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Saga of Azerbaijan ambassadorial nominations

HDN | 9/14/2010 12:00:00 AM | MANSUR ASLANOV

The inability of the US administration to confirm an ambassador to a small country raises doubts about America’s ability to deliver on bigger issues.

Americans like to dramatize things. The unworldly Sarah Palin screams about “Islamization of America”; the perpetually tearful TV host Glenn Beck with borderline racist views calls for “restoring America’s honor” by unspecified means and other politicians prey on their uninformed supporters by dropping hints that Obama is a Muslim. In an election year, even something as mundane as confirming an ambassador by the Senate can turn into a spectacle. The case in point is the show around Senate’s confirmation of Matthew Bryza nominated by president Obama to serve as U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan. During the committee hearings, Mr. Bryza received the lion’s share of grilling and attention. This might have been a boost to Azerbaijan’s ego or that of Mr. Bryza and a disappointment to ambassadors nominated to serve in the crisis-stricken Greece and Iceland.

Yet, the issue is not, of course, based on the relative significance of the host nation – the U.S. has had no ambassador in Baku for over a year and has, by de-facto, disengaged from the region- but the influence of special interest groups and the senators’ attempt to score points before the November election. The latest senatorial “drama queen” is California’s Barbara Boxer, who decided that putting a hold on the Bryza nomination is a good way to jump-start her otherwise lame re-election campaign.

The public beating of Bryza has received some momentum in Washington with some other senators joining the chorus. Even a Paris-based international journalism defense group, which would certainly object to any government’ intervention into its own personnel policies, went well beyond its mandate to protect journalism and inserted itself into the debate publishing a completely unsubstantiated and partisan op-ed on the matter. Why is it Bryza’s fault that a less-than professional journalist wrote an unproven “National Inquirer”- type story about a former Azerbaijani minister paying for his wedding and the said minister went after the writer in a typically clumsy manner, both in court and outside?

The list of allegations against Bryza is both telling and contradictory. For instance, the Armenian National Committee of America, or ANCA, a Dashnak affiliated Armenian group with rather strong views, claims that Bryza is “too close” to the Azerbaijani leadership. The reality is that the Azerbaijanis were not too thrilled to see Bryza nominated. They, of course, welcome the fact that an ambassador should be on his way to Baku soon; yet, official Baku has repeatedly criticized and confronted Bryza publicly for “pro-Armenian bias” during his tenure as the U.S. Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group. The statements of the uber-active Bryza to the media caused some obvious irritation in Azerbaijan over the years, and, at best,

Baku is wary about his appointment. The polite statements of officials welcoming the nomination are more of a reflection of the diplomatic etiquette and trying to demonstrate respect for president Obama’s choice than anything else.

Where Bryza’s experience can come in handy indeed is his intimate knowledge of the Caspian energy politics. This and the fact that America’s disengagement from the Caucasus has served Moscow well are among the reasons why so many rumors about Bryza seem to originate from the Russian sources. Washington’s rumor mill seems to give some credence to accusing Bryza of being somehow guilty in causing the Russo-Georgian war in August of 2008 notwithstanding that the idea of a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State igniting a war, however flattering, is just ridiculous. In the meantime, Washington politicians appear unconcerned about Armenia’s de-facto surrender of its already questionable independence to Russia during President Medvedev’s recent visit to Yerevan, where the agreement to station Russian military at the Gumri base has been extended until 2044 and the scope of Russia’s military presence expanded to include protections similar to those Moscow offers to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Coincidentally, this seems to be little interest to ANCA, which is, otherwise, so passionate about Bryza’s personal life.

In a clearly racist twist, Bryza is accused of marrying a native of Turkey, Zeyno Baran, and not having the list of invitees to his wedding in Istanbul, which included Americans, Turks, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Georgians, Greeks and others, approved by ANCA. Since when have American politicians fallen as low as to publicly indulge in peddling such an obvious ethnic prejudice emanating from ANCA’s unhealthy and paranoid Turkophobia? Should then Hillary Clinton, who deals with the Middle East as part of her job description, resign because her daughter, Chelsea, married a Jewish man? Perhaps, a Nazi style ethnic screening of all officials and their family members, including senators, should become a routine political exercise? The rhetoric behind the allegations against Bryza may not get as much notice as the Muslim-bashing campaign by the extreme right-wing, but it is still rather disturbing.

The Armenian blogosphere is full of anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and other bigoted remarks claiming that Bryza and his wife, Zeyno Baran, are Jews or, alternatively, that he is a Muslim. Ms. Baran is often described as a Turkish nationalist and either an Islamist or a Zionist plant, while some Turkish nationalists claim she is Kurd. With so many alleged identities Mr. and Mrs. Bryza can rival Brad Pitt and Angeline Jolie in “Mr, and Mrs. Smith” or double up on Austin Powers as the ‘international couple of mystery.” Maybe, this could explain some of the confusion of Ms. Boxer - who might have come under too much influence of another one of her constituents, Hollywood.

Whether Bryza becomes U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan is up to the United States for he is to represent American interests there. In fact, what is odd about all the accusations is that, if anything, Bryza has appeared too zealous to the regional governments in pushing U.S. interests in the region. It is his visibility and media outreach, which causes what the U.S.-funded Radio Liberty calls a “controversy.” In comparison, the disinterested and phlegmatic persona of the current U.S. Minsk Group co-chair, Robert Bradke, seems to be a good fit for the lack of the U.S. strategy for the region. Some even call Bryza a “born- again neocon”. Indeed, isn’t that obvious as he pushed for the energy policy advocated by a known “neocon” Bill Clinton, and another “neocon” -Hilary Clinton - is eager to see him assume his post? As for the hints and rumors of alleged improprieties by Bryza, the fact that the Democratic senators are attacking a nominee put forward by a Democratic president and dismiss a vigorous vetting process, which all nominees go through, is not altogether dissimilar to the “birther” movement’s repeated questioning of Obama’s citizenship. They, too, question whether the vetting process was thorough enough to detect a fake birth certificate and they, too, don’t care about facts if they are not in their interest.

In Azerbaijan, the host country, many observers are amused by what they see as a corrupting influence of special interests in U.S. politics, which allows for American politicians to humiliate their ambassadors and disregard their nation’s interests in exchange for help in securing own employment and benefits. The enactment of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and the nonstop moralistic preaching by the same politicians appear rather awkward against such a background. While ANCA’s ability to leave Armenia without a U.S. ambassador earlier, as counterproductive as it was, may have been seen in the U.S.-Armenian context; inserting itself into a bilateral matter with another country is just inappropriate. If the Armenians are so eager to have an ambassador in Azerbaijan or Turkey for that matter, the best way would be for Armenia to try to finding working arrangements with its neighbors. Incidentally, some Azerbaijani officials have hinted that should another person be nominated in Bryza’s place, they’d be hesitant to accept his credentials. Not because they are thrilled by Bryza but because an ANCA-approved nominee would appear to represent the narrow interest of the Armenian diaspora rather the United States as a whole.

Inability of the Administration to confirm an ambassador to a relatively small country at the Senate dominated by the same party raises serious doubts about America’s ability to deliver on bigger issues and its capacity to act decisively in the competitive regional environment surrounded by resurgent Russia and increasingly confident Iran. For now, as the U.S. diplomatic mission without an ambassador has maintained a second-tier presence in Baku, especially in comparison to the Iranian, Russian and the Turkish embassies, some in Azerbaijan may see this as a convenient pause in dealing with an unfocused, distant and disengaging superpower.

Mansur Aslanov is a free-lance writer based in Baku.

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