We have covered the recent visit by Obama campaign manager David Plouffe to Azerbaijan and Tuesday the Wall Street Journal’s Glenn Simpson reported that Plouffe was apparently, at a lack of a better word, duped into going to Azerbaijan by a Washington-based lobbying firm called Bob Lawrence & Associates, which boasts Azerbaijan as one of its clients.
Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, fresh off his October election to a second term, is spearheading a campaign to nullify the Azeri constitutional provision that places a two-term limit on elected officials, a move which would guarantee him a third term and possible unlimited terms in office.
It is in this climate, as well as recent Azeri government attempts to shut down foreign broadcasts in Azerbaijan–namely RFE/RL–that Plouffe spoke to a group of 50 individuals at a local university about grassroots campaigning and the role of the internet in a campaign.
WSJ quotes White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs as saying that Plouffe’s visit was entirely private. "He’s not there at the behest of, and not delivering a message on behalf of, the president of the United States," he said. "If the president had a message for Azerbaijan, he’d pick up the phone."
Plouffe also asserted that his visit was private and furthermore told the Journal that he would be donating the roughly $50,000 speaking fee he collected to "groups that advocate democratization."
The Azeri regime through its lobbying arm was quick to find a back-door approach to woo the most visible member of the Obama campaign to Azerbaijan, leaving the impression that perhaps the White House had charged Plouffe with a mission to Azerbaijan.
"U.S. officials said Mr. Plouffe coordinated his talks with American officials in the region and that his message about the uses of the Internet for democratic organizing advances longstanding U.S. policy. But they added that the Azerbaijan government has long sought to legitimize itself by hosting prominent Americans, often with the help of Washington lobbyists," reported Simpson for the Wall Street Journal.
We were puzzled by the Plouffe visit to Baku, but never tied it with a White House effort, given that while a senator, Obama visited Azerbaijan and told its leadership, in no uncertain terms, that Azerbaijan and Turkey should end their blockade of Armenia and recognize the Armenian Genocide. Furthermore, any nuanced or blatant move by the Obama Administration would have to come from the State Department.
The WSJ also said that no one from Lawrence & Associates was available to comment on the trip.
It is interesting that a lobbying firm that is paid by Azerbaijan would book a speaker who presented the inner workings of a grassroots campaign in a country where the word grass-roots connotes something horticultural and not necessarily democratic. Furthermore, the firm, which by association can be deemed guilty of furthering Azerbaijan’s abysmal human rights record, was quite comfortable with tarnishing the image of a new US administration for a buck earned from sources that are at the forefront of abusing human rights and democratic norms. This will go a long way in the administration’s ongoing war with K Street and lobbyists in general.
Let’s, however, give Plouffe the benefit of the doubt. Let us suppose he was duped into this trip and was genuinely promoting democratic values in a part of the world that could benefit the most from them. He still holds the keys to the massive movement that elected Barack Obama and mobilized an entire nation to make history. Let us hope that the powerful key Plouffe holds will be used to further issues more constructively and that the Baku fiasco will serve as a lesson to more carefully vet invitations by foreign countries, especially those with dubious human rights records.