Embrace for a Strongman

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Friday, September 29, 2006

PRESIDENT BUSH once made the authoritarian president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, a focus of his freedom agenda. He urged the ruler of the energy-rich Central Asian nation to allow more freedom for political parties and media and to hold a fair election for president. The effort failed utterly: Mr. Nazarbayev was awarded 91 percent of the vote last December in an election condemned by international observers. Two months later, a leading opponent was brutally murdered by members of the state security forces. In July, Mr. Nazarbayev ignored Western objections and approved a law tightening already-strict controls on the media.

Today Mr. Bush is treating Mr. Nazarbayev to a White House visit, following a special demonstration of family friendship: The Kazakh leader was a guest of the president's father at the Bush compound in Maine. In short, Mr. Nazarbayev has suffered no consequences for his rejection of the democracy agenda. Instead, he is being feted as a valued ally because his government is supportive of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and because Kazakhstan recently agreed to pump some of its rapidly growing supplies of oil through a U.S.-backed pipeline to the West. Even the fact that Mr. Nazarbayev has been accused by U.S. federal prosecutors of accepting the bulk of $78 million in bribes -- a small part of the fortune his family has amassed -- has been ignored by the White House.

Mr. Bush has given numerous speeches in the past several years repudiating what he says was the mistake of backing corrupt authoritarian regimes in the Middle East in exchange for economic and security cooperation, as well as an illusory "stability." But that is exactly what he is doing in Kazakhstan -- and in Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Libya and Egypt, among other Muslim countries. Perhaps the only difference is that in the past, the United States rarely attempted to persuade governments to liberalize. Mr. Bush has asked Mr. Nazarbayev, Azerbaijan's Ilham Aliyev and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak to change. When they refused, his administration, in effect, shrugged. It did not significantly alter economic aid, military cooperation or any other aspect of the relationship.

Administration officials defend the Kazakh policy with arguments that are familiar from the Cold War: that it is better to "engage" a strongman than to shun him; that Russia and China, which are competing with the United States for political influence and energy resources in Central Asia, are happy to embrace Mr. Nazarbayev. Such arguments merely condemn the United States to a losing geopolitical strategy, since strongmen will always be more likely to align themselves with Russia and China than with the United States. The arguments also ignore Kazakhstan's own strategic interest in diversifying its energy customers and partnering with the world's only superpower.

In fact, the history of U.S. relations with Muslim states during the Cold War -- such as Iran and Iraq -- vividly demonstrates the shortsightedness of befriending rulers such as Mr. Nazarbayev. That, at least, is what Mr. Bush says in his speeches.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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