Sunday, May 22, 2005

Fare(not)well to Karimov: It's time to cut the ties, for good

As I've already argued in this space, America's continuing alliance, such as it is, with Uzbekistan -- specifically with the tyrannical Karimov regime -- is deplorable. I appreciate the realist argument that it is sometimes necessary to support an otherwise reprehensible regime if it somehow contributes to national self-interest. The Cold War was very much fought on this realist basis of international relations -- with the U.S. supporting, for example, Noriega's Panama, or non-regimes like the mujahadeen in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan -- and it will no doubt continue to be necessary to align with various illiberal non-democracies in order to counter both state-less international terrorism and the inevitable rise of China as a serious challenger to American interests in the decades to come. However, as Kaplan persuasively argues in Slate -- and, as usual, I find myself in agreement with him, not least because he backs up my argument -- it's time to cut the ties to Karimov:

Let's just get out of Uzbekistan.

President Bill Clinton struck up a relationship with Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov to stave off the common threat from Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban. After Sept. 11, President Bush tightened the alliance. Karimov supplied the CIA and the Pentagon with an air base, which served as the staging area for the invasion of neighboring Afghanistan. During that war, he also allowed the United States to set up listening posts and to launch Predator drones from Uzbek territory.

All this was justifiable, in the interests of national security, despite Karimov's dreadful human rights record. Now the cost-benefit balance has shifted. The air base remains useful for the continuing operations in Afghanistan, but it's not essential; bases elsewhere in the region (for instance, in the slightly less deplorable Kyrgyzstan) would be suitable, if not quite as convenient. The only other element of our "strategic partnership" with Karimov is the use of his prisons as outsourced detention camps, where torture can be inflicted without direct U.S. involvement; but this is a loathsome business that should be stopped in any event...

It is worth emphasizing here that Muslims comprise 88 percent of Uzbekistan's population. Some of them are fundamentalists in league with the likes of al-Qaida. (During the time of the Taliban, they crossed the border to attend Bin Laden's training camps.) Karimov has used the threat from such groups as an excuse for his crackdowns; he has cited the crackdowns as evidence of his key role in the war on terrorism and, thus, as justification for requests of U.S. assistance. The threat is neither new nor entirely contrived. Even during Soviet days, Moscow's overarching policy toward Uzbekistan—and the other predominantly Muslim republics in central Asia—was to snuff out the slightest reawakening of Islamic consciousness. Karimov rules by the same fear, and not without reason; not long ago, he was nearly assassinated by Islamist radicals. But, as his regime has dragged on, and as its corruption and cruelty have grown, he has come to label all opponents, critics, or potential sources of independent power as terrorists—and treated them accordingly.

And now we know just what a mass murderer Karimov is, with hundreds of innocent civilians dying at the hands of his oppressive rule (masquerading as anti-terrorism). If America stands for anything that is noble and just -- and I believe that it does -- then it should no longer stand with Karimov.

It's time for Bush to put his diplomacy where his mouth is.

UPDATE: The latest in the Times (click here): "[I]t appears that a poorly conceived armed revolt to Mr. Karimov's centralized government set off a local popular uprising that ended in horror when the Uzbek authorities suppressed a mixed crowd of escaped prison inmates and demonstrators with machine-gun and rifle fire... The scale of death is fiercely contested. Mr. Karimov said 32 Uzbek troops and 137 other people had been killed. An opposition party says that at least 745 civilians died in Andijon and Pakhtaabad, a border town, the next day. The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, a Vienna-based group, says Uzbek troops may have killed 1,000 unarmed people." Read on, it's an ugly story.

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  • Agreed. Karimov is bad news and, aside from being morally reprehensible, does the anti-terrorist cause no good by lumping in any opposition. But, in fairness, it takes some cojones to break off relations with a regime that is, at least ostensibly, on our side, especially if you don't know what you will be getting on the other end.

    The problem that this and any other administration faces is the issue of short-term vs. long-term payoff. In the long-term, staying with Karimov really hurts our interests in fighting terrorism and puts us on the wrong side (and I suspect even the Bushies realize this). In the short-term, though, who knows what replaces Karimov and how much that will impact our position negatively? There clearly are some militant Muslim groups in Uzbekestan even if Karimov exaggerates the situation. Breaking off from Karimov, in the short-run does not necessarily win us any friends either from the Uzbek government (if Karimov stays in power) or from its replacement. On the other hand, I doubt that Uzbetkistan is on the frontier of terrorism; as you note, we probably don't lose that much if he goes.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:19 PM  

  • You make some excellent points, Marc, and I do agree that pulling out without any consideration of what or who would succeed Karimov could hurt short-term U.S. interests. Although Uzbekistan isn't the front-line of the war on terror, there are terrorist elements at work there, and no one wants Uzbekistan to become the next Afghanistan, a base for al Qaeda or other terrorist networks that operate in the region. In the end, this may not be an either/or situation. Cutting off diplomatic ties isn't the answer, but neither is supporting their military and security services -- which do more to quell internal dissent than contribute to the war on terror.

    One final point here: Given the inevitable rise of China in the decades to come, the "Stans" will become increasingly important to America's security interests as a complement to naval forces in the Pacific. Dealing with China, in a second cold war, may mean dealing in a more friendly way with illiberal and undemocratic regimes -- hence the need for a realist alternative to both neoconservative idealism on one hand and liberal internationalism on the other. What we want in the region are friendly regimes that will support U.S. (and, preferably, allied) efforts to contain possible Chinese expansion. But does this mean accepting the Karimovs of the world? I hope not.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 5:36 PM  

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