Totten Answers the Call

by Nathan Hamm on 6/9/2005

Many of you, I’m sure, will recall that I had some questions intended to act as a brake on those calling for an abrupt and dramatic shift in US policy towards Uzbekistan in the wake of the Andijon massacre.

As Laurence mentioned below, Michael Totten has responded at TCS. I don’t entirely disagree with Michael, nor am I at all convinced that the relationship must be maintained at all costs. In fact, I think we’ve probably reached a point at which the relationship is in such bad shape that one side or the other would need to eat a lot of humble pie to salvage it. And there’s really no compelling reason for us to be doing so.

Be that as it may, I don’t think we should dump Karimov. Yes, Uzbekistan presents a significant challenge to our democratization policies. But I think it boils down to a tough case. If a tough case allows us in–and they rarely do–I do think we absolutely should take advantage of the situation knowing that our successes are going to be few and far-between and that change will be a very long time coming.

However, if Uzbekistan wants to dump us, we have little choice but to let them. Though prolonging the process and making it as embarrassing as possiblefor Uzbekistan’s government–besieging them–would be of some value.

It’s probably helpful for me to be forthright with my biases. Though I’m a supporter of Bush’s democratization policy, sometimes I’d just as rather we do not made such a big rhetorical deal of it. After all, in many ways, Bush’s policies are an outgrowth of Clinton’s. There’s more emphasis put on the value of spreading democracy as the centerpiece of US policy. And it undoubtedly has been of help in some areas. But in each, that help has been best applied at a tipping point. There’s really nothing that says we can’t be a tipping point when necessary without constantly talking about democracy–which itself has provided valuable fodder to countries such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and others that has led to them actively combatting our work on the ground.

As that might suggest, I’m much more in favor of action than talk. And if talk gets in the way of action, well, you can bet I’m all for cutting back on talk. From 2001 to mid to late-2004, one can make a very strong case that the US-Uzbek relationship was producing some benefit. It was uneven, not of terribly enormous consequence to Uzbeks in the short term, debatably a violation of the spirit of the 2002 memorandum of understanding, etc. but it was progress. Making a big stink about it, as right as we would have been to do so, offered little but damage to our efforts.

In fact, I think it’s interesting to take a moment to think about our democratization efforts around the world. We often talk the loudest when and where we have the least chance for action. Were, for example, Syria willing to invite in US organizations, perhaps even troops, and offered to make an effort at reform with our help, I am certain we’d have much less bad to say about them. This may or may not be good depending on your point of view, but I am a cautious sort and am all for a slower transition that runs less risk of social turmoil.

Uzbekistan is one of those places where there is enormous risk for turmoil were the government to collapse. Sadly, the Uzbek government doesn’t realize that that while much of this risk comes from Islamists interested in buildling a new caliphate (I like to think it would be like the Taliban’s Afghanistan with better infrastructure) a good deal also comes from failure to give society ways to constructively blow off steam through politics. Perhaps it’s not communicated strongly enough (because the messengers don’t really feel this way, maybe?), but our criticism is not aimed at sweeping Karimov from power so much as it is at keeping a future transition from being a bloody mess–literally.

After all that, I’ll move on to the points that Michael makes.

Michael agrees that our policy towards Uzbekistan from 9/11/2001 to 5/13/2005 was more or less correct. However, he compares it to the WWII alliance with Stalin and calls it a “bogus friendship.” While comparisons of this sort never entirely fit, I think this one misses something very important about the US-Uzbek relationship. Right from the start, we made the Uzbek government commit to reform. The Uzbeks reformed slower than we wanted, but to this day I still think the government is on-balance genuine about wanting to get the country to a better place. It’s just awfully full of itself, extremely unimaginative about how to do so, and all but refuses to accept constructive criticism.

Maybe we were naive. I often find Americans to be out of their element in Central Asia, and the Uzbeks are very skilled at pulling one over on us easy marks. On our we were genuine about wanting a strong partnership with Uzbekistan. If it turns out that they’ve pulled on over on us, we should make clear to them that they’re likely digging their own grave by continuing down their current path, and offer a second chance, the price of which is something concrete on their end first. But if that doesn’t work, like I’m sure it won’t, live and learn.

I think that much of the rest of Michael’s points more or less get down to who does the dumping. Like I said above, I think we should let Uzbekistan do it and make them do it publicly. If possible, make them do it in such a way that even Russia’s queasy about appearing too close to Karimov.

I do think though, that as this discussion continues, there are some important things to remember. Misconceptions about Central Asia are my motivation for putting entries into this blog every day. Not that you should take me as the gospel truth by any stretch of the imagination, but I do like to think that I’m fairly good about pushing aside many of the assumptions and biases that we in the west often have about Uzbekistan. It’s very important we get things as right as possible because in some ways our hand will be freer, in others more restricted.

Michael expresses worry about how Uzbeks will perceive the United States if our relationship with their government continues. I hesitate to say support because I’m not sure that’s how it comes across to most Uzbeks.

