Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A few weeks ago in France, a bastion of democracy, Islamic radicals deliberately targeted a kosher supermarket and killed four Jews. In the frequently criticized Republic of Azerbaijan, Jews celebrated another Sabbath and prayed at Baku’s newly built synagogue. The synagogue, one of the largest outside Israel, was opened in this Muslim nation of 8 million at a ceremony attended by the Chief Rabbi of Israel. And yet, despite this glaring contrast, some in our media and foreign policy elite continue to single out Azerbaijan’s leadership for criticism.

A better measure of how Washington should treat one of America’s most reliable allies in the broader Middle East is to ask whether Azeri President Ilham Aliyev is delivering on his dual promises of prosperity for his people and cooperation with the West. In a nutshell, does the leader of this secular Muslim country sandwiched between America’s archrivals Iran and Russia practice good governance? The short answer is yes.

As President Obama laments the shrinking American middle class, President Aliyev celebrates 12 consecutive years of double-digit economic growth. This has meant a growing middle class with the purchasing power to act as an engine for dynamic growth. On numerous occasions President Aliyev has indicated that growing Azerbaijan’s middle class is his top priority. This growing middle class will allow for the gradual opening of the political space.

While America’s leaders have failed the American people in creating good-paying jobs because of misguided economic policies, labor participation rates in Azerbaijan hover above 80 percent. In other words, able-bodied men and women who want to enter the job market in Azerbaijan have little difficulty, because most construction sites, entry-level private sector jobs and even energy sector opportunities are offered first to the citizens of Azerbaijan.

According to the World Bank, poverty rates have fallen dramatically in Azerbaijan. This is a direct result of a pledge Mr. Aliyev made when he first became president — namely, to eradicate the “shame and stain” of poverty. Our elite and those in the foreign policy establishment that point the finger at Azerbaijan should spend more time figuring out how we can eliminate the stubborn poverty levels we see in our own country before criticizing President Aliyev.

America’s 4 million-word tax code is a monument to the corruption of a political system that allows well-connected lobbyists for companies to carve out corporate welfare for their clients. In Azerbaijan the tax code is simple: Incomes below $39,000 are taxed at 14 percent and those above this amount pay 25 percent. Does this mean that Azerbaijan is immune from corruption? No. And does this mean that the country needs to do more to combat corruption at home? Yes it does. But until we clean up our own act at home by giving the American people a transparent, flat tax system, it may be better not to criticize one of our strongest allies in the fight against global terrorism.

Most importantly for future generations of Azerbaijanis, President Aliyev has made it very clear that his country’s debt-to-GDP ratio must not exceed 22 percent. (It currently stands at below 10 percent.) In short, Mr. Aliyev has not saddled his country’s youth with massive debt. Sadly, we cannot make the same claim in America, where our leaders have continued to spend to the tune of an $18 trillion debt.

On his pledge of cooperation with the West, Ilham Aliyev has been a man of his word. His country stood by the United States immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11 and sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq to fight alongside America servicemen and -women. In addition, Mr. Aliyev has proved a reliable energy partner to the West by providing an uninterrupted flow of oil and gas from the Caspian basin. Unlike his neighbors to the north and south — Russia and Iran — Mr. Aliyev does not use his nation’s energy resources as a weapon. In fact, Russia’s Crimean land grab may never have happened had Washington given its unwavering support to President Aliyev for delivery of gas from Azerbaijan to Ukraine. A Ukraine not dependent on Russian gas could have stood up to Moscow had our foreign policy focused on strengthening its ties to the most reliable energy exporter in the region: Azerbaijan.

The key question members of the new Congress should ask themselves is not whether Azerbaijan is a liberal democracy but rather whether President Aliyev practices good governance. In short, has he provided the fundamental rights of security, peace, quality education, economic growth, poverty reduction and job creation for his people? And, furthermore, has Mr. Aliyev kept his promise of standing by the West in its fight against global jihadis and been a reliable energy partner? The answer on all counts is a resounding yes.

American foreign policy must always include our cherished values of freedom and human rights. And yet those same values must also be balanced by the realities of an increasingly dangerous world. At a time when America needs reliable friends on the global stage, we cannot afford to alienate our friends who have stood by us shoulder to shoulder. Azerbaijan is one such country and deserves America’s gratitude.

• S. Rob Sobhani, Ph.D. is CEO of Caspian Group Holdings, an occasional columnist for The Washington Times and a former candidate for U.S. Senate in Maryland.

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