I am in Azerbaijan–a country that shares borders with both Russia and Georgia–for the week, and this morning I was lucky enough to meet with Deputy Foreign Minister Hafiz Pashayev. Mr. Pashayev was unequivocal about two related points concerning the U.S.’s response to the recent Russian aggression.
First, the President’s initial statement condemning the action was too weakly worded and the stronger statement was too slow in coming. Azeris refer to January 1990 as “Black January.” That’s when Soviet forces rolled through the capital city of Baku, killing hundreds of anti-communist protesters and others. Mr. Pashayev made it clear that the legacy of Black January still lives in the minds of Azeris. The attacks in Georgia reinforce what many in the Caucasus already know: Russia’s neighbors enjoy a fragile brand of freedom. He thinks a quick, unequivocal and muscular renunciation of the Putin-Medvedev invasion might have gone a long way. What do you know? The president whose cowboy rhetoric is often characterized as alienating to other democracies and provocative towards the Muslim world has let down a struggling Muslim democracy by failing to come through with the tough talk.
Second, of the two U.S. presidential candidates John McCain made a statement more in keeping with what Azeris (and presumably Georgians) want to hear from America. In Mr. Pashayev’s words, McCain’s statement was “strong and to the point,” while Barack Obama’s was too “careful.” (I don’t care how many cover stories are written about the international adoration enjoyed by Barack Obama.) When the tanks roll in and the bodies start piling up, the rest of the world is not looking for an American statesman who speaks beautifully of world citizenship. They want a U.S. President who makes it clear that human rights and the sovereignty of democracies are ideals America is not afraid to defend.