Daily archives: May 18, 2005

The blood of the Uzbeks, the hypocrisy of the West, and the last great oil grab

The Indepent – The blood of the Uzbeks, the hypocrisy of the West, and the last great oil grab – by Johann Hari: Welcome to the New Middle East. On your left, you’ll see the largest Asian massacre since Tienanmen Square. Look – they’re hosing blood off the streets. To your right, you can see some dissidents being boiled alive, while the local regime smirks they had “an accident with a kettle”. Ah, and here’s a dictator who reminisces about his trips to the White House and brags: “I’m prepared to rip off the heads of 200 people, to sacrifice their lives, in order to save peace and calm in the republic. If my child chose such a path, I would rip off his head myself.”

The debate about Uzbekistan over the past week has been weirdly unreal. The Uzbek people are rebelling because they live in grinding, binding poverty and have no freedoms at all. Many still live on Soviet-style collectivised farms and earn less than $2 a day. True, there is a small Islamic fundamentalist political movement in the country, but in the current rebellion all the classic jihadist tactics – like suicide-bombs or targetting civilians – have been scrupulously avoided, with only the police feeling the force of their rage. Yet all it has taken is for Islam Karimov to cry “terrorism!” and most Western politicians and journalists have acted as though the “war on terror” is the reason why Britain and America are deeply enmeshed with the Karimov tyranny.

Yes, the Uzbek KGB provides us with some intelligence on apparent al-Qa’ida cells, but according to a man who has read all of it – Craig Murray, Britain’s ambassador to the country post-9/11 – it is “totally useless”. This is hardly surprising, since Karimov is “systematically” using torture, according to the UN. Information acquired via electrodes is as useful as the European confessions of witchcraft in the 16th century.

Any benefit to the “terror war” from reading this junk is far outweighed by the damage to that same “war” caused by our association with Karimov. All experts on the region agree that Karimov’s Stalin-era policies of criminalising Islam, no matter how mild or pluralistic, is directly fuelling jihadism. As one member of the European Parliament’s Uzbekistan relations committee explains: “By supporting Karimov, we are helping to create the very thing we fear – Islamic fundamentalism. Islam has never been strong in central Asia. Even before the Russians came, alcohol was widely drunk, prayer observed fitfully. Now, a visitor sees neither beards nor headscarves… yet official persecution is giving fundamentalists their opening in the region. Ordinary Uzbeks, constantly told that all opponents of the regime are Islamic radicals, are understandably wondering whether there might not be something in this ideology.” And by shovelling cash to Karimov and building bases on Uzbek soil, we are ensuring angry Uzbeks will ultimately blame us for their oppression – and possibly make us pay a blood-price for it. Jihadism was born in the Middle East when the West supported savage dictators; why repeat the mistake?

No; the reasons for our governments’ connections to Karimov are rather different. Uzbekistan’s first uprising – the first of many – is right now being crushed by US-trained troops and with US funds, in return for access to the last great oil-grab in history. The Republican regime in the White House wants to be part of the global scramble for the final untapped stash of fossil fuels on earth, before the carbon-burning party winds to an end. Central Asia holds up to 243 billion barrels of crude, worth around $4 trillion – enough to meet the West’s energy needs for years – and Uzbekistan is in the region’s dead (and I mean dead) centre. A strategic decision was clearly taken that, if this requires them to fund and fuel Karimov, the butcher of Uzbekistan – and inadvertently recreate the Middle East in central Asia – so be it.

This isn’t just my view. In 1998, Dick Cheney – when he was still CEO of the oil firm Halliburton – explained, “I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian [central Asia’s source of oil].” Three years later, Cheney was responsible for the National Energy Report, which recommended that “the President make energy security a priority of our trade and foreign policy”. Their words. Their intentions.

At a time when oil supplies are either vulnerable to jihadist coups (as in Saudi Arabia, where our governments still back and arm the odious House of Saud) or are simply running dry, the oil industry is ravenous for new supplies. In some places – like Iraq – this thirst will lead the US to overthrow tyrants but, in just as many places, like Uzbekistan, it will lead them to prop up oil-and-pipeline-friendly tyrants, with the British government following closely behind. The question “do they let us buy and sell their oil?” determines policy, not the question “do they terrorise their people?”

So we ignore the voices of the Uzbek people; nobody wants to know the price for our carbon-economy. The rote condemnations offered by the US and British governments over the past few days do not match their actions. (The US call for “peaceful resistance” – in a country where people regularly “disappear” for joking about the leader – is preposterous). Look at the plight of Craig Murray as British ambassador. Whitehall’s man in Tashkent did everything a representative of democracy should: he spoke out against Karimov’s butchery, and offered dissidents support and protection. He was repaid with the sack, and a vicious smear campaign. There is no point having a fake argument about whether Karimov is a necessary but ugly ally in the “war on terror”, when the real argument is about whether it is worth trading the human rights of 25 million Uzbeks for access to remaining oil supplies.

We must be honest: that is what the current policy amounts to. At the best of times, trading human lives and human dignity for oil would be repellent, but right now, it would be near-suicidal. Islamic fundamentalism will pose a genuine threat to free societies in the coming age of DIY-WMD, where the technologies of destruction are terrifyingly easy to acquire. We need to undercut the causes of Islamic fundamentalism – particularly Western-backed tyranny in the Muslim world – now.

Even more importantly, the petrol-based economy which these excursions into central Asia are designed to prop up is an environmental disaster for all humans, and finding a new set of dealers for our fossil-fuel habit is not the solution.

Some American environmentalists have tried to turn this insight into what they call a “geo-green movement” to make Americans realise that they need urgently to begin the transition away from dirty fuels, for the sake of human rights abroad and for the planet. It’s time for a British counterpart. For the sake of us and for the sake of the Uzbeks, it’s time to wake up and smell the petrol.

