Two-Faced Chechnya Policy

Who runs U.S. foreign policy? In a week of historic court cases, international summits and the imperial spectacle of an American viceroy handing over sovereignty, it seems an easy question. Foreign policy, as we all know, is controlled by what the British call the Great and the Good: senior judges and top ambassadors, senators and presidents, and famous names and famous faces.

Yet if you dig beneath the front-page stories, the answer is different. Look at the puzzling question of who controls U.S. policy toward Chechnya, an admittedly lesser but not entirely insignificant place. After all, the Chechen war is among the bloodiest ethnic conflicts in Europe: Civilian deaths are approaching the level of Cambodian deaths under the Khmer Rouge. Chechnya is also a breeding ground for Islamic terrorists and has contributed to the weakening of democracy in Russia. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, came to power on a wave of anti-Chechen Russian nationalism.

Theoretically, U.S. policy toward Chechnya is clear enough. Although we consider Chechnya to be “an internal Russian matter,” we do say that we want the war to end by negotiation, and we do believe that there is someone for the Russians to negotiate with. Indeed, when the Great and the Good speak about Chechnya, which isn’t often, they usually sound like Steven Pifer, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. In 2003, for example, Pifer told the Congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe that “we do not share the Russian assessment that the Chechen conflict is simply and solely a counterterrorism effort. . . . While there are terrorist elements fighting in Chechnya, we do not agree that all separatists can be equated as terrorists.”

But do the opinions of the Great and the Good matter? Cut now from the imperial vistas and the halls of the Capitol to another scene: a courtroom in Boston where, last month, an immigration judge granted political asylum to Ilyas Akhmadov. It wasn’t a surprising decision. Akhmadov was formerly the “foreign minister” of an elected, moderate, separatist Chechen government. Since the Russian invasion of Chechnya in 1999, he has been in exile, advocating a negotiated end to the Chechen war, repeatedly denouncing terrorism. If he were to return to Russia, he would nevertheless be arrested and, as the immigration judge pointed out, would probably be “shot without being afforded the opportunity to defend himself in a trial, as has happened to other members of the Chechen government.”

But if the Great and the Good recognize the need for moderate voices in Chechnya, officials at the Department of Homeland Security do not. Two days after the judge’s decision, DHS lawyers appealed it, on the grounds that Akhmadov is a terrorist. Although conceding that Akhmadov was part of a government that had “spoken out against” terrorism, the appeal argued that his “actions and comments” have “furthered acts of terrorism and persecution by Chechen separatists,” and that he should therefore be deported. To anyone who has ever heard them speak, the text of this appeal would sound like nothing so much as the work of Russian security officers, not U.S. officials. Rumor has it that the State Department has protested, on precisely those grounds.

What interests me, though, is not some inside-the-Beltway battle for influence between DHS and the State Department but rather what this strange tale says about how cavalierly we use our own power, in Chechnya and anywhere else not on the front pages. We may think of these places as insignificant, but the feeling is not mutual. On the contrary, every nation in the world considers its relationship with the United States to be one of its most important. Around the world, the words of the U.S. government carry extra weight. Phrases from the DHS appeal will be quoted in the Russian media, used in other court cases and cited as a precedent: “Look, the U.S. government thinks Akhmadov is a terrorist”; or “Look, the U.S. government is dumping moderate Chechens”; or “Look, the U.S. government doesn’t care anymore about human rights.”

There are many explanations for the DHS appeal: Perhaps it reflects DHS contacts with Russian security, or a White House attempt to curry favor with the Russian leadership, or even simple ignorance. None is sufficient. We may not have the national energy to do anything about Chechnya or the national attention span even to care much about what happens there, but at least we should have the national decency to treat Chechens who are trying to achieve peace in their country with consistency. For that reason, if for no other, Tom Ridge, the secretary of homeland security, should make clear that the U.S. government keeps its word, and withdraw this embarrassing appeal immediately.

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