Global Policy Forum

Rights Take Backseat to Oil


Tom Raum

Associated Press
April 28, 2006

Searching for energy supplies and allies against Iran, the Bush administration is reaching out to leaders who rule countries that are rich in oil and gas but accused of authoritarian rule and human rights violations. The presidents of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Equatorial Guinea are all getting special attention. The effort sometimes seems at odds with President Bush's stated second-term goal of spreading democracy. "If those countries were not oil producers, we would probably not be meeting with their leaders," said Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign policy analyst with the Brookings Institution. "There is some tension with Bush's democracy-promotion agenda. They are pulling in different directions."

Bush meets Friday at the White House with the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliev. Vice President Dick Cheney next week visits the central Asian nation of Kazakhstan and its leader President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Human rights groups have criticized both leaders. But the two former Soviet republics are allies in the war on terrorism and both have significant energy reserves. Administration officials defend the meetings and similar ones, noting that Bush and other officials make a point of raising human rights and other social policy concerns, as Bush did when Chinese President Hu Jintao visited last week.

In addition to promoting democracy, Bush talks about curing America's "addiction to oil," a phrase he repeated as he announced steps this week to help ease gasoline prices that have soared over $3 a gallon in some places. Some 60 percent of oil used by the U.S. comes from overseas. The search goes on for stable supplies of oil from areas other than the volatile Persian Gulf — a search joined by energy-thirsty China and India.

But much of the world's remaining accessible oil is controlled by governments not particularly friendly to U.S. interests. Nigeria and Venezuela have become unstable suppliers. The government of Russian President Vladimir Putin has take steps to reassert state influence over Russia's strategically important oil sector. Oil politics can make for some unusual diplomacy.

"I can tell you that nothing has really taken me aback as secretary of state than the way that the politics of energy is — I will use the word `warping' — diplomacy around the world," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this month. Rice herself drew some fire for welcoming Equatorial Guinean President Teodoro Obiang Nguema to the State Department as "a good friend."

He seized power in a 1979 coup and his government has been regularly accused by the State Department of human rights violations, including torture and deaths of prisoners. But the country is also rich in oil and gas. "The photograph of you and Mr. Obiang will be used by critics of the United States to argue that we are not serious about human rights and democratic reforms in a country with substantial oil wealth," Sen. Carl Levin (news, bio, voting record), D-Mich., wrote Rice in a letter his office released on Thursday. Bush is also looking for help in confronting Iran's nuclear ambitions. He raised the issue during Hu's visit but failed to win a commitment from the Chinese leader. Beijing does not want to entertain sanctions against one of its major oil suppliers.

Azerbaijan shares a border with Iran, and Bush hoped to enlist the mostly Muslim nation's help in leaning on Iran to end its uranium enrichment program. But Aliev told a foreign-policy forum here on Wednesday that "Azerbaijan will not be engaged in any kind of potential operation against Iran." Human rights groups have accused Azerbaijan of restricting political and human rights.

Given Bush's emphasis on democracy, he should use Friday's visit "to discuss Azerbaijan's democracy deficit," said Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House, an independent organization that promotes democracy worldwide.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli defended the warm reception given Aliev, saying human rights is certainly an important issue between the two countries — but so are energy security, stability in the region and the fight against terrorism.

"And we pursue all of these in parallel while at the same time sticking to our principles and not sacrificing expediency for principle," Ereli said. A White House statement said Bush would raise energy diversification, the war on terrorism and democracy promotion at Friday's meeting.

Iraq war critics have long challenged the administration's courting of Saudi Arabia and other undemocratic but oil-rich Gulf states. And Democrats are raising anew Bush's and Cheney's ties to the oil industry. Bush's early career was in the Texas oilfields. In his 2000 campaign, he pledged to use that experience to jawbone oil producing nations to help keep down prices. Cheney once headed oil services giant Halliburton. "People look at two oil men in the White House, and gasoline prices through the roof, and they likely assume that the president and the vice president are on the side of oil companies, not on the side of ordinary people," said Democratic pollster and strategist Mark Mellman.

Politics aside, big oil-consuming nations like the United States and China "are looking out at the world and seeing a stagnant supply and a very unstable supply," said Tom Collina, director of 20/20 Vision, an advocacy group that favors sharp reductions in U.S. energy consumption. "It's going to be a security problem for the foreseeable future," Collina said.

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