Ignorant & Patronizing That’s pretty

by Nathan Hamm on 12/7/2003

Ignorant & Patronizing
That’s pretty much what I would need to add about Klevelman’s Slate article that I started to comment on the other day. And it’s not just Klevelman
that makes this mistake so common to journalists who write about
Central Asia. The mistake is to assume that because Islam and
dictatorship exist in Turkic and Persian Central Asia, they are all
pressure cookers waiting to explode in a fit of Wahabbi rage. This
anger of course would be aimed at the United States because it bases
troops in a few of these countries and is the most powerful supporter
of most of these governments. Nevermind that no Uzbek I ever knew felt
much kinship with Arabs or viewed religion the same way. Central Asia
is the birthplace of important Islamic schools of thought such as the Naqshbandi Sufi Way,
in other words, it has its own traditions, is proud of them, and
probably doesn’t appreciate reflexive impulses to cast their
aspirations in an Arab light. And then there are groups like the
Karakalpaks who are pretty much fire worshippers still and the Kazakhs
and the Kyrgyz who might as well just nudge you with their elbows and
wink after they say they are Muslims.
No, any kind of widespread rage in Central Asia, no matter who it’s
aimed at, would likely be secular. And, like I said before, I’m not so
sure that rage would be aimed at the US. A few thousand Central Asians
joining armed Islamist groups is a problem to be sure, but, and forgive
me for the generalization, young men from Central Asian villages are
pretty dumb. Bad water, air, and schools don’t create brilliant
tacticians or inspiring leaders. On to Klevelman though…

The recent “velvet revolution” in Georgia, when tens of
thousands of protesters forced out the Caucasian country’s longtime
strongman Eduard Shevardnadze, contains an important lesson for the
Bush administration: Democratic regime change can work. What it takes
is some civil society on the ground and American willingness to support
it. Sadly, that willingness is missing from Washington’s dealings with
the other autocratic post-Soviet regimes in the Caucasus and Central
Asia. If Bush is serious about spreading democracy in the region to
root out terrorism, this needs to change.

We’re not willing to support civil society in Central
Asia? The difference between professional journalism and stupidity is
kind of hard for me to see, so forgive me if I run too much with the
“Klevelman is an ignorant jackass” idea. But it wasn’t too hard to find
official support for civil society and democratic reform here, here, here,
and behind my keyboard. I would counter his doubt about our commitment
with what should be quite clear from Georgia, a lesson if you will.
This is the kind of situation where can have your cake and eat it too.
We can support these governments, as crappy as they are, and use the
leverage we gain to also support civil society and democratic reform. I
would go as far to say that if we don’t have decent relationships with
Central Asia’s leaders, we are abdicating our commitment to democracy
promotion. If we have bad relationships with Central Asian states, the
only way to promote democracy would be through some kind of replication
of our silly Cuba policy. Another benefit of having the opportunity to
groom the democratic opposition is that the US already has built the
trust necessary to get in on the ground floor and protect nascent
democracy with money, guns, and diplomacy as is happening in Georgia.

America betrayed him, a bitter Shevardnadze has claimed in
recent interviews. Long a favorite in Washington for his role in ending
the Cold War as Soviet foreign minister in 1989, Shevardnadze now
suspects that American diplomats in Tbilisi groomed pro-American
opposition leaders and engineered the coup against him. This is not
unlikely, as Washington grew more and more impatient with
Shevardnadze’s increasingly corrupt and chaotic regime, which led
Georgia to disintegrate and become a classic “failed state.”

Sounds like our policies worked.

Before the Bush administration congratulates itself on
doing the right thing in Georgia, it should be reminded that it is
doing all the wrong things elsewhere in the region. In an effort to
have allies in the war on terror, Washington has jumped into bed with a
number of very unsavory dictators, some nearly as tyrannical as Saddam
Hussein. These unholy alliances contradict the Bush administration’s
claims that it wants to spread democracy to dry up the breeding grounds
for angry terrorists. In fact, the Faustian pacts are likely to cause
more anger among suffering Central Asians who increasingly embrace
virulent anti-Americanism and radical Islam.

I already covered
the Saddam Hussein argument, so I won’t let that rile me. If these
accusations were made about our relationship with Saudi Arabia, I would
agree, but I just don’t see formerly Soviet Central Asia beyond parts
of the Ferghana Valley as a breeding ground for Islamic terrorists. The
Soviets drained that swamp with mandatory conscription (a strong force
for Russification), disincentives for religiosity, and copious amounts
of vodka. As for Faustian pacts, I made clear above why they are better
than the alternative. I could also add that without our support, it is
very likely that these leaders would turn to China and/or Russia with
their copious concern for democracy and human rights.

In October, Heydar Aliyev, the ailing 80-year-old ruler of
Georgia’s neighbor and U.S. ally Azerbaijan, rigged the presidential
elections to pass on his crown to his playboy son Ilham. (For more on
the Azerbaijani elections, see this “Foreigners” column.) The new baby
dictator’s forces brutally put down popular protests against the
establishment of the first hereditary dynasty in the former Soviet
Union. They arrested hundreds of opposition members and killed at least
two people. The next day, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard
Armitage officially congratulated Aliyev on his “strong showing.” It
was a move that did not exactly make the United States more popular
with regular Azerbaijanis.

Give me dates for these things you irresponsible bastard,
so I may prove you lazy. Yes, I’d be happy if the State Department
ripped Aliyev, but it would destroy our leverage. We could pursue that
kind of policy and end up sitting alone in the world, weak and alone
but very self-satisfied. Again, very easy to find the State Department
criticizing Ali


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This post was written by...

– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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