BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
Armenian-Americans must strongly challenge Pres. Obama’s unilateral appointments of Matthew Bryza as Ambassador to Azerbaijan and Frank Ricciardone as Ambassador to Turkey. The President circumvented the U.S. Senate by taking advantage of the holidays to make these “recess appointments” on December 29.
While Pres. Obama has the legal authority to make such temporary appointments when the Senate is not in session, his unwise decision could have several serious consequences:
- Undermining the legitimacy and credibility of the new U.S. Ambassadors in the eyes of their host countries due to their appointment through an archaic loophole in the law rather than proper Senate confirmation.
- Antagonizing two prominent Senators of his own party – Barbara Boxer of California and Robert Menendez of New Jersey – who had placed a “hold” on Bryza’s nomination. Having already lost the Republican-controlled House, Obama now desperately needs every single vote in a Senate with a razor thin Democratic majority.
- Alienating the entire Senate by depriving the Senators of their mandate to confirm ambassadorial nominees.
- Burning all bridges between himself and Armenian-Americans who were some of his staunchest supporters in the last presidential election, having already broken his pledge on the Armenian Genocide, Artsakh’s self-determination, and financial assistance to Armenia.
Fortunately, Pres. Obama’s recess appointments are of a temporary nature and not considered full-term ambassadorships. They are only valid for one year rather than the usual three years. In order for Bryza and Ricciardone to serve as Ambassadors beyond 2011, Pres. Obama has to resubmit their names to the Senate and have them properly considered.
The Senate and the Armenian-American community have ample time to take all necessary steps to ensure that the President’s slap in their face does not go unnoticed and unchallenged. Both ambassadors should be sent back home by the end of this year.
Here are the steps that could be taken to derail Bryza’s Senate confirmation in the coming months:
- Closely scrutinize Bryza’s public statements, press conferences, and interviews in Baku to ensure that he is properly representing the interests of the United States in Azerbaijan rather than Azerbaijan’s interests in Washington.
- Publicize the documents submitted to the European Court of Human Rights by an Azeri journalist who claims that Azerbaijan’s former Minister of Economic Development had paid the expenses for Bryza’s lavish 2007 wedding in Istanbul. During the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings, Bryza testified under oath that his family had paid for his wedding. Should the European Court find that the government of Azerbaijan had indeed financed Bryza’s wedding, he would be indicted for lying under oath, not reporting to the IRS the gifts as income, and violating U.S. government’s gift acceptance and disclosure policy.
- Investigate all his oral and written statements made to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year in order to verify their truthfulness.
- Search for evidence of conflict of interest related to the employment of his Turkish-born wife, Zeyno Baran, as Director of the Center for Eurasian Policy at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think tank that has received funding from ExxonMobil and other energy companies doing business in the Caspian region. The Armenian National Committee of America has accused Bryza of violating federal ethics rules because of his wife’s connections to Turkish and Azerbaijani business interests.
- Contact Senators Boxer and Menendez who had placed a “hold” on Bryza’s nomination last year, urging them to block his confirmation once again, when Pres. Obama resubmits his name to the Senate. By doing so, the two Senators would be reaffirming their initial conviction that Bryza is not qualified to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan.
The Armenian community had not originally objected to Ricciardone’s nomination. However, since Pres. Obama has opposed several major Armenian initiatives and broken his promises on all of them, Armenian-Americans may consider expanding their opposition to the Obama administration on many fronts. They should support those Senators who may be inclined to place a “hold” against Ricciardione’s confirmation later this year. In view of Republican Senator Sam Brownback’s “hold” on Ricciardone’s nomination last year and the objection of leading conservative spokesmen to his recess appointment, Armenian-American organizations now have a unique opportunity to work closely with Republicans in opposing his confirmation later this year.
Should the Armenian-American community flex its political muscle and show that it is ready and able to defend its interests, it is likely that U.S. government officials would then be more attentive to Armenian issues.