Give Me That Old-Time Geo-Politics

However much President George W. Bush’s "freedom agenda" asserted itself into U.S. foreign policy in the wake of the Iraq invasion three years ago, traditional geo-politics – and the realpolitik that goes with it – is making a remarkably strong comeback.

From the energy-rich Gulf of Guinea, across the Islamic Middle East to Central Asia, the Bush administration has pretty much dropped its democratic pretenses in favor of stability – and the "friendly" autocrats who can provide it, especially those with plentiful oil and gas resources and strategically placed real estate vis-à-vis emerging foes, be they Russia, Iran, or China.

The latest evidence took the form of the appearance Friday at the White House of Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, whose party’s sweeping victory in last November’s parliamentary elections was widely denounced by Western observers as fraudulent.

"We talked about the need for the world to see a modern Muslim country that is able to provide for its citizens, that understands that democracy is the wave of the future," Bush said at a brief photo-opportunity. "And I appreciate your leadership, Mr. President."

The photo-op was cut off before reporters could ask any questions about precisely what Aliyev’s "understanding" of democracy might be, let alone Azerbaijan’s placement as one of the world’s most corrupt nations, according to the latest rankings by Transparency International.

Bush’s warm words were a reminder of the visit here in mid-April of another corrupt – albeit far more brutal and long-ruling – dictator, Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

While Obiang was unable to penetrate the White House gates, he did get a warm and remarkably public reception from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who praised her guest as "a good friend" of the United States.

Rice, whose outspoken – if largely rhetorical – championship of Bush’s "freedom agenda" has recalled Joan of Arc’s crusade for the French dauphin, failed even to utter the words "democracy" or "human rights" during her appearance with Obiang.

What Aliyev and Obiang have in common, of course, is the fact that their nations’ territory sits atop billions of barrels of hydrocarbons at a time when global supply is stretched very thin; the United States is more dependent than ever on external supplies; and presidential public approval ratings appear increasingly tied to the price of gasoline and home heating oil.

The same can be said of Kazakhstan, a major oil producer, whose president, Nursultan Nazarbayev – like Aliyev, an exemplar of the kind of corruption and autocracy that has dominated Central Asia since even before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – will receive Dick Cheney on one of the vice president’s extremely rare ventures outside U.S. borders this coming week.

Nazarbayev, whose election to a third seven-year term with 91 percent of the vote last December was also denounced by Western observers, has ruled Kazakhstan since 1989. His security services, if not he personally, have been implicated in the apparent murders of two opposition leaders since the elections. Cheney, according to one government source, is expected, among other things, to renew a standing invitation to Nazarbayev to the White House.

In these exchanges, which have strong military, as well as diplomatic implications, Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl sees a "tipping point" that amounts to a "retreat from [Bush’s] ‘freedom agenda,’" particularly in the Caucasus and Central Asia where Washington finds itself in an escalating competition for influence, especially over the outward flow of oil and gas, with Russia.

"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," according to Diehl.

But "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," he wrote, noting that Azerbaijan’s proximity to Iran and the existence of a fairly significant Azeri minority in Iran might also help explain Washington’s willingness to ignore Aliyev’s autocratic peccadilloes.

That downgrading, however, is hardly confined to the former Soviet states, as is clear from Washington’s unexpectedly public embrace of Obiang.

Indeed, the most spectacular pullback so far has been in the Arab world – the major focus of the freedom agenda – where Hamas’ unexpected sweep of the Palestinian elections in January capped a string of strong showings by Islamist parties in Egypt, Lebanon, the Gulf, and, most discouragingly, Iraq.

Those victories, as well as last month’s forced exile of an Afghan Christian who faced a possible death sentence for having converted from Islam, has spurred a major rethink by key Bush constituencies – including the Christian Right and some prominent pro-Israeli neoconservatives, if not by key administration officials – of the wisdom of aggressive democracy promotion in a part of the world where many people have serious problems with U.S. foreign policy.

In recent weeks, that has translated into a number of subtle policy changes that the administration has preferred not to highlight. Thus, after almost three years of applying maximum pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – apparently in hopes of bringing about "regime change" – U.S. officials have recently begun praising Damascus’ cooperation in halting the infiltration of Islamists into Iraq.

Similarly, last year’s high-profile pressure on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to implement democratic reforms and ease up on the opposition appears to have dissipated. For example, last week’s harsh crackdown against protesters who turned out in support of two judges who accused the government of election fraud elicited scarcely a peep from Washington, which said it was merely "disappointed" by the extension Monday of a much-despised 25-year-old emergency decree.

Similarly, the shelving by King Abdullah of Jordan – or for that matter, by a number of Gulf states – of an ambitious reform agenda has ruffled few feathers here, particularly in light of reports that Hamas’ victory next door has boosted the popularity and organizing efforts of the local branch of the Muslim Brothers.

Meanwhile, back in Central Asia, Washington is vigorously promoting the construction of a proposed pipeline project that would transport gas from Turkmenistan – whose regime’s bizarre, Stalin-era cult of personality has made it impossible for Bush to substantially upgrade ties – to India as a substitute for a much cheaper Iran-Pakistan-India link.

The move underscores the degree to which Bush’s declaration 17 months ago that the "ultimate goal" of U.S. policy was "ending tyranny in our world" has been cast aside in the interests of old-fashioned geo-politics.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.