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Happy birthday, Mr. President

Jennifer Lopez is suffering the scorn of the U.S. media this week after she capped off a performance in Turkmenistan by singing Happy Birthday to President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

Jennifer Lopez is suffering the scorn of the U.S. media this week after she capped off a performance in Turkmenistan by singing Happy Birthday to President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. When Lopez learned that Berdymukhamedov is that most terrifying of creatures, a dentist turned dictator, she offered a public apology. According to her publicist “had there been knowledge of human right issues of any kind, Jennifer would not have attended.”

It would appear that nobody on the star’s staff bothered to google Turkmenistan before sending her to perform there. But then, the Central Asian dictatorship wasn’t her real host; the show was booked by the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation, so why would anyone suspect that there’d be human rights issues?

Had they checked, J.Lo’s handlers might have saved themselves and their client a lot of embarrassment. Human Rights Watch describes Turkmenistan as “one of the world’s most repressive countries.” The entry goes on to say, “Media and religious freedoms are subject to draconian restrictions, and human rights defenders and other activists face the constant threat of government reprisal. The authorities continue to use imprisonment as a tool for political retaliation and to restrict peoples’ right to travel freely.”

Turkmenistan is often compared to North Korea, with its brutal repression of dissent and its personality-cult government, but there is one clear distinction between the two countries. While North Korea’s economy is based on handouts from China, Turkmenistan has the world’s largest identified reserves of natural gas. The past decade of war in Afghanistan has been fought in large part along the corridor of the proposed $7.6-billion TAPI pipeline, destined some day to carry Turkmen gas to tidewater in Pakistan.

North Korea is such a repressive state, run by such a demented government, that the U.S. will have nothing to do with it. There is no U.S. embassy in Pyongyang. There is one in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, though; the world of international diplomacy is all about subtlety, and there is a subtle yet significant difference between a brutal dictatorship mired in poverty and a brutal dictatorship with proven reserves of gas.

If Ms. Lopez had made her Turkmenistan debut a couple of months earlier she could have gone to see the American Cowboy Show, sponsored by the U.S. embassy and billed as “an authentic introduction to the cowboy way of life in the American west, including music and poetry, slide shows and films, demonstrations of horse training techniques, and ranching handicrafts.”

For some reason, neither the American cowboys nor the American embassy have taken the kind of heat Lopez has over working in Turkmenistan. Perhaps it’s because neither is as famous as she. Nor, it appears, is Deepak Obhrai, parliamentary secretary to Canada’s minister of foreign affairs. His 2010 visit to Ashgabat to meet with representatives of the Turkmen oil industry passed uncriticized by the press.

J.Lo only missed running into Israeli Ambassador Shemi Tzur at the airport by a few days. Tzur presented his credentials to President Berdymukhamedov on June 20, becoming his country’s first ambassador to Turkmenistan. Again, Mr. Tzur must lack the public stature of Ms. Lopez, because his arrival in Ashgabat stirred no controversy at all.

On reflection, an imbalance of fame by itself isn’t enough to explain why Lopez is the only one getting trashed for dealing with Berdymukhamedov. She’s no more famous than Coca-Cola, Caterpillar, or Haliburton, all of which are listed on the U.S. embassy website as “doing business with Turkmenistan.”

Reports have surfaced that Lopez was paid $1.5 million for her appearance at the despot’s birthday party, a figure which may help to explain her lack of curiosity about the host country. Now that the story is out there’s a great cry for her to donate that money to charity. By contrast, no one is calling on any of the above named companies to give away whatever profits they’ve made selling soft drinks, bulldozers, or oil-field services to the Turkmen. Clearly the star needs a strong public relations strategy to combat the bad press.

What no one seems to have noticed is that with the possible exception of Coca-Cola all of the above-mentioned companies, countries, and individuals are in Turkmenistan on the same business as Lopez herself: the oil business. All the star was doing was shaking her million-dollar money-maker to promote good company-dictator relations for CNPC, her employer for the evening.

So lighten up on J.Lo already. The name of the game in Turkmenistan is oil and gas, not human rights. One day, the U.S. will negotiate a deal with the Taliban that will let the Turkmen gas flow through Afghanistan, and on that day all will be forgiven. We will conveniently forget Berdymukhamedov was ever anything but a kindly, fabulously wealthy, ex-dentist. Everyone who collaborated with him, whether in ignorance or in greed, will be absolved of guilt and remembered as free-trade pioneers. Even if all they did was sing Happy Birthday.

Al Pope won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best columnist in 2013. He also won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.