Commentary Magazine


Topic: Nursultan Nazarbayev

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.

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.

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Obama’s Moral-Inversion Problem

Jen, your posting about President Obama’s discussion with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is spot on. It tells us a great deal about Obama’s approach to international affairs generally and human rights specifically, and all of it is disquieting. It is also of a piece with Obama’s unprecedented criticisms of America since he took office.

Our president simply doesn’t hold this nation in very high esteem.

It made me wonder, though: what does it tell us about Obama that he would go so easy on a nation like Kazakhstan, whose human rights record is troubling (as Josh Rogin points out in his post over at Foreign Policy), having created an atmosphere of “quiet repression,” while being so eager to hammer a nation like Israel, which is not only a strong American ally but a moral beacon in so many ways? (Israel is not the only ally that has been berated or bullied or disrespected by Obama; the list grows seemingly every week.)

The type of approach Obama is embracing is actually worse than moral equivalency (for the record and for what it’s worth, the Obama administration insists there was no equivalence meant whatsoever between America and Kazakhstan); it is an inversion of morality. Perhaps it is Professor Obama’s effort at the transvaluation of values, of creating a world in which the role of the president is to criticize America and pound her best allies while turning a mostly blind eye to those who routinely violate human rights, from Kazakhstan to Venezuela to Iran. Whatever it is that explains Obama’s behavior, it is all rather dispiriting and a matter of real concern.

Barack Obama is a groundbreaking president, that is for sure.

Jen, your posting about President Obama’s discussion with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is spot on. It tells us a great deal about Obama’s approach to international affairs generally and human rights specifically, and all of it is disquieting. It is also of a piece with Obama’s unprecedented criticisms of America since he took office.

Our president simply doesn’t hold this nation in very high esteem.

It made me wonder, though: what does it tell us about Obama that he would go so easy on a nation like Kazakhstan, whose human rights record is troubling (as Josh Rogin points out in his post over at Foreign Policy), having created an atmosphere of “quiet repression,” while being so eager to hammer a nation like Israel, which is not only a strong American ally but a moral beacon in so many ways? (Israel is not the only ally that has been berated or bullied or disrespected by Obama; the list grows seemingly every week.)

The type of approach Obama is embracing is actually worse than moral equivalency (for the record and for what it’s worth, the Obama administration insists there was no equivalence meant whatsoever between America and Kazakhstan); it is an inversion of morality. Perhaps it is Professor Obama’s effort at the transvaluation of values, of creating a world in which the role of the president is to criticize America and pound her best allies while turning a mostly blind eye to those who routinely violate human rights, from Kazakhstan to Venezuela to Iran. Whatever it is that explains Obama’s behavior, it is all rather dispiriting and a matter of real concern.

Barack Obama is a groundbreaking president, that is for sure.

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What Did He Say?!

At times Obama seems to embody the worst characteristics of the Left — near comical moral equivalence, indifference to human rights, and a willingness to disregard America’s stature as the world’s leading democracy. Add in some jaw-dropping egotism and you have a scene like this:

President Obama said Sunday that the United States is still “working on” democracy and a top aide said he has taken “historic steps” to improve democracy in the United States during his time in office. The remarks came as Obama met with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev — one of the U.S. president’s many meetings with world leaders ahead of this week’s nuclear summit.

Kazakhstan, which has been touting its record on combating nuclear proliferation, is a key player in the NATO supply network to Afghanistan and currently heads the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Some observers see a conflict between Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the 56-nation OSCE, which plays an important role in monitoring elections in emerging democracies, and its own widely criticized human rights record.

But if the Obama administration saw any disconnect, it kept its criticism to itself.

“In connection with the OSCE, the presidents had a very lengthy discussion of issues of democracy and human rights,” NSC senior director Mike McFaul said on a conference call with reporters Sunday. “Both presidents agreed that you don’t ever reach democracy; you always have to work at it. And in particular, President Obama reminded his Kazakh counterpart that we, too, are working to improve our democracy.” …

“You seemed to be suggesting there was some equivalence between their issues of democracy and the United States’ issues, when you said that President Obama assured him that we, too, are working on our democracy,” [Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan]Weisman said. “Is there equivalence between the problems that President Nazarbayev is confronting and the state of democracy in the United States?”

