Azerbaijan a Staunch Ally in a Sea of Fire

Proving that there is some value to tossing pearls before swine, the Huffington Post published a piece that evenhandedly but unreservedly evaluates Azerbaijan’s strategic importance along the faultlines of Eurasia. While noting that Baku still has some distance to go in improving its governance and civil society — facts to which Baku will readily admit — the author, Stanley Weiss, the Chairman of Business Executives for National Security, points out that while Azerbaijan’s strategic importance is unquestionable, the Obama Administration is nevertheless allowing the relationship to deteriorate.

(For its troubles, the Post‘s comments section is now a morass of Armenian commenters engaging in anti-Semitic and anti-Azerbaijani tirades. While arguably an improvement over their usual commenters, it is sad to see that the internet truly has made ethnic hatred global.)

As Weiss says:

Azerbaijan is located, as journalist Thomas Golz has written, in the “devil’s playground — on top of one of the greatest ethnic, religious, and political fault lines in the world… the place where the semi-East meets the semi-West, where Russia meets Iran and Turkey, and where Orthodox Christianity abuts not simply Islam but both the Sunni and Shi’ite varieties of it.” Throw in the fact that Muslim-majority Azerbaijan is a staunch ally of Israel, a secular counterweight to Iran and an increasingly critical exporter of oil and natural gas, and its importance to U.S. national security seems clear — at least, for every president until now.

These are themes on which this Center has repeatedly hit. As Weiss notes, the situation with Iran is not daily in the news (likely because that topic got so boring), Azerbaijan essentially acts as an anti-Iran: it produces and exports energy, but the women of Baku may freely walk with their heads (and much of their legs, arms, and even necks!) uncovered. Where Iran has sworn to wipe Israel from the map, Azerbaijan is a staunch ally of Tel Aviv.

One might be tempted to attribute the Administration’s consistent inability to take advantage of the natural opportunities Azerbaijan presents to a high degree of antipathy for Baku, but this credits this Administration with too much competence. Instead, Azerbaijan appears to be caught between the President’s serial taste for pandering (to the Armenian diaspora, most of whom could not care less), a torn diplomatic establishment, and, as Weiss quotes an academic, “The U.S. lacks any coherent vision of where and how Azerbaijan fits into a broader American strategic vision.”

This need not be so. Weiss’s recommendations are entirely appropriate:

The Obama Administration needs to do more than that. It should explore whether a combination of aid, incentives and diplomacy could help resolve Azerbaijan’s festering conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. It should add a small U.S. ground presence to demonstrate its commitment to the country’s security, while pushing for greater NATO cooperation with Azerbaijan. And, it should assist the EU in securing the Nabucco West natural gas pipeline, which will ensure European energy security, enrich Azerbaijan and bring them closer to the West.

Insofar as the concern is with the nation’s democratic and social development, greater American involvement and interdependence can only aid those mutual goals, as they did with South Korea, Taiwan, and other states threatened by an implacable and genocidal neighbor. In the same vein, an American presence may finally end the interminable and fruitless talks at ending the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

It would be a start, and a step in the right direction. The first Obama term was marked by a diplomatic establishment at war with itself, for which Azerbaijan and much of the region has suffered. Hopefully, the second term will put this to right.

Image Copyright Shutterstock.com/Vladimir Melnik