BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
As a result of successive political blunders by the Obama administration, Matthew Bryza was forced to abandon his ambassadorial post in Azerbaijan last week.
President Obama ignored repeated warnings that the candidate he was nominating as Ambassador to Azerbaijan in May 2010 had serious flaws. Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee accused Bryza of having a pro-Azerbaijani bias and questionable ties to Azeri officials. The Senators were troubled by reports that foreign officials had given Bryza lavish gifts at his Istanbul wedding, during which the Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan had served as a groomsman. In addition, the nominee’s Turkish-born wife Zeyno Baran was accused of conflicts of interest while working on Caspian energy issues at a Washington think tank. She had also antagonized the Armenian-American community by testifying against recognition of the Armenian Genocide at a Senate Subcommittee hearing.
When President Obama failed to take these concerns seriously, Senators Barbara Boxer (Dem.-CA) and Robert Menendez (Dem.-New Jersey) had no choice but to place a hold on Bryza’s nomination, effectively blocking his confirmation. Obama then compounded his error by appointing Bryza as Ambassador to Azerbaijan in late 2010 without Senate approval. The President seemed oblivious to the potential damage to his own reputation, the prestige of the United States, and U.S.-Azeri relations, should the Senate not confirm Bryza’s nomination, forcing him to leave his post and return to Washington upon expiration of his 12-month appointment.
As Amb. Bryza’s temporary assignment was ending in December 2011, Obama administration officials pressured Senators Boxer and Menendez to allow him to continue serving in Azerbaijan by confirming his nomination. The two Senators remained steadfast in opposing Bryza, even though it is not easy for these Democratic politicians to turn down a request from the President of the United States, who also happens to be the nominal leader of their own party.
The Senators were also pressured by the government of Azerbaijan and its powerful lobbying firms which went into overdrive to justify their exorbitant fees. Through their special connections they were able to get the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post to publish editorials attacking the Senators and the Armenian National Committee of America which had spearheaded a public campaign against this unqualified Ambassadorial nominee.
Not surprisingly, the Wall Street Journal heaped lavish praise on Bryza, calling him a “respected career foreign service officer,” and accused the two Senators of “kissing up to the Armenian-American lobby.”
The Washington Post was even nastier. Its editorial could be described as outright racist and anti-Armenian. Contrary to its claim of defending “the larger U.S. national interest,” the newspaper was actually advocating the confirmation of an Ambassador with questionable credentials who would weaken, rather than strengthen America’s interests.
The Washington Post concluded its shameful editorial by accusing “oil-poor” and “isolated” Armenia as being the biggest loser in the Bryza controversy. We beg to disagree. This is an American issue and Armenia had no role in it. In fact, the biggest losers are those who lobbied long and hard for the confirmation of an ill-qualified Ambassador who was more intent on serving the interests of Baku in Washington than those of America in Azerbaijan.
In my opinion, the real losers are:
1. President Obama who picked a poorly qualified nominee and stubbornly pushed for his confirmation when it was crystal clear from day one that Bryza did not have the chance of a snowball in hell to get confirmed.
2. The government of Azerbaijan which spent a fortune on lobbyists who miserably failed to get the job done.
3. Azeri and Turkish organizations, such as the Azerbaijani-American Council, Azerbaijan Society of America, Pax Turcica Institute, US Azeris Network, and Assembly of Turkish-American Associations, which issued countless press releases and sent thousands of e-mails to the Senate — to no avail. By supporting Bryza, they confirmed that in fact he was “their man,” and not an unbiased diplomat.
4. The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post which compromised their journalistic integrity to please their “petro-friends.”
5. The 36 former U.S. officials who signed a joint letter urging the Senate to confirm Bryza. It is no mere coincidence that most of these signatories are currently associated with think tanks and lobbying firms that are funded by Azerbaijan or expect such funding in the future.
There are, however, two clear winners:
1. The Armenian-American community which has sent a loud and clear message to Baku, Ankara, and Washington that it represents a powerful political force to be reckoned with.
2. Matthew Bryza and his wife, who as lobbyists for Azerbaijan and Turkey, can be expected to make millions by cashing in on their high-level connections in Baku and Ankara.