Commentary Magazine


Compromising with Kazakhstan

Following up on Jen’s and Pete’s posts regarding Obama’s meeting with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev at the nuclear-security summit: yes, it’s a bit rich that Obama would tell Nazarbayev that the U.S. is still “working” on its democracy — just like Kazakhstan! It even sounds like a scene that would make a nice addendum to that comedy classic Borat.

But in this particular instance, I would cut Obama some slack. It does sound as if the president raised human-rights issues with Nazarbayev, as he should have. The larger issue is whether the president of the United States should be palling around with two-bit dictators like Nazarbayev.

I believe that our foreign policy should champion freedom and democracy, but I recognize that in this imperfect world some short-term compromises are necessary. That includes cutting deals with states such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the latter now the scene of a revolution against the dictator (Kurmanbek Bakiyev), with whom we made a deal to locate a critical American air base. That deal now looks suspect, but what choice did we have? To fight and win in Afghanistan, we need bases in the region, and the outcome in Afghanistan is more important than the outcome in Kyrgyzstan.

That is something that President Bush — denounced and praised as a “neocon” true believer — understand. He too hosted dictators like Nazarbayev at the White House — and no doubt said some soothing things to them about how much he respected them. That’s the kind of talk that is frequently used to grease diplomatic transactions.

I don’t have a problem with the fact that Obama isn’t doing much to promote democracy in states that are strategic allies. My problem is that he has missed — and is still missing — a golden opportunity to promote democracy in the country that happens to be our deadliest enemy at the moment. He has let the Green Revolution come and go in Iran while maintaining a hands-off attitude. There is surely a case to be made for attempting to reach a modus vivendi with the Nazarbayevs of the world — dictators who are concerned only with keeping power and are willing to accommodate our interests. There is no case to be made for accommodation with the Ahmadinejads and Khameinis of the world — dictators with grandiose ambitions that threaten ourselves and our allies and who have no interest at all in reaching any kind of entente with us.