Ambassador Edward Djerejian and Carolyn Mugar (photo Aram Arkun)

Veteran Diplomat Djerejian Regales Audience with Tales of International Intrigue at Assembly Event


BELMONT, Mass. — The Armenian Assembly of America, currently commemorating its 50th anniversary, invited its members to attend a conversation with distinguished career US diplomat Edward Djerejian at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) headquarters on November 13. This was apparently Djerejian’s first public appearance in the Boston area since he and his wife Françoise moved here.

The audience was first welcomed on behalf of NAASR by its executive director, Silva Sedrakian, and by chair of the NAASR Board of Directors Judith Saryan, before Anthony Barsamian, co-chair of the Assembly’s Board of Trustees, spoke briefly of his organization’s 50th anniversary commemorations and its purchase of new office space before introducing Djerejian.

Barsamian pointed out how remarkable a resource for the Armenian community Djerejian is, having served eight US presidents, starting with John F. Kennedy. Aside from serving as US ambassador to Israel, ambassador to Syria, and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs (1991-1993), Djerejian served in diplomatic posts in Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon, France and Russia. Most recently, he was the founding director of Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.

Anthony Barsamian (photo Aram Arkun)

An Armenian Goes to Washington and then Abroad

Assembly Board of Trustees President Carolyn Mugar began the conversation with Djerejian by asking him how his background as an Armenian-American shaped his thinking as a diplomat.

Djerejian said, “You bring your background to whatever you do and I think that being Armenian of the first generation of the Genocide, born in New York, you have a sense of history, not intellectually but through osmosis.” The fact that his parents survived that tragedy gave him, he said, “That feeling that you have an extra responsibility, and the other thing that — and again, this is not intellectual but it was more motive — I should give back to this country that gave safe haven to my parents and allowed us to grow up here. So I decided to go into the Foreign Service.”

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Djerejian gave one witty anecdote after another about what it meant to be an Armenian in US service. He pointed out that when he began his career in 1962 as a young man in his early 20s, he was the only Armenian in the State Department. “It was still very much an elitist Ivy League WASP organization,” he said.

That made him feel, he said, like he was filling the “Armenian quota” in the Foreign Service. When he was introduced to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a very powerful and intimidating person, the latter noted Djerejian’s last name and asked whether he was Armenian. After learning that he indeed was, Djerejian said that Kissinger quipped in his heavy Germanic accent, “Then you must be inherently subversive.”

Djerejian’s father was always very proud that the famous Armenian Communist Anastas Mikoyan had risen to the highest levels of the government of the Soviet Union. During the Cuban Missile Crisis Mikoyan was sent to Washington to negotiate with the US secretary of state. Djerejian was working with the deputy secretary just down the corridor and related that he thought it would be great if he could tell his father he had met Mikoyan.

So Djerejian secreted himself in the corridor and Mikoyan, surrounded by four of what Djerejian called “the ugliest bodyguards you could imagine,” came out. Djerejian, in Armenian, called out, “Baron Mikoyan, inch bes es?” (Mr. Mikoyan, how are you?). Mikoyan suddenly stopped and with that hawklike face, as Djerejian called it, stared and asked, “Tun ov es?” (who are you?).

After Djerejian gave his name, Mikoyan asked whether he worked there, and when he learned that this was true, he slapped him on his back and said, “I am very happy that Armenians are doing well in this country.”

Djerejian said, with his typical humor, he replied, “You know, Baron Mikoyan, you have not done so badly yourself.”

When Mugar followed up with a question about falling back on core values when making a difficult decision, Djerejian related another anecdote in which his Armenian background played an important role. Djerejian served as US ambassador to Syria from 1988 to 1991 and he said this was his most challenging assignment, as the US had an adversarial relationship with Syria for many years, but needed Syrian cooperation on a variety of issues such as getting US hostages out of Beirut, the broader crisis in Lebanon, the Arab-Israeli peace process, human rights issues in Iraq, and stability in the Middle East as a whole.

