Embassy Row: Diplomatic dispute reopened

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President Obama inevitably reopened a bedeviling dispute when he nominated a senior diplomat to serve as ambassador to Azerbaijan, which is locked in a deadly conflict with neighboring Armenia.

Azerbaijan is rich in oil and natural gas and a key player in the Great Game of energy politics in the Caucasus. But Armenia is rich in the politics of Washington, where the landlocked nation with no energy resources has powerful friends on Capitol Hill.

Whenever a U.S. president nominates an ambassador to either country, the longstanding conflict between the nations dominates the questioning at Senate confirmation hearings.

Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Jeanne Shaheed of New Hampshire quizzed Richard Morningstar when he appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week.

The two senators, both Democrats who have a significant number of Armenian-Americans in their states, questioned Mr. Morningstar about Azerbaijan’s relations with Armenia.

Mr. Menendez noted that Azerbaijani President Ilam Aliyev recently warned that “our main enemies are the Armenians of the world.”

Mr. Aliev added that “Armenians will live in fear” as long as they occupy an ethnic-Armenian enclave called Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas, which comprise about 20 percent of Azerbaijan.

The two countries fought a six-year war over the territory that ended in 1994 after the death of about 4,600 people and the displacement of more than 1 million.

Mr. Morningstar, who has dealt with U.S. interests in the region as a special envoy, called those comments “counterproductive.” However, he also said the United States has an interest in selling military equipment to Azerbaijan to help it defend against possible aggression from Iran, its southern neighbor.

Mr. Menendez asked Mr. Morningstar about the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Turkish Empire during World War I. Armenian-Americans regularly pressure U.S. presidents to recognize the killings as the “Armenian Genocide,” but most U.S. leaders, including Mr. Obama, have called the massacre everything but “genocide” to avoid angering Turkey, a key NATO ally.

“I have to ask you whether or not you contest any of the facts of what transpired in 1915, as it relates to 1.5 million Armenians who were brutally massacred and marched to their deaths in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire,” Mr. Menendez asked.

“No, I do not,” Mr. Morningstar replied.

Mr. Menendez helped block Mr. Obama’s last choice for ambassador to Azerbaijan, Matthew Bryza, because he suspected the career diplomat had close personal ties to Mr. Aliyev and other Azerbaijani powerbrokers. Mr. Obama bypassed the Senate and named Mr. Bryza in a one-year recess appointment, which expired in January.

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About the Author
James Morrison

James Morrison

James Morrison joined the The Washington Times in 1983 as a local reporter covering Alexandria, Va. A year later, he was assigned to open a Times bureau in Canada. From 1987 to 1989, Mr. Morrison was The Washington Times reporter in London, covering Britain, Western Europe and NATO issues. After returning to Washington, he served as an assistant foreign editor ...

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