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No Time for Strategic Patience; Azerbaijan As an Example | Commentary

By Gregory T. Kiley President Barak Obama recently released his new National Security Strategy calling for strategic patience around the globe. While many of the platitudes give little cause for concern or contravention, he falls far short in providing a clear road map for a safer, more secure, more prosperous nation. Confronting climate change, ending extreme poverty, empowering civil society and young leaders are all laudable goals, but are debatable as strategic imperatives with respect to our nation’s security.  

Throughout Europe, African and the Middle East, there are already numerous failing examples of the Obama administration’s strategic patience. In Libya, we supported an air campaign to topple Moammar Gadhafi, only to disengage in reforming of a functioning government. In Syria, we drew a line in the sand, then abandoned the rebels. The rise of the Islamic State terror group in Iraq was both foreseen and predictable after our complete disengagement.  

As counter point, I offer here a return to a return to constructive engagement. Using the case of Azerbaijan as example, our nation should chart a path between isolation (strategic patience) and intervention (pre-emption).  

What about constructive engagement? Azerbaijan provides a possible case in point. Fighting between Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia has escalated in recent months, though largely overshadowed by conflicts elsewhere around the globe. The conflict threatens stability in the region. The United States has compelling interest to get more actively involved beyond just chairing the Minsk Group together with Russia and France to find a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.  

Earlier this year, as if presaging the call to strategic patience and its drawbacks, leaders of the country of Azerbaijan were attending a forum in Washington, D.C., as the U.S. strategy was released. Leaders from Azerbaijan called for the Obama administration to articulate a more clear long-term geopolitical strategy for their region, warning that America was in danger of losing influence while its allies risk losing access to energy resources. The Obama administration only stating a wish to “enhance ties with countries in the Caucasus while encouraging resolution of regional conflict” in their strategy is not enough.  

Azerbaijan leader’s comments recall another regional expert’s, George Friedman’s, warnings five years ago. In his work, “The Next 100 Years,” Friedman called the region around Azerbaijan geopolitically critical in the upcoming global system. He went on to foreshadow the U.S. becoming increasingly uncertain and cautious on the world stage, and warned against such a posture. Mr. Friedman does not advocate war as a first option, but does call for the U.S. to engage.  

In 1991, Azerbaijan gained its independence and has proven to be a strategic partner to the United States as an energy producer, opponent of Iranian international aims, and reliable international ally. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline originating in Azerbaijan currently exports roughly 1 million barrels of oil per day. The proposed Trans-Caspian Gas pipeline will help answer Europe’s growing need for oil and gas. Bordering Iran and a critical gateway to Afghanistan, Azerbaijan has also been a strategic transit location for U.S. military troops, equipment and supplies. The country provides a secure transit route for nearly half of NATO’s International Security Forces operating in Afghanistan.  

This is not a call to arms and intervention, but to not let the pendulum swing too far to “patience” and abdication of our necessary role as world leader. Azerbaijan is asking for U.S. leadership; Obama should heed the call. Failure to do so risks our national security – and the security of our allies in Europe – for the goal of being patient. Which, is not a goal, but rather, an excuse to avoid taking a leadership role around the world.  

Gregory T. Kiley is a former senior associate, Center for Strategic and International Studies; senior professional staff member, Senate Armed Services Committee; and U.S. Air Force Officer.

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