If we continue to support Karimov, Islamist hatred of the United States will gain traction with some of the liberals. If we publicly oppose Karimov and throw our weight behind whatever democratic opposition exists, some the more moderate Islamists will swing to their side — and by extension to our side.

I think it’s extremely difficult for us to understand how Uzbeks feel about Karimov and what liberal opposition exists. It makes no sense to us, but it doesn’t change the facts. If Uzbekistan had an election next month without any interference whatsoever–imagine it’s the cleanest election in world history–the smart money would be on a Karimov victory. Though I think this is much less true today, I think the consensus Uzbek attitude is that Karimov’s a grade-A bastard who has done one helluva fine job of keeping the economy from tanking as bad of the former Soviet economies and fighting Islamic militants–a threat Uzbeks are very concerned about.

As with most politicians, they’re fairly cynical about the opposition. Maybe some of that rubbed off on me, but I’m pretty skeptical of the opposition groups myself. That being said, like other Uzbeks, I don’t think we need to worry about an Iran-style coalition of Islamists and liberals. I think we do need to worry about whether or not our support of the liberal opposition would do more harm than good by helping organized liberal opposition groups. I’m much less worried about swaying moderate Islamists insofar as they actually exist than I am with swinging to the side of liberalism the skeptics of the west who may support the opposition if it looks fully home-grown but will fight it if it appears western-backed.

And as for the public…

Quietly twisting Karimov’s arm while lauding him in public gives the Uzbekistan “street” legitimate reasons to hate the United States. We are allied with a man who stomps on their face and kicks them in the stomach. That’s no way to make friends. But it’s a terrific way to make enemies.

Well, if we’re talking about the last six to eight months during which there have been a number of protests and government reprisals, I have a hard time recalling anything approaching the level of “lauding” but…

Again, this isn’t Iran, and what the US-Uzbek relationship looks like from inside Uzbekistan is quite different from how it looks from our end. Interestingly, in early May, protesters from the southern city of Karshi chose to come to the US embassy in Tashkent to voice their complaints because,

they could not count on the local authorities’ goodwill or on help from Russia and nearby countries and therefore wanted to attract attention of the US Department of State, international organizations, and the media.

I think they have their heads screwed on pretty straight on this one. They are blaming their government. These protesters don’t represent everyone, but Uzbeks do have very positive views of the United States. I’ve seen nothing to make me believe that they link their government’s behavior to anyone let alone the United States. It’s all in compartments.

To be honest, no one actually cares about Americans at this point. People care about how THEY are treated by the government. And in order for us to start liking/thanking America you’ve got to improve the way we are treated. You can’t just say you have nothing to do with the dictatorship to make this happen though.

The above came from a young woman in Uzbekistan, Olesya, in response to Michael’s closing comment that we will be thanked or damned by the Uzbeks after they elect their first government. She goes on to say we shouldn’t waste our time with condemnation. Like me, she wants action. What can we do to make her life better?

Sadly, the answer is increasingly looking like nothing. So, what do we do? Personally, I think that if we leave, we should do it kicking and screaming (well, the diplomatic equivalent of kicking and screaming). Again, make them force us out.

We could also take to heart what Robert Kaplan said in Eastward to Tartary,

I am afraid that calls in Western capitals for “democracy — while branding as “evil” those who do not comply — is an evasion, not a policy. Holding an election is easy. But because the “state,” as Buckhardt says, “is a work of art,” building one from scratch requires guile, force, and years of toil. … The only way to ensure that the latter triumphs [liberal democracy] is not to force elections on societies ill prepared for them but to project economic and military power regionally, through pipelines and defense agreements. If our weight is felt, our values my follow. But if we only lecture sanctimoniously, new empires that arise in the Near East will not reflect our values. The human landscape is grim, but great powers throughout history faced grim landscapes and were not deterred from pursuing their goals

I’m at something of a loss for good answers considering how strained the relationship currently is. I certainly do think that the increased hostility of the Uzbeks to letting us do any good on the ground calls for more criticism and for turning a cold shoulder to their government. I don’t think it’ll accomplish much good, but it’s hard to play ball when one side refuses to take to the field.

Pursuing realist and Wilsonian goals isn’t mutually exclusive. Doomed to fail, perhaps, but imaginable. The airbase is an incredibly powerful and largely untapped resource in our relationship. Keeping it for as long as we can (it still is very useful to operations in Afghanistan from what I’ve been told) while putting whatever screws–criticism, travel bans, diplomatic snubs, exploit fears of Russian and Chinese power, etc.–we can to Uzbekistan’s government for as long as we can might not be a terrible idea.

I’m not terribly convinced that our relationship with Uzbekistan upsets too many people beyond those who already find plenty of reason to dislike us. After all, when was the last time you heard someone demand Germany shut down its base in Termez? So, how much shame is there in having a relationship that accomplishes a different strategic goal in the region, but at least keeps the door open for the future?

Like I said, I’m open to suggestions here. I really want to know. Uzbekistan’s success is as important if not more important to Central Asia’s future as Afghanistan. It’s worth taking plenty of time to figure out the best way to proceed.


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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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