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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.