State Department is to be Blamed for Delay in Sending Envoy to Armenia

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By Harut Sassounian
Publisher, the California Courier
July 24, 2008

The confirmation of Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. Ambassador Designate to Armenia, is being unnecessarily delayed due to the mishandling of her nomination by her superiors. Despite repeated requests, the State Department has adamantly refused to meet with a delegation representing major Armenian-American organizations in order to discuss the events leading to the dismissal of former Amb. John Evans and his future replacement.

The fact that the United States has not had an Ambassador in Armenia for more than two years is the fault of the Bush administration. To begin with, the White House unjustly recalled Amb. John Evans, a highly competent Foreign Service officer, and then nominated Amb. Richard Hoagland, a genocide denialist, whose name was withdrawn when it became clear that the Senate would not approve his nomination.

Pres. Bush waited until the last months of his presidency to designate the latest nominee, Amb. Yovanovitch. Rather than looking for ways to expedite the appointment of a new Ambassador in Armenia, State Department officials have completely ignored all overtures and goodwill gestures by the Armenian-American community to help resolve this impasse. It is important to note that none of the Armenian-American organizations has requested that the Senate reject Ms. Yovanovitch’s nomination, in contrast to their opposition to Amb. Hoagland. Furthermore, the Armenian government has repeatedly expressed its desire to have a U.S. Ambassador assigned to Yerevan as quickly as possible.

Amb. Yovanovitch is caught in an awkward situation. She is forced by her State Department superiors to give evasive and non-responsive answers to the Senators’ questions on the Armenian Genocide. As a competent and professional diplomat, she is fully capable of answering truthfully all questions addressed to her, if her hands were not tied. During the Senate hearing, she expressed genuine sympathy for the immense suffering of the Armenian people, given her own family background of Nazi persecution.

In an earlier column, I reported the written answers Amb. Yovanovitch had provided to five of eight members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who had submitted questions in writing after her hearing on June 19. Below are excerpts from questions -- recently made public -- submitted by the remaining three Senators. In view of her lengthy and evasive answers, I have provided the Senators’ questions along with some of her more meaningful responses.

Sen. Barack Obama (Democrat-Illinois):
-- "How do you characterize the Armenian Genocide?" Amb. Yovanovitch’s answer: "The U.S. Government acknowledges and mourns the mass killings, ethnic cleansing, and forced deportations that devastated over one and a half million Armenians at the end of the Ottoman Empire."
-- "If confirmed, what actions will you take to remember the victims of the Armenian Genocide?" She answered: "If confirmed, I will continue the tradition of participating in the official memorial event held in Yerevan every April. I will refer to this great historic catastrophe as the ‘Medz Yeghern’ [Great Calamity], the term often used within Armenia to refer to that dark chapter of history."
-- "What steps is the State Department taking to encourage greater study and recognition of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey?"
-- "How will you work with your counterparts in Ankara to decriminalize discussion of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey? Is the Department satisfied with recent modifications to Article 301 of Turkey’s Criminal Code that allowed individuals such as Hrant Dink to be persecuted for speaking about the Genocide?"

Sen. Norm Coleman (Republican-Minnesota):
-- "Do you acknowledge that the events in 1915 involved the annihilation of as many as 1.5 million Armenians through forced exile and murder at the hands of the Ottoman Empire?" She answered: "Yes."
-- "In your view, what specific actions should the United States take to convince the Turkish government that a global campaign of genocide denial and intimidation of 3rd parties that seek to reaffirm this crime against humanity serve no constructive purpose?"
-- "As Ambassador to Armenia, what will you do to assure the Armenian government and its people that the United States is mindful of the facts and ongoing unresolved consequences of the events of 1915?"
-- "As you know, Armenia continues to offer full relations to Turkey without preconditions, and a bi-lateral commission to deal with historic and contemporary issues that presently divide the two nations. As Ambassador to Armenia, what specific steps will you take with your counterpart serving in Turkey to hasten the normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey and to secure an affirmative response from Turkey to Armenia’s offer of a bi-lateral commission?"

Sen. Russell Feingold (Democrat-Wisconsin):
-- "What conditions must be met for the administration to finally recognize the slaughter of over 1.5 million Armenians during WWI by the Ottoman Empire as ‘genocide’? Specifically, if the Republic of Turkey recognized the genocide, would the United States then recognize it also? Additionally, how is the President’s policy on recognizing the Armenian Genocide different from the Turkish government’s policy?" In her answer, Amb. Yovanovitch drew a clear distinction between the U.S. government’s acknowledgment of the facts of the genocide and Turkey’s denialism."
-- "Should you be confirmed, how will you work to promote Armenian-Turkish reconciliation in a direction that would lead to full recognition of the Armenian genocide by Turkey and the United States?"

It now remains to be seen whether the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will find Amb. Yovanovitch’s answers satisfactory. If not, Sen. Barbara Boxer (Dem.-CA), who delayed her confirmation last month, may do so again. Another postponement would effectively kill her nomination due to the Senate’s inactivity during the summer and upcoming elections. The next U.S. President may re-nominate her and may allow her to tell the truth on the Armenian Genocide!