The Ugly Uzbek

From the Washington Post

ALMOST FIVE months after Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, ordered his security forces to massacre hundreds of mostly unarmed demonstrators in the city of Andijan, European governments are finally taking steps to punish his regime. On Monday in Brussels, foreign ministers of the European Union agreed on an arms embargo against Uzbekistan as well as visa restrictions for government officials complicit with the slaughter. That was an important and necessary step, especially given Mr. Karimov’s defiance of Western calls for an international investigation and the campaign of repression he now wages against survivors of the massacre. It raises the question of why the Western government that claims to be at the forefront of promoting freedom in the Muslim world — the Bush administration — has not taken similar action.

After Sept. 11, 2001, the United States cultivated Mr. Karimov despite mounting evidence that he was one of Asia’s most brutal rulers. The reason was simple: The Pentagon coveted the Karshi-Khanabad airbase, which Mr. Karimov provided as a staging point for U.S. air and rescue operations in Afghanistan. Under pressure from Congress, the State Department finally suspended several aid programs to Uzbekistan last year. But the action was publicly disavowed by the Defense Department, which quickly supplied Mr. Karimov with alternative funding. After Andijan, the State Department joined in denouncing the violence and helped to organize the evacuation of several hundred refugees from neighboring Kyrgyzstan to asylum in Europe. The security relationship, however, remained intact until the aggrieved dictator himself ended the base deal in July.

Mr. Karimov didn’t stop there. His thugs have beaten some of Andijan’s survivors into confessing that the prison break and anti-government demonstration that preceded the massacre were funded by the U.S. embassy, which supposedly gave its support to an Islamic terrorist group linked to al Qaeda. This allegation would be merely ludicrous if not for the fact that American soldiers have fought and died in neighboring Afghanistan while combating that very extremist movement. As it is, it is a gross insult by a ruler who has benefited extraordinarily from the U.S. intervention.

Far smaller offenses have caused the Bush administration to downgrade cooperation with democratic countries in Europe and Latin America. Yet there seems to be abundant patience for Mr. Karimov. Last week he was visited by a delegation of senior officials, who offered him another chance to rescue relations with Washington. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is insisting on paying $23 million for what it says are services rendered by Uzbekistan at Karshi-Khanabad. It’s hard to believe the payment would be made if the Pentagon did not hope to mend its relationship with the tyrant.

A better approach would be that adopted by the Senate this week, in an amendment to the defense authorization bill: suspend the payment for a year, while waiting to see whether Uzbekistan will demonstrate a willingness to cooperate with the United States. A renewed partnership, the official delegation told Mr. Karimov, must include political liberalization and an end to the malicious propaganda. In the very likely event that neither of those conditions are met, the Bush administration should join European states in siding against a dictator who deserves no more chances.