The Oil and the Glory

Matthew Bryza’s not-at-all-surprisingly rough road to Baku

Matthew Bryza’s not-at-all-surprisingly rough road to Baku

Some of the big U.S. newspapers — the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post — are unhappy with how ambassador-designates are being treated in the vetting process for posts in the oil- and geopolitics-soaked lands of Eurasia.

U.S. designees to this region are, in fact, experiencing unusual turbulence. In the midst of the turmoil that has engulfed Kyrgyzstan over the last few months, Tatiana Gfoeller will be replaced as U.S. ambassador by Pamela Spratlen, currently the deputy chief of mission in Kazakhstan. An unexplained bureaucratic snafu is preventing Douglas Hengel, a deputy assistant secretary of state, from occupying the long-vacant slot in Turkmenistan.  And Frank Ricciardone’s move to the embassy in Ankara is being held up in the Senate, as my colleague Josh Rogin has written.

Yet the main reason for these newspapers’ angst is the ambassador’s post in Azerbaijan, which has been empty for some 14 months now. Perhaps not since the kitty-cat John Bolton was nominated to the United Nations has a designee attracted at turns such adoration and venom as Matthew Bryza, the choice of the George W. Bush and now the Obama administrations for the Baku post, as Laura Rozen has reported at Politico.

In dueling editorials published in a space of three days, the Journal and Post mourn Bryza’s woes, since two senators have used their prerogative to freeze his confirmation. Bryza is “respected by all sides” and should be “waved through the Senate,” says the Journal. Instead, the paper says, he is being held up by “Caucasian tribal obsessions” — meaning Armenian lobbyists.

The Post, meanwhile, is downright apoplectic. It has awarded Sen. Barbara Boxer what it calls its “Most Craven Election-Year Pandering at the Expense of the National Interest Award” for the hold that she has placed on Bryza, again because of Armenian influence in her re-election effort. (The paper has tarred Sen. Robert Menendez with the same offense, but refused him the award. Menendez replies that he is unhappy with the Post‘s unhappiness.) “Mr. Bryza is an unlikely target for a political fight,” writes The Post:

Highly regarded by both Republicans and Democrats, he has spent the past 13 years working to advance U.S. interests in the Caucasus at the National Security Council and the State Department.

The editorial boards of these newspapers ought to catch up on their reading. As this blog has written, Bryza, while among the most likeable of people, is a “likely target for a political fight,” something he himself knew going in to the nomination. The first reason is the region’s very emotional nature — fighting is what they do. But Bryza himself has a back story.

As journalists, we are admonished to report the story, not become the story. But this rule may not carry over into diplomacy, at least as conducted by Bryza. Bryza hasn’t gone quietly about his business over the years, as The Post suggests, but been exceedingly high-profile. During the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, his colleagues accused him of “Blackberry diplomacy,” for his practice of carrying out diplomatic business out of channel, and directly telephoning Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili. A former Georgian minister named Giorgy Khaindrava famously shoved Bryza around the lobby of the Tbilisi Marriott, blaming him for having “propped up” Saakashvili, as Jay Solomon reported in the Journal. Photographs appeared of Bryza being greeted by Georgians on the street:

Bryza is exceptionally close not only to presidents, but to a number of journalists (for the record, I have interviewed him numerous times since 1997), to whom he delivers sometimes inflated accounts of his role as a “key architect” of the triumphant Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline (an admittedly not-so-unique offense — many officials claim that mantle). Bryza sought the celebrity limelight with his 2007 Istanbul wedding, which was attended by invited senior-level Azeri and Turkish guests, and was the talk of the Turkish city.

Some colleagues attribute Bryza’s rise in the last administration to his connections to Condoleezza Rice, and have advised Bryza to work his way to the top like everyone else by serving first somewhere as a deputy chief of mission. Bryza may be right that his nearly two decades in the State Department are credential enough, but he — and the newspapers — shouldn’t be surprised at the roadblock to his confirmation.