Questions needing answers

by Nathan Hamm on 5/20/2005 · 29 comments

Tim Russo sees the image of a man using a straw broom to sweep blood from the streets of Andijon as a “depressingly poetic” statement on the failure of democracy policy fails to live up to democracy doctrine.

Besides my advice to not make much of the fact that Uzbeks use straw brooms, I simply have to hand over the floor to those who can answer a few questions for me.

  • What should US policy towards Uzbekistan have been from 01/01/92 to 5/12/05? Explain how that alternate policy would have either resulted in the liberalization of Uzbek government and society or how it would have prevented the massacre in Andijon.
  • What should the short-term US response to Andijon be? What are the long-term implications of your answer?
  • If US is to support democratization programs under the nose of a very hostile government, should it abandon the project or accomplish what it can?
  • Should the US be willing to curtail its public, rhetorical commitment to democratization and liberalization in Uzbekistan for the sake of maintaining its ability to support NGOs and democratization projects?

There’s nothing I’d like more than for Uzbekistan to be a democracy. Yesterday. But I’m hearing a lot of calls for what I must, at my most charitable, characterize as a shoot from the hip, emotionally satisfying response to the Andijon massacre. I can’t deny that a part of me doesn’t want to see that, but this situation is too serious to foul up. Believe you me, I want our policy to improve. But I want us to take fully into account the realities on the ground and be willing to swallow some of the realities that we don’t like for the sake of an effective long-term policy.

No matter what happens, we’re not likely to see Uzbekistan a liberal democracy anytime soon. I like Tim, but one of the things that continually bugs me about Democratic thinking on foreign policy (and I’m definitely stereotyping here) is the desire and assumption that goals will be accomplished quickly and painlessly and that we wouldn’t be in predicament x, y, or z if it weren’t for bad planning. I don’t think Democrats actually believe these things and they’re appearing less often (thank goodness), but it’s still there.

[Hey, I genuinely don’t want to get in a Republicans vs. Democrats debate here. There is plenty about Republican foreign policy thinking that sets me off too, and one of the Republicans who makes an issue of Uzbekistan a lot has a tendency to bother me. But this is as good a moment as any to let those who don’t know already where my sympathies generally lay. And it does explain some of why I’m no longer a Democrat.]

The world is a nasty, imperfect place always throwing a wrench in our best designs and our policy needs to speak to the long game. To a certain extent, that’s the problem with publicly harping on democracy rather than just quietly doing it. It makes sensible policy look hypocritical.

What we’re quite possibly going to see in Uzbekistan is the chaos Martha Brill Olcott describes. We need to figure out not just what is actually possible for us to achieve in a country like Uzbekistan, but how we can manage the contingencies. So, if anyone has sensible answers to the above questions, you might change my mind. But for the time being, I’m not particularly demanding that we turn the ship around until we’ve totally figured out what our course will be.

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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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Tim Russo May 20, 2005 at 11:42 am

Great post, Nathan. I need some time to resond with equal thoughtfulness.

In the meantime, I think your question about short term policy has an easy answer. Bush should say something. Anything. Anything at all. He talks a great game. Start talking.

On Democrat vs. Republican, I was doing democracy work during the Clinton years, and had the same criticisms of US policy on democracy then. The only place policy met rhetoric was the Balkans – Kosovo and Bosnia. Those two places aren’t perfect today, but they are a lot better after muscular policy met muscular words.

The doctrine into policy roadmap was written by those two examples. They weren’t easy. They were opposed by a lot on both sides of the aisle. But the results are far better than the criticisms suggested at the time. Milosevic is gone, genocide has stopped, and Europe is a better place for it.

The right-leaning blogosphere has had tremendous effect on the democratic revolution atmosphere. It should stand up and demand that Bush break his silence on Uzbekistan. How would such silence have been greeted in 1989 over Tianenmen Square? With a loud, emphatic, “speak up.” To speak with such eloquence in the parlors of the neo-con intelligentsia is easy. But when the shit hits the fan, to retreat under the banner of “the world is a nasty place” realpolitik blather is….well……wrong.

