position in Baku for domestic political points courtesy of Yerevan.  However, Baku reached out to Turkey at the governmental, parliamentary, and public opinion levels, helping to forestall Turkish ratification of the Zurich protocols. US officials responded in frustration by declining to invite Azerbaijan’s president to the nuclear-safety summit in Washington. Domestic politics and short-term diplomatic improvisation seemed to trump regional strategy –an impression strengthened when the administration briefly used the Armenian genocide-recognition debate in the US House of Representatives to influence Turkish policies on current issues. Some Turkish officials and analysts are concerned by a possible repeat of this tactic, in connection with Turkish policy decisions (on Israel, Iran, anti-missile defense) during the coming weeks and months (Hurriyet Daily News & Economic Review, October 21).

President Obama’s meeting with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September was a symbolic step toward reestablishing top-level communication. However, the normal institutional channel cannot operate without a US ambassador in Baku –a post vacant since July 2009. The administration waited for more than one year before nominating a successor. However, the nomination is blocked by two Democratic senators, one of them (Barbara Boxer of California) relying on the militant Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) to mobilize its followers for Boxer’s re-election in the ongoing mid-term campaign. President Obama has weighed in, personally for Boxer in California (, October 23). Preoccupied at this stage to retain that Senate seat for its party, the administration has again postponed moving on the ambassadorial nomination.

De-linking the re-opening of borders from the first stage of Karabakh conflict-resolution (Armenian troop withdrawal from inner-Azerbaijani districts) is a policy that failed. Ankara has re-instated that linkage and seems highly unlikely to de-link the two issues at US behest, at least until after the 2011 elections in Turkey. The US needs Turkey’s cooperation more than the other way around, on issues that Washington defines as top priorities. Thus, Washington has limited political capital to spend in Ankara. Rather than persisting with the Zurich protocols, Washington needs a graceful exit from this poorly conceived policy.