Wednesday, October 19, 2005

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Should the U.S. still have some SOB's?

As Henry Farrell pointed out two months ago, one of the more intriguing ideational coalitions of the past few years has been, "the ever-smushier and less critical lovefest between leftwing opponents of the Iraq war and rightwing realist opponents of same."

I bring this up because, a) it appears that the influence of the neocons has been on the wane in the Bush administration as compared to the realists; and b) Max Boot's Los Angeles Times column on one of our strategically convenient but ideologically awkward allies -- the ex-Soviet republic of Azerbaijan:

Azerbaijan's oil revenues and its importance continue to grow with the opening this year of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that will carry 1 million barrels a day from the Caspian Sea to Turkey's Mediterranean coast. The 1,100-mile route, designed with U.S. guidance, avoids unstable Russia to the north and hostile Iran to the south, offering the West an important source of non-OPEC energy.

Not only is Azerbaijan happy to sell us oil, it's also willing to cooperate in the war against Islamist terrorists. Though most Azerbaijanis are Shiite Muslims, they are firmly secular; you see more veils in London than in Baku. The government has sent 150 soldiers to Iraq and may be willing to grant the U.S. access to some of its military bases.

All of this creates a major dilemma for President Bush. He has repeatedly pledged to "stand with dissidents and exiles against oppressive regimes." But the oppressive regime in Azerbaijan is willing to do favors for the United States. How hard is the U.S. willing to fight for its ideals?

The answer should come soon. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for Nov. 6, and they promise to be anything but free and fair. The government is passing out multiple voting cards to its supporters, and it is refusing to use indelible ink to prevent fraud. In the run-up to the vote, truncheon-wielding cops have been cracking heads among peaceful demonstrators. And, although returning opposition leader Rasul Guliyev never made it to Baku on Monday (he was detained in Ukraine), hundreds of his supporters were rounded up by authorities determined to avoid a repeat of the peaceful revolutions that have swept post-Soviet Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.

The U.S. reaction to this thuggery has been muted, to put it kindly. Two years ago, when Ilham Aliyev was anointed president in a rigged election following his father's demise, the State Department appeared to offer congratulations rather than criticism. Nowadays, U.S. Ambassador Reno L. Harnish III speaks highly of Aliyev's supposed moderation and is not protesting too loudly this "reformer's" rampant rights abuses. The ambassador tried unsuccessfully to block a group of Western think tanks from holding a conference last weekend in Baku that featured leading opposition figures. He told organizers he didn't want to stir things up before the election.

One wonders -- if the Bush administration veers towards a more realist direction, will liberals and neoconservatives find common cause on cases like these?

posted by Dan on 10.19.05 at 06:03 PM


Unlikely. There aren't many on the right who want to associate with the Michael-Moore-left these days... the neocon faction working out some kind of working relationship with the realist faction is a lot more likely.

posted by: rosignol on 10.19.05 at 06:03 PM [permalink]

Was this not the coalition that lined up against the realists and big business in the annual China MFN-NTR review battles?

posted by: MTC on 10.19.05 at 06:03 PM [permalink]

Realistically speaking, no matter how driven foreign policy may be by the need to deliver the oppressed from the jackboot of dictatorship, you can't achieve these goals overnight. Neocons aren't the only proponents of interventionism. Clinton basically told the U.N. to take a hike when he decided to bomb Yugoslavia, and as we know "a doctrine" of sorts transpired ... to the effect that intervention by the U.S. military (without U.N. say-so, is justified in order to prevent human rights abuses).

I would frame the ethical issue differently. Should the Bush administration be doing business with the regime in Azerbaijan?

If you see American influence and power as a greater good, proportionately speaking, than Azerbaijani corruption, then I suppose you could argue that taking their oil and assistance serves this greater good. You might also argue that with proximity and influence comes the chance to intercede, and restrain some of the more serious excesses of the Azerbaijani administration.

Ideals have to contend with flawed humanity, and I wouldn't go so far as to say that doing business makes the U.S. guilty by association.

