Jirair Libaridian

Jirair Libaridian Responds to Vahan Zanoyan


Dear Editor:

I read with deep sadness Vahan Zanoyan’s article “Realism, Vision and Defeatism: Right and Wrong Lessons from the War” (Armenian Mirror-Spectator, February 3, 2021).

Zanoyan argues that the first president Levon Ter-Petrossian’s and my realism are responsible for Armenia’s current woes, and he equates that realism with “defeatism.” He is also very quick to bemoan the fact that so many Armenians now think that such realism would have served the interest of Armenia and Armenians interest better than the predictably disastrous policies that led us to where we are now. The author also argues that there is nothing wrong with the ideologically inspired mentality that extolls visions and miracles, a mentality which “defeatists” say is responsible for the most recent war and the defeat in that war; the problem, he argues, is only with the execution of that mentality.

In doing so, Zanoyan joins many others who would rather cover their failures instead of stopping for a moment and casting a critical look at what actually led us here, something many Armenians seem to be doing, something Zanoyan finds dangerous. These are our self-described “visionaries.” Since this author’s arguments are shared by many others, I thought it would be appropriate to consider them at some length.

Let me begin by expressing my dismay at the number of distortions and outright misrepresentations of the first president Levon Ter-Petrossian’s and my own words and views. I will not enumerate them here since that would constitute a whole article in and by itself. Instead, I will focus on the core issues of the author’s argument since these are even more dangerous than those falsehoods.

It takes a particular kind of impudence to prescribe again the cure to the disease that incapacitated the patient and brought him close to death. It takes a particular kind of impudence to then go on and blame the alternative cure that was certain to have produced a better outcome. Zanoyan is doubling down on a mentality that led us to war, a war that caused the death of some 4,000 young Armenian men, an unnecessary war that was lost, a war that erased most of the gains of the previous war where we were successful, a war that has done some irreparable damage to our vital interests. It takes also either blindness or shamelessness to rewrite that failed prescription even before all the bodies of the soldiers killed in that war are buried.

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Certainly the author has not forgotten that the president who won the first war was called a “defeatist” long ago, in fact as soon as he had won the war. That president, Levon Ter-Petrossian, was forced to resign in 1998, 23 years ago, for being a “defeatist.” His successors, visionaries or supported by visionaries, had over 22 precious years to prove their point, to work their magic.

I may be mistaken, but I do not remember Vahan Zanoyan expressing any concerns with the policies of Armenian governments in the last 22 years, governments that pursued policies based on wishful thinking, hoped for miracles, super patriotic rhetoric, and baseless comparisons with Israel, all of which Zanoyan thinks will save us in the future. The lesson the visionaries want everyone to draw from the last war is, then, that  the way not to feel defeatist is to insist on making the mistakes we have made in the past.

I do not remember Zanoyan and his co-religionists warning Armenia and Artsakh leaders that we were not yet ready for war when in the summer of 2020 the leaders of Armenia and Artsakh declared that they no longer see any sense in continuing negotiations, and thus making war imminent. Was he, like so many others, silent because they  thought the expected miracle had occurred and Armenia had become another Israel, capable of winning a war against Azerbaijan and Turkey? Or was it because he was sure we had all the time in the world to become Israel in a hundred or more years when the rest of the world, including our best friends and allies, were telling us to make piece based on compromises,  while Azerbaijan and Turkey were practically informing us they were going to go to war for certain, and will be doing  it sooner rather than later?

Zanoyan argues that Ter-Petrossian and his administration, who could have solved the whole problem immediately after the 1994 cease-fire – with less than four years to deal with the conflict and the rest of the critical issues for the people of Armenia following the war — did not behave as Zanoyan thinks they should have. Then why did not the others who followed him do so, when they had over 22 years?

The author and other visionaries accuse Ter-Petrossian and his administration of failing to resolve the Karabakh issue when Armenia won the war in 1994. The fact is, Ter-Petrossian tried to do exactly that by consolidating the essential gains, but he was forced out with arguments similar to what Zanoyan is arguing today. If Ter-Petrossian’s solution was wrong and he was forced to resign because of that, then why did his successors NOT do the right thing in 1998 or soon after, when Armenia was still at least as strong as Azerbaijan? They had 22 years to correct that mistake.

This argument assumes, first, that Armenia was functioning in vacuum; that there were no neighbors, even powerful ones; that victory meant you could do what you want, that we were living in the middle ages where victory meant conquest; that there was no international community, much more relevant then, a community on which Armenia depended quite a bit after the collapse of the Soviet economy; and that one can conveniently forget that independence started with war and blockades.

But there is something even more nefarious in the author’s argument here. The argument that Armenia was at the time just a war machine; that only soldiers lived in the country;  that all others were there to produce soldiers; that, in fact, the government and state of Armenia were there only to make war. Zanoyan does not seem to remember that Ter-Petrossian’s presidency started without even an army, that independence was declared to secure peace and freedom and security to a real people of a real country. That a real people had needs beyond a war.

This argument of the visionaries displays a decades-long reluctance to recognize that the first war was fought under the worst of possible conditions, and it was won. While the second war was fought when Armenia was in far better circumstances, and it was lost. In fact, to recognize the achievements of the Ter-Petrossian administration is to recognize the value of pragmatism and realism, of statesmanship over partisan and self-absorbed politics; to recognize the success of realism and failure of “visionary” politics, abstracted from real people and real possibilities. The visionaries are not ready to give up on their “vision” politics at the expense of real lives, real people, and a real country. Real Armenia is not the Armenia they dream of; it never is.  For the visionaries Armenia must always become a dream, even before it is a reality; it is much easier to  make decisions for an imaginary Armenia, and if that means that real people must be abstracted in favor of an imaginary Eden inhabited by a people who must behave as the vision dictates, so be it. The visionaries have no use for real people. Reality is harder to deal with. Besides, when dealing with the vision, one does not have a sense of responsibility for what one advocates.

