President Obama recently announced the nomination of Richard Morningstar as Ambassador to Azerbaijan. This comes hard on the heels of two typical moves by the Obama Administration: The failure to push through the nomination of Matthew Bryza against the President’s own party, and repeated denials that Morningstar would be the nominee.
Bryza was a very good ambassador, aware not only of the powder keg of the Nagorno-Karabakh, but also of the delicate politics in play in the region and the need to maintain good ties with Azerbaijan. He therefore came under withering assault from Armenian activists in the United States, for whom “neutrally or favorably disposed toward Azerbaijan” is code for “probably excuses the Armenian Genocide when no one is looking.” After Democratic Senators from California and New Jersey objected to Bryza’s appointment, the President, showing the spine that has made him famous, withdrew the nomination.
Morningstar is actually, on paper, a good replacement. A longtime diplomatic hand, Morningstar has been the State Department’s special envoy on Eurasian energy, and has longtime contacts in the region, including in Baku. Azerbaijan is of course a disproportionate source of natural gas and oil to the region — a possible alternative in energy security to Russia — and understanding this critical issue, and how Azerbaijan is leveraging it for international affairs and domestic development, is critical. The combination of his long experience with the region and the largest mineral issue is likely why Azerbaijan is hailing the nomination.
Because Azerbaijan is taking Morningstar with open arms, Armenia and the activists in its diaspora (on cue) are denouncing it, though they have not yet figured out why.
We can only hope the President develops some steel in his backbone for the inevitable nomination fight to come. Azerbaijan is a critical ally as tensions with Iran rise, as Russia continues to work to leverage its natural gas advantage, and as the peace process in the Nagorno-Karabakh looks increasingly likely to yield armed confrontation.
Simply put, we cannot afford to be without a capable ambassador in Baku. If the President needs to twist his own party’s arms to accomplish this in an election year, so be it.
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