A simple analogy might make the contention clearer. Suppose that during a dry spell when your garden is dying, you turn down an offer of water from a neighbor's pond on the grounds that he beats his wife. This strikes me as counter productive. Perhaps as a result of your dealings you can establish sufficient mutual trust to address the wife issue, thus your neighbor benefits from your counsel while you salvage your garden. That's called a win-win, isn't it?

posted by: Aidan Maconachy on 10.19.05 at 06:03 PM [permalink]

"You might also argue that with proximity and influence comes the chance to intercede, and restrain some of the more serious excesses of the Azerbaijani administration"

So I see Dr. Pangloss' nom de plume is Aidan Maconachy.

A cursory look at the history of US relations with oil-exporting/dictatorial regimes casts this assertion in an extremely naive light. Name one serious excess of the Saudi government that has been effectively curbed by dint of US proximity and I'll buy your gas for a month.

posted by: Borgia on 10.19.05 at 06:03 PM [permalink]

Also your analogy is fallacious because your imagined scenario is not analagous to the reality US-Azerbaijani trade relations. Your neighbor doesn't depend on the sale of water for his livelihood nor does your tapping into his water facilitate his domestic abuse. Whereas the Azerbaijaini government is almost entirely dependent upon oil revenue for its livelihood and the purchase of oil by the US does facilitate its tyrannical policies. See the difference?

The truth of the matter is that US foreign policy is based on profit maximization not on stamping out tyranny. Contrary to your contention, you cannot pursue both simultaneously.

posted by: Borgia on 10.19.05 at 06:03 PM [permalink]

Azerbaijan's government is pretty enlightened in comparison to most islamic countries. Relatively speaking it is a veritable utopia, compared to say, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, Libya, Gaza, Egypt, or Sudan.

posted by: Ragu Vishna on 10.19.05 at 06:03 PM [permalink]

It is in the nation's interest to purchase non-OPEC sources of oil. It in any modern, industrialized nation's interest to secure an oil supply - it is the prime mover of every modern economy on Earth. However, if we chose to not purchase oil from Azerbaijan, certainly someone else would, so I fail to see how we can take any blame for the sins of the Azerbaijan government.

Just tell the lefties it ain't ANWAR and they'll forget about it.

posted by: Don Mynack on 10.19.05 at 06:03 PM [permalink]

Maybe the 'global democrats' need to enlist the all powerful Armenian lobby on their side.

posted by: Mitchell Younganian on 10.19.05 at 06:03 PM [permalink]

Borgia - I suspect you scan posts quickly, but a more attentive read of my post would make clear that I presented much of my above commentary in the form of an argument that could be made, not a view that I personally came on here to vigorously promote.

Your comments about Saudi Arabia, reflect a naivity that makes Dr Pangloss seem machiavellian. Saudi Arabia is infinitely more complex than Azerbaijan. Al-Saud rule is complicated by a sprawling religious bureaucracy steeped in a tradition that is resistant to piece meal western style reform. To complicate matters further, Muslim practices within the kingdom are anything but homogeneous. You have Wahabbis co-existing with Sunni and Shia; also little known Sufi practices exist throughout the Hejaz. Moreover there is the hugely influential Sunni Salafi opposition movement that is extremely suspicious of pro-active Western reform agendas.

However to make the assertion that no progress has been made in areas of reform as a consequence of American influence in the region is simply silly. Despite the enormous obstacles - only a few of which I have mentioned above - we have seen landmark democratic elections which would never have occurred if Saudi Arabia had simply been left in neo-medieval isolation. To one such as yourself with views that seem predicated on cynicism, this probably amounts to a hill of beans, but it nonetheless is an important step in the right direction.

