Broadening Democratic Deficit Debate

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President George W. Bush last week delivered what was billed as a major presidential address, the theme of which was the democracy deficit in the Middle East. Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, even the Bush-beloved Saudis -- each was treated to a specific discussion of progress and backsliding on freedom and liberty.

It's a hair-raisingly erratic speech (you can find it at www.whitehouse.gov). And there's certainly some inconsistency in scolding, for example, Syria for engaging in torture. A day before Bush's speech, The Washington Post reported on our "secret rendition policy," which is our new practice of shipping "suspects" to Syria for torture-driven interrogations.

(Of history's many sick national security euphemisms, "renditioning" may be the all-time champion.)

But never mind. I think many of us would agree with the U.S. president that the Middle East is a loony bin of hates, extremisms and dictatorial rule -- the Israeli-Palestinian madness just being the most lurid example.

And many would agree the Western world has been hypocritically tolerant of the dictatorships at the root of most problems -- because we want their oil.

As Bush put it: "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe."

So what's the plan regarding the lack of freedom in the Caspian Sea region and the Caucasus?

Some of the Caspian Sea states -- notably Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan -- are new players with loads of oil and gas. Nearby, Uzbekistan has what we've judged to be a strategic location for a military base.

It ain't much. The U.S. Energy Department predicts that by 2010 the Caspian states combined might be producing more oil than Venezuela.

And as to those Uzbek basing rights, well, we've now got Afghan military bases.

Nevertheless, Bush and the rest of the West seem more than happy to excuse and accommodate dictators in this part of the world.

In fact, the same week we were reading about the CIA "renditioning" people to Syria for torture -- and the same week the American president decided to scold Syria about its human rights practices -- the World Bank finally came through with a $310 million package to turn the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus into the new Middle East.

The money is to exploit an Azeri offshore oil field, and also to build the world's longest pipeline, connecting the Caspian to the Mediterranean via Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.

The World Bank insists it's all just remarkably transparent and spectacular, and notes it has hired Ernst & Young to audit the Azeri oil money.

Phew! Such a relief. Nothing Enron-WorldCom-FIMACOesque ever happens when a Big Five accounting company is on the case.

Even if this project were transparent, it still amounts to the only plan crazier than relying on the Middle East for energy needs: relying on the post-Soviet Caucasus and Central Asia.

No doubt some future U.S. president decades from now will solemnly chide us all for having excused and accommodated Karimov family rule in Tashkent, Nazarbayev family rule in Almaty and Aliyev's dynasty in Baku.

Perhaps that future U.S. president's government will simultaneously be getting the Karimovs to boil people alive for us by way of interrogating them.

The way things are going, perhaps he'll even be talking up a "roadmap" to unravel the intractable Russian-Chechen conflict.

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, writes The Daily Outrage at www.thenation.com