President Barack Obama has nominated the current deputy head of the U.S. Mission to NATO to serve as Washington’s next ambassador to Armenia, the White House announced late on Wednesday. (UPDATED)
The move could spark a flesh backlash from Armenian-American advocacy groups angry about Obama’s failure to honor a key pledge given to them during the last U.S. presidential race.
Obama’s pick for the Armenia post, John Heffern, is a senior career diplomat who worked as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia before becoming Washington’s deputy permanent representative at the NATO headquarters in Brussels in 2009. He was named by the White House along with several other individuals nominated to key U.S. government positions.
“It gives me great confidence that such dedicated and capable individuals have agreed to join this Administration to serve the American people,” Obama said in a statement.
The current U.S. ambassador to Armenia, Marie Yovanovitch, is due to complete her nearly three-year tour of duty in Yerevan next month. Yovanovitch’s predecessor, John Evans, is believed to have been recalled by the administration of former President George W. Bush. in 2006 for publicly describing the World War I-era massacres of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as genocide.
The recall angered the influential Armenian community in the United States which has for decades been campaigning for an official U.S. recognition of the genocide. Armenian-American groups lobbied pro-Armenian members of the U.S. Senate to block congressional confirmation of Richard Hoagland, Evans’s initial replacement proposed by the White House. The Bush administration withdrew Hoagland’s nomination in late 2007.
Both Hoagland and Yovanovitch declined to call the Armenian massacres a genocide during confirmation hearings at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sticking to a long-standing U.S. policy on the issue.
Obama has likewise refrained from publicly using the politically sensitive term, vehemently rejected by Turkey, since taking office. Armenian-American leaders have denounced this stance, arguing that Obama pledged to “speak truthfully about the Armenian genocide” when he ran for president.
The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) warned later on Wednesday that it will “explore whether Mr. Heffern is prepared to serve as a principled voice for truth and justice about the Armenian Genocide.”
“A key test will, of course, be whether Mr. Heffern will resort to word games and rhetorical gymnastics to avoid the very recognition of the Armenian Genocide that President Obama clearly and repeatedly promised as a candidate for the White House,” Aram Hamparian, the ANCA executive director, was quoted by the Los Angeles-based Armenian newspaper “Asbarez” as saying.
As recently as last fall, the ANCA helped to block the Senate endorsement of Obama’s pick for U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, Matthew Bryza, over the latter’s alleged pro-Azerbaijani bias in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The U.S. president was forced to bypass the Senate and make a one-year “recess appointment” of Bryza in late December.
The Armenian Assembly of America (AAA), another influential lobby group, on Thursday expressed serious reservations about Heffern’s candidacy, citing the diplomat’s past work for a Republican congressman from Nebraska who strongly opposed Armenian genocide resolutions in the U.S. Congress.
“In the mid-1990s, John Heffern worked under Congressman Doug Bereuter who was consistently one of the most pro-Turkish and anti-Armenian Congressmen to serve,” the AAA said in a statement sent to RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “Without pre-judging Mr. Heffern personally, he will have a hard hill to climb in explaining and distinguishing his views from former Congressman Bereuter’s.”
“We hope Mr. Heffern can successfully climb that hill and represent America’s views and clear record not only on the need to squarely recognize the Armenian Genocide and its consequences but also on reversing Azerbaijan’s aggression against the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and ensuring a peaceful region with open borders, respect for human rights and commitment to democracy,” added the statement.