America’s Armenian diaspora applauded when President Joe Biden fulfilled his campaign pledge to recognize the Armenian Genocide. Two days later, without giving any forewarning to senators and representatives most engaged on the issue, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken waived Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act. That law essentially forbade military assistance to Azerbaijan unless it demonstrated its commitment to resolve its ongoing disputes with Armenia diplomatically. While successive administrations had long waived Section 907 to cultivate Azerbaijan as an ally against Iran, the April 2021 waiver—and a subsequent waiver this past June—surprised observers because they blatantly violated the law.
Blinken probably recognizes this, but believed correctly that Congress would not hold him to account. He might also believe that a Section 907 waiver would blunt the anger that Baku and Ankara might feel toward Washington for acknowledging history,
The problem with Blinken’s bothsiderism is it encourages extremes. In the wake of the waiver, Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev built a memorial reminiscent of Saddam Hussain’s wartime propaganda. Aliyev has also repeatedly denied the legitimacy of Armenia’s right to exist and laid claims to towns and cities across the international border in Armenia. The United States has been largely silent as Azerbaijan systematically erases Armenian cultural heritage. Azeri rhetoric today and its dehumanization of Armenians are reminiscent of Rwanda immediately prior to the anti-Tutsi genocide or China with regard to its Uighur minority and culture. While the State Department approaches the Nagorno-Karabakh and Caucasus conflicts as a diplomatic problem whose solution will lie in creative diplomacy and compromise, they discount the role of ideology. They ignore, for example, the fact that Azerbaijan and Turkey’s invasion of Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2020 occurred on the 100th anniversary of the Ottoman invasion of Armenia against the backdrop of the original genocide. Dictators do not easily forfeit ideology when it is a tool to distract from internal dissension, economic failure, and the corruption of the ruling family.
Today, the cost for Blinken’s penchant for bothsiderism and his deliberate decision to ignore Aliyev’s incitement became clear. While Azerbaijan partisans argue that Azeri force is justified to end Armenian self-governance in Nagorno-Karbakh, Azerbaijani forces tonight attacked not that region but Armenian towns and villages across the international border into Armenia.
There are no winners to this situation. Armenians face ethnic cleansing and atrocity akin to what they suffered 107 years ago. Azeris suffer a further prostitution of their independence in favor of Turkey and the fact that Aliyev uses military crises to delay much-needed reform. Russia gains as a mediator in the absence of any serious U.S. efforts. Frankly, the Azerbaijani lobby in the United States also aids Russia’s position given that Russia’s economic partnership with Azerbaijan today surpasses Armenia.
Genocide can be quick or it can be drawn out over years. Aliyev today calculates that a lack of seriousness in Washington plays to his advantage. He believes he can outplay and outsmart Blinken. What Azerbaijan might not complete as a blitzkrieg, he can accomplish in slow motion. Regardless of speed, both rhetoric and action show his true goal.
If Blinken does not want to be the secretary under whose watch Azerbaijan and Turkey complete the Armenian genocide, it is time to respond forcefully. End the waiver of Section 907. Impose far broader sanctions on Azerbaijan. Promote Eastern Mediterranean gas and oil from Israel, Cyprus, and Greece so as not to become beholden to yet another dictatorial regime, one that ironically seeks to paint itself as an alternative to Russian gas while soliciting Russian investment. Withdrawal recognition of Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh that is more the vestige of Joseph Stalin’s cynicism than historic demography. The wisest secretaries recognize their mistakes and recalibrate their actions.
When it comes to Azerbaijan, Blinken’s reset is long overdue.
Expert Biography: Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).