Writing in The New York Review of Books, Michael Ignatieff suggests that the problem with America is not its policy challenges abroad but its “democratic dysfunction at home.” A major component of that dysfunction is “the gross failure to control the invidious power of money in politics.” (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/sep/25/new-world-disorder/)
A little noted and relatively minor example of such dysfunction occurred in May of 2013. But this minor example is indicative of the larger influences at work in the U.S. Congress.
The Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan (AFAZ) held a massive conference in Baku.
The country just happens to have a lot of oil. In fact, the center of Russia’s oil industry was traditionally in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, when the Baku Khanate was part of Russia. Now the country produces close to 1 million barrels of oil per day, most of which is transported by pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan where it is loaded on tankers and shipped to world markets.
Azerbaijan also happens to be governed a highly authoritarian regime in which the first post-Soviet president was succeeded by his son who runs a very tight and very repressive ship. Human Rights Watch has targeted the country for the extraordinary assault on its citizens’ civil liberties.
The country also happens to be a substantial adversary of Iran. What is now the Republic of Azerbaijan was cut from northwest Iran in the first half of the 19th century in a series of Iranian-Russsian wars. Iran fears the possibility of Azerbaijani irredentist claims on much of northwest Iran as well as the possibility that its own Azeris would seek to merge with Azerbaijan. Relations between the countries are strained at best and Iran maintains very close relations with Christian Armenia, also against Iran’s northwest border and a bitter enemy of Azerbaijan.
The 2013 AFAZ Conference boasted a dozen member of the U.S. House of representatives as well as retired U.S. officials, Obama campaign staffers, and assorted other Americans. Lavish amenities and luxurious gifts were presented to the visitors.
A group of lawmakers on a junket is neither unusual nor illegal — not illegal as long as the money does not come from a foreign government. It’s the money, always the money, where things start to get messy. AFAZ claims to have paid for the trip as well as for honoraria paid to many of the conference goers.
But a subsequent investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics determined that the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) had transferred the funds to AFAZ to pay the Congressional delegation. That’s where the line got crossed and the corruption – and the complications — began.
Azerbaijan is eager to burnish its image away from the repressive, corrupt regime it actually is to a friend of the West and a reliable supplier of energy.
Another goal is to build pipelines to supply Turkey and Europe with natural gas. The Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) will stretch across Turkey to the Greek border and should be supplying gas to Turkey by 2018. The Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) will be built to supply Europe by 2019.
The governments of Turkey and Azerbaijan are eager to see the pipelines built.
(AFAZ and the pipeline projects are also supported by the Gulen movement. Fethullah Gulen, a former Muslim cleric, lives in self-imposed exile in the U.S. and runs an organization that is a major force in Turkish politics. He is also a bitter enemy of Turkish president Erdogan.)
Azerbaijan’s U.S. Congressional friends have been very helpful in supporting the pipeline projects. The 2013 conference was only one part of that. Since then campaign funds have flowed to some of the delegation. Rep. James Bridenstine (R-Okla.), one of the conference goers, sponsored an amendment to the annual defense appropriation bill asserting the crucial significance for NATO security of building the pipelines.
While the amendment did not make it into the bill that was signed into law, he received $29,000 in campaign contributions for his 2014 re-election bid from friends of AFAZ and the Gulen movement.
Other conference goers also benefitted from campaign contributions. Representative Michael Turner (R. OH) has received $38,200 since 2011. Shirley Jackson Lee (D. Tex) has received $78,000. Ted Poe (R. TX) has received $39,000 from the same sources.
All in all, that group of donors has contributed $482,000 to federal political candidates since 2011.
So that’s how American politics work. You find your friends who do their best to argue for your interests. Or you find ways to make politicians your friends. The surest way to do that is with money for their incessant reelection campaigns.