Seeking to fill a gap in the Baku embassy which has hindered US policy in the region for months, the Obama Administration has nominated Richard Morningstar, longtime Caspian hand and current Special Envoy for Eurasian Energy, as ambassador to Azerbaijan. He is likely to fare better in the nomination process than his predecessor Matt Bryza.
Bryza was sent to Baku in February 2011 after the White House gave him a recess appointment, a temporary fix to circumvent congressional opposition from Senators representing constituencies with large Armenian-American populations (Bryza is regularly accused of being too close to Azerbaijan and Turkey, and correspondingly biased against Armenia). His appointment ended in December, and he has since taken up the think-tank and conference circuit.
Charge D’Affaires Adam Sterling has been minding the shop in the absence of an ambassador. This is becoming the usual state of affairs – since Obama took office, the embassy has been run by a lower-ranking diplomat for the better part of two years. The perceived slight has provoked consternation in Azerbaijan, which was used to being assiduously courted by the US under the Bush Administration.
The decision to nominate Morningstar is a pretty conservative choice. He is one of the most experienced Eurasia experts in Washington, having served as the architect of Clinton’s Caspian policy in the mid-1990s, a policy which promoted and integrated energy diversification and post-Soviet independence far more effectively than subsequent efforts.
So, a safe pair of hands, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He may have been chosen to reassure the cautious Azerbaijani establishment about America’s commitment, which has seemed pretty lacklustre for several years. And, unlike Bryza, Morningstar will probably have no problems getting through the Senate nomination process, even in an election year. Unlike Bryza, whose relationship with regional leaders was both a blessing and a curse, he is a non-political and uncontroversial figure.
But Morningstar’s nomination suggests a lack of alternative talents within Washington on these issues, an unwillingness to think outside the box – evidence of the lack of attention which the Obama Administration has paid to the South Caucasus. It’s worth watching who Morningstar’s replacement as Special Envoy for Eurasian Energy will be.