Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Just Who Represents The Entire Country?

A very experienced and highly qualified U.S. State Department officer recently had his appointment as ambassador to Azerbaijan blocked by a couple of senators that are locked into close re-election campaigns. Why? Because the lobby for the Armenian Diaspora in the United States felt that the officer, Mat Bryza, was insufficiently anti-Turkish or pro-Armenian.

You can be forgiven for wondering just what Armenia, Turkey, or Azerbaijan have to do with elections in the United States, or why any group representing any particular nationality should have the right to set American foreign policy. The answer in this vitriolic political season is all about votes. The Armenian Diaspora lobby is particularly loud in California. And, just by pure coincidence, Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer is locked into a close election fight with the Republican challenger Carly Fiorina – the former CEO of Hewlett Packard who was bounced out of that job after a short, controversial reign. Senator Boxer needs every vote she can get and agreed to block Bryza’s appointment in hopes of gaining the California Armenians’ support at the ballot box. It’s doubtful that Senator Boxer could find any of these countries on a map or has more than a hazy notion of what the obscure issues are. But she has a very good grasp of California’s complex electoral mathematics.

The Armenian Diaspora has been trying desperately for years to get the United States to agree that massacres of Armenians during deportations in the Ottoman Empire almost 100 years ago amounted to genocide. In addition, the small land-locked, impoverished nation of Armenia in the middle of the volatile Caucasus region has been arguing and fighting with Azerbaijan since the early 1980s over a barren piece of land called Nagorno-Karabakh. With me so far? In the narrow world of the Diaspora, anyone who is not actively supporting its pet causes, however right or wrong, is deemed an enemy. This is the camp into which the unfortunate Mr. Bryza seems to have fallen

The question is not so much the rights or wrongs of these particular issues, about which people have been arguing and will continue to argue for years to come, but over the impact of these arguments on overall American foreign policy. The United States has critically important relations with both Turkey and Azerbaijan, relations that transcend the concerns of any one, narrow group. The United States needs superior diplomatic representatives in both countries. And yet the narrow self-interest of a single group appears to have hijacked overall American policy and put that representation at risk.

The efforts of smaller groups like the American-Armenians or the Greek-Americans are often dwarfed by the major Israeli-American interest groups like AIPAC, but they are no less distracting to formation of a genuine, national American foreign policy.

Some of these actions, however, are not without humour, however unintentional. Recently a group of Greek-Americans took it upon themselves to attempt to stage an Orthodox religious service at the Haghia Sophia cathedral in Istanbul. Forget that the last Christian service was held in this church in early May 1453. That’s 1453, not even 1953, more than 500 years ago. It became a Moslem place of worship after the Ottoman conquest in 1453. The government of the young Turkish Republic was aggressively secular and determined in the 1930s that this monument should become a museum with no religious services of any kind. And then along come our Greek-Americans trying to turn the clock back a few hundred years. Does one weep or laugh?

The Greek government in Athens and the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul were horrified at this attempt, and hastened to assure the Turks that they had nothing whatsoever to do with it. Fortunately for all concerned this hapless group finally abandoned its efforts just before touching off yet another major controversy in one of the most sensitive parts of the world.

But the effort highlights just how out of touch many of the Diaspora groups are with current conditions in the home country and region. Most of these groups are completely unaware of the subtle, yet meaningful changes in the foreign policy of the country their parents or grandparents left decades ago. Turkey and Greece, for example, have been working hard to overcome ancient hostilities and develop a more rational relationship. Many Greek businessmen are working hard to expand into Turkey and capitalize on that country’s large market. Something like the Haghia Sophia fiasco could have had serious negative consequences for these positive developments. On a more personal scale many locals are bemused and often offended by the patronizing attitude of returning Americans who seem to think that the country remains the impoverished wreck it was when their grandparents left 60 years ago.

Similarly Turkey and Armenia have been trying to find ways to normalize their relationship – to the horror of the Diaspora. The struggling Armenian people need all the help they can get, and a normal relationship with their much larger neighbour would be a good place to start. The economic situation in Armenia is so dire that, even though the border is officially closed, several thousand Armenians have found jobs in Turkey. Instead of helping the positive development of this relationship, elements in the Diaspora are doing all they can to derail it.

The United States is a large country with a complex, dynamic web of relationships around the world -- relationships that extend far beyond the constricted boundaries of single interest groups. Pride in one’s historical homeland and a desire to maintain cultural links are admirable traits, but it would be useful if members of the more vocal interest groups remember that, ultimately, they are just a single part of a very large American mosaic, and do not represent the entire nation.

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