The problem is that without first recognition of realities one cannot even achieve a country’s actual potential, let alone someone’s vision. It seems that dreaming and imagining is what is pleasant and satisfying; here it is not necessary to actually achieve anything. Having a vision is the purpose of politics in this case.

Zanoyan, like many others who agree with him, states that the mere fact that some Turks like what I write makes my writings suspect, by definition. This kind of political judgment can be summarized in one simple sentence: what Turks like must be and is bad for us; what they hate must be good for us. I can assure these would-be critics that what has made the leaders of Turkey and Azerbaijan delighted — and these are the Turks and Azerbaijanis that count — are our underestimation of their capabilities, our lack of sense of power relations, our reliance on non-existing assets and allies and on fantasies, all of which are part of the kind of thinking Zanoyan is advocating. Azerbaijani and Turkish leaders appreciate miscalculations of the visionaries, because that is what made their victory possible. I believe that should count more than the fact that some Turkish or Azerbaijani analysts and academics have appreciated my analysis.

Maybe I should restate the simple truths I have been highlighting for a while. We must distinguish between two different issues as far as responsibility for failures are concerned.

The first is the failure of negotiations: I have assigned responsibility for this failure to all sides of the conflict as well as to the mediators; I have also made it clear that the major part of responsibility belongs to Azerbaijan. Failure in negotiations made war in this case inevitable.

The second is the failure to weigh properly the risks of another war, that is, the failure to understand where we stand in terms of power relations with our antagonists; or, even worse, while knowing that we may be unable to win the next war, our failure to allow the processes that lead us to war to continue, as if playing a role in a classical Greek tragedy. Regardless, responsibility for this failure belongs completely to our side. No one told us to miscalculate; on the contrary. What Ter-Petrossian and I and many others did was to warn whoever was willing to listen about the certainty of war, the ever-decreasing chance of victory in a new war and the distinct  possibility of defeat and, therefore, about the absolute need to continue negotiations with the aim of achieving peace on the basis of compromises on both sides.

And when I say “our” side, I mean the leaders of Armenia and Artsakh since 1998, the political parties that were in coalition with them or otherwise supported or agreed with their policies, our historians, intellectuals and public opinion makers who hailed the policies epitomized by the very short sentence “not an inch of territory back.” That must have made them all feel good. Politics, statesmanship and governance is thus reduced to what makes one feel good.

A quote from a figure from our own history, someone more admired than actually read, may make the point better:

“It is the sacred duty of the government to love peace at all times, to govern with peace, and to exert every possible effort not to undertake war against another government, and also not to give any reason to others to make war against you. But if relations are ruined and another government imposes itself on you and endangers the interests of your country, then it is your duty and right to declare war, so that the enemy does not trample upon your freedom and rights. Except that the government now going to war must remember Christ’s parable that teaches us to have foresight. First you must calculate your expenses, and then assess your strength compared to that of your enemy, by asking yourself whether you should go to war with an army of 10,000 against an enemy who is coming at you with an army of 20,000. Otherwise, it will be much more circumspect to send a peace delegation and talk about reconciliation.”

These words are from none other than Khrimian Hayrig, the dominant and misunderstood figure from our 19th century history.

Articles by visionaries like this author constitute a desperate quest for arguments that will allow the authors to escape responsibility, and for the mentalities they represent escape scrutiny. Saul Bellow said it best: “A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.” To what depths of irresponsibility is he ready to sink just to defend that cherished mentality that makes us feel good but does only harm, a mentality that knows how to deal with defeat but not with victory, a mentality that afflicted the would-be dictator Kocharyan, the autocrat Sargsyan and the democrat Pashinyan. The problem had something to do with personalities and parties involved but everything to do with mentalities.

The facts speak for themselves. And our people can judge for themselves. Our people have undertaken that scrutiny. It seems that the visionaries are afraid.  “Believe me,” this author is telling our people, “trust my distorted and tortured argument, and don’t trust your own judgment!” What is he, what are they afraid of? Are they afraid that the people’s judgment will not be in favor of their kind of political sorcery, that their magic is losing its luster, and that the people’s judgment will allow a degree of sanity and reasoning to enter our discourse?

Zanoyan and his fellow visionaries resent the fact that, at the end, Ter-Petrossian’s 1997 November article “War or Peace,” his 2017 television interview, and a large number of articles and interviews by me and others in the camp of realists and “defeatists” turned out to have offered the right analysis, proved to have done the right prognosis and offered a better cure. They seem to resent that history validated the concerns and critique of the non-visionaries.

The facts spoke for themselves when realism and pragmatism brought victory and a good possibility for an honorable peace where we could obtain what we needed; and the facts speak for themselves when the visionaries risked all with little chance to get the maximum they dreamed of and, in fact, brought nothing but loss, defeat, death and destruction.

The visionaries are being consistent with their continuing belief in their more comforting ideology based on fantastic calculations, pseudo-strategies and on willfully ignoring facts. We do not see them recognizing simple facts with grace or being chastised, even today.

Instead of thinking about making the necessary adjustments to their thinking and their policies in order, first of all, to preserve what we have left, the visionaries are concerned about defending their past and justifying their shortcomings. What their cherish more than anything else are their fantasies, their “visions.”

The list of possible disasters that can befall Armenia and Artsakh is not exhausted. Should the logic of these visionaries survive this defeat and continue to dominate our thinking and policies, we are likely to witness yet more disasters.  At which time it is almost certain that they will blame, once more, anybody and anything other than themselves and their mentality.


Jirair Libaridian

Cambridge, Mass.

February 7, 2021

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