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The folly of “sonofabitchism”

The Guardian – He’s our sonofabitch: Think of it as the sonofabitch school of foreign policy. Legend has it that when Franklin D Roosevelt was confronted with the multiple cruelties of his ally, the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, he replied: “He may be a sonofabitch, but he’s our sonofabitch.”

More than 60 years on, that serves as a pretty good expression of American, and therefore British, attitudes to Islam Karimov, the tyrant of Tashkent who has ruled the central Asian republic of Uzbekistan since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

That he is a sonofabitch is beyond dispute. Like so many despots before him, Karimov has looked to medieval times for ever more brutal methods of oppression. Hence the return of the cauldron, boiling alive two of his critics in 2002. Uzbekistan holds up to 6,000 political prisoners; independent economic activity has been crushed; religious practice is severely restricted; there is no free press; and the internet is censored. On December 26, when the world was marvelling at Ukraine’s orange revolution, Karimov was hosting an election that was not nearly as close – he had banned all the opposition parties.

But, hey, what’s a little human rights violation among friends? And Karimov has certainly been our friend. Shortly after 9/11, he allowed the US to locate an airbase at Khanabad – a helpful contribution to the upcoming war against Afghanistan. Since then he has been happy to act as a reliable protector of central Asian oil and gas supplies, much coveted by a US eager to reduce its reliance on the Gulf states. And he has gladly let Uzbekistan be used for what is euphemistically known as “rendition”, the practice of exporting terror suspects to countries less squeamish about torture than Britain or the US. This was the matter over which the heroic Craig Murray, the former UK ambassador to Tashkent, fell out with his employers: he argued that Britain was “selling its soul” by using information gathered under such heinous circumstances.

Brushing Murray’s qualms to one side, London and Washington remained grateful to Karimov. A procession of top Bush administration officials trekked to Tashkent to thank the dictator for his services. Donald Rumsfeld, not content with that 1983 photo of himself shaking hands with Saddam Hussein, praised Karimov for his “wonderful cooperation”, while George Bush’s former Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, admired the autocrat’s “very keen intellect and deep passion” for improving the lives of ordinary Uzbeks.

And perhaps this egregious example of sonofabitchism would have remained all but unnoticed had it not been for the past few days. For having ugly friends can only work if people don’t look at your companion too closely – and this week the world saw Karimov in action. When opponents took to the streets last Friday, the dictator ordered his troops to open fire. Uzbek official figures speak of 169 dead; human rights groups estimate the toll at between 500 and 750 – most of them unarmed.

When crowds demonstrated in Lebanon, Ukraine and Georgia, the Americans welcomed it as “people power”. But the brave stand in Uzbekistan brought a different response. Washington called for “restraint” from both sides, as if the unarmed civilians were just as guilty as those shooting at them. In the past couple of days, the tune has changed slightly. Now the state department wants Tashkent to “institute real reforms” and address its “human rights problems”. It is at least possible that Washington may soon decide Karimov has become an embarrassment and that he should be replaced by a new, friendlier face – but one just as reliable. Less of a sonofabitch, but still ours.

Sonofabitchism has always been an awkward business, even in Roosevelt’s day; it hardly squares with America’s image of itself as a beacon in a dark world. But the contradiction – some would call it hypocrisy – is all the greater now. For this is the Bush era, and the Bush doctrine is all about spreading democracy and “the untamed fire of freedom” to the furthest corner of the globe. If that’s the rhetoric, then it’s hard to reconcile with a reality that involves funneling cash to a man who boils his enemies.

Maybe Bush should just break with the past and fight his war for democracy with pure, democratic means. But that would frighten him. Allow elections in countries now deemed reliable – say Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco – and who knows what havoc might be unleashed? Washington fears it would lose its friends, only to see them replaced by the enemy itself: radical Islamists, the force most likely to win democratic contests in large swaths of the Arab world.

That is the conundrum. And yet the case that America, and Britain for that matter, should not only talk the democratic talk but walk the democratic walk is powerful – and not only in pure, idealistic terms. This argument has realpolitik on its side, too.

First, despots make bad allies – who all too often become adversaries. Let us recall two men who once played the role of America’s sonofabitch. In the 80s, the US backed Saddam against Iran and Osama bin Laden against the Soviets. The US gave those men the guns that would eventually be turned on itself.

Second, pragmatic pacts with the devil don’t work. For one thing, by repressing their peoples, tyrannies foment, not prevent, terrorism. But such deals in the name of democracy also taint the very cause they are meant to serve. Thus liberal reformers across the Middle East now struggle to make their case to Arab publics who have grown suspicious that “democracy” means US occupation, a sell-off of oil and Abu Ghraib.

Third, if democracy really is the panacea the Bush doctrine insists it is, then shouldn’t it be trusted to work its magic? Put another way, surely a government that truly represented its people would bring the freedom and stability Washington yearns for – regardless of its political complexion?

Perhaps most reassuring to policymakers would be this fact. Even Middle Eastern democrats themselves are not calling for an overnight revolution; they know that in their stifled societies the only public sphere that exists, besides the state, is the mosque. It is for that reason that if elections were held tomorrow in, say, Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood would take power.

But if the west made the vast financial and military aid it already gives to these regimes conditional on perhaps a three-year programme of gradual liberalisation – lifting emergency laws, allowing proper funding of political parties – then soon some space would open up, terrain occupied neither by the despots nor the mullahs. Different parties and forces could start organising for a future ballot in which they had a decent shot at success.

That surely would be more logically consistent than the current, contradictory reliance on tyrants to advance the cause of freedom. And it might have a chance of working in practice – even in a place as benighted as Uzbekistan.

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