Here’s a poser from Jake Tapper on CNN’s The Lead. Former Obama White House aides David Plouffe, Robert Gibbs, and Obama campaign chief Jim Messina all took five-figure paychecks and luxury travel accommodations to speak at a conference in Baku, Azerbaijan — a country noted for its poor human-rights records and authoritarian government. They weren’t there alone, either; former Republican Senator Dick Lugar and Bush-era adviser Paul Wolfowitz joined them. Is this a case of egregious selling out by the political class, or an effort to bolster American national security? Or … is it both?
Yet this week, former government officials were treated to luxury travel and accommodations in a city where the Azerbaijani government’s “beautification” campaign has meant the forcible eviction of thousands of families and illegal demolition of their homes, according to Human Rights Watch.
Former top Obama White House advisers David Plouffe, Jim Messina, and Robert Gibbs spoke at the conference.
When such high-profile former government officials speak, they are handsomely compensated, usually tens of thousands of dollars.
Others in attendance, according to the program online, included former top officials such Paul Wolfowitz, former deputy secretary of defense under former President George W. Bush, and former Republican Sen. Dick Lugar.
Sounds bad, doesn’t it? However, there’s more context to this than first blush. Azerbaijan is one of the Caucasus nations that split from the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War. It borders Iran and has open access to the Caspian Sea, which makes it an important part of our security in the region. Azerbaijan also plays a big role in keeping our lines of communication open to Afghanistan:
In an e-mail, a former government official who attended, but asked not to be named, tells CNN that there is another angle here.
“One thing all these stories fail to mention is the alliance we have with Azerbaijan on energy, counterterrorism, and most importantly Afghanistan. Without their logistical and supply routes we couldn’t do what we do. Especially when we’ve had Pakistan shut things down,” wrote the official.
The question is, of course, whether the well-paid participation of current and former members of the political class at these conferences actually does anything to bolster relations between the US and Azerbaijan. Those efforts should route through the State Department (and Congress, which did have a few members at this conference). The rush to grab Azerbaijani money by unofficial members of the American political elite — especially in a country with human-rights issues like Azerbaijan — is at least unseemly, even if everyone does it, and it’s absolutely true that this kind of cashing in has been going on for a long time across administrations of both parties. That doesn’t mean it should continue, although it would be better to have this curtailed by scorn and ridicule rather than government force.