Yglesias makes my list

by Nathan Hamm on 9/19/2004 · 1 comment

I try to like the guy, I swear. He seems nice enough and he’s a pretty reasonable fellow, but going back through old posts for the Winds of Change briefing, I found something I missed while I was away. It seems that Matthew thinks we should dump Karimov.

Would it surprise you to hear that I disagree?

The United States doesn’t have a great deal of credibility in the Islamic world as is, and we’d have no credibility whatsoever with your average Uzbek if we said we were bringing them democracy while, in fact, we were giving money to their oppressors.

I have a problem with that brief passage for two reasons. The first is that I think the “Islamic world” doesn’t exist any more than does the “Buddhist world” or the “Christian world.” They are all pretty broad categories that are useless to the discussion at hand. Sure, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and Uzbekistan are all Muslim, but I think one has to be lazy or ignorant to think that something such as the notion of our credibility is defined by their creed. In fact, attitudes in the Turkic states of the former Soviet Union tend to be so different from those held in the Arab world that the “Islamic world” might as well just be understood as meaning “Arab states plus whichever other ones fit the stereotypes.”

I recognize that Matthew is talking in hypotheticals here. By doing so, he reveals he knows not of what he speaks. Though he makes no claim either way, it is important to remind the reader that attitudes towards the United States are very positive in Uzbekistan and that Uzbeks are similar to Russians in that they consistently rank stability and security as more highly-valued than democracy. That’s not to say they don’t value democracy, but they share the state’s concerns about Islamic fundamentalism. Uzbeks certainly are frustrated with their government, but recognize and value our assistance. Much of it is direct assistance to the NGO community, and US assistance is highly visible. Additionally, it should be noted that the Uzbek government is actually spending our assistance on projects that are making the country stronger and not on palaces and statues. I have not met a single Uzbek who would characterize our aid, real and potential, in the way Yglesias does (I know they’re out there, but they’re rare). They would not, therefore, have the reaction he anticipates.

And then we go off into CandyLand.

My take is that we ought to wash our hands of Islam Karimov’s government. If it falls to radical Islamists, they’d likely be no worse from an internal point of view. If they decide they want to wage war against the United States once in power then that would be a good time to start fighting them. Meanwhile, if the Karimov regime collapsed due to lack of U.S. support, that might serve as an object lesson to some of America’s other questionable friends around the world that we mean business about this democracy stuff and that there’s a price to be paid for failing to reform. [Emphasis added[

Wow, I mean really, wow… Here’s to hoping that Matthew never gets into any kind of foreign policy position. Does he really seriously believe that radical Islamists would be no worse than the Karimov government when it comes to the domestic situation? I don’t even think I really need to comment on that. That might be flat out the dumbest, most ignorant thing I’ve ever read about Uzbekistan for as long as I’ve been paying attention. And it’s coming from a pretty smart guy too. Well, it just shows that intelligence does not preclude mind-numbing, stunning ignorance. I mean, really. I try not to stoop so low as to just go with “dumb,” but I pretty much have to here. Uzbekistan may be bad, but it is far, far better than a Taliban-style government. I am shocked that Matthew cannot see that.

To Matthew’s credit, he follows this passage with a recognition that he sees the logic of the other side (though I think he fails to see the human cost of his), but that he doesn’t see that there is a “third way.” In other words, he thinks that pushing reform and continuing the current relationship is impossible because it makes us look hypocritical “to anyone who pays attention to the situation.” Of course, one must wonder if he’d be able to recognize such a person since he apparently pays so little attention, but that’s neither here nore there.

I think that both Yglesias and Andrew Apostolou have unrealistic expectations about the pace of reforms in a place like Uzbekistan. The discussion coming out of the Western punditocracy (I give Apostalou more credit than most of them usually) is, I think, overly focused on short-term, formal, political gains. The term you’ll hear in the political science department is “consolidated democracy” and you’ll hear discussion of whether or not the “atmosphere is right for consolidation” (at least, that was the talk a few years back).

I have a hard time believing someone could make a strong argument that Uzbekistan has the institutions needed to last long as a democracy. One has to ask what the best non-democratic alternative is. I prefer to deal in realities and what is going to have the least-bad impact. I would argue that Karimov’s government is having a slightly positive impact that stands to put the country in a better position to become a democracy (or something else less-bad) in the future. The only other option I can see right now is pretty bleak.

I think it’s pretty clear that I view democracy as a means to an end, and not an end in itself. I have to consider the costs and benefits. Other commentators are weighing as well, but I think they have stars in their eyes and placing way too much stock in democracy over a policy of steady democratization. If an opportunity presents itself like it did in Georgia, surely seize it, but otherwise stay the course.


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– 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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