Dan Darling May 20, 2005 at 11:44 am

I hope I’m not the Republican mentioned above …

Nathan May 20, 2005 at 12:19 pm

Nope Dan, you’re not. In fact, it’s some of the right-leaning blogosphere that Tim mentions. It’s a part that I’ve been occasionally called an insidious member of, but of which I’ve never thought myself to be. [Here I am, finally calling out my crew! Really it’s anyone who gets all frothily fired up on either side that gets to me.]

I don’t entirely feel comfortable with the soaring rhetoric of neoconservatism (feels great, but…) nor do I think I’m retreating into realpolitik blather. Both have something to offer and I want to find the balance between the two. Uzbekistan’s a tough-ass test for American democratization policy and there are no easy answers. I want us to find them. The quicker the better, but I just want to make sure we honestly and accurately appraise our capabilities and what we have to work with.

I agree Tim, I want Bush to say something. I want Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, and Gerhard Schroeder to say something too (not trying to deflect here, really). But, like I said, is there a long-term implication that suggests that Condi saying something might be more appropriate? Another commenter made a good point to me about not getting too interested in making sure all the agencies speak and speak with one voice.

Tim Russo May 20, 2005 at 1:11 pm

Someone should say something. Bush is the right guy. I hope someone other than me (i.e. irrelevant Democrat blogger guy) posts something along those lines soon.

veryretired May 20, 2005 at 3:00 pm

There is a distinct danger in this and other relationships with less than perfect governments that we might end up in the same predicament we encountered in the ’70’s under the human rights campaign of Jimmy Carter. Not only didn’t we strengthen our position by trumpeting our principles in everybody’s ears at every self-righteous opportunity, but we soon found ourselves abandoning several relationships with less than savory states who were actively threatened by marxist insurrrections.

Of course, we were solemnly assured by all the usual suspects, these were all indigenous uprisings, and weren’t being directed and funded by the Soviets. After the Soviet archives were opened, we found out what hooey that all was.

Just because the previous threat has diminished doesn’t mean that the world has become such a nice place that we can discard bases and allies, even if we have to hold our nose a bit, like used tissues.

To paraphrase Capt Renault’s advice to Rick, we can’t just throw things away so carelessly, they might be in short supply someday.

submandave May 20, 2005 at 3:07 pm

An interesting point. If “saying something” degrades one’s ability to actually effect changes is “saying something” really the right thing to do? Is Bush’s greater responsibility to talking up democracy or making it possible to take action to promote democratic reform? Of course, that assumes that one has the confidence that action really is happening behind the scenes.

It seems ironic that some who once derided Clinton’s “I feel your pain” platitudes as all empathy with no action may actually now be positioning themselves to ask the same of Bush. I think Bush is purposefully careful about voicing condemnations for the expressed purpose of increasing their value. When Clinton spoke of regime change in Iraq, for example, it was almost universally recognized as political rhetoric. But after Afghanistan and Iraq, like it or not, Bush has built a level of credibility few US presidents have even enjoyed. Some in Lebanon have recently credited this credibility with having been key in the Syrians following through with their promised withdrawal.

While I, too, feel the recent events in Uzbekistan deserve the harsh light of exposure and open condemnation in no uncertain terms, I have confidence that the Administration’s words, or lack thereof, are purposeful and does not necessarilly indicate a retreat from Bush’s commitment to democratic reform of tyranical regimes.

Soldier's Dad May 20, 2005 at 3:25 pm


Democracy imposed by military force is at least a 5 year project, that has huge costs in terms lives, money etc.

If the NGO’s in Uzbekistan have anything more than a 50/50 chance of bringing about real democractic change in Uzbekistan in 10 years, then what Bush needs to do is whatever he needs to do to ,short of condoning genocide, to keep the NGO’s in place.

zota May 20, 2005 at 4:24 pm

* What should US policy towards Iraq have been from 12/20/83 to 03/16/88 ? Explain how that alternate policy would have either resulted in the liberalization of Iraqi government and society or how it would have prevented the massacre in Halabja.

* What should the short-term US response to Halabja have been? What are the long-term implications of your answer?

