Pres. Obama Can Now Replace Bryza With a New Nominee as Envoy to Baku

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By Harut Sassounian
Publisher, The California Courier
Sept. 30, 2010

A funny thing happened to Matthew Bryza on the way to Baku! He had rented out his Washington home and packed up his suitcase, after being assured by top White House and State Department officials that he was going to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan. He could already smell the oil and gas in the air!

In his excitement, Bryza seemed to have forgotten that his irresponsible statements and actions, during his stunt as U.S. negotiator on the Karabagh (Artsakh) conflict, had antagonized some of his Washington colleagues and others in the Caucasus.

More than a year ago, when the U.S. Ambassador’s post in Baku became vacant, Bryza brashly told everyone in Washington that he wanted to be, nay, he was going to be, the next Ambassador to Azerbaijan! He immediately hit a snag, when Pres. Aliyev informed the White House that he was neither pleased with Obama administration’s policies in the Caucuses nor with its self-proclaimed Wunderkind (boy wonder)!

Azerbaijan was unhappy because: 1) the United States and Bryza were pushing Turkey to open its border with Armenia, in the absence of any progress on the Artsakh conflict; 2) Congress had allocated another $10 million to Artsakh, despite strong objections from Baku; and 3) Armenia’s President was, while Pres. Aliyev was not, invited to the 47-nation Nuclear Security Summit in Washington.

Bryza also had opponents within the Obama administration. After months of internal bickering among Washington officials over Bryza’s nomination, Pres. Obama finally submitted his name in May to the Senate as the next envoy to Azerbaijan. Shortly thereafter, Pres. Obama dispatched two high-ranking cabinet officials, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Baku in order to appease Pres. Aliyev and give him the necessary assurances on Bryza.

During Bryza’s Foreign Relations Committee hearing in July, several Senators asked him pointed questions regarding his statements and activities while serving as Artsakh negotiator. They also raised serious concerns about possible conflicts of interest involving his wife and gifts the couple may have received for their wedding from Azeri government officials. Senators Barbara Boxer, Robert Menendez, Russ Feingold, Committee chair John Kerry, and Majority Leader Harry Reid were not satisfied with Bryza’s incomplete and evasive answers, despite repeated follow-up written questions. This did not bode well for his ambassadorial ambitions, as all five Senators are Democrats who would normally back a Democratic President’s nominee.

In early August, frustrated by Bryza’s unresponsiveness, Sen. Boxer asked the Foreign Relations Committee to postpone the vote on his nomination. After a delay of six weeks, when the majority of Committee members voted on Sept. 21 to confirm Bryza, Senators Boxer and Menendez had no choice but to place a "hold," in order to block the ratification of his nomination by the full Senate. Indicating serious concerns with the qualifications of this controversial nominee, the two Senators resorted to the rare practice of placing a double "hold," freezing any further Senate consideration on his nomination until next January at the latest, when the new Senate starts its session. Pres. Obama has to decide then whether to resubmit his name or propose a new nominee.

Until January, the President has the unlikely option of making a "recess appointment." He could appoint Bryza as Ambassador to Azerbaijan without Senate confirmation, while the Senate is in recess. The disadvantages of such a rare move are twofold: 1) Bryza would be handicapped in carrying out his diplomatic duties, as he would not enjoy the confidence of the U.S. Senate; and 2) the President would antagonize the Senators by depriving them of their constitutional mandate of "advise and consent."

The ideal option for Pres. Obama would be to abandon Bryza’s flawed candidacy and name another less controversial nominee who could be confirmed by the Senate. Such a move would dispatch quickly the next U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan, after a 15-month absence. In contrast, renominating Bryza in January would delay the posting of such an Ambassador for several more months!

Seeing its Wunderkind in serious trouble, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), bastion of the neo-cons and oil and gas lobbies, published a vicious editorial against Sen. Boxer and the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) the day before the Committee vote, attempting to intimidate Bryza’s opponents. After the "hold," a nastier editorial was published by the Washington Post against Senators Boxer and Menendez, and ANCA.

These vicious attacks had the exact opposite effect -- they inadvertently helped promote the political clout of ANCA and the Armenian-American community in Washington!