Understanding Uzbekistan’s snub

Washington Post, Understanding Uzbekistan’s Snub By JIM HOAGLAND, August 8, 2005

If you can supply energy to world markets, do you really need the U.S.

and its conflicting priorities and bureaucracies, and all that yammering about human rights and democracy? For Islam A. Karimov, the dictatorial ruler of Uzbekistan, the answer is a big NO.

Mr. Karimov’s recent order to the U.S. to cease operations at the K-2 air base and pull its troops out of his Central Asian republic within six months came only after he had reached new understandings on energy and other subjects with the leaders of China, Russia and his immediate neighbors. Tyrant and butcher Mr. Karimov may be; fool he is not.

Mr. Karimov received assent or encouragement from Russian President Vladimir Putin and from China to stick his thumb in Uncle Sam’s eye by closing the base, a move that complicates the resupply of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. That makes the U.S.-Uzbek rupture more than a diplomatic spat over human rights. It becomes a focus for global strategy as well, raising serious questions about the Bush administration’s ability to sustain an American military presence in Central Asia.

Settling on a strategy toward Mr. Karimov alone was not that difficult for Washington. Superpowers have a history of cutting adrift once useful bloodstained dictators. But charting why Mr. Putin is now asking President Bush to set a timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Central Asia is a far bigger, still unfolding task.

So is reconciling the meaning of a U.S. commitment to democracy and human rights abroad with the demands of the global war on terrorism and the energy-dominant global economy. While principles remain

constant, the reflexes developed during the Cold War seem insufficient today.

Mr. Karimov became an embarrassing partner for Washington following the police massacres of hundreds of civilians in the town of Andijan on May 13. He refused to respond to public U.S. demands for an

independent international investigation. The speed and the studied shrug with which Washington greeted the Uzbek president’s expulsion seem to reflect not only a bowing to Uzbek sovereignty but also an assessment that Mr. Karimov’s political viability is running on empty. The former Soviet bureaucrat is playing a losing and possibly short-lived hand at home, in this view.

He superficially resembles a 21st century Mobutu Sese Seko, Ferdinand Marcos or Erich Honecker. Those Cold War-era satraps became more trouble than they were worth to their superpower patrons when they were openly repudiated by their own people. Communicating their expendability was often more a matter of calculation than of conscience.

Because the U.S. is reaching so deeply into the former Soviet sphere of influence to fight Islamic extremism, Washington does not have wholly owned “SOBs” of its own there. Actions or words from Washington that undermine Mr. Karimov (or his autocratic neighbors) also affect Mr. Putin’s hold on power in the Kremlin in a direct way.

This makes Washington’s support for human rights abroad a more complex but even more important undertaking than it was in the Cold War. How other nations, and particularly Islamic nations, treat their

citizens is today the substance, not just the form, of international relations.