Bridenstine: Obama should treat friends better

Guest Commentary

A nation that treats its enemies better than its friends should not be surprised when it has more of the former and fewer of the latter. Two Southwest Asian nations have been making news lately. 

The Obama administration is befriending one country, but is all too eager to criticize the other. Nation One wants a nuclear weapons capability. Nation Two combats nuclear proliferation. Nation One supports global terrorist movements. Nation Two contributes troops to America’s fight against terrorism in Afghanistan. Nation One is an Islamic theocracy. Nation Two is a secular society in which women, Christians and Jews enjoy equal rights with the Muslim majority.

By now, you may realize that Nation One is Iran. Nation Two is Azerbaijan, an ancient civilization in the South Caucasus that regained its independence in 1991 after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Iran and Azerbaijan both held presidential elections this year. Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s response to them suggests that it pays to be an adversary of the United States rather than a friend.

Though neither election was perfect, President Obama’s State Department chose to criticize Azerbaijan and congratulate Iran. After Azerbaijan’s recent election, the US State Department declared: “It is with regret that we conclude this election fell short of international standards.” President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and other administration officials did not even extend the basic diplomatic courtesy of congratulating President Ilham Aliyev, who won re-election, or the Azerbaijani people.

In contrast, Kerry and the White House press secretary released statements congratulating the Iranian people after Hassan Rouhani won the Iranian election. This is the same man who boasted about duping the West as Iran’s nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005. Obama then called Iran’s newly elected (and admittedly duplicitous) president even after Rouhani snubbed him at the United Nations General Assembly. Obama offered Iran the hand of friendship, but Iran refused him a simple handshake.  

Azerbaijan emerged only 22 years ago from seven decades of communist rule. Stuck between Russia and Iran, Azerbaijan still struggles to maintain its political and economic independence in the face of constant interference from Moscow and Tehran. In spite of these threats, Azerbaijan has taken strong steps toward democracy, including inviting 1,400 international delegates to monitor its recent elections. While the elections received criticism, the delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe reported: “Overall, around election day, we have observed a free, fair and transparent electoral process.” 

A positive report from the traditionally tough critics at the European Union is cause for optimism. U.S. foreign policy should recognize that democratic perfection does not happen overnight. We should defend friends such as Azerbaijan, a country located on the energy-rich Caspian Sea at the crossroads of Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Unlike some fair-weather friends, Azerbaijan provided strong support for our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 2002, the Oklahoma National Guard has partnered with Azerbaijani forces to build their capabilities to fight terrorism, nuclear proliferation and drug trafficking. Using the National Guard State Partnership Program, the Oklahoma Guard regularly conducts security cooperation activities with Azerbaijani counterparts.   

Azerbaijan also realizes that private capital formation, calculated risk-taking and free markets remain the key to energy security for our European allies, particularly those in Eastern Europe.  Rather than opt for central control, Azerbaijan was the first country in the region to open oil and natural-gas reserves in the Caspian Sea to American energy companies. Azerbaijan’s recent decision to send 353 billion cubic feet of natural gas to Southern Europe every year helps thwart Russia’s attempt to dominate Europe’s energy supply. Azerbaijani energy production is also critical for our non-European allies as the country also supplies 40 percent of Israel’s oil needs. 

Some have compared Obama’s feckless foreign policy to the dismal record compiled by former President Carter. Like Obama, the Carter administration’s naïve idealism made it difficult to separate friend from foe during the Cold War. Writing about the Carter administration in 1979, former President Reagan’s future ambassador to the U.N., Jeane Kirkpatrick, showed how the tendency to permit idealism to overwhelm realism explained why “the US never tried so hard and failed so utterly to make and keep friends.” Shorn of unrealistic expectations, any clear-eyed assessment shows that Iran is America’s enemy and Azerbaijan is America’s friend.  

As a critical regional partner, Azerbaijan needs America’s support as it seeks to fend off Iranian mullahs and Kremlin kleptocrats. As Kirkpatrick concluded: “Idealism need not be identical with masochism, and need not be incompatible with the defense of freedom and the national interest.”  We need to stop treating our foes better than our friends.  

Bridenstine is a Republican representing the 1st District of Oklahoma and is a member of the House Armed Services Committee.