THE US ELECTION: FOREIGN POLICY DEBATES AND THE SOUTH CAUCASUS

Today's Zaman, Turkey
Oct 31 2012

by ZAUR SHIRIYEV

On the eve of the US presidential election, international governments
are focusing primarily on the foreign policy strategies of the
candidates, trying to glean as much information as possible. But both
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are spending the bulk of their time
on domestic issues; Romney's foreign policy strategy in particular
remains hard to discern. In the first presidential debate, Romney
challenged President Obama on foreign policy issues, arguing that the
US is failing to support its allies in defeating their enemies. But
in the two subsequent debates, Romney seemed weak, lacking substance
and resorting to blaming the current administration, notably deriding
Obama as a "dove" when it comes to his Iran policy. There remain
relatively few clues as to what either candidate will offer in terms
of future foreign policy direction.

'Reset the Reset'

Future US policy is important to the interests of the South Caucasus
countries in one fairly simple way. Beyond their different hopes
and expectations, all three want to see increased US presence in the
region. The question is, will either candidate 'reset' Washington's
relations with the South Caucasus countries? What changes might this
new term bring?

On one hand, the relationship between the US and the South Caucasian
states deteriorated during the first two years of the Obama
administration, due to both reduced focus and especially the reset
policy with Moscow, which frustrated and alienated the region.

However, there is possibility for change here, as the future
challenges in the region have broader implications; the debate is
no longer about Moscow-Washington rapprochement, it is about the US'
post-2014 Afghanistan policy in Central Asia and the Caucasus, along
with the Iranian nuclear issue.

Caucasus: more 'Democrat' less 'Republican'

At the national level, Armenian interests are represented by the
diaspora -- but contrary to the 2008 election, they are taking a
neutral position, likely because of President Obama's failure to
live up to his campaign pledge regarding the recognition of the 1915
tragedy as a genocide. As a result, the Armenian National Committee of
America (ANCA) announced that neither Obama nor Romney has earned the
Armenian American community's formal backing heading into the Nov. 6
presidential election. ANCA believes its position towards Obama is a
logical necessity, but Romney has not managed to win over the diaspora
-- he seems not to have included the lobby in his campaign strategy,
and has not reached out to the delegates of the Armenian community.

Despite ANCA's announcement and evident frustrations, there are
other active and well-funded Armenian-American lobbying groups
that have engaged with both Obama and Romney; and depending on the
group, have endorsed one of them. But ultimately the Armenian lobby's
long-term goal of gaining recognition for the massacre goes beyond the
four-year term. They need support from the House of Representatives,
and increasing the support base in Congress is much more strategic
in terms of concrete outcomes.

In the case of Georgia, during the 2008 US presidential election,
Tbilisi was openly rooting for the Republican candidate, John McCain,
who had explicitly supported Georgia's position in the 2008 war with
Russia, when he called upon the secretary of state to travel to Europe
and work out a "common Euro-Atlantic position" on how to proceed.

Until the Oct. 1 Parliamentary election in Georgia, the President
Mikheil Saakashvili's government worked successfully with the Obama
administration, but there was evidence that they would continue to
support the Republicans; in July 2012, the Georgian government hired
two more Washington lobbying firms, the Prime Policy Group and Gephardt
Government Affairs, and interestingly enough Charles Black, head of
the Prime Policy Group is known as a "super Republican lobbyist"
and has served as an informal advisor in the Romney campaign. But
with the recent victory of the "Georgian Dream" coalition, the tide
has turned. The public recognizes that the support Georgia enjoyed
under George W. Bush will not be repeated even under a new Republican
government, and they see a lack of interest in the region and Georgia
in Romney's vision for US foreign policy. One factor is that Romney's
regional strategy remains unclear; his white paper on his vision for
US foreign policy states that upon taking office, Romney will "reset
the reset," gesturing to Russia's authoritarian tendencies. But to
Georgians, this fails the reality test: both before and after exiting
Afghanistan, Washington needs more cooperation with Russia rather
than less, and Romney fails to give clear answers on how exactly he
plans to negotiate this tension.

In the case of Azerbaijan, while it has not given any official
position, Azeri-Americans in general are representing the county's
interests. Adil Bagirov, executive director of the US-Azeris Network
(USAN), says that Azeri-Americans are not endorsing a candidate as they
have in the past. He did say that "based on the rhetoric and actions
by Mr. Obama, USAN and other Azerbaijani-American organizations did
not endorse him in 2008, and that remains the case for 2012." It is
true that Azerbaijan was frustrated during the first two years of
the Obama administration by a perceived lack of engagement. Its main
demands were that the US remove Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act;
abrogate the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a Cold War amendment to the 1974
US Trade Act which restricts normal trade relations with a number of
post-Soviet countries, and demonstrate more active engagement in the
resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The other key issue is support for the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline
(TANAP), the Turkish-Azerbaijan joint energy initiative. The general
belief across the Azerbaijani public is that US support could galvanize
momentum in Europe for the continuation of TANAP into the European
market. The Azerbaijani ambassador to the US, Elin Suleymanov, has
been lobbying for TANAP, arguing that the United States should press
the EU on the project as a matter of international security.

The overall dynamic reveals an interesting truth: the longer-term
goals of each of these countries make the House of Representatives
and the Senate more important platforms for regional change than the
White House. Expectations go beyond the Oval Office with the possible
exception of Azerbaijan, whose energy initiative would admittedly
gain significant momentum from a presidential endorsement.