Few US ambassadors had good access to Hafez al-Assad, the ruler of Syria, from the 1970s onward, but Djerejian knew that he liked Armenians because he considered them to be loyal citizens, and as an Alawite himself, he served as the protector of minority communities such as the Armenians. So when Djerejian came to present his ambassadorial credentials, he told Assad how his father escaped the Deir el-Zor death march and was given safe haven by a Syrian Arab family in Aleppo. His father learned of two Armenian girls in the harem of a Turkish captain and managed to rescue them. Djerejian said that if anyone had told his father as a young boy in 1919 that his son would one day come to Damascus as the US ambassador, he would have said this is crazy.

Assad was captivated by this story, Djerejian related, and this led to better relations. Djerejian and the State Department were eventually able to convince Assad to enter into direct negotiations with Israel, which he had refused to do for 40 years, fearing that Israel, with US support, to be too powerful. Assad participated in the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, which broke the logjam in getting the rest of the Arab world to start negotiations with Israel.

Djerejian was also involved in getting the US hostages out of Beirut due to the Syrians’ connections with Iran, and obtaining freedom of travel for Syrian Jews. Françoise at this point quietly interjected from the audience, “joining the coalition,” and Djerejian thanked her, saying that it was not for nothing that Secretary of State James Baker called her Djerejian’s “main brain.” Getting Assad to join the Desert Storm coalition against Saddam Hussein was indeed another major accomplishment. Djerejian observed that the Bush-Baker team strategized, unlike current US foreign policy leaders, and turned the coalition into a foundation for the Madrid peace process.

Armenia and the War with Azerbaijan

Naturally, Mugar queried the senior diplomat on the current situation in Armenia after the recent war, and he retorted, “Do we have 12 hours?” before confirming that Armenia is going through one of the most critical times in its history and is very vulnerable. He said that first of all, “We as Armenians, both in Armenia and outside, should look closely at what went wrong that led Armenia to this stage and this vulnerability…And then draw the lessons from that and do everything possible to foster Armenia’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, democracy and value(s).”

Djerejian stressed that there is no question in his mind that one of the lessons learned is that Armenia must enhance its deterrence power, nationally, economically, socially and its democracy, but also its military and defense capability in order to face the strategic challenges it has with Azerbaijan and Turkey. Armenia must, he continued, “constructively draw the right lessons and then chart what I would call a strategic doctrine going forward.”

As far as current Armenian diplomacy is concerned, Djerejian said that it is trying to go on a multilateral axis. Since the military option is not a strong one, Armenians must, he said, “rely on what I call assertive diplomacy across the board.” While depending rightly so on Russian peacekeepers, it looks towards the US, European Union, Iran and others to bolster its national security.

He said the US has become much more active in the last six months on Armenia’s issues, in part with the Ukraine war leading it to see an opening for the US to complement the Russian role in security issues in Armenia. With all the meetings taking place, he said, “a lot of it is rhetorical, but behind the rhetoric there are things that are beginning to happen…that have to make Azerbaijan and Turkey think twice, that they don’t alienate the international community in being even more aggressive against Armenia.”

He stressed that “delimitation of the borders is important, and obviously before all of this a sustainable ceasefire, stopping Azerbaijan’s ingress into Armenian territory, forget about Artsakh, and secondly, determining what a peace agreement can be… I think it is going to take a great deal of skill on the part of Armenia to make this come together.”

Djerejian warned against the ossification or bureaucratization of negotiations as in the Israeli-Palestinian case, where process becomes the endgame, and declared, “I would prefer the efficacy of direct negotiations bilaterally and multilateral by Yerevan.”

Djerejian also voiced his support for Armenian negotiations with Turkey to open their common border, though he conceded that maybe people in the audience do not support this. He quoted Secretary of State James Baker who would say “You don’t make peace with your friends. You make peace with your enemies,” and concluded, “You have to talk to your enemies but on a principled basis and not give up your values and your most important positions. But you have to talk to your adversaries. That is what diplomacy is all about.”

Bryan Ardouny (photo Aram Arkun)

Djerejian also responded to questions on varied topics from the audience, always in the same witty tone, before Assembly Executive Director Bryan Ardouny made his closing remarks and gifted Djerejian with a bottle of Armenian brandy as a symbol of appreciation and welcome to Boston. As Djerejian will be serving as Senior Fellow, Middle East Initiative, at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs of Harvard University’s Kennedy School, hopefully he will have further opportunities to expand on his ideas and speak further at local Armenian events.

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