Our Uzbek Problem
From the May 30, 2005 issue: The character of the Karimov regime can no longer be ignored in deference to the strategic usefulness of Uzbekistan.
IN THE WEEKS AFTER SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, as Washington prepared for a difficult war to remove the Taliban from Afghanistan, the neighboring former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan became a particularly useful ally. Indeed, Uzbekistan was the first country to offer military assistance to our government on the afternoon of September 11, and the Pentagon subsequently established a base there. After the main fighting in Afghanistan ended, we continued to work with the regime of Islam Karimov, even though he remained an unsubtle dictator of the neo-Soviet style. We did little to help promote political freedom there. Indeed, we seem to have "rendered" dozens of terrorists to the Karimov government for interrogation, despite (or perhaps because of) its well-deserved reputation for brutality and torture.
But the character of the Karimov regime can no longer be ignored in deference to the strategic usefulness of Uzbekistan. The Taliban has been defeated, and, with the liberation of Iraq, the nature of the global struggle to which the Bush administration is committed is no longer exclusively focused on the destruction of terrorist redoubts. We are now committed to a democratizing effort that challenges tyranny along with terror as threats to peace and freedom around the world. The Uzbek regime that was part of the solution in 2001 is now, with its bloody suppression of protests, part of the problem.
An ongoing hazard of the fight against terrorists has been that tyrants would exploit the threat of terror to win indulgence or even support from the United States. From the Saudi royals, to Vladimir Putin, to Putin's Uzbek friend Karimov, strongmen hope to gain acceptance by Washington of their violent habits of governance. Of course, it is true that the United States does (mostly) have to deal with the governments it finds in place in the world. But we don't need to wink at their bad acts. To the contrary, a more or less coherent strategy for the spread of freedom will often require pressuring and criticizing these governments. And, incidentally, it is political, civil, and economic freedom to which most Central Asian Muslims aspire. Just like Ukrainians, Georgians, and Iraqis.
So, toleration of Karimov's brutality threatens to undercut this administration's impressive and successful foreign policy. Previous administrations have unfortunately allowed dictators to learn the lesson that repression works. Has Burma's high command paid much of a price for their brutality in Rangoon in 1988, or Beijing for its massacre in 1989? Karimov wants to follow their path, rather than go the route of the ex-rulers of Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. But it is hardly in our interest to let brutality become a winning strategy, or to let massacres pass without consequences for a regime's relations with the United States. As the Financial Times warned in a fine editorial last Friday, "If Mr. Karimov survives the crisis with his authoritarian regime intact, undemocratic leaders everywhere will see that brutality pays."
Less than two weeks ago, Karimov ordered his troops to the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon, where economic discontent had stirred the local populace to protest. They opened fire in a spasm of official bloodshed reminiscent of Tiananmen Square. The death toll remains unconfirmed, perhaps unconfirmable, but apparently exceeds 500 and includes women and children. Karimov and his servants have sought to explain away this atrocity with charges that the Andijon demonstrators were, or were inspired by, Islamist radicals. But such claims seem to be mendacious propaganda, which, left unchallenged, could undermine the real and indispensable effort against radical Islam.
The Bush administration's response to the bloodshed has been tepid, featuring calls for restraint by both sides. The president's failure even to mention Uzbekistan in a major foreign policy speech to the International Republican Institute last week is not good news. Neither is the absence of talk about using U.S. aid as leverage on Karimov.
Uzbekistan has a distinguished cultural and theological Islamic heritage. If it had a regime accountable to the people, allowing entrepreneurship and pluralism, it could become a force for progress in other Muslim lands. As an exemplar of successful reform, Uzbekistan would be a far more valuable ally than it is now as Karimov's fiefdom.