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Senate Holds up Confirmation of New Ambassador to Armenia

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By Harut Sassounian
Publisher, The California Courier
July 6, 2006

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week postponed the confirmation of Richard Hoagland, the Ambassador to Armenia Designate, in response to sharp criticism by the Armenian-American community, members of U.S. Congress and the media.

By holding up the confirmation of Amb. Hoagland, the Senate panel clearly wanted to indicate its displeasure with the White House and State Department for the dismissal of the current Ambassador to Armenia, John Evans, who used the term "Armenian Genocide" last year during remarks at an Armenian-American gathering in California.

On June 28, three nominees for U.S. ambassadorships to Ireland, Switzerland and Armenia appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. With scant attention being paid to the Ambassadors Designate for Ireland and Switzerland, the Senators spent the entire hour-long hearing to pepper Amb. Hoagland with numerous questions regarding the Bush Administration's refusal to characterize the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 as genocide.

Later that day, the nominations of Ambassadors Designate for Ireland and Switzerland were approved by the Foreign Relations Committee and the full Senate on the following day. The nomination of Amb. Hoagland, however, languished in committee for an undetermined length of time, thus placing an informal hold on his nomination.

After ignoring for months all inquiries from Members of Congress and the American public, the State Dept. was finally given an ultimatum by Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, the Ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, just days before the Senate confirmation hearing. In a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Sen. Biden asked a series of very tough questions and warned that unless he received appropriate answers, he would "not be prepared to move forward with any Senate action that would prematurely end" the tenure of Amb. Evans. Even though the State Dept. was alarmed enough to respond immediately to Sen. Biden, the reply of Jeffrey T. Bergner, Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs, was largely non-responsive. In addition, Bergner's letter contained several misrepresentations, such as alleging that Amb. Evans had in fact resigned from his post (after being fired!) and that the Turkish government had no contact with the Bush Administration on this issue (contradicting Turkish press reports).

Pushing for dialogue between Armenians and Turks, Bergner touted as a positive accomplishment the legal analysis of the Armenian Genocide conducted by the International Center for Transitional Justice, under the auspices of the Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission. Since the State Dept. seems to be so proud of the study it had funded, why does it not then adopt its verdict that qualified the systematic killings of Armenians as genocide?

Lastly, after quoting Pres. Bush's words that described what took place in 1915 as "the forced exile and mass killing of as many as 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman troops," which in fact is an acknowledgment of genocide without actually using that term, Bergner suggested that the characterization of this "tragedy" should be "determined through heartfelt dialogue, not through diplomatic or political proclamation." Did Mr. Bergner realize that by saying so, he was in fact qualifying as useless Pres. Bush's annual April 24 statements, and slighting Pres. Reagan's Presidential Proclamation of 1981 that referred to the Armenian Genocide as well as the two resolutions adopted by the House of Representatives on this issue in 1975 and 1984?

In addition to Sen. Biden, eight other Senators -- six of whom are members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- took issue with the Bush Administration's evasiveness on the Armenian Genocide. Senators John Kerry (D-MA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Christopher Dodd (D-CT), Lincoln Chafee (R-RI), Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Paul Sarbanes (D-MD) wrote strongly worded letters to the State Dept. or submitted written questions to Amb. Hoagland regarding the Bush Administration's policy on the Armenian Genocide. Sen. Sarbanes also delivered lengthy and highly critical remarks during the Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

Particularly noteworthy was the interrogation of Amb. Hoagland by Republican Senators George Allen of Virginia and Norm Coleman of Minnesota. Sen. Allen, who chaired the Foreign Relations Committee's confirmation hearing, and Sen. Coleman, a member of that panel, did not shy away from sharply criticizing their own Republican Administration's unacceptable position on the Armenian Genocide and its refusal to provide a clear explanation for the dismissal of Amb. Evans.

In his opening remarks, Sen. Allen said: "Many of my colleagues refer to the tragic events of 1915 as a genocide and have strongly encouraged the President to do so as well. I hope that in the future our Administration will recognize this terrible event for what it was -- genocide."

Sen. Coleman added: "I am of the Jewish faith. I cannot imagine an Ambassador to Israel being effective without talking about the Holocaust. I am not sure how we can continue to have Ambassadors to Armenia who can be effective, unless they give recognition to the Genocide."

Mr. Hoagland, who is currently the U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan, was caught in the horns of a dilemma. Realizing full well that his predecessor, Amb. Evans, had lost his job for saying "Armenian Genocide," he carefully sidestepped using that term during the hearing. On the other hand, he was cognizant of the fact that unless he and the Bush Administration appease the disgruntled Senators and incensed Armenian Americans, he runs the risk of not getting confirmed! Pressed by Sen. Coleman, Amb. Hoagland finally pledged that, if confirmed, he would use proper internal channels to raise with State Dept. officials the issue of the acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide.

The hour-long confirmation hearing of Amb. Hoagland turned into a comprehensive and critical review of the Bush Administration's unacceptable position on the Armenian Genocide. It now remains to be seen whether the State Dept. and the White House would be more forthcoming on this issue and provide an honest explanation for the dismissal of Amb. Evans. Until then, Amb. Hoagland's confirmation may languish in the Senate.

Clearly, the Senate and the Administration have taken seriously the concerns expressed by the Armenian American community. Given this initial success, it is now incumbent on everyone to thank the Senators - particularly Sen. Allen and Sen. Coleman - who supported the Armenian demands and ask them to continue pressing the State Dept. and the White House on this issue.