* If US is to support democratization programs under the nose of a very hostile government, should it abandon the project or accomplish what it can?

jaed May 20, 2005 at 4:29 pm

One more factor: suppose Bush does say something, and Uzbeks encouraged by this do something, and Karimov (as we’ve seen he is capable) responds with a further, greater massacre. If that happened, any surviving democratic activists would be enormously discouraged and disheartened. (And remember what happened in southern Iraq in 1991, after encouragement by an American president.) It would do tremendous damage to democracy in Uzbekistan and it would also damage the hopes for democracy in the rest of central Asia and the Middle East.

The only real way we’d have to prevent it would be to invade the country. And my head hurts just imagining the pitch of the shrieks we’d hear.

I do think that all things considered, Bush should speak up – and speak directly to Uzbeks. I’d feel better about him if he did. But I can understand why he might want to wait, frustrating as it is.

Mark Hamm May 20, 2005 at 6:32 pm

Good questions Nathan and excellent comments by readers. As one of your democrat readers I have to weigh in here. I really don’t think there is a Democratic or Republican (consistant)foreign policy. It seems to always be influenced by partisan politic. Contrast Yugoslavia and Iraq.
However the vast majority in both parties support pro-democratic NGO programs.

I agree with submandave above, Bush’s invasion has given the US added currency in diplomatic discussions. Now he needs to use it. His silence changes the significance of the Iraq invasion from ‘Hey we mean it when we say we won’t tolerate this crap’ to ‘Hey we won’t tolerate this crap unless you got something we really want’.

Right now mostly we have Scott McClellan’s comments for the US response (We support democratic change but not through violence). What a moron!

People have mentioned Carter, Clinton and Bush above. I think our foreign policy needs to be a combination of all these administrations. I imagine Teddy Roosevelt with a big stick, a pocket of shiny new dimes, the moral compass of Carter, the communication skills of Clinton and Bush’s willingness to occasionally let loose with the stick.

sharifabad May 20, 2005 at 6:32 pm

Good issues you raise Nathan – but IMO the quandary really arises not because the on the ground choices are so difficult. I would think those in the thick of it over there have some pretty good and solid ideas on how to proceed so that an implosion is averted. You can never err on the side of liberalizing mass dialog. Only the Islamists and the powers in charge will find this objectionable.

The press was the first victim of the 1979 Iranian revolution. And the Islamists benefitted immensely from that.

The real complication of US policy arises because of those on this side of the fence who deeply question the value of a democratic regime in Uzbekistan. A friendly strongman regime is always preferred to the uncertainties of an independent democratic regime. This includes many leftists who actually are in favor of an Islamist regime, as they find that more idealistic and romantically appealing. These people actually favor the Islamization of Uzbek society and politics.

david_walther May 21, 2005 at 6:29 am

I think that one of the most interesting developments here that’s not much being discussed (at least as far as I’ve seen) is the jockeying that I see going on in Russia (and now the government controlled Russian media included) to pull Uzbekistan out of our orbit.

Now that we can finally get ORT coverage of the events in Andijon and the Valley in general, I see a sharp contrast between what was being shown and reported over the weekend (that I could sometimes get off the internet) and what they’re doing now—which is basically showing footage of how nice and quiet Andijon is now, and repeating the Uzbek government’s story about the situation.

I find it quite possible that it’s more than a coincedence that this seems to coincide with Lavrov’s statement of firm support for Karimov this week. And I also find it interesting that they now show ORT news in full here, but are still screening the BBC and CNN.

Troutsky May 21, 2005 at 10:52 am

It is a perfect example of the arrogant super-power mindset that historical developement means nothing, in fact history does not exist, their movement is simply a force we can maipulate at will, under OUR control.Lacking any sense of context we base actions (or re-actions)on the immediate, in the moment analysis and it leads inevitably (even Kosovo, IMHO) to needless suffering on the part of the actual people living IN the crisis.Remember this, there is OIL underneath.Since Yalta this has been the determining factor.Capital, rather than the idealistic and much easier to sell code word democracy, runs this show and they only occasionally, arbitrarily, coincide.

Phil Bailey May 21, 2005 at 12:15 pm

Nathan, that’s an easy question. Just think what would be the likely response if Karimov’s crimes were committed by an official enemy.