“Absolutely not. … There was no equivalence meant whatsoever,” McFaul said. “[Obama's] taken, I think, rather historic steps to improve our own democracy since coming to office here in the United States.”

This is astounding in several respects. First lumping the U.S. in with Kazakhstan has to be a new low (high) in moral obtuseness. As the report notes:

The State Department’s own 2009 human rights report on Kazakhstan reported widespread human rights violations, including severe limits on citizens’ rights to change their government; detainee and prisoner torture and other abuse; unhealthy prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; lack of an independent judiciary; restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and association; and pervasive corruption, especially in law enforcement and the judicial system.

Freedom House’s 2010 world survey declared Kazakhstan “not free” and said, “Kazakhstan holds the chairmanship of the OSCE for the year 2010 despite a record of fraudulent elections and repression of independent critics in the media and civil society — behavior that only grew worse as 2010 approached.”

The latest Human Rights Watch report on Kazakhstan was entitled, “An atmosphere of quiet repression.”

Furthermore, what has Obama done that qualifies as historic steps to improve our own democracy? I’m stumped to think of a single thing. Great transparency? Hmm. Haven’t seen that in the health-care legislative process of elsewhere. Toleration and civility for the opposition? Puhleez. Does Obama regard his own presidency as some historic leap forward for American democracy? Apparently so, a troubling sign that his narcissism continues to grow by leaps and bounds.

At times Obama seems to embody the worst characteristics of the Left — near comical moral equivalence, indifference to human rights, and a willingness to disregard America’s stature as the world’s leading democracy. Add in some jaw-dropping egotism and you have a scene like this:

President Obama said Sunday that the United States is still “working on” democracy and a top aide said he has taken “historic steps” to improve democracy in the United States during his time in office. The remarks came as Obama met with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev — one of the U.S. president’s many meetings with world leaders ahead of this week’s nuclear summit.

Kazakhstan, which has been touting its record on combating nuclear proliferation, is a key player in the NATO supply network to Afghanistan and currently heads the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Some observers see a conflict between Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the 56-nation OSCE, which plays an important role in monitoring elections in emerging democracies, and its own widely criticized human rights record.

But if the Obama administration saw any disconnect, it kept its criticism to itself.

“In connection with the OSCE, the presidents had a very lengthy discussion of issues of democracy and human rights,” NSC senior director Mike McFaul said on a conference call with reporters Sunday. “Both presidents agreed that you don’t ever reach democracy; you always have to work at it. And in particular, President Obama reminded his Kazakh counterpart that we, too, are working to improve our democracy.” …

“You seemed to be suggesting there was some equivalence between their issues of democracy and the United States’ issues, when you said that President Obama assured him that we, too, are working on our democracy,” [Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan]Weisman said. “Is there equivalence between the problems that President Nazarbayev is confronting and the state of democracy in the United States?”

“Absolutely not. … There was no equivalence meant whatsoever,” McFaul said. “[Obama's] taken, I think, rather historic steps to improve our own democracy since coming to office here in the United States.”

This is astounding in several respects. First lumping the U.S. in with Kazakhstan has to be a new low (high) in moral obtuseness. As the report notes:

The State Department’s own 2009 human rights report on Kazakhstan reported widespread human rights violations, including severe limits on citizens’ rights to change their government; detainee and prisoner torture and other abuse; unhealthy prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; lack of an independent judiciary; restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and association; and pervasive corruption, especially in law enforcement and the judicial system.

Freedom House’s 2010 world survey declared Kazakhstan “not free” and said, “Kazakhstan holds the chairmanship of the OSCE for the year 2010 despite a record of fraudulent elections and repression of independent critics in the media and civil society — behavior that only grew worse as 2010 approached.”

The latest Human Rights Watch report on Kazakhstan was entitled, “An atmosphere of quiet repression.”

Furthermore, what has Obama done that qualifies as historic steps to improve our own democracy? I’m stumped to think of a single thing. Great transparency? Hmm. Haven’t seen that in the health-care legislative process of elsewhere. Toleration and civility for the opposition? Puhleez. Does Obama regard his own presidency as some historic leap forward for American democracy? Apparently so, a troubling sign that his narcissism continues to grow by leaps and bounds.

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