Sassounian: Unprecedented Action: Senators Block Ambassadors to Azerbaijan, Turkey

In a major embarrassment for the Obama Administration, Senators took an unprecedented action last week when they blocked the president’s ambassadorial nominees for both Azerbaijan and Turkey.

The administration showed a total lack of experience and poor judgment by ignoring warnings that Matthew Bryza and Francis Ricciardone, the nominees for Baku and Ankara, would meet strong opposition in the Senate.

The White House, State Department, and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had agreed in advance to rush the two nominees through the confirmation process, before the Senate went into recess until mid-September. Bryza was so confident of assuming his post in Baku in early August that he had even made arrangements to have his house in Washington rented.

Contrary to published reports, the Armenian American community did not oppose Bryza’s nomination because of self-serving concerns. The larger question raised by the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) was whether Bryza could represent U.S. interests in Azerbaijan in an objective manner. The nominee’s rough sailing in the Foreign Relations Committee was due to numerous allegations of conflict of interest involving both him and his Turkish-born wife’s employer, the Hudson Institute. The Bryzas were also criticized for being “too cozy” with Azeri and Turkish officials, having received gifts from them on the occasion of their Istanbul wedding.

Matthew Bryza’s evasive and unsatisfactory answers to Senators’ questions during his confirmation hearing prompted Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to ask Committee chairman Sen. John Kerry to postpone his confirmation until mid-September. Meanwhile, U.S. officials and others would have ample opportunity to fully review all issues raised during the Senate hearing. Should Senators judge that the allegations against Bryza are not serious enough to merit rejection, he could then be confirmed as the next ambassador to Azerbaijan. However, if evidence of wrongdoing exists, it would be far better that it surfaces now rather than after he is posted to Baku, sparing the Obama Administration from scandalous disclosures and embarrassment.

On the other hand, Francis Ricciardone, the nominee for Turkey, seemed to be a perfect choice on paper. He is a 32-year veteran of the Foreign Service who served as deputy ambassador in Afghanistan, as well as the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, and is fluent in Turkish. Unfortunately, Ricciardone carries a major liability that the Obama Administration unwisely ignored. There were loud complaints from neo-conservatives that during his tenure as ambassador to Egypt, from 2005-08, Ricciardone had failed to support the Bush Administration’s flawed efforts to promote democracy and human rights in that country. When neo-conservatives realized that the administration was turning a deaf ear to their objections, they sought to block his nomination. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) placed a hold on Ricciardone after his confirmation by the Foreign Relations Committee, effectively blocking his approval by the full Senate.

Foreign Policy magazine reported that Ricciardone’s critics believe “his strong personality and often blunt speaking style are the wrong mix for the current task at hand—and that he has a tendency to get too close to his foreign interlocutors.” The magazine also quoted Danielle Pletka, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, as saying, “Now is not the time for us to have an ambassador in Ankara who is more interested in serving the interests of the local autocrats and less interested in serving the interests of his own administration.”

Blocking the confirmation of the ambassadors to Azerbaijan and Turkey has attracted considerable attention in Washington, Baku, and Ankara. Major American, Azeri, and Turkish newspapers accused the Armenian American community and the ANCA of undermining Bryza’s nomination. The Washington-based influential “Politico” journal reported that Bryza had run into “opposition from the Armenian National Committee of America, a lobbying group.” The AzerNews Weekly blamed Bryza’s problems on “the Armenian Diaspora,” and Hurriyet, one of Turkey’s largest newspapers, reported that Bryza’s nomination was postponed “in response to pressure from Armenian lobby groups.”

According to some press reports, the Obama Administration may not be willing to use its political capital to save either nominee. Lincoln Mitchell, an expert on the south Caucasus at Columbia University, told RFE that he does not believe the administration is going to fight Senators from its own party to save Bryza. A similar assessment was made in Foreign Policy magazine by an aide to a Republican Senator about the administration’s unwillingness to rescue Ricciardone.

The prolonged absence of U.S. ambassadors to Baku and Ankara comes at a time of heightened tension in the relations between these two capitals and Washington. Given the Obama Administration’s multiple domestic and international crises on the eve of crucial elections in November, it is doubtful if it could afford to vigorously pursue the confirmation of its ambassadorial nominees for Azerbaijan and Turkey.


Harut Sassounian

California Courier Editor
Harut Sassounian is the publisher of The California Courier, a weekly newspaper based in Glendale, Calif. He is the president of the Armenia Artsakh Fund, a non-profit organization that has donated to Armenia and Artsakh $917 million of humanitarian aid, mostly medicines, since 1989 (including its predecessor, the United Armenian Fund). He has been decorated by the presidents of Armenia and Artsakh and the heads of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches. He is also the recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.


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