The following, in no particular order, would be undertaken in a matter of days, perhaps weeks –

1 – An immediate end to the rendition of prisoners to Uzbek jails for the purpose of torture.

2 – The seizure of Karimov’s gold, which is stored in the Bank of England (see Hansard)

3 – The freezing of Karimov’s bank accounts worldwide.

4 – International travel ban on all senior members of Karimov’s regime, including military personnel.

5 – Stop training his murderous security forces.

6 – Push for a U.N. SC resolution banning all weapons sales to the country. Punitive measures against those who break it. (I don’t mean bombing)

7 – Closure of the U.S. airbase. I mean, they’re building nine more in Afghanistan and that will have to do.

3, 4, and 6 would no doubt meet opposition from Russia and/or China but could still be implemented to great effect. The above measures to remain in force until Uzbekistan holds elections deemed free and fair by independent international observers.

Of course, none of this will happen, because the U.S. is quite happy to bankroll a fascist tyranny, as with Saddam Hussein at the height of his atrocities.

Nathan May 21, 2005 at 2:50 pm

Phil, what I’m getting at is what we can do to help Uzbeks. Your answers are, from my experience, a perfect prescription for cutting Uzbeks off from the rest of the world. I don’t see how any of this would seriously hurt the Uzbek government or how it would help the Uzbek people. Some of them may be helpful, but I’m thinking long-game.

But at the end of the day, I have a feeling you just don’t want us involved at all. Let evil triumph without a challenge if we might get a taint on our souls. It makes you feel good, and that’s all that most watered-down Marxists seem to hope to achieve in foreign policy nowadays.

Since you’re a knee-jerk anti-American, you might as well move along and keep your bitching at the revolutionary coffee house. I’ve never found your type the least bit interested in learning anything new and all too quick to come up with baroque excuses for dismissing that which challenges your worldview.

Nathan May 21, 2005 at 3:04 pm

It is a perfect example of the stale Marxist mindset that cultural and historical factors mean nothing, in fact that which cannot be quantified does not exist, people are motivated only by capital, under STATE and CAPITALIST control.

Sorry if that didn’t make any sense. Marxism outside of PS 320 – 19th Cent. Political Philosophy doesn’t either.

And Trout, there’s not much oil in Uzbekistan (at least compared to its neighbors or its gas reverves), LUKoil has already signed multi-decade deals for extraction rights, and AFAIK, no pipelines are planned through Uzbekistan to transit Kazakh oil to points beyond such as the BTC.

I’m sorry, the absolutely miniscule amount of investment by US companies in Uzbekistan just makes me think you have no idea what’s actually going on there. But, hey, that’s what’s cool about ideology, you don’t have to get tangled up in facts or anything.

Phil Bailey May 21, 2005 at 4:43 pm

Nathan, what a strange reply. I notice you don’t challenge my claims that the U.S. (and the UK, where I was born) render prisoners, train the security forces, and act as bankers for Karimov. I’ll assume you agree that this is indeed the case. So, we already ARE involved, bigtime.

I listed a series of practical measures and while you may think they are impractical, counterproductive or just plain daft, they in no way constitute allowing evil to “triumph without a challenge” as you claim. Quite the contrary. The same applies to your feeling that I “just don’t want us involved at all”. I just hope the nature of our – U.S./UK – involvement changes and have clearly stated in what way.

You also accuse me of being a “knee-jerk anti-American”. Well, if you want to equate U.S. foreign policy with the entire population of the United States I guess you’d be correct. But who does that? I certainly don’t. By your criteria I’ll be “anti-British” too, since I have nothing but contempt for the fact that the Bank of England gladly received “all his gold” in 1994, or that the Lord Mayor of London led a high level business delegation in 2003, or that the Uzbek Defence Minister received a warm welcome in London. I, however, reserve my contempt for the officials who undertook these actions, not the British people. Ditto the U.S.A.

You may be the expert on Uzbekistan, but I know enough to know that Karimov’s tyranny pre-dates the recent slaughter as does U.S./UK appeasement of his regime. And while our support has increased since the 911 atrocity it certainly took place before that day too.

