Foreign policy is hard.
You wouldn't have thought it was so from listening to candidate Obama in 2007 and 2008. Just a quick dialogue with batty dictators here, a wholesale troop withdrawal there, a quick invasion of Pakistan for garnish, and a drizzle of adoring crowds in the home of dangerous demagoguery, and voila! Receding seas, world peace, America's foreign policy solved.
For the first several months of this Administration, many of us tried to figure out what exactly the President and his foreign policy team were trying to accomplish. After months of inconclusive, frequently cross-purposes infighting and schizophrenic policy, it became fairly clear that the Administration had no foreign policy except to take credit when something good happened. (In fairness, the President has proven extremely adept at ordering the killing of fugitives from international law, both 18 year-old, malnourished pirates, and world-spanning terrorists. He seems pretty good at ordering the extrajudicial -- but correct -- killing of American terrorists, as well.)
The problem with an incoherent U.S. foreign policy — especially when that incoherence appears to be the result of constant in-fighting inside the Administration — is that you don’t actually get very much accomplished. Will the Arab Spring for which the President takes credit devolve further into Islamism? Who can say! Perhaps another speech will stop that. Are we allowing China too much sway because they hold Treasuries? These things happen. Maybe we can get the Vice President to make another gaffe-ridden trip to the region — he’s great copy for the papers for days.
The further, paradoxical problem of allowing bad situations to grow worse while waiting for Cnut’s demonstration to reverse itself is that one tends to leave one’s allies and partners hanging. The best-known examples — snub after snub of the Brits, mooning the Indians, abandoning the Poles to the Russians (again), flipping off Israel — have received more than a bit of press, and rightfully so. However, much as character is what you do when no one is looking, foreign policy outside of the camera light matters too.
Examples abound — examples in Latin America abound, for Pete’s sake — but if you want to see an obscure, but important area where the Administration is flubbing it, you have to look to Central Asia. The truth that very few Administration officials understand is that Central Asia is where much of the world’s action is happening right now, just as it was a century ago when British historian Halford Mackinder propagated his famous theory that He who controls the Heartland of Eurasia controls the world. Central Asia is surrounded by the peace-loving democrats of Tehran, Beijing, Islamabad, and Moscow, and all have varying levels of influence in a geo-political zone where there are gigantic natural gas reserves that compete with Russia’s, and where solid American allies are scarce on the ground.
This is where foreign policy gets very, very hard. Having and maintaining allies in this region — a necessity because those Eastern democrats just seem determined to exploit the region for their own gain — means making the best of less-than-ideal situations. It means understanding that one needs allies, and the best allies in the area are countries at least partly independent of Moscow’s (and China’s and Iran’s) influence, nation-states that are struggling fitfully toward democracy. It means choosing the most pleasant options and sticking with them.
Even at this, the Administration is incompetent.
Take Azerbaijan. Caught between a revanchist Russia and an Iran determined to make its neighbors into a religious and natural satellite, Azerbaijan is a proven source of enormous natural gas reserves (in direct competition with the Russians who hold Europe hostage regularly with their natural gas supplies). Whatever its flaws, Azerbaijan is actually good news for NATO and even better news as a strategic energy partner for the European Union -- and for the same reason, as it helps thwart Russian twilight expansion.
The Azeris are actually committed U.S. allies, even though just 20 years after getting liberated from Moscow's yoke they are still working up to a fully functioning democracy. But they do have dozens of functioning opposition parties, and two-thirds of the freely published daily and weekly newspapers are outspoken in attacking the government and praising the opposition.
While Azerbaijan may not be a modern democracy, it’s worth noting that they are light-years ahead of their neighboring former Soviet states (where torture is considered a routine form of political expression) and trending in the right direction. With a hulking Iran on one border and the Russians just inside of arm’s reach, the Azeris have nevertheless acted as our staunch allies for years, and occupy a critical source of natural resources for a Europe desperate to avoid Vladimir Putin’s regularly scheduled gas blackmail. Not unrelatedly, they are now on the United Nations Security Council.
Our response to their efforts to crack down on Islamic radicals is to regularly humiliate them rather than to take advantage of this critically-positioned, moderate Muslim state (that hosts fully functioning Jewish synagogues in its capital of Baku -- a distinct contrast with its neighbors). When their decades-long standoff with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabkh — a region of Azerbaijan from which the Azeris have been ethnically cleansed with the help of Armenia, who should know a thing or two about genocide — flares up, and Azeris get killed, we remain silent, presumably because of misplaced guilt over the Armenian genocide by the Turks. (Hint to Secretary Clinton: The Azeris are not the Turks. Further hint: The Armenians are a Russian satellite, with Russian military helpfully stationed in-country, and with close ties to Iran.)
This failure extends to soft power, as well. Whether the Norwegian government — long a fan of using NGO prestige to advance left-wing causes — has had a direct hand in undermining the Azeris or not, their closely-aligned Human Rights House has singled out the Azeri government for rough treatment, with approving noises from Oslo every step of the way. Thus, despite the vibrant opposition press and numerous (if uncoordinated and ineffective) opposition parties on the ground, the Norwegians insist on painting Azerbaijan as Uzbekistan in all but name. So Norway has been leading the pack of human rights militants in praising a pro-opposition newspaper editor named Eynulla Fatullayev. That Norway, a NATO member, should be even perceived to be interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign country that can actually help the United States, Europe, and the West, should raise alarms in Foggy Bottom.
In getting involved in the domestic politics of Azerbaijan by associating with a pro-opposition journalist amongst others, the Norwegians are -- nominally in the name of freedom -- actually aligning themselves with a man who was freed by presidential pardon last May, and who received government-paid compensation for his imprisonment as the terrible, lawless, rogue Azeris actually implemented a European Court of Human Rights recommendation to free him. Further hint to Secretary Clinton: Tyrannies don't abide by the ECHR's decisions.
While it is not incumbent on the United States to answer every slight on its allies, it is incumbent to remember that the more Azerbaijan feels alienated from the community of nations, the more we risk that it will drift from the West and our version of democracy.
Azerbaijan is hardly alone in the Administration's failure to understand basically any aspect of modern foreign policy. But it is metonymic of a series of failures. With the Republican foreign policy debate fast-approaching, and with a decided lack of foreign policy chops in the current field, it is incumbent on someone to demonstrate that they understand the Administration's miserable failure in foreign policy, and the path to correcting it.