BY YUSIF ALIYEV, POLITICS SECTION
Donald Trump’s victory in the American presidential election confused a fairly large number of political and near-political actors around the world. Not an exception was the expert community, which for the most part of the previous year was dismissing even the possibility of Trump's coming to power. At the same time, special concern today is observed in the circles of the Armenian political elite and expert community.
After all, if it was previously believed that Trump would pursue a policy of appeasement towards Russia and, accordingly, it would influence the US-Armenian relations in a positive way, Trump's recent harsh political decisions, which are in conflict with the interests of the Kremlin in the Middle East, and now on the Korean peninsula, forced the Armenian circles to reconsider their position.
Our attention was attracted by a very interesting and informative article published on the Armenian internet portal Mediamax (mediamax.am). The author of the article is Areg Galstyan - PhD, who is a regular contributor to the most authoritative American magazines The National Interest, Forbes, The Hill and The American Thinker. This alone forces us to consider this analytical article not simply as an expert assessment of an individual political scientist, but as a kind of manifesto reflecting the mindset of the Armenian political elite and their lobbyists overseas. Moreover, along with the analytical review, the article contains very direct indications of the actions that the Armenian government and the Armenian lobby must take to change the situation in their favour. And this is directly hitting the national interests of our country.
So, as we have already noted, the expectations of Trump’s presidency among our neighbours were somewhat different. Areg Galstyan also writes about it: ‘Many high-ranking politicians and experts, who are close to the Kremlin, were confident that the victory of Republican Donald Trump would alter the nature of the US-Russian relations. According to Moscow... America would have to weaken its positions in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Moreover, Russian experts actively promoted the thesis on the inevitability of the conflict between Washington and Brussels, which would lead to a split in NATO. Leading governmental media praised Trump, presenting him as a future partner in international affairs,’ writes the Armenian expert.
‘However, the recent events in Syria, coupled with the consistent position of the new administration on the Ukrainian issue, have led to another round of tension between the countries,’ Galstyan writes and continues. ‘The crisis of the US-Russian political dialogue cannot but worry the wide Armenian public, as Washington and Moscow, along with Paris, are the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group for the settlement of the ‘Karabakh-Azerbaijani’ (hereinafter our quotes) conflict.’ It should be noted that the author, who published his article in English, deliberately uses the term ‘Karabakh-Azerbaijan conflict’ to mislead the English-speaking readers and eliminate the Republic of Armenia as a direct party to this conflict.
But the main thing is not this. The main message of the author is the thesis that the signing of a nuclear agreement with Iran under the previous administration of President Obama ‘led to a sharp drop in the geopolitical and geoenergetic importance of Azerbaijan in the Greater Middle East.’ Meaning Azerbaijan’s importance for Washington. ‘Let's not forget,’ Galstyan writes, ‘Let's not forget that it was the Iranian problem, together with energetic attractiveness, that turned Azerbaijan into an important partner for America during the presidency of George W. Bush.’
The author and the Armenian expert community in his person ask the important question, whether there will be dramatic changes in the American policy in the Karabakh direction under the new presidential administration. The political scientist did not in vain mention George W. Bush, under whom relations between the US and Azerbaijan developed in a positive direction. At the same time, the Iranian factor actually played an important role in this rapprochement.
‘Bad news for Armenia and the ‘NKR,’ writes Galstyan, ‘is the fact that Iran is really of great interest to the current administration. This means that the White House will strive to strengthen its relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey. Ankara and Israeli authorities by the means of their influential lobbyists in Washington will try to convince Trump to involve Baku in resolving the Iranian issue. Last time such lobbying activity led to ‘freezing’ Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act by Republican Bush Jr. That Section actually prohibited any possible assistance from America to Azerbaijan. Thus, there is no doubt that different political forces and lobby groups will make attempts to actualize the Azerbaijani factor,’ complains the Armenian expert.
At the same time, the author mentions such members of the Trump team as Defence Secretary James Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who advocate the need to resolve the Iranian problem as soon as possible. ‘Washington already has some experience of using Azerbaijan as an intelligence bridgehead. Probably, in case an appropriate political decision is made, Americans will plan to strengthen their presence in that country,’ writes Galstyan said, and notes that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was foremrly the head of the Exxon Mobil Corporation and has extensive connections with representatives of Azerbaijani political elites.
It is clear that this alignment of forces is quite favourable for Azerbaijan, and if we pursue a correct policy in relations with Washington, this will definitely bring us dividends in the settlement of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.
Nevertheless, not everything is so cloudless for us. As Galstyan notes in his article, ‘National Security Advisor Herbert McMaster and Reince Priebus – the White House Сhief of Staff – will be balancing the position of Mattis and Pompeo.’ The former is known as a rather reserved and pragmatic politician. In Galstyan's opinion, this fact speaks in favour of Armenia, but in fact, it only means that this adviser of Trump will not take anyone's side, but will be guided by the national interests of the United States, which may at some moment require closer ties with Azerbaijan. Priebus, on the other hand is an ethnic Greek and an active member of various pro-Greek lobby groups. The Armenian expert expresses the hope that he will hardly passively watch the actions of pro-Turkish and pro-Azerbaijani groups of influence. The only question is whether Priebus will identify the Turks and the Azerbaijanis or will he also be guided by more pragmatic views. Moreover, as the White House chief of staff, he has only indirect influence on American foreign policy, which is traditionally in the hands of the head of the State Department and the presidential adviser on national security.
