The angry ally Obama can't afford to lose.
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.
But when Ilham "inherited" the presidency upon Heydar's death in 2003, he also inherited a vastly different state than the one Heydar ruled in the 1990s. The trickle of oil- and gas-related wealth of the 1990s had started to turn into a river of cash (GDP was growing more than 36 percent a year as of 2006), and the little Caspian country of 8 million had started to attract so many flatterers that my Azerbaijani friends -- at least the ones with a sense of perspective -- have started to worry about a growing arrogance in Baku, one summed up by a sense that America needs Azerbaijan more than Azerbaijan needs America.
"Our attitude is that Washington should stop thinking of Azerbaijan in terms of Afghanistan and start thinking of Azerbaijan in terms of Azerbaijan," my old pal Araz Azimov, now deputy foreign affairs minister, told me. "The official attitude as enunciated by the president is, 'We want respect.'"
Thus, it was not surprising to hear whispers in the corridors of power that Aliyev was not as pleased with Obama's letter as the copy churned out by Gates's hack pack would suggest, and that the downward spiral will continue. Although it is true that he was preparing for a Eurasian summit in Istanbul the next day, it was more than notable that Alyev did not invite Gates to the presidential dinner table, appointing the Azerbaijani defense minister to assume the obligatory hosting duties instead -- which Gates, in turn, declined to accept, thus allowing the Americans to violate yet another Caucasian social protocol.
Indeed, from the Azerbaijani perspective, the list of American insults is long and growing longer.
The most galling of these was and remains the Armenian diaspora-driven Section 907 caveat to the Freedom Support Act passed by Congress in 1992, which restricted all U.S. government-to-government aid to Baku until Azerbaijan essentially capitulated in its vicious war with Armenia over mountainous ("Nagorno") Karabakh, a contested region that is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but has remained under Armenian occupation since the fall of the Soviet Union. The loss of the territory -- some 15 percent of Azerbaijan -- deeply grates in Baku, and despite multiple meetings between various Azerbaijani and American presidents over the years, there has been no real progress, and Azerbaijanis increasingly (and vocally) mutter about the United States not being a completely honest broker. They've got a point: Section 907 is still on the books, identifying Azerbaijan as the aggressor. Although whittled down under Bill Clinton's administration and suspended under George W. Bush's after 9/11, the legal caveat has never been officially lifted and thus still makes Azerbaijan a quasi-pariah state.
Compounding that impression was last year's initiative by the Obama administration to rejuvenate relations between Armenia and Turkey at Azerbaijan's expense, namely by celebrating reconciliation by opening the Turkish-Armenian frontier -- closed in 1993 by Turkey in an act of solidarity with Azerbaijan -- without a concomitant Armenian withdrawal from at least part of Karabakh. The details of the diplomacy involved in the so-called "Turkish-Armenian Protocols" are truly byzantine, but suffice it to say that Baku effectively forced Ankara to publicly announce that Karabakh was included in the package, which in turn led to a public denial by Armenia and the scuttling of the Obama-inspired accords.
The restoration of the Turkish-Azerbaijani alliance (encapsulated in the local slogan "one nation, two countries") and the continued closure of the Turkish-Armenian frontier was regarded as a nearly existential diplomatic victory for Baku, and proof of the little country's ability to swing its weight in the international arena.
But still the diplomatic slights continue: There has been no U.S. ambassador in Baku since July 2008, which has been taken as a sign of Washington's indifference or displeasure. Last month, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza was finally nominated -- though he has yet to be confirmed -- to the job. But Bryza's history as the U.S. point man in the Karabakh negotiations, and identification with U.S. governments' distracted handling of them, has left him unpopular with both many Azerbaijanis and especially diaspora Armenians, neither of whom consider him a good-faith arbiter of the conflict.
Azerbaijan was also snubbed in April when Aliyev was not invited to the 47-country Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, which was attended by the leaders of all of Azerbaijan's neighbors except Iran -- despite the fact that Azerbaijan, as a U.S.-aligned front-line state, would find itself in the thick of any action should push come to shove against Tehran. (An anonymous U.S. diplomat told the Azerbaijani press agency Turan that "It was Ilham Aliyev's personal choice" not to attend the conference, but didn't address whether he had been invited.)
Taken even more personally in Baku was an article that ran on the front page of the Washington Post in March that teasingly alleged that Aliyev's 11-year-old son owned millions of dollars' worth of Dubai real estate. According to an Azerbaijani diplomat friend of mine, the piece so infuriated Aliyev that he was literally gasping with rage. "As a politician, Ilham can take his hits," said my friend. "But they were attacking his family." The president, he said, was convinced the story was fed to the Post by the State Department in an effort to undermine his legitimacy.
It could be worse, and one day probably will be. Azerbaijanis are perfectly aware of the aforementioned intelligence officer's diplomatic calculus, and aware that it cuts both ways. Washington may only see Baku as a stop on the way to Kabul, but it's a necessary stop -- if he were so inclined, Aliyev could make life very difficult for the U.S. military. Word in Baku has it that Hillary Clinton is on her way here soon to show some more respect, to make sure that doesn't happen.
But then, Azerbaijan has always fought for a place on the world stage. On a visit to London earlier this year, I was taken out to lunch by the Azerbaijani ambassador, who later invited me back to his private room in the embassy for tea. The walls were festooned with photographs from his professional life -- as a much younger man with hair on his head, accompanying Heydar Aliyev to his state visit to the Clinton White House in 1998; a picture with the Canadian prime minister when he was elevated to ambassador to Ottawa; he and his wife boarding a fancy, horse-drawn carriage to present his credentials to the Queen of England.
And then there he was again, smiling broadly, next to a very vigorous-looking Heydar Aliyev in the company of Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill.
"Madame Tussauds," the ambassador explained. "Sadly, it was only a temporary exhibit."
VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images