It’s time it stopped.

Nathan May 21, 2005 at 5:21 pm

No, not exactly agree, Phil. I think you’re overstating the meaning and impact and scale of the renditions (I never see anyone mention how many have taken place, because, I think, the impression is supposed to be that it happens a lot though it probably doesn’t), training, etc. I can’t spend all my time doing point-by-point refutations of every lefty criticism I get. I’ve done them before and they can be found in my archives.

If troops we train are used to put down protests, yes, it should stop. But all I’m ultimately concerned with is not whether or not we’re involved and there’s some bad that comes of it, but whether or not our relationship is net beneficial for the Uzbek people. I think it clearly has been, and if part of the cost of doing good is having a relationship with the government, I have no problem paying it.

I don’t deal in absolutes at all, and I absolutely abhor arguments born of or descended from ideologies that do.

Troutsky May 22, 2005 at 9:03 am

Nathan, your posture as one un-tainted by ideology is typical colonialist reasoning, so internalized you are no longer aware it even exists.Sure of your knowledge and cost-benefit analysis you refuse to acknowledge the possibility your real-politic scientism may not be adequate.You use the term “relationship” as though it obviously means a beneficial association for some homogenous whole which is Uzbekistan.This is either naive or more likely that conservative wink and nod which pretends away unequal power.There need not be massive oil fields for capital and it’s agent the state to want to project power “for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit”.Just look at ANWAR.How much oil is in Columbia?

Nathan May 22, 2005 at 9:13 am

Trout, don’t psychoanalyze me. It’s condescending, and when done from a lock-step Marxist point of view, downright silly.

Honestly, what you are saying is so far disconnected from facts and reality and so deeply-set in the self-contained world of Marxist analysis, that it’s hard to know what you’re saying, let alone respond.

All I can say about the relationship is that it’s most definitely not about business. US companies have little success in Uzbekistan. The big exception is NewMont.

Again, if you actually knew what countries were investing, what the whole portfolio or Uzbekistan’s relationships with the rest of the world looks like, what US aid gets used for, etc. Well, you probably wouldn’t believe any differently. Your analysis would just be more baroque to explain away the facts. Like I said, that’s what’s cool about being an ideologue, once you got it down, you don’t have to think anymore.

submandave May 23, 2005 at 7:57 am

Nathan: “Your answers are … a perfect prescription for cutting Uzbeks off from the rest of the world. I don’t see how any of this would seriously hurt the Uzbek government or how it would help the Uzbek people.

If anything, the failure of the sanctions against Iraq and the perversion of the OFF program have demonstrated the variance that can exist between taking the moral highground and taking effective action.

That one can simultaneously argue the Iraqi sanctions killed countless children and also that Bush should essentially isolate Uzbekistan in a similar manner informs me that both positions are more politially than morally derived.

probligo May 25, 2005 at 6:20 pm

Not one here has mentioned the root problem that Bush has with Uzbekistan.

It has to do with a fairly large tract of flat land with specialised tarmac and other infrastructure.

It is an airbase.

It gives “close strategic access” to areas such as Iran, Iraq and Pakistan.

Do you think that Bush will compromise that facility by stepping on the toes of Kharimov?

Nah, hence the “quiet word in the ear” approach…

There is an interesting comparison here, between the relationship Bush – Kharimov with an earlier US President and a petty little tyrant named Saddam…

Nathan May 25, 2005 at 7:31 pm

Give me a break. Like I don’t know there’s an airbase.

A lot of other countries have them too. Even ones without improperly used quotation mark properties. What makes Uzbekistan unique?

And you’re kidding with the Iraq comparison right? The two are so different as to assure me that you’re a run-of-the-mill post-deological lefty with only a surface understanding of the facts.

probligo May 26, 2005 at 5:54 pm

Nathan, at least I stayed away from the gratuitous ad-hominem attacks to make the point.

We agree? There is a US used and active airbase in Uzbekistan?

If it is active, and there is no reason to doubt otherwise, what is its most likely purpose and use?

If it is active, do you imagine for one moment that your CinC would jeopardise that facility when it is a primary resource in obtaining air access to northern Afghanistan and Pakistan for personnel, supply and intelligence?

