Sen. Barbara Boxer’s decision to delay Senate Foreign Relations Committee consideration of Matt Bryza’s controversial nomination as U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan is the latest chapter in a 20-year history to ensure a balanced U.S. policy toward the Caucasus region, which respects the right to self-determination of the people of Nagorno Karabakh.
Her years in the House of Representatives fighting for Armenian Genocide legislation are well documented. In 1991, with a newly independent Armenia and a Karabakh independence movement in full swing, Sen. Boxer became among the first Congressional Members – if not the first, to travel to Armenia to personally assess the situation there and advise her colleagues about the plight of the fledgling democracy.
Her pursuit of convincing answers to crucial questions for Matthew Bryza, President Obama’s nominee for the ambassadorial post in Baku – from cross-examining Bryza during the July 22 hearing to submitting detailed follow-up written questions – has its roots in her keen knowledge and understanding of the issues and the region.
So, when she placed a hold on a vote for approval of Bryza’s nomination, she was truly dissatisfied at the answers the nominee gave to her questions and that of other senators in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Long before Bryza slithered his way into upper echelons of the Azeri government and cozyed up to the Baku elite, Sen. Boxer was on the trenches advocating assistance to Armenia, security for Nagorno-Karabakh citizens, advancement of US-Armenia relations and recognition of the Armenian Genocide.
Realizing the devastating effects of Azerbaijan’s 20 year blockade of Armenia and Karabakh, Sen. Boxer has been a vocal advocate for Section 907 restrictions on U.S. assistance to that country. In 1999, when the Section 907 came under attack from the Clinton Administration, the Azerbaijani lobby, and the oil industry, she fought back against efforts to weaken or repeal this much-needed law, Sen. Boxer was adamant: “We believe that Section 907 made sense when it was enacted and that it continues to make sense today. To waive it in the absence of any progress toward a lifting of the blockade would reward the Government of Azerbaijan for its intransigence and remove a major incentive for good-faith negotiation from one side in the conflict.”
Learning of the Azerbaijani destruction of the 1300 year old Armenian cemetery in Djulfa, in 2006, Sen. Boxer pressed then U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan nominee Anne Derse on the topic and US Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Reno Harnish, for not visiting the site of the destruction despite efforts by the European Union to address this matter.
Similarly, in successive nomination hearings for U.S. Ambassador to Turkey nominees James Jeffery and, now, Francis Ricciardoni as well as U.S. Ambassador to Armenia nominees Dick Hoagland and Marie Yovanovitch – Senator Boxer consistently took her Senate oversight responsibilities seriously – asking tough questions about U.S. policy on the Armenian Genocide and Turkey’s blockade of Armenia.
Senator Boxer questioned Hoagland during the confirmation process, and voted in Committee against his nomination, which was eventually the subject of two “holds” by Senator Menendez and later withdrawn by President Bush. She noted, at the time, referencing Ambassador John Evans’ statement in February 2005 properly characterizing the Armenian Genocide as “genocide,” that: “I agree with Ambassador Evans’ statement. Not only should we not play word games with a matter as serious as genocide, we should also not play political games with issues of genocide.” The ultimate failure of the Hoagland nomination was due, in large part, to his denialist response to a written question about the Armenian Genocide submitted by Senator Boxer.
Bryza’s responses to questions from Boxer and other Senate leaders are unsatisfactory at best and reveal his inability to represent US interests in the region, without his conflict of interests and prejudices getting in the way.
Boxer should be praised for her leadership on delaying the Bryza vote and acknowledged for her continued support of Armenian-American issues in Congress. She should also be called upon to oppose the nomination and ensure that the right person is representing US interests in the Caucasus.