June 5, 2012 | Commentary on American Leadership
Late last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began her tour of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey. In Scandinavia, she was to address several forums on climate change and green energy. While in Sweden, she also planned to discuss Internet freedom, Afghanistan and the Middle East. But it is in the mountains of the Caucasus and Turkey where Hillary will face the red meat of geopolitics: bloody ethnic conflicts over turf; religiously motivated massacres; and threshold nuclear states with global reach.
This final leg of the tour will be the toughest. On June 4, Hillary will meet with Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan; the next day she will open the U.S.–Georgia Strategic Partnership Commission plenary session in Batumi, Georgia, and see Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili; and later she will visit Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev in Baku.
Meeting with all three South Caucasus presidents opens an opportunity to push for talks on the disputed region of Nagorno–Karabakh, which have stalled after almost two decades of Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani territory. The occupation of Karabakh is the powder keg that threatens to blow up the South Caucasus. If this happens, the armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan will endanger energy transit from the Caspian Sea, threaten Georgia (Russia may demand troop transit to assist its ally Armenia) and boost the regional involvement of another Armenian ally—Iran. None of this is in the U.S. national interest.
The George W. Bush administration attempted to force the sides to negotiate in 2001 under the tutelage of then secretary of state Colin Powell, to no avail.
It is not very likely that Armenia and Azerbaijan would listen to Clinton’s calls for an equitable resolution, which should include liberation of the occupied Azerbaijan lands. After all, years of mediation by Russian ex-president Dmitri Medvedev, who developed excellent relations with both Baku and Yerevan, have not resulted in a breakthrough.
Another priority for the secretary of state’s visit to Baku should be to express support for the small but energy-rich Caspian state and its president in the face of incessant Iranian terrorist activities and plotting. Just recently, a massive Iranian-directed campaign to murder American and Israeli diplomats, their family members and others in Baku came to light. Iranian agents were planning to kill diplomats and their families with car bombs and silenced sniper rifles and to attack American and Jewish community targets.
Similar attacks took place in India, Georgia and Thailand and were planned elsewhere. This is part of a global Iranian terrorist campaign that also targeted the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C. Nevertheless, the Obama administration went out of its way not to blame the Iranian regime for the terrorist plots.
The recent host of the popular television show Eurovision Song Contest, Azerbaijan demonstrates levels of interethnic and interreligious tolerance unknown in the broader Muslim world, especially neighboring Iran. This model should be acknowledged and promoted in U.S. public-diplomacy efforts aimed at the Muslim world. At the same time, Eurovision-related news coverage often focused on the country’s problems, such as graft and occasional political repressions. Azerbaijan can do more to improve its multiparty system, the pluralism in the media, good governance, transparency and the rule of law. Clinton should address these issues in a balanced, friendly way. After all, Azerbaijan sided with the United States on Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and nonrecognition of Russian occupation of parts of neighboring Georgia.
In Armenia, Clinton should demand the renewal of peace negotiations under the umbrella of the Minsk Group. Russia and the U.S. cochair this group. Based on the 1996 OSCE Lisbon Declaration and the 2007 Madrid Statement, the negotiations’ aim is to have Armenian forces withdraw from Azerbaijani territories and allow hundreds of thousands of refugees to return to their homes. She should also call for Yerevan to recognize that its close ties with Tehran are incompatible with a friendly relationship with (and U.S. assistance to) Armenia.
In Georgia, Clinton should proclaim U.S. support for Georgian territorial integrity and call for a negotiated end to Russia’s occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and their return, in one form or another, to Georgia’s fold. It will be a particular challenge for the secretary of state to voice U.S. support for the future Georgian membership in NATO given the president’s preoccupation with the Russian “reset.” Yet, she may repeat her call from the May Chicago NATO summit that “our commitment to enlargement, done right, [is] a core element of our purpose and our community.”
In Azerbaijan, Clinton should offer an expanded program of antiterrorism assistance, including training and equipment for the Azerbaijani security services and special forces, as well as a certain amount of intelligence sharing that does not endanger U.S. sources. At the same time, She should reiterate American support for good governance, democratization, human rights and transparency in Azerbaijan as it enjoys larger-than-ever oil and gas revenues. Improving access to U.S. educational opportunities for Azerbaijani students, academics and government officials—both longer-term academic degrees and short-term training—should be a priority as well.
In Turkey, Clinton will speak at an antiterrorism ministerial meeting. Turkey took the lead in supporting Sunni opposition to Syria’s Alawite ruler Bashar al-Assad. However, the moderate opposition is in disarray, and the Sunni Islamist extremists, including the Muslim Brotherhood (supported by the Turkey’s ruling AK Party) and elements of Al Qaeda, are increasingly leading the resistance to the regime in Damascus. Ankara’s obstruction of Iranian sanctions and its anti-Israeli course, as well as its support for the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the Middle East, demonstrate the limits of the U.S.–Turkish “honeymoon” under the Obama presidency.
Clinton should still acknowledge Ankara’s leadership in seeking a negotiated solution in Syria. However, she should request that Turkey, in solidarity with its NATO allies, fully embrace U.S. and European sanctions on Iran, stop its support of the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the Middle East, and improve its relations with Israel and Cyprus. The latter would include toning down its rhetoric concerning offshore gas fields located in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone.
As Clinton may be stepping down after the November elections, the Obama administration is leaving behind a strategic landscape strewn with deeply offended friends and enemies who remain implacable despite attempts to pacify them. In what may be her last trip to the region, Secretary Clinton must try to reverse this trend.
Ariel Cohen, PhD, is senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.
This article first appeared in The National Interest on June 4, 2012.