Contradictory Conduct: Ambassador Libby’s Mixed Messages in Azerbaijan

US Ambassador Mark Libby’s visit to the recaptured Azerbaijani town of Shusha, just three days after his statement that he wouldn’t do so for “someone’s show,” raised eyebrows about the integrity of principles. az.usembassy.gov

 

May 7, 2024

When U.S. Ambassador Mark Libby made comments last week about not wanting to visit Azerbaijan’s recaptured territories like Shusha just to be part of a “show,” it raised eyebrows in the corridors of power. According to one thoery, his remarks were interpreted as a subtle rebuke of Hikmat Hajiyev, the presidential aide known for orchestrating media spectacles around foreign diplomats’ trips to areas regained in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.

However, Libby’s principled stance seemed to crumble just two days later when he did exactly that – visiting the culturally iconic city of Shusha in what appeared to be a stunning U-turn. Observers questioned what might have caused him contradicting his earlier vow.

The U.S. Embassy in Baku and the State Department were contacted for comment on Libby’s contradictory behavior and the discussions around USAID’s activities in Azerbaijan, but no response was received at the time of publishing. Some Western media networks, organizations and governments, such as RFE/RL, the EU, and the US, continue to evade media queries while otherwise widely proclaiming transparency, freedom of the press, and open government principles.

During his Shusha visit, Libby himself announced that the trip had actually been planned for months – well before his public criticism of stage-managed “shows.” His statements were likely aimed at Hajiyev’s combative publicity tactics rather than the Shusha visit itself.

“The ambassador seems to be pushing back against the government’s propaganda machine without overtly naming names,” said a former Western diplomat. “But his subsequent actions contradict his rhetoric.”

The dissonance grew when Hajiyev loudly proclaimed there was “no place for USAID” in Azerbaijan. But again, Libby struck an inconsistent tone, rejecting “allegations” that USAID was leaving while confirming discussions about their activities were ongoing.

It’s an awkward dance for the US ambassador – condemning heavy-handed tactics from one side while still engaging pragmatically with powerbrokers on the other. Each public remark is carefully calculated, every action a potential message. But his contradictory conduct has raised doubts about his principles.

As the frozen conflict with Armenia shows signs of thawing, Libby’s mission is supposedly to nudge the peace process forward while avoiding being seen as taking sides. His Shusha visit demonstrated U.S. investment in the region, but he failed to sidestep turning it into the very spectacle he had publicly scorned days earlier.

“Ambassador Libby might understand there are times to speak frankly and times when quiet engagement is more effective,” said an expert familiar with the region. “But his actions in Azerbaijan suggest mixed messages that undermine his credibility.”

With tensions still simmering, Libby seems to be struggling to maintain a consistent approach. Stay too quiet and risk enabling nationalism. But speak too brazenly and unravel fragile negotiations. It’s the dichotomy all ambassadors face, but Azerbaijan’s conflict has exposed Libby’s inability to reconcile words with deeds.

As America’s voice in Baku, Libby’s contradictory conduct has raised doubts about whether he can be an effective diplomat. In the hothouse of Caucasus politics, the wisest envoys back up their public statements through consistent principles – something Libby has so failed to demonstrate in his early test.

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