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.