BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
President Obama has an endless number of problems these days. Late last year, when Senators blocked several of his ambassadorial nominees, including the one to Turkey, the president resorted to the rarely used tactic of appointing Ambassadors without Senate approval, while Congress is in recess.
Unfortunately for Pres. Obama, his unconventional fix could be short-lived. If by the year’s end the Senate does not confirm his “recess appointments,” these Ambassadors must abandon their posts and return home in ignominy.
Obama’s nominee to Turkey, Amb. Francis Ricciardone, was in Washington on August 2, to see if the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would confirm his appointment. During his appearance before the Committee, he antagonized several Senators by making statements that were replete with Turkish propaganda. When confronted with Turkey’s deplorable policies on human rights, its occupation of Cyprus, and denial of the Armenian Genocide, the Ambassador gave a series of evasive and dubious answers.
In response to a question from Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) as to whether the United States had ever denied the Armenian Genocide, Amb. Ricciardone regurgitated his poorly memorized talking point: “I stand behind Pres. Obama’s characterization of the ‘Yedz Meghern’ [sic], as the Armenians themselves call it….” Unfortunately, he mispronounced “Medz Yeghern” by reversing the first letters of the two words, making it clear that he had no idea what he was talking about. If he really wanted to use an Armenian word, he could have simply said “tseghasbanoutyoun,” which means genocide!
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will reconvene in September to consider Amb. Ricciardone’s nomination after reviewing his written responses to questions submitted by the Senators following the August 2 hearing. We have obtained copies of the six responses Amb. Ricciardone sent to Sen. Menendez last week. The questions covered such issues as Prime Minister Erdogan’s “authoritarian tendencies,” the return of Christian churches to their rightful owners, Turkey’s refusal to remove its troops from Cyprus, Turkish banks circumventing U.S. sanctions on Iran, Turkey’s blockade of Armenia, and U.S. policy on the Armenian Genocide.
Amb. Ricciardone avoided responding to just about every question he was asked. The one time that he did give an answer, he got himself in big trouble by making the following patently false statement:
Sen. Menendez: “To the best of your knowledge, approximately how many of the more than 2,000 Christian churches functioning prior to 1915 on the territory of present-day Turkey are still operating today as churches?”
Amb. Ricciardone: “Most of the Christian churches functioning prior to 1915 are still operating as churches. Some churches of significance operate as museums. The remaining have fallen into disrepair or were converted to mosques for lack of use.”
This is simply an incredible answer from a seasoned Ambassador who is supposed to be extremely knowledgeable about Turkey, since he has had several postings in that country and speaks fluent Turkish. Ricciardone’s problem is that he identifies himself too closely with Turkey. A year ago, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) placed a “hold” on Amb. Ricciardone’s nomination, accusing him of “quickly adopting the positions and arguments of his Egyptian diplomatic counterparts,” during his posting in Cairo. “Given these questions, I am not convinced Amb. Ricciardone is the right Ambassador for Turkey at this time,” Sen. Brownback advised Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in his August 16, 2010 letter.
Amb. Ricciardone is now making the same mistake in his new posting in Turkey. He has actually become the mouthpiece of the Turkish government rather than the official representative of the United States in Ankara! Unfortunately, Sen. Brownback is no longer in the Senate to place a new “hold” on Amb. Ricciardone, but there must be other Senators who will do so, to make sure that an American Ambassador upholds U.S. interests overseas rather than do the bidding of the host country.
How could anyone explain, let alone justify, Amb. Ricciardone’s nonsensical and false assertion that most of the Christian churches in existence prior to 1915 in Turkey are still functioning as churches? In fact, the exact opposite is true! Only a handful of Christian churches are still functioning as churches in Turkey today, not counting the few dozen Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian churches of Istanbul. Amb. Ricciardone’s vulgar attempt to justify the conversion of churches into museums or mosques is a supreme insult to all Christians.
Amb. Ricciardone has clearly disqualified himself from serving as U.S. Ambassador to Turkey. One or more Senators should place a new “hold” on his nomination to keep him away from doing any more harm to U.S. national interests!