As expected, last week's summit in Vilnius made international headlines, though the soundbites ended up being considerably more sensational than anyone had expected. Generally, however, forum participants, which included eight heads of state and U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, agreed on three issues: 1) Eastern Europe needs a new, long-term system of energy security; 2) Russia has slipped into authoritarian rule; and 3) the Kremlin's new assertive foreign policy is a threat to regional stability.
These assertions have been in the air for some time now, but last week was the first time they were supported by a man who is, as the expression goes, a heartbeat from the American presidency. Cheney's frank talk was unprecedented. In the ears of the East European heads of state, it no doubt sounded like a sweet melody; in Moscow, like cacophonous treachery. But that's precisely the catch: It was a speech that Cheney could have made only in Eastern Europe, and not in a place such as Brussels. Nearly every country in attendance supported the "Coalition of the Willing," and to the detriment of relations with EU officials. Indeed, this was a speech tailored for "New Europe" with the intent of sounding a wake-up call for "Old Europe."
At the same time, by castigating Russia for using its energy sources "as tools of intimidation and blackmail," Cheney was carrying out the White House's dirty work. He said what needed to be said, to an audience that would most appreciate it, and in a way that would make it clear to Moscow that Washington is most displeased. The irony is that Cheney's message was essentially correct; he was just the wrong individual to deliver it. If one good turn deserves another, might not someone like, say, Sergei Ivanov (widely viewed to be a likely successor to Vladimir Putin) respond by giving a speech alluding to the United States' campaign of deception as regards to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, to American soldiers torturing Iraqi detainees, to a war that has led to the deaths of over 100,000 innocent civilians? With no less effect Ivanov could mention the windfalls racked up by Halliburton and Brown & Root, both Cheney's companies, on government contracts in post-war economies, and he would be just as right as the vice president.
Cheney's speech was a quintessential example of the pot calling the kettle black. But in this case the stains come from standing not on the flames, but too close to the crude. After Vilnius, Cheney took his show to Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, where he tried to convince officials of the geo-economic need for alternative energy export routes 's namely, via the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan and to China. Cheney's flattery of the Kazakh regime was sickening. "I have previously expressed my admiration for what has transpired here in Kazakhstan over the past 15 years, both in terms of economic development as well as political development," he said while in the Central Asian country that has a poor human-rights record.
Cheney's visit to Kazakhstan, in fact, recalled the White House's warm reception for Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov in 2002. Three years later, the dictator became pariah after he ordered his troops to open fire on protestors in Andijan. Some 400 's 600 civilians subsequently died. One can only wonder what future atrocity Kazakh authorities might commit that will come back to haunt U.S. foreign policy. It is a notion that Baltic leaders might keep in mind as well in their headlong efforts to forge closer ties with former Soviet republics 's particularly Azerbaijan (whose president was in the White House last week) and Kazakhstan. One can never be too cautious about choosing friends in this part of the world. Because the next thing you know, the kettle is looking straight at you with a knowing smirk.