We Owe Our Ally the Debt of Remembering Khojaly
President Obama receives high marks from many parts of the political spectrum for his foreign policy. I would argue that this is for three reasons: He has largely continued President Bush’s policies; he ordered the killing of Osama Bin Laden; and everyone is so focused on domestic policy that so long as no American city is being bombed, foreign policy falls into a distant second-place.
While I might argue with the underlying bases of these perceptions, I believe they are largely correct, even if I differ with the conclusion. However, Obama has failed in one critical area by following Bush (and Clinton) policy, while pretending to a new beginning: The wreckage of the former Soviet Union. There, he has allowed — as every other American president has allowed — Russia far too great a hand, and has left simmering a thousand disputes to explode later, all so as not to upset the Russians too much.
It is for this reason that we have betrayed our own best principles and ignored the atrocities in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan during Armenia’s invasion. It is for this reason that we have ignored the Khojaly Massacre.
On the night of February 25-26, 1992, Armenian forces, working with what was (probably) a rogue portion of the 366th Regiment of the Commonwealth of Independent States, struck the village of Khojaly. The Armenians claimed (and claim) that the nominal basis for the strike was to root out Azerbajiani armed forces who had been shelling Stepanakert and other heavily-Armenian population centers in the region.
In the process of this nominally military objective, they decided to brutally murder upward of 600 men, women, and children, even down to toddlers, and to desecrate their bodies thereafter. Those innocents were killed purely for the crime of being Azerbaijani. Their homes, hospitals, and religious areas were deliberately targeted for destruction.
It is very hard to describe the horror of seeing the aftermath of that crime against humanity. Most of us have seen dead people, and even buried them. A small number of us have killed in war or self-defense. Only the most depraved of us have blown the head off of a child with a high-caliber shell at close range.
Out of respect for this site, I do not include images of the slaughter. They are easy to find. (Do not click that link in front of children.) I had the honor of interviewing one of the survivors, who has made the retelling of the tragedy her life’s work. It is very hard to deny the power of a woman who twenty years after losing so much — her mother, her sister, the schoolchildren she taught — breaking down sobbing as she tells the tale. It is harder to deny the raw emotions the men and women of Azerbaijan feel at losing upward of a fifth of their territory, with the survivors of Khojaly and other massacres and ethnic cleansings in the area only in the last years emerging from the refugee camps in Azerbaijan into which the invading Armenians pushed them.
But that is precisely what we are doing. American foreign policy since the end of World War II has been varied, but certain constants have held, based on that terrible conflict. First, we do not recognize or condone wars of aggression. Second, we will act militarily to end ethnic cleansing and genocide. These are immutable principles of our post-War identity. We are good because we do good.
We have not always held to those principles. Men, women, and children died in the Sudan because President Bush had lost the political capital needed to enter that conflict. President Clinton allowed the Rwandan Genocide to flourish. And then there is the Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenia and Azerbaijan will, if asked, provide lengthy explanations of why each is truly entitled to the region, complete with maps and historical minutiae. While important in many ways, the most important details are these. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s breakup, Armenia invaded the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan. They took and held the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region, declared it independent, and then carved out of Azerbaijan an additional buffer zone. They expelled upward of one million men, women, and children on the basis of ethnic grouping and religious belief.
In Khojaly, they simply butchered them.
The bloodletting ended with a cease-fire, brokered by Russia, France, and later, the United States. Talks got underway to resolve the issue. United Nations resolutions demanding Armenia withdraw were summarily ignored. The men who committed the crime against humanity that was Khojaly are free, lauded as heroes in Armenia, and, according to reports, one is now that country’s President.
The effect is to leave an uneasy truce with Armenia and Azerbaijan rapidly re-militarizing, Russia content to allow the matter to fester because it backs its client state Armenia and wants more control over Azerbaijan, and an absurd position of near-neutrality from the United States. The shame of our failure to even say that Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity deserves respect or We are committed to reversing a war of aggression and ethnic cleansing must be laid at the feet of every President since the first President Bush.
Whether we do this from cowardice, moral depravity, or fear of Russia (or in Obama’s case, the perverse desire for a “reset” with the butchers in Moscow) is irrelevant. It is wrong.
Worse, a strategically vital ally — a moderate Shi’i nation bordering on Iran — is caught in a frozen conflict. Conflicts do not stay frozen, and the time-lapse between frozen conflict and flashpoint may be mere seconds. As tensions with Iran escalate, the Administration must shore up its positioning with Azerbaijan if for no other reason than self-interest.
And it is not doing so.
American policy in region then is a complete failure in every meaningful way: In terms of consistency, morality, and self-interest. This must end. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to our ally. We owe it to the innocent dead.