Is America forgetting American values?

President Ilham Aliyev has been in power since 2003, although international observers have questioned the fairness of Azerbaijan's electoral process.

Story highlights

  • Journalist Khadija Ismayilova is detained in Azerbaijan
  • U.S. needs closer fusing of its interests and values, authors say

Jeffrey Gedmin is senior fellow at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and is a former president and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Gary Schmitt is resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-director of AEI's Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies. The views expressed are their own.

(CNN)Khadija Ismayilova, an Azerbaijani journalist working for the congressionally funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has been sitting behind bars in Baku since December and faces up to 19 years in prison.

With the number of journalists jailed around the world surging, a case like hers hardly seems like news these days. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, last year 221 journalists were locked up, an increase of 10% on the previous year and the second-highest number since CPJ began keeping track of such data in 1990.
Jeffrey Gedmin
But Ismayilova's case deserves special attention for what it reveals about today's authoritarians -- and us.
    Beginning in 2010, Ismayilova had begun work on a series of articles focused on state-level corruption in Azerbaijan. Her reporting pointed to the involvement of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his family. Among the numerous allegations were that Aliyev's 11-year-old son owned real estate in the United Arab Emirates worth $44 million, that several offshore companies have been registered in the names of Aliyev's daughters, and that President Aliyev and his family were serving as senior managers for three Panamanian companies involved in extracting some $2.5 billion worth of gold and silver from an Azerbaijani mine.
    Gary Schmitt
    Ismayilova's reporting seemed to touch a nerve with the country's "first family." The day before she was arrested she was publicly accused by an official close to the President of spreading lies and behaving treasonously. As Charles Davidson, founder and director of the Hudson Institute's Kleptocracy Initiative, notes, "Carefully structured kleptocracies are both the backbone and the Achilles' heel of many of today's autocracies."
    Of course, to charge her with libel would have brought more attention to her reporting about the family's financial wheeling and dealing. So, instead, Ismayilova was bizarrely originally charged with attempting to incite a former colleague to commit suicide -- an ex-colleague, one should add, who withdrew his complaint and is still alive. Now, new charges of tax evasion and embezzlement have been added. Such tactics are common among authoritarian regimes that can, if they choose, forge papers and create paper trails pretty much at will.
    In some ways, Azerbaijan is a difficult case. Because the country possesses oil wealth and sits between Russia and Iran, foreign policy realists -- including, apparently, those in the Obama administration -- contend that the internal affairs of Azerbaijan are not a priority for the United States. American interests override American values. But should that be the case?
    Certainly there are times in extremis when liberal democracies, fighting for their very existence, such as in World War II, must cut deals with the devil. The British and American alliance with Stalin's Soviet Union was a matter of necessity. And, arguably, during the Cold War, with the West facing totalitarian threats from both Moscow and Beijing, there were also periods when dealing with less than savory regimes, like the military juntas in Turkey or Syngman Rhee's South Korea, might arguably have been strategically required as well.
    But such judgments can too easily become habit, with policymakers not truly weighing whether the interests at stake are of such importance that it is worth ignoring American ideals. Absent the kind of threat the United States faced during World War II and the Cold War, should American administrations be so ready to compromise the country's principles?
    Even during the late stages of the Cold War, when former U.N. Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick's argument in "Dictatorships and Double Standards" was popular among a segment of the foreign policy right, the Reagan administration ultimately set aside the article's case for taking a more sympathetic view of autocratic regimes in favor of the Reagan Doctrine of supporting democratic change in places like the Philippines and Latin America. Although often difficult, the promotion of liberal ideals was understood as being in the country's longer-term strategic interest.
    Today, the United States needs a closer fusing of its interests and values when dealing with authoritarians around the globe. Following such a path increases Washington's bargaining power precisely because the authoritarians come to see that they can't play one American interest off against another. In turn, such a policy also heartens those states who are paying the price for keeping their own turn to liberalism on track. And no less important, U.S. administrations reinforce their credibility with global publics who, rather than see policy hypocrisy on Washington's part, see an America acting consonant with its stated principles.
    No doubt, judgment is still required. But Ismayilova's is not that hard a case. Earlier this year, her fearless reporting won her the PEN "Freedom to Write Award." On July 29, the National Press Club in Washington awarded her one of its press freedom prizes. American taxpayers have employed Ismayilova to do her job. It's high time we do ours, and use U.S. leverage to get her released.