- - Wednesday, June 26, 2013

In his June 21 column about President Obama’s speech in Berlin, George Will essentially referred to the president as scarily detached from reality. Based upon my 30-plus years of experience on the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, I have to agree with Mr. Will that this president is scarily detached from reality — especially when it comes to foreign relations.

Time and time again, this administration led from behind and consequently badly mishandled events in Egypt, Libya, North Korea (which has become increasing erratic and belligerent) and Iran. At the moment, the administration is naively stumbling into a potential disaster in Syria. Their seemingly willful disengagement from the Caucasus, particularly Azerbaijan, threatens to destabilize a region vital to American interests.

The only country in the world directly bordering Russia and Iran, Azerbaijan is squeezed between the neo-imperialist ambitions of Moscow and the theocratic proliferation of Iran. The fundamental nature of the regime in Tehran has not changed despite Hasan Rouhani’s ascension to the presidency. So far, thankfully, Azerbaijan has resisted the pressure and confidently turned its face to the West. In fact, Azerbaijan is a valuable and tested ally for the United States. From counterterrorism and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to serving as a stabilizing force in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan is among America’s best friends.

Few, if any, Muslim-majority countries enjoy as close and friendly a relation with Israel as Azerbaijan. Last year, for example, Azerbaijan’s bilateral trade with Israel reached $4 billion, nearly double U.S.-Azerbaijan bilateral trade. In addition, some 40 percent of Israel’s oil imports come from Azerbaijan. Recently, Azerbaijan’s foreign minister, Elmar Mammadyarov, visited Israel, a visit Israeli President Shimon Peres described as historic. Mr. Mammadyarov was also the only Muslim foreign minister to address the 2013 American Jewish Committee Global Forum in Washington.

Azerbaijan is also a vital link in the global energy-security chain. The 1,099-mile Baku-Tbilisi-Ceghan oil pipeline delivers nearly 1 million barrels of oil daily to global markets. The Southern Gas Corridor project is soon projected to deliver 60 billion to 120 billion cubic meters per year of Caspian and Central Asian natural gas to Europe — potentially loosening Moscow’s iron grip on Europe’s energy supply. The U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan said during a speech at the Caspian Oil and Gas 2013 International Exhibit in Baku that Azerbaijan “makes a significant contribution to the energy security of the world.”

I have traveled to many countries around the world, and I know that Azerbaijan is not perfect. The Azerbaijani government is often criticized over its human rights record. However, considering that Azerbaijan — like other former Soviet republics — has scant experience with democracy, its human rights record is better than most. In fact, Azerbaijan’s religious tolerance, inclusiveness and protection of women’s rights should be recognized. Indeed, according to Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Azerbaijan is “a wonderful statement about the ability of different religions, different sects to come together and live together and to find a way forward.” Baku understands that it needs to continue to work on its democratic processes and procedures, but it is making progress. If human rights are the reason for the Obama administration’s disengagement with Azerbaijan, then why is the administration falling all over itself to extend the hand of friendship to the regime in Myanmar — a regime accused of genocide, the use of child soldiers, systematic rape, child labor, slavery, human trafficking and general political oppression?

I served with Mr. Kerry in the United States Congress. While we were on opposite sides of the political spectrum and rarely agreed on anything, I respect his understanding of foreign policy. He understands the importance of Azerbaijan as a strategic partner of the United States. He understands the unique role Azerbaijan can play — because of its centuries-long tradition of peaceful coexistence — in international arenas such as the Council of Europe and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. I sincerely hope that Mr. Kerry can persuade the academics in the White House — who continue to view the world as they want to see it, not as it really is — that it is critically important to reverse the slide of U.S. influence in the Caucasus by increasing engagement with Azerbaijan. The logical place to start would be to appoint a high-level negotiator to help resolve the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and thereby normalize Azerbaijan-Armenia relations. Ending this conflict would be good for Armenia, good for Azerbaijan, and it would remove a tool that the Russians and Iranians have been using to exert influence over the region.

Few places in the world, especially in the Muslim world, are as welcoming to Americans as Azerbaijan. If we continue to pull away from such a staunch friend, we will lose them, and the consequences for America will be disastrous.

Former Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican, was a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and chairman of its Europe, Eurasia and emerging threats subcommittee.

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