Representatives of the second echelon of power, as Galstyan described them, will represent a much more serious threat to Baku's interests in Washington. Strictly speaking, it is precisely these functionaries that largely determine the decisions the main leaders take, as the latter are not physically able to delve into all the details of the US relationships with other countries. After all, Washington has diplomatic relations with almost all of the existing 195 independent states of the world.
So, Fiona Hill, an expert from the influential Brookings Institution, was appointed as an adviser to President Trump on Russia and Europe (and this includes the South Caucasus, by American standards). According to Galstyan, she published a lot of materials that covered political processes in Transcaucasia and repeatedly called on the White House to exercise caution in its relations with Baku. Even more dangerous for us may be the fact that the State Department will continue to rely in Eurasian affairs on John Heffern, the former US Ambassador to Armenia. Heffern was appointed to the post of Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary on European and Eurasian Affairs after Victoria Nuland. Of course, there are ‘buts’ here too. Although our relations with the US under Obama had, from time to time, a certain tendency to deteriorate, Heffern did not seem to have a particularly negative influence, apparently. In addition, the question is whether he will retain his position and finally be approved as an adviser. And if he does, how much did his embassy mission in Yerevan really change his worldview? US ambassadors are changed quite often precisely in order not to draw ties that could cast doubt on their objectivity. Just for example, except for Matthew Bryza, whom the Senate did not approve, after him the ambassadors were Richard Morningstar and the current Ambassador Robert Cekuta: can they be unequivocally regarded as pro-Azerbaijani, and can we hope that after their missions they lobbied or will lobby our interests? So here everything is not so unambiguous.
And of course, Galstyan’s thesis on think tanks, which will play a key role in making political decisions, is also far from unambiguous. He mentions the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, the Lexington Institute, the Hudson Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, as well as the Atlantic Council and Brookings. As the author himself notes, all these centres and institutions have different positions on the Karabakh conflict, however, most of them hold neutral positions. Proceeding from this, Galstyan advises the Armenian side to intensify its contacts with the leading conservative centres, lobbying its agenda. It is clear that we should do this as well, resting on the geostrategic importance of Azerbaijan for implementing the new geopolitical concept of the US administration.
And here we come to the most interesting part of Galstyan's article, in which along with the analysis of the situation there are very clear indications on how to use this situation in the Armenian interests. It is about confrontation in the US Congress between the Republican majority and the Democratic minority. As the Armenian expert notes, ‘in an effort to take revenge on the forthcoming elections for Congress in 2018, ‘donkeys’ will fight for preserving their foreign policy heritage ... including the agreement with Iran ... that confrontation on the Iranian issue in Congress serves the interests of Armenia and the NKR, since the uncertainty of American policy in the Iranian direction detracts from the prospect of rapprochement between Washington and Baku,’ Galstyan encourages the Armenian elite, hinting that the Armenian lobby should support and strengthen such a confrontation in the American Congress. The only question is how much is it in America's interest?
Galstyan openly writes that ‘the Armenian lobby should be interested in blocking any initiatives against Iran.’ Here you go. In order to prevent even a small lean of Washington towards Azerbaijan, the Armenians are ready to set Democrats and Republicans against each other to bring the foreign policy of the White House into a state of stupor.
At the same time, the Armenian expert calls on the Armenian Diaspora in the United States to step up its actions in order to ‘initiate a large-scale process of political discussions to recognise the independence of the ‘NKR’ at the level of individual states; launch a broad campaign to restore Section 907 to the Freedom Support Act; obtain increased external appropriations for Armenia and the ‘NKR’ from the US Congress; form a lobbying coalition with other ethnolobbying influence groups (Greeks, Irish, Italians, Poles) to fight pro-Turkish and pro-Azerbaijani forces.’ A very detailed plan, which, most likely, the Armenian Diaspora will implement. It is clear that the Armenian lobby does not have to count especially on the presidential administration, for the above-mentioned reasons. Therefore, it will concentrate its efforts in Congress. As noted by Galstyan, to date, many influential legislators are in the Armenian Caucus: Paul Ryan - the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Charles Schumer - the leader of the Democratic Party in Senate, Edward Royce - the Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the lower chamber, Adam Schiff - the head of the Democratic faction on the Committee on Intelligence, and others.
Naturally, in the current situation, much will depend on the efforts of our diplomats and pro-Azerbaijani lobbyists in the United States itself. As we have mentioned on several occasions, in the USA there are more than 600 thousand ethnic Azerbaijanis from Southern Azerbaijan, who are also voters. After all, American Armenians, too, were not born in Armenia.
And this is not taking into account all those of our compatriots who moved overseas during the years of independence, and the traditionally loyal to us Jewish lobby, which in its power is far ahead of the Armenians. The United States is the country where, in the presence of desire, intelligence, resources and purposefulness, one can still influence public opinion and create a favourable atmosphere towards one’s country. Nobody prevents us from working with the same American public opinion to create a favourable impression of our country in the US itself. And at the same time, warn US politicians about the dirty tricks that Armenians want to play on their main legislative body.
After all, constructive political rivalry leads to the development of well-considered and deliberate decisions, whereas the fire of a destructive blind confrontation, externally inflated, can only paralyse the political apparatus of a superpower, on which so much depends in the modern world.