A Letter to the International Herald Tribune

by Laurence on 9/8/2004 · 6 comments

It ran on Thursday, August 26th, in the Letters to the Editor section , in response to an earlier op-ed by Rajan Menon:

Rajan Menon writes, “You might think the United States had learned a lesson or two from its previous encounters with dictators. But in Uzbekistan, it looks like America could soon be implicated in a familiar quandary yet again” (“America’s dictator problem in Uzbekistan,” Views, Aug. 13).

Menon seems to have drawn the wrong lessons from history. In World War II, the United States worked with Stalin to defeat Hitler. In the cold war, Washington cooperated with Franco and the Greek colonels. America won in the end by bringing democracy to Russia, Spain and Greece. For democracy to come to Uzbekistan, a continued U.S. presence is necessary and desirable.

As someone who spent a year living in Tashkent, I can say that the situation on the ground in Uzbekistan looks far more nuanced than Menon’s ideologically rigid assessment would allow. American aid is still a positive incentive for Uzbekistan to move toward political and economic liberalization.

Repression in Uzbekistan has nothing to do with the United States, nor do residents blame America for police brutality. America is well-liked. The choice facing Uzbekistan is not between Islam Karimov’s repression and American-style democracy. At this point, it is between Karimov’s authoritarian rule and something worse.

Without financial aid from America, internal and regional pressures will create a reversion to the greater repression in the name of fighting terrorism in Uzbekistan. Is that what Menon wants?

Laurence Jarvik, Washington

I think the point stands. The editors at the International Herald Tribune did an excellent job editing down the very long submission I emailed to them, and I am grateful…

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Alisher September 8, 2004 at 2:38 pm

I fully agree with this idea, Islam Karimov is doing a good job in fighting terrorism and islamic fundamentalism. As someone who saw with his eyes a public lynching by Juma Namangani people in Fergana valley, I believe the fundamentalists would be the worst scenario for Uzbekistan, and not only for Uzbekistan but also for the whole world. Uzbekistan is a small country, but it is a key country. If Uzbekistan falls to fundamentalism the whole central Asia will follow, fundamental central Asia would mean fundamental Caucasus, and you can continue this chain..Uzbekistani people are more dissatisfied by the low standards of life, unemployment.. and they are not sympathetic at all with the fumdamentalist cause.

Laurence September 8, 2004 at 4:27 pm

Well Alisher, I wish you could convince people in Washington. You saw a lynching? I never knew that. How terrible! The problem is that many Americans think the terrorists are “good guys” for standing up to the USA, and they can’t imagine that there is anything worse than Uncle Sam. Some of them, also, I think really believe that given a choice, Uzbeks would welcome Sha’aria and that the terrorists are expressing the popular will. And of those, some believe they would be better off under Islamic law than secular society. Some of this is from ignorance. Some of it is from prejudice, that Uzbeks don’t deserve to live in a modern society like the US (even though the USSR was modern, it just didn’t work 100 percent). And I think some of this is because of a lot of lobbying by various groups with their own agendas. Finally, some of it is because we Americans really DO have a problem with dictators, we don’t like them. Myself included. But the point is to put the short-term unpleasantness in a long-term perspective, which is hard for Americans to see. It is like having a tooth filled at the dentist, painful in the short term, but in the long term, you can save the tooth… And nobody really likes dentists, even though they do a lot of good.

upyernoz September 8, 2004 at 4:47 pm

lawrence, you’re setting up a straw man here. i don’t know a single american who thinks “terrorists are ‘good guys’ for standing up to the USA” or “believe that given a choice, Uzbeks would welcome Sha’aria and that the terrorists are expressing the popular will.” assuming americans think about uzbekistan at all, i don’t think either of those express widespread, or even significant minority sentiment of americans of any political stripe.

as for your letter, you’re overlooking the examples of dictatorships the u.s. supported during the cold war that were outside europe. (e.g. iran, saudi arabia, tunisia, pakistan, burma, malaysia, morocco, nigeria, and many many more) the record in terms of democracy is a lot worse than the three examples you cite in your letter. obviously, support from the u.s. does not always help democratization. and, in some instances at least, it has probably hurt democratic movements (again, there are many examples but iran and saudi arabia jump right out–but i think that’s because the middle east is more of my region)

i also can’t help but note that i have spent some time in greece and, while it is a democracy, the people are very anti-american. if you ask why, most cite the american-backed dictatorship during the cold war. even successes have their costs.

(btw, i never read the menon editorial. is there a link?)

Laurence September 8, 2004 at 5:39 pm

Upyernoz, I didn’t say they would like the US, I said the US favors democracy, and Greece is a democracy. We simply support the lesser of two evils, that doesn’t mean the US likes dictators. As far as Latin America goes, during the Reagan administration almost all the dictatorships became democracies. If you are familiar with Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Teheran,” it is clear that the Shah was a lesser evil than the Ayatollah, who was supported by the USSR, before he killed his communist “comrades”. In fact, Judith Miller argues in her book “God Has 99 Names” that the fall of the Shah in 1979 started the whole Islamic fundamentalist problem. First the communists, then the Americans, used them as weapons–now the weapons are being turned back on their former sponsors…

I don’t think the dictatorship in Burma is supported by the US, and African dictators aren’t only found among US allies. China is a dictatorship of the proletariat, last time I checked, for example. Not everything that happens in the world is under US control.

On your other points: Yes, when I was in Uzbekistan a very educated American said to me that the country would be better off under Islamic law. Yes, when I got back to the USA, Americans told me that the terrorists were expressing the popular will. So I don’t think I’m setting up a straw man. (Although I never had an Uzbek tell me this.) Polling data from the Pew surveys indicates that fewer than 6 percent of the population of Uzbekistan is sympathetic to extremism, although some 90 percent think highly of Russia, and 80 percent favorably towards the US. They think the greatest danger to Islam comes from “Wahabism.” But you wouldn’t know that from reading Eurasianet or reading what is posted on RFE/RFL, or in the mainstream media.

As far as the link goes, I don’t know, it wasn’t in the letter, I can look for it. His article was the conventional academic moralizing that ignored the real dangers and dilemmas, basically. And I stand by what I said. If the US had not allied with Stalin, we probably would have lost WWII, as the USSR bore the brunt of the fighting and most of the casualties.

Darren September 8, 2004 at 6:30 pm

Interesting comments. The Cold War ended in February with ‘The Seven Hour Nuclear War.’ The answers to ‘dictators’ has more to do with a dread of Moslem unity(countries uniting under the religion), rather than anything else. This is America’s greatest fear. America will do anything to avoid this and, unfortunately, most people know this. Occassionally we lose. The cold war and terrorism have no place there.

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