If it is active, do you imagine for one moment that your CinC would jeopardise that facility when a possible action against Iran is long since passed the status of “possible”?

What would be one of the quickest ways for your CinC to jeopardise that facility? Simple. Criticise the human rights policies of the local government. You know, really stuff it up their collectivised noses. What a fantastic piece of diplomacy that would be.

What it comes down to is very simple.

The US will do nothing to upset Kharimov for the simple reason that it is in the US interest to have Kharimov on your side.

The comparison with Iraq? Exactly the same arguments were put up then to justify the supply of sarin and the required delivery systems along with a wide range of other weaponry and training to Saddam. Remember, at that time Iraq was at war with Iran; Iran had said nasty things about the US; that made Iraq ( an enemy of my enemy is my friend ) useful to the US interest.

It is known, at least in the circles I inhabit, as “protecting the interests of the US”.

Nathan May 26, 2005 at 6:07 pm

And that’s what I don’t like, the ridiculous arrogance and condescension of those in the circle/collective/discussion group, etc.

Yes, I can imagine we’d jeapordize the base. It is not used for combat operations–that’s specifically prohibited under the terms of use. As I understand it, it’s a very useful, but not absolutely necessary, point for equipment to be shipped on to Afghanistan. We do have another base in the region that has been used for combat operations, and when the authoritarian government there was under siege, we shed not a tear.

I know this is hard for ideologues to do, but there are certain objective conditions in Uzbekistan we have to deal with. Read my other posts. I discuss them at length. When I take into consideration those factors, the unreported statements of US officials criticizing Uzbekistan for the past two years (is that jeapordizing, or will you dismiss that out of hand?), and the US record throughout the former Soviet Union, I can’t help but think you’re sorely mistaken.

And yes, the Iraq comparison is silly. The entire portfolio of our actions in Uzbekistan (which I hope I’d be accepted to know about since I have firsthand experience with some parts most rarely hear about), the drastically different nature of the military relationship, etc. etc. etc. make the comparison too overly simplistic for a truly serious discussion of policy.

probligo May 26, 2005 at 8:49 pm

Yep, this all lies alongside of the “comments” that are passed from time to time about human rights abuses in China.

It is said quietly, in private, and with the intention of causing as little loss of face as possible.

But China still ranks as “most favoured nation”.

Because “it is in the interests of…”

I concede that all of this lies in the realms of two faced duplicitous diplomacy. But then ( as Laughland said in a recent article ) sometimes it is better to be an enemy of the the US. Then at worst they might try and buy you. Be careful if you are a friend of the US because there is nothing surer than they will sell you – sooner or later…

As for the true use of the base in Uzbekistan, I am quite sure that between the public statement and the truth there are many many miles to be walked. Who knows what might lie by that road.

Nathan May 26, 2005 at 9:18 pm

That’s right, insert your own reality about the base… I’m taking this on the word of common folks with no interest in lying–people who’ve gone through K2 or know people who have. Part of the thing on the deal too is that Uzbekistan made a stink about the base not being used for attacks and only in support of a UN-sanctioned operation.

It’s funny, I can think of a long list of countries that we have a compelling interest not to piss off, yet we do. Russia, Syria, Egypt, Germany (you wanna talk bases?), Turkey (again), etc. etc. etc. Is complex reality so hard for you to deal with that you posit a simplistic fantasy?

Let’s just get down to brass tacks. Your black and white approach–the moralizing approach that relies on a heavy dose of moralizing and a sparing one of planning–is morally juvenile. If quiet criticism yields the best results, then so be it. If we must tolerate some evil for the opportunity to do some good (which, you’ll have to take my word on this, I’ve seen plenty of done by in Uzbekistan by American hands); if that’s the only opportunity we have, well, by God, we should. Declaring it too hard and turning your back might seem appealing, but it’s a disgusting abdication.

But if you’re citing Laughland as an authority, then you likely inhabit a moral universe turned upside down. And also, it’s ironic that you would cite him. After all, he’s affiliated with BHHRG, a group that suggests Uzbekistan’s elections are fairer than Ukraine’s and even, in some way, the UK’s.

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