Thursday, September 25, 2008

Senate approves Ambassador to Armenia

First published in the August 2, 2008 Armenian Reporter.

Yovanovitch nomination clears Senate
After debate, Committee gives nod to ambassador-designate to Armenia
by Yelena Osipova and Emil Sanamyan

– The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 29 voted to endorse the nomination of Marie L. Yovanovitch as the next United States ambassador to Armenia. The full Senate quickly approved the nomination on August 1.

The position has been vacant since September 2006, when Ambassador John M. Evans was recalled for speaking openly about the Armenian Genocide.

The administration’s previous nominee for the position, Richard Hoagland, received the committee’s endorsement in late 2006, but the consideration of his nomination by the full Senate was blocked by Senator Robert Menendez (D.-N.J.)

The Bush administration resubmitted the nomination in 2007, at which time the senator once again blocked it. The administration ultimately withdrew the nomination.

The Armenian government has publicly encouraged a quick confirmation of Ms. Yovanovitch’s nomination. As a sign of the importance the Armenian government attached to this matter, Tatoul Markarian, Armenia’s ambassador to the United States, was present as the committee voted.

The administration continues to refuse to use the word genocide to characterize the Armenian Genocide.

But, whereas Mr. Hoagland had initially argued that the events of 1915–17 may not fit the definition of genocide, Ms. Yovanovitch has stated repeatedly that it is up to the president to decide whether she, as ambassador, could characterize the events as genocide.

Most senators said they were still not satisfied with the administration’s position on the Genocide.

In a voice vote, they nonetheless allowed the nomination of Ms. Yovanovitch to move forward. Senators cited a State Department letter issued the day of the vote that, one senator said, marked a “significant step forward” in the administration’s appreciation of the issue.

Sen. Boxer remains in opposition

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D.-Calif.) was the sole committee member registering a vote against confirmation.

Criticizing the administration for its refusal to use the term genocide in reference to the destruction of the Armenian people in Asia Minor, she described her vote as “support for the truth.”

While acknowledging Ms. Yovanovitch’s experience and competence, Ms. Boxer said she could not vote in favor because the nominee refused to use the word genocide.

“Why can’t she just say, ‘I personally see this as genocide, but the administration does not want me to use that word. So, although in my personal view it was a genocide, I cannot call it so [officially]’?” the senator asked.

Ms. Boxer added that although she would be voting in opposition, she would take no other action to block the nomination.

Sen. Menendez notes better State Department rhetoric

Mr. Menendez, like Ms. Boxer, expressed dissatisfaction that Ms. Yovanovitch would not express her own opinion on the Armenian Genocide. He noted that when U.S.
ambassadors are sworn in, they do not “say that ‘I take an oath to the President of the United States, this or any future president.’”

Rather, they swear to uphold the Constitution, he noted, arguing that ambassadors should be able to express their opinions more freely when testifying before Congress.

Mr. Menendez cited a letter he had received from the State Department the day of the vote as a reason he was not voting against the nomination. The letter clarified testimony by Ms. Yovanovitch about a proposed State Department program to “bring archivists from Turkey and Armenia to the United States for professional training.”

It said the program did not intend to “open a debate” on the facts “of the mass killings and deportations of Armenians committed by Ottoman soldiers and other Ottoman officials in 1915.”

The letter of clarification, signed by Matthew A. Reynolds, acting assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, added, “We indeed hold Ottoman officials responsible for those crimes.”

Mr. Menendez said that for an administration that has frequently called for the characterization of the events of 1915 to be left to historians, this response was a “significant step forward,” encouraging him to vote in favor of the nominee.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D.-Md.) also spoke in opposition to the administration’s policy, noting that from Ms. Yovanovitch’s responses to the committee it is “clear that the nominee acknowledged that what happened [to Armenians] was genocide,” even if she was forced not to publicly use the term.

Sen. Biden thanks Armenian-Americans

In his remarks, the committee chair, Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), recalled the commitments made by the State Department to work toward the improvement of Armenia-Turkey relations and to address Turkey’s genocide denial.

The committee chair said that the ultimate objective is to get Turkey to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide for all sides to move forward. Mr. Biden praised the Armenian- American community for its position on the issue and acknowledged the role played by senators in pressing the administration.

As part of the confirmation process, Senators Biden, Boxer, Cardin, and Menendez, and fellow committee members Bob Casey (D.-Penn.), Norm Coleman (R.-Minn.), Russ Feingold (D.-Wis.), John Kerry (D.-Mass.), and Barack Obama (D.-Ill.) had pressed the State Department for answers on issues relating to the U.S. policy on the Armenian Genocide, U.S.-Armenia relations, and regional matters.

(See the Armenian Reporter for July 5, 12, 19, and 26 for the full texts of the correspondence.)

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