Retreat from the freedom agenda

By Jackson Diehl (THE WASHINGTON POST, 24/04/06):

President Bush's retreat from the ambitious goals of his second term will proceed one small but fateful step further this Friday. That's when, after more than two years of stalling, the president will deliver a warm White House welcome to Ilham Aliyev, the autocratic and corrupt but friendly ruler of one of the world's emerging energy powers, Azerbaijan.

Here's why this is a tipping point: At the heart of Bush's democracy doctrine was the principle that the United States would abandon its Cold War-era practice of propping up dictators -- especially in the Muslim world -- in exchange for easy access to their energy resources and military cooperation. That bargain, we now know, played a major role in the emergence of al-Qaeda and other extremist anti-Western movements.

To his credit, the reelected Bush made a genuine stab at a different strategy last year in Azerbaijan and another Muslim country, Kazakhstan. Both resemble Iran or Iraq half a century ago. They are rapidly modernizing, politically unsettled, and about to become very, very rich from oil and gas.

With both Aliyev and Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev planning elections last fall, Bush dispatched letters and senior envoys with a message: Hold an honest vote and you can "elevate our countries' relations to a new strategic level." The implicit converse was that, should they fail to deliver, there would be no special partnership -- no military deals, no aid, no presidential visits to Washington.

Both Aliyev and Nazarbayev made token efforts to please Bush. But both dismally failed to demonstrate that they were willing to liberalize their countries rather than using oil wealth to consolidate dictatorship. The State Department said of Aliyev's parliamentary elections, "there were major irregularities and fraud." Nazarbayev's election was worse. Since then, two of Nazarbayev's opponents have died or been murdered in suspicious circumstances. Three of Aliyev's foes are being tried this month on treason charges, and his biggest rival has been jailed.

Aliyev is nevertheless getting everything he might have hoped for from Bush. Aid is being boosted, the Pentagon is drawing up plans for extensive military cooperation -- and there is the White House visit, which the 44-year-old Azeri president has craved ever since he took over from his dad three years ago. If Nazarbayev chooses, he will be next. He has been offered not just a Washington tour but a reciprocal visit by Bush to Kazakhstan.

Why the retreat on the democracy principle? Azeri observers speculate that Bush may want Aliyev's help with Iran, which is its neighbor and contains a large Azeri ethnic minority. But administration officials tell me a more pressing reason is a rapidly intensifying campaign by Russia to restore its dominion over former Soviet republics such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan -- and to drive the United States out of the region.

Though nominally Bush's ally in the war on terrorism, Russian President Vladimir Putin has cynically exploited Bush's effort to promote democracy in Eurasia. His diplomats and media aggressively portray Washington's support for free media, civil society groups and elections as a cover for CIA-sponsored coups. Autocrats who stage crackdowns, such as Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov, are quickly embraced by Moscow, which counsels them to break off ties with the U.S. military. State-controlled Russian energy companies are meanwhile seeking to corner oil and gas supplies and gain control over pipelines, electricity grids and refineries throughout Eurasia. If they succeed, Russia can throttle the region's weak governments and ensure its long-term control over energy supplies to Central and Western Europe.

In late February Putin arrived in Azerbaijan at the head of a large delegation and proceeded to buy everything Aliyev would sell, including a commitment to export more oil through Russia. Earlier this month he welcomed Nazarbayev to Moscow, and scored an even bigger success. Not only did the Kazakh leader endorse Putin's plan for a Moscow-dominated "common economic space," but he also signed a deal that will double Kazakhstan's oil exports through Russia. Despite heavy U.S. lobbying, Nazarbayev has yet to firmly commit to sending oil through a rival Western pipeline, which begins in Azerbaijan and ends in the Turkish port of Ceyhan.

Putin's aggressive tactics forced the hand of the administration, which had been holding back its White House invitations in the hope of leveraging more steps toward liberalization. "We don't want to see Azerbaijan closed off by the Russians, because that will close off the energy alternative to Russia for Europe," one official said. He added: "If Azerbaijan falls under Russian influence there will be no democracy agenda there at all."

In short, the race for energy and an increasingly bare-knuckled contest with Moscow for influence over its producers have caused the downgrading of the democracy strategy. It might be argued that the sacrifice is necessary, given the large economic and security stakes. But, then, that was the logic that prevailed once before. According to Bush, history proved it wrong.