Matthew Bryza, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, speaking at a May 19, 2009 press conference at the United Nations Office at Geneva following talks on Georgia. / Photo by Eric Bridiers, via flickr.com/us-mission

An Ambassador Who Never Was? Matthew Bryza, Azerbaijan & the Armenian Lobby

by | September 27th, 2010 | 4 comments
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The nomination of Matthew Bryza as a potential ambassador of the US to Azerbaijan and the subsequent controversy and rivalry have resulted in an intense media blitz in some Armenian media outlets and also in some high-profile newspapers like the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.

Some questions that were asked by both supporters and opponents of Bryza included: Is Bryza’s nomination opposed by Armenians because of his bias toward Azerbaijan? Is the same nomination supported by the “oil lobby”? Is Bryza an asset for US diplomacy? Is the blocking of Bryza’s nomination in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by Senators Barbara Boxer and Robert Menendez an attempt to woo Armenian voters ahead of the mid-term elections?

As “blasphemous” and as odd as it may sound, the answer to all these questions is “yes”; in other words, both supporters and opponents of Bryza’s nomination are correct in their arguments. This being said, a disclaimer is in order: it should not at all be concluded from the words above that this piece is an attempt to offer an “objective” justification of any side, nor is it the word of an undecided observer; rather, the following are some observations about the claim that they are absolutely correct and that those who disagree with it are absolutely wrong.

The first observation that needs to be made is the reality that any time a US foreign policy issue is discussed and has something to do with Azerbaijan/Turkey, the Armenian lobby groups are always ready to take up arms to achieve — what they believe — a goal amiable to Armenia and Armenians. This, however, in no way means that the Armenian lobbies in the US are Armenia lobbies (the distinction between “Armenian” and “Armenia” lobbies is based on a an analogy made to the ideas expressed by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their 2007 book titled The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, where the authors wanted to make sure that the term “Jewish lobby” is erroneous and that Israel lobby would better describe the work of various lobby groups supporting Israel). The relentless effort made by the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) to block, or at least delay, the nomination of Bryza has bore some fruits but has also gave an opportunity to the WSJ and Washington Post, along with the executive branch of the US government, to demonize the ANCA as a disruptor and an ethnic lobby which holds US foreign policy a hostage. Within this context, one thing that stands out is that even if the Armenian lobby managed to oppose, disrupt and “alter” US foreign policy, it did so without name calling or using derogative and passive-aggressive remarks, something that the opinion pieces in WSJ and the Washington Post failed to do.

Another observation is that while Bryza’s long experience in Foreign Service under various administrations is definitely an asset for US diplomacy, his track record in the South Caucasus leaves much to be desired and is far from being a success story. The reference here is not whether or not Bryza is biased towards Azerbaijan; rather, it is the more symptomatic phenomenon of the inability of the OSCE Minsk group to achieve any progress on the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations. On the contrary, one could go further and claim that, under Bryza’s watch, tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan have escalated.

The argument that Bryza has intimate knowledge of Azerbaijan and has indirect connections with the Aliyev regime is used to oppose his nomination, whereas, in reality, it is an advantage for any diplomat to have an in-depth knowledge of the workings of the politics of the country where he/she is serving. This doesn’t mean that the State Department might get a “tainted” view of Azerbaijan from “Ambassador” Bryza; on the contrary, in a part of the world where personal, rather than formal, contacts yield more results, Bryza’s presence in Baku might be more beneficial for US foreign policy circles.

Expanding the scope of analysis and looking at the issue from a geopolitical angle — something that has not been explicitly expressed by mainstream Armenian or American media — it has been over 15 months that Baku has not had an American ambassador, a reality that could allow Moscow to exercise more pressure and establish a stronger foothold in Azerbaijan. This Russian expansion could lead Azerbaijan to “defect” from the West and return to Russia’s orbit, thus seriously undermining the perceived notion that Russia’s only reliable ally in the South Caucasus is Armenia but also, and more importantly, fundamentally shifting the balance of power in the region in Azerbaijan’s favor.

Throughout the Senate confirmation hearings, while the Armenian lobby came across as an influential body that could pressure US foreign policy makers, a key question that lingers on is: Does the effort and energy used to block this appointment justify the outcome? In other words, does having an anti-Azerbaijan policy translate into a pro-Armenian one?

It is quite possible that Bryza will end up being confirmed and take on his responsibilities as State Department’s point person in Baku. When that happens, the Armenian lobby, as well as Armenia, should be ready for more pressure and more isolation, not from the West alone but also from the North as Washington and Moscow try to appease Baku for the “neglect” that they have shown towards Azerbaijan.


  1. Tamar says:

    Dear Asbed, Thank you for this interesting article and for highlighting a few concerns really for any Armenian – whether in the US or Armenia.

    If I may humbly comment to this piece…

    Regarding your first observation, you explain, “the Armenian lobby groups are always ready to take up arms to achieve — what they believe — a goal amiable to Armenia and Armenians.” Now I’m curious, is the Armenian lobby’s agenda solely focused on acting retroactively to what happens re: Azerbaijan and Turkey? If so, how productive is that really? Shouldn’t we as Armenian Americans push to be emancipated from Azerbaijan and Turkey’s grip in determining what we ourselves think is amiable to Armenia and Armenians?

    As to your point re: Azerbaijan not having an American ambassador and Russians trying to strengthen their influence — Russia has been trying to strengthen its hold in the region for a long time really. Certainly it might find this as an opportunity to further its aspiration, but I guess I’m not sure why this might make it more of a pressing issue now/today? In fact, isn’t the current geopolitical balance of power in Azerbaijan’s favor today anyway?

  2. Tamar says:

    Correction: I meant to say Now I’m curious, is the Armenian lobby’s agenda solely focused on acting REACTIVELY to what happens re: Azerbaijan and Turkey?

  3. Asbed Kotchikian says:

    Hi Tamar and thanks for the comments.

    I don’t believe that the Armenian lobby acts explicitly in a reactive way, on the contrary in more than one issue they are proactive and it is the Turkish and Azerbaijani side which has to react to advances made by ANCA and AAA in DC. what I intended to mention in this context is that had the lobby groups taken action to support an ambassador that would have been “good” for Armenia that would have been a proactive action. This case gave the lobby groups an opportunity to flex their muscles and show that they can influence US policy makers by disrupting a process. Something which while is impressive, it does not justify the results in terms of efforts put to achieve it.

    Regarding the issue of Russian advancement in Baku, true it’s an ongoing tango that Moscow plays with Baku however many Azerbaijani analysts and mass media have expressed extreme disappointment that Bryza’s confirmation is taking so long (the issue is not about the person of Bryza but the fact that Baku does not have a US ambassador over a year now). In the past Azerbaijan was able to “fend off” Russian advances because of support from the US, at this time a feeling of abandonment from the US might push them towards Russia, if not for strategic realignment then at least for spite.

    I hope I was able to address your concerns and thanks once again for your insightful comment.