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Mon, May 22, 2006 - Page 10 News List

US lets promotion of democracy slide as oil prices soar

AFP , WASHINGTON

The US, eager to find new sources of oil at the time when petroleum prices are skyrocketing, is increasingly giving up its strategy of promoting democracy, analysts here say.

The US government has recently made contradictory moves toward key foreign oil producers, sowing confusion about its policy goals, according to Frank Verrastro of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington.

If democracy and support for human rights are the main engine of US diplomacy, "then you have to wonder why we have not taken a tougher line with Russia, why we have not taken a tougher line with Kazakhstan, why we have not taken a tougher line with Libya?" he asked.

Yet US officials "use it when we talk about Venezuela, and we use it when we talk about the Middle East," said Verrastro, an expert in energy policy.

"Increasingly it is looking like a case-by-case application of what is more important," he said. "It is depending on what the perceived needs of the day are."

Washington announced last Monday that it was normalizing ties with Libya, which has important crude oil reserves, despite the lack of political reforms visible in a nation led since 1969 by the same man, Muammar Qaddafi.

On the same day US officials imposed sanctions on Venezuela, a country that supplies 15 percent of US oil imports. The stated reason: populist President Hugo Chavez's lack of cooperation in the US-led "war on terror."

Washington also charged Chavez's government with restricting freedom of the press and harassing political opponents.

One day later US officials suspended free-trade negotiations with Ecuador, another important oil supplier, after Quito canceled its contract with US-based Occidental Petroleum and took over their assets.

On May 4, US Vice President Dick Cheney took a swipe at Russia over democratic reform, accusing it of "improperly restricting" human rights and using oil and gas supplies as a weapon.

"No legitimate cause is served when oil and gas become tools of manipulation or blackmail," he said, referring to the cut-off of gas supplies to Ukraine in January.

Yet just hours later Cheney was praising the authoritarian government of Kazakhstan for its "economic development and political development."

But Washington has not given up defending the democracy.

"We have principles," a US State Department energy expert said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official pointed to Libya, which had to meet strict guidelines to be withdrawn from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Richard Haass, president of Council on Foreign Relations, another Washington-based think tank, disagreed.

"Current energy policy [or the lack of one] empowers some of the most repressive and reckless regimes in the world, further impoverishes hundreds of millions of the world's poor and contributes to global climate change," Haass wrote in the most recent issue of Newsweek magazine

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