By E.J. Dionne Jr.
WASHINGTON -- It came as something of a shock to have to agree with Vice President Cheney, but what he said last week about human rights in Vladimir Putins Russia was accurate, even laudable.
Then Cheney went to Kazakhstan and you wondered if it was the same guy talking.
Speaking to Eastern European leaders gathered in Lithuania, Cheney made the essential point about Putins government: that opponents of reform are seeking to reverse the gains of the last decade.
In many areas of civil society, from religion and the news media to advocacy groups and political parties, Cheney said, the government has unfairly and improperly restricted the rights of her people. Amen to that.
Cheney also accused Russia of using its energy resources to push around its neighbors. No legitimate interest is served when oil and gas become tools of intimidation or blackmail, he said in an obvious reference to the games Putin has played with Ukraine over natural gas deliveries.
Its good for leaders of our government to tell the truth -- they might even consider making it a habit. Cheneys comments were a vast improvement on President Bushs claims five years ago of spiritual affinity with a Putin who was already showing his authoritarian streak.
I looked the man in the eye, Bush said on June 16, 2001. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul, a man deeply committed to his country.
Comparing the Bush of 2001 with the Cheney of 2006 calls into question our presidents talent for reading souls, and makes you wonder: Who lost Russia?
If Cheney had left matters there, he might have won the gratitude of human rights advocates everywhere. But just one day later, he went to Kazakhstan, whose president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, won re-election last December with 91 percent of the vote.
Call me judgmental, but national elections in which incumbents get 91 percent are rarely honest. Our own State Departments report on Kazakhstan released this March noted that observers criticized that election as falling short of a number of international standards.
More ominously, the report noted that that members of the security forces committed human rights abuses and that the governments human rights record remained poor. Recent legislation, the State Department added, seriously eroded legal protections for human rights and expanded the powers of the executive branch to regulate and control civil society.
Sounds like Putin, doesnt it? Indeed, Nazarbayev, who has been in power for 15 years, is a former Communist Party hack who has been accused of large-scale corruption. Writing in the Financial Times last week, Isabel Gorst summarized the situation compactly: Kazakhstans judiciary is corrupt. The independent media is stifled.
But did Cheney challenge the Kazakh government? On the contrary, the vice president said of Nazarbayev that we met some years ago and I consider him my friend. How nice. Kazakhstan itself, Cheney said, has become a good friend and strategic partner of the United States for help in Afghanistan and Iraq and cooperating with us in the global war on terror.
When pressed by reporters about Kazakhstans record on democratic reform, Cheney replied: Well, I have previously expressed my admiration for what has transpired here in Kazakhstan over the last 15 years. Both in terms of economic development, as well as political development, I think the record speaks for itself. Indeed it does.
OK, foreign relations are a complicated business and the United States often has to work with unsavory regimes. Kazakhstan has energy we need and could provide a way of bypassing Russia in shipping gas to the West.
But this administration has made the large claim that promoting democracy is a central element of its foreign policy. Did Cheney have to offer his friend Nazarbayev such a warm embrace? Did anyone in our government consider that what Cheney said in Kazakhstan could undercut what he said about Russia? Is it too much to ask the administration that it avoid such neck-snapping cognitive dissonance?
There is a great danger in getting power politics and human rights campaigning confused with each other. Its hard to be a shining idealist on a Thursday and a hard core realist on Friday.
The United States shouldnt back away from its commitment to democracy in the world. It should take that commitment more seriously. And anyone who doubts that our flawed energy policies are forcing us to pursue a contorted foreign policy should spend some time with the transcripts documenting this Tale of Two Cheneys.
2006, Washington Post Writers Group