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Review & Outlook - 12/29/2008

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CHANGE ON THE HORIZON? ARMENIA(NS) IN OBAMA'S WORLD

Armenian News Network / Groong
December 29, 2008

By Asbed Kotchikian


In Oliver Stone's movie `Nixon', when the title character is faced with 
a group of young anti-war protestors in the middle of the night in front 
of the Lincoln memorial and questioned as to why he did not end the war 
in Vietnam as he promised during his campaign, Nixon is not able to give 
an answer, to which one of the protesters says `You can't stop it, can 
you? Even if you wanted to ... The system won't let you stop it.'

This quote captures the essence of US foreign policy and to what extent 
policies are more difficult to be influenced by presidents making the 
role of the executive one that is driven by small nudges to adjust 
policies rather than to overhaul or change them.

The election of Barack Obama is a first in terms of the US having its 
first African-American president but might not be a first in terms of 
the way many of the foreign policy challenges that the US and Armenians 
are interested or have a stake in.

During his presidential campaign President-elect Obama expressed his 
commitment to make morality a cornerstone of his presidency and foreign 
policy and more importantly pledged that, as president, he will 
recognize the Armenian Genocide. This stand made many Armenian-Americans 
vote for Obama with the hope of witnessing, sometime in the next four 
years, a presidential statement that would put an end to the long 
struggle of Armenian lobby groups and voters to officially have the US 
recognize the Armenian Genocide as genocide rather than a tragedy.

However there are several things that those who voted for Obama on this 
premises need to keep in mind. Regardless of how sincere Obama is in 
recognizing the Genocide or how his voting record was on Armenian issues 
as a senator, presidential candidates make statements while campaigning 
but the reality of the job of being the leader of one of the strongest 
countries of the world might be a wakeup call for Obama. Supporting a 
congressional resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide is not the 
same as supporting that same resolution as a president. The euphoria 
that Armenians have about the impact of Obama's election on Genocide 
recognition needs to be reassessed and reevaluated based on several 
premises.

First of all, one should realize that Genocide, South Caucasus or Turkey 
are not at the top of the agenda of the president elect. Far more 
pressing issues - such as the economy, Iraq and Afghanistan - will be the 
priority of President Obama. Consequently any drastic or radical foreign 
policy shift on those fronts will be very limited and not immediate. 
This being said it should be noted that as president, Obama would have 
more of a say in the foreign policy sphere than his predecessor mostly 
because of his strong convictions and interest in bringing in change at 
the foreign policy level and those convictions are very much influenced 
by morality and hence might yield the results that Armenians want to see.

Secondly, the choice of Obama's secretary of state will have a great 
impact on the way the US will conduct its foreign policy in the next 
four years. Sen. Hillary Clinton, who is going to be the next Secretary 
of State is someone who would pursue a more conservative and conformist 
foreign policy than what would be expected from a president who ran on a 
platform of change. This will be true more so when it comes to US 
relations with Turkey and Russia - and by extension South Caucasus. Thus, 
the Turkish government (regardless of public opinion in Turkey) remains 
one of the very few Muslim governments who are still considered to be a 
US ally, a fact that makes it very difficult to antagonize Ankara. As 
for Moscow, the next US administration will not be willing to appear 
weak against a country which many still consider to be a rival and hence 
demand that the US does not concede to what they view as a policy of 
bullying by Moscow and rather stand up to it. Of course it is quite 
conceivable that such as policy vis-`-vis Russia might give Armenia more 
room to maneuver between Moscow and the West, but the current Armenian 
administration does not show any signs of a proactive foreign policy 
because of the shaky domestic political situation in the aftermath of 
February presidential elections.

Finally, many US analysts argued that the huge gains made by the 
Democrats in the US congress was to a large extent driven by 
`Obamamania' and as such President Obama would be able to influence the 
congress and its policies more than any president in recent history., 
the reason why this is a factor while talking about Genocide recognition 
is that even though the congress in the past has been able to pass 
resolutions recognizing the Armenian genocide, if Obama's White House 
decides to put this issue on the back burner it does not have to do it 
through executive decision rather by persuading congressional delegates 
to not raise the issue. This would be a major challenge for Armenian 
lobby groups as they would face both the executive and legislative 
branches of US government.

The challenges mentioned above should in no way be translated as
pessimism, rather as a more sober approach to the issues that
Armenians might face in a changing US political landscape. The ability
to look beyond the tunnel vision of Genocide recognition should
encompass a readiness to discuss a common outlook on the moral role of
the US globally and more importantly should push Armenians to
collectively strategize an action plan in the event of Genocide
recognition.

The message of change advocated by Obama during his campaign should 
resonate among the Armenians in the form of change to look beyond the 
obvious and think about transforming themselves to tackle the issue of 
post-Genocide recognition world. The imperative facing Armenians today 
is not what they would do if Obama does not recognize the Genocide but 
rather what to do if he does.


-- 
Asbed Kotchikian is a lecturer in Political Science at Bentley 
University and specializes in the politics of identity, foreign policy 
of small states as well as political processes in the South Caucasus and 
the Middle East.

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