BAKU, AZERBAIJAN -- If I were still a journalist, I would have had a juicy scoop last Saturday when I learned of the imminent but still unannounced arrival in Azerbaijan of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Gates had been tasked with hitting the reset button -- there are a lot of those in the former Soviet Union these days -- on Washington's increasingly problematic relationship with Baku.
I learned of the emergency visit when an old friend of mine called to say he knew I was in the Azerbaijani capital, and that his former boss, a U.S. intelligence officer, wanted to buy me a few beers and chat about my nearly 20-year hobby of reading tea leaves and goat entrails in the Land of Az.
"The American chargé d'affaires told me not to talk to you, but he is State Department and I am not," the official said -- I'm paraphrasing from memory here, but closely -- putting initial pleasantries out of the way. "I am here to set up the Gates visit tomorrow. We finally decided to give the Azerbaijanis something before this thing deteriorates any further." Then he sort of smirked while saying the following: "We frankly don't care about human rights or democracy-building, or Israel and Turkey, or peace in Karabakh or Georgia, or even Azerbaijani energy. There is only one thing we really care about right now, and that is Afghanistan."
I was not surprised, but had to ask:
"Afghanistan," he said, and then repeated the word.
Azerbaijan's role in that war is fairly well known: The country has donated a symbolic company of 90 soldiers (which has suffered no casualties to date) and shared intelligence with the United States. But Azerbaijan's main contribution to the U.S.-led war effort has been geographic: The country's location in the Caucasus is a gateway between Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia, and Baku has provided a vital transportation alternative by opening its air, rail, and seaport space to NATO.
There has been no murmur of a threat to close or restrict the Azerbaijan corridor, but even the remote possibility that the Azerbaijanis would do so has apparently worried Pentagon contingency planners -- enough so that a decision was made to show Baku some respect, in the form of a personal letter from President Barack Obama to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Delivering the missive was the purpose of Gates's visit, and news of the surprise stop-off was regarded as important enough that the usual Associated Press and Reuters stories about the visit and the letter were soon splashed across the front pages of most international and virtually all American newspapers -- even small ones, such as my local rag in Bozeman, Montana.
After the usual schmooze about Azerbaijan playing an important role in regional and international security, energy issues, and the need to seek a peaceful solution to the Karabakh conflict with Armenia (and the obligatory, respectful nod toward Aliyev's father), Obama finally got to the point:
"I am aware of the fact that there are serious issues in our relationship," he wrote, "but I am confident that we can address them."
But whether the letter will help shore up the increasingly tattered relationship is an open question, especially when it is all too clear to Azerbaijani leaders that U.S. interests in their country are almost entirely limited to the Kabul quagmire. What American politicians fail to understand (or at least it seems to me) is that today's Azerbaijan is quite a different place than the chaotic, war-torn, nearly failed state that the United States dealt with in its early years of independence. Then, Azerbaijan was brought back from the brink of self-destruction by the elder Aliyev, Heydar, the Soviet-era strongman who clawed his way back to power in Baku in 1993. At the time, Azerbaijan was more or less without friends other than the international oil companies seeking to cash in on its natural riches, and proud Heydar Aliyev was obliged to endure all manner of slights to survive.