BAKU, Azerbaijan — The recurring argument broadcast by the American celebrity left is that their trips abroad establish that the United States should speak softly and carry a small stick.
This Bellini-fueled analysis, hyped as weighty by the mainstream media, is usually formed at junkets in San Sebastian or Cannes, on vacation in Portofino or Davos, or on late-night walks in London parks with Kevin Spacey and his dog, Hugo Chavez - both of whom couldn’t care less about Tbilisi, Georgia.
The world is bigger, more complex and more dangerous than the groovy comfort zones frequented by certain spineless Europeans and their American sycophants. More important, most of the rest of the world is economically developing, and its opinion of the U.S. is constantly evolving.
With our reputation and might in play, more pedestrian Americans like myself have much to gain from trying to win over less-romantic regions of the globe and not just making nice in Nice.
One such place is Azerbaijan.
Early last Monday, I landed in the capital city of Baku knowing little more than the country’s Wikipedia entry. The oil-rich, moderate Muslim, former Soviet republic borders regional thugs Iran and Russia, along with America’s now weakened ally, Georgia. Only a few hundred miles to the north, Russia and Georgia began warring only days before my arrival.
I soon joined forces with one Dutch and seven American journalists on a “fact-finding” trip sponsored by the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Upon our arrival, this Western media contingency was thrust onto national prime-time television. For seven days from event to event, we were flanked by Azeri camera crews desperate to get us to comment on their big problem.
The first night, I led the nightly news. The Chyron on the screen read, “Andrey Breyban,” as I was asked about Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan’s territorial dispute with Armenia. “I know nothing,” I answered regretfully.
(Should I know something about Nagorno-Karabakh? I recall similar ugly pangs in the ‘90s as Bosnia-Herzegovina began to become an American problem. I was actually relieved they got my name wrong.)
Independent war correspondent Michael J. Totten and National Review’s Rob Long joined me one night in a discussion on an hourlong news program. The topic? Nagorno-Karabakh. Out of necessity, we changed the subject to journalism, specifically to the American concept of a free press - something Azerbaijan claims to be working on. We sold them “transparency” - and it was transparent that we didn’t know much about our strategic ally’s key issue.
Azerbaijan is an under-praised ally of the United States, having granted the U.S. military access to Iraq via its vital airspace, and it has 150 troops assisting coalition forces guarding the Haditha Dam. The first Azeri soldier was killed in Iraq in June. No other majority Muslim country (somewhere near 95 percent, according to my hosts) risks the wrath of extremist Islamic elements quite like this.
If the democratization of the Islamic world is key to American geopolitical thinking, then Azerbaijan must be rewarded for its practical and symbolic help - especially when Iran flexes and Russia thrusts their muscles so brazenly these days.
Getting to know about Azerbaijan may be a good start along this path.
While there are no Starbucks or Crate and Barrels in Baku, the city’s 2-million-plus residents experience a life radically more American than Saudi. Soviet aesthetics and mannerisms still dominate, yet materialism rears its Bulgari-ed head.
“Tropic Thunder” and “Hellboy II” play in the local multiplex down the promenade from Cafe Mozart, where foreigners and natives take in ample beer, cappuccino and Wi-Fi to the wee hours. Unfinished high-rises punctuate Baku’s dusty skyline, while Mercedes and Range Rovers compete with Russian Ladas on her hilly roads.
The smell of oil is in the air.
Mosques are a prominent part of the Baku experience, yet religious tolerance manifests in a handful of Christian and Jewish houses of worship. Jeans and T-shirts grossly outnumber hijabs, and except for a bearded Wahhabist in Baku’s Old City who gave me the evil eye, every Muslim I had interaction with was friendly and seemingly motivated by this life.
One local told me the young people go to the mosques but don’t read the Koran. The imam at the magnificent Bibi Heybat mosque overlooking the filthy Caspian Sea told me he supports interfaith marriage. The statue of the “Liberated Woman” in the center of town depicts a woman tossing her veil.
For the most part, I’m sold.
We were asked every day at every turn about Nagorno-Karabakh. The issue was inescapable for the week. “I am compelled by your story,” I repeatedly told the microphones stuck in my face. “I need to do more research. I need to hear the other side.”
After a trip to a refugee camp in the middle of Baku - think the timeless West Bank media shows - I naturally started to think of it in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Every time I was given more information, I felt less informed.
At the end of the trip, our group was told matter-of-factly by Azeri officials that Russia was using Armenian bases to bomb Georgia. If true, this puts their Nagorno-Karabakh dispute into starkly American terms and reveals how Russia works to establish control over the region at the expense of the West.
The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline begins in the Caspian Sea and goes through the Caucasus Mountains westward to the Black Sea. It is the only such oil-and-natural-gas route in the region that circumvents Russia and Iran and provides long-term energy security to Europe. If Azerbaijan provokes Russia, it could be the next Georgia - and the consequences would be far more reaching.
Azerbaijan’s fear is both real and now. The least we could do is pay attention.