I'm actually a Canadian, and I have quite a few issues with the way the U.S. conducts its business overseas, and also with the way it has abused NAFTA regulations, especially with respect to Canadian lumber. That said, if tending toward the positive with respect to American foreign policy initiatives, makes a person guilty of naivity, then why don't you do us all a favor and drop the cynicism so we can share your vision for the future.

posted by: Aidan Maconachy on 10.19.05 at 06:03 PM [permalink]

I am wondering when the "lovers of democratic revolutions" will figure out the fact that in FSU most of the time the opposition is just another clan fighting to gain control...and in the Azeri case it is actually a split within the same clan, Nakhchevan. So in terms of political and civil liberties, and corruption, Aliyev or Guliyev...really doesn't matter.

posted by: A. N. Onymous on 10.19.05 at 06:03 PM [permalink]

I confess my knowledge of modern Saudi Arabian history only slightly transcends superficiality. However, I do know that after King Ibn bent the peninsula to his awe in 1932 every successor has been culled from the ranks of his 42 sons. This is called hereditary rule not democratic rule. I'm not sure if this landmark democratic election to which you refer actually took place but I can assure you that vox populi is not vox Dei in Saudi Arabia. Since its inception Saudi Arabia has been run on the principle of l'Etat, c'est moi with government affairs being handled through patronage and clientelism. Ok ok progress doesn't happen overnight. But its been over sixty years since Roosevelt and Ibn shook hands on the cheap oil-for-protection quid pro quo and American influence has resulted in exactly zero appreciable domestic reforms. The free gas carrot is still dangling in front of you...carpe diem and seize the prize!

posted by: Borgia on 10.19.05 at 06:03 PM [permalink]

I tend to agree. Progress is excruciatingly slow, and it may take some larger societal upheaval, perhaps even the deposing of the monarchy itself to facilitate serious reform.

There are many serious problems with Saudi society when seen in the light of values we regard as "normative" (dare I say "civilized"). The hierachical structure of the Kingdom supports the existence of people best described as concubines, forced laborers, indentured servants and even slaves. This isn't something that is under the carpet either, a prominent Saudi religious figure, one Sheikh Saleh Al-Fawzan, the author of a text book used widely in Saudi schools entitled "At-Tawid" (Monotheism) - has actually gone public to assert that "slavery is Islamic" and that any who call for a ban on it are "infidels".

I was frankly very disappointed with Bush for waiving any penalties with respect to the Saudi sex trafficking/forced labor issue. I find it shameful that he passed on this, especially considering the speech in July 2004 in which he said ...

"Human trafficking is one of the worst offenses against human dignity. Our nation is determined to fight that crime abroad and at home".

While I do think the U.S. needs to develop these strategic relationships, no friendly nation should be handed a free ticket when it comes to practices that are in flagrant breach of our most fundamental values - including dubious clients such as Azerbaijan.

In this area of human rights (Abhu Ghraib comes to mind), it's high time this administration started practicing what it preaches.

posted by: Aidan Maconachy on 10.19.05 at 06:03 PM [permalink]

The Baku-Ceyhan route of the pipeline also means that all of that oil is not shipped through the middle of Istanbul. That's important to Turkey, another important player in this dance.

posted by: Doug on 10.19.05 at 06:03 PM [permalink]

What A.N.Onymous said. There is no "democratic opposition" to speak of in Azerbaijan. Even in Ukraine, the "democratic opposition" included as its heroine a woman who'd stolen billions as her contribution to the criminalization of the Ukrainian state-- a problem that goes far, far deeper and is far more important to that nation's evolution than the quality of its electoral process.

In Russia and all the former soviet republics to the south and east, the problem of problems is the collapse of state effectiveness. These are, as Huntington would've said, "governments that don't govern." They don't collect taxes or pay pensions; they don't guard their borders or their military or nuclear arsenals; their senior civilian and military officials are little more than leaders of criminal gangs who happen to operate inside the government rather than outside it. Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, the Russian Far East baronies: the story is the same across the former USSR. Greater democracy will not address the cancer that is the criminalization, and effective collapse, of the psot-FSU state.

posted by: thibaud on 10.19.05 at 06:03 PM [permalink]

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