Of Gilded Lillies

by Nathan Hamm on 6/22/2005 · 5 comments

Corey Welt emailed me an article he and David Hoffman authored for The American Prospect arguing that the cost of keeping the Karshi-Khanabad base is too high and that its military necessity is not so great as to outweigh that cost.

The diplomatic costs of K2 are unambiguous and snowballing. The Uzbek government has allowed the U.S. military to operate the base rent-free since 2001. Despite the recent crackdown, negotiations to extend the lease, this time for real cash, are under way. This sends a stinging message to ordinary Uzbeks that the United States cares more about its military footprint than it does a massacre of civilians.

In fact, even before Andijon, the U.S. military presence in Uzbekistan had become the new paradigmatic case highlighting tensions between the worldwide fight for freedom and the worldwide fight against terrorism. Maintaining a partnership with an increasingly unrepentant and illegitimate Uzbek government undermines the U.S. government’s already weakened moral authority, laying bare the impotence of the democracy-promotion agenda when juxtaposed against the needs of the Pentagon.

This loss of American legitimacy is not a “fuzzy” or “soft” concept; it has real consequences for the U.S. government’s effort to promote freedom and democracy abroad. Today, citizens not only in Uzbekistan but also in Syria, Egypt, and elsewhere are rethinking their political calculus based on the action — or nonaction — of the U.S. government after the collision of realpolitik and a people’s yearning for freedom in Andijon.

I know I have said it before in comments here and elsehwere, and I am sure I have mentioned it in posts. I have a very hard time with the argument that our relationship with Uzbekistan is a stunning blow to our legitimacy because it is fairly obvious to me that there exists a large segment of people both here and abroad who do not find us all that legitimate in the first place. Uzbekistan is but a way to back up the argument after the fact. I do not at all think that Welt and Hoffman are part of this crowd–after all the issue they bring up is an important one to consider–but I do not find this argument too terribly convincing. They say we must win the war on terror with our moral authority intact. Well, to those so predisposed, we have already lost it. But to those who accept that trade-offs are part of politics and that perfect consistency is an impossible goal, this should not be such an easy sell.

I find it even more unconvincing when the Uzbek people are brought into it. First off, the “we lose legitimacy in nationality x’s eyes by doing y and z” is something of a cookie-cutter argument brought up in many contexts but rarely supported even with anecdotal evidence. Nothing in my experience with the average Uzbek suggests that this particular argument is true or that Uzbeks are sufficiently similar to, for example, Sunni Arabs that an argument commonly applied to our actions in the Middle East would so smoothly apply to Central Asia.

I am willing to be convinced otherwise on this, but like I said, no one offers evidence that Uzbeks are turning on us for having a relationship with their government. Bertrand mentions rising anti-Americanism here, but given that he talks about it in reaction to a state-approved conspiracy theory, I have to wonder if it is a different kind of beast than the one we are talking about here. And here, Olesya says we simply are not even part of the discussion in Uzbekistan. I do have to wonder if it is a symptom of our ego that we might think we figure so largely…

Anyhow, I am not convinced that the base is so crucial that we need to keep it at all costs. I do agree with how Brad Plumer puts it.

Plus, there’s a decent fear that if we don’t maintain a relationship with Uzbekistan, China will, which means we can kiss any hope of reform goodbye. Our military ties, at least, give us some leverage over Karimov, no? So yes, it’s a tough country to work with, and yes, our Uzbekistan policy is never going to be pretty, but engagement seems like a better stance than total isolation.

He goes on to say that there is room for improvement and that we should not worry about calming Karimov’s fears that we are out to get him. I agree with that too.

We can more or less write off the hope that we will be able to get much serious democratization work done in Uzbekistan. Our total withdrawal presents no chance for improvement in the country. Even if we do incur costs of prestige, we incur great security risks be eliminating our presence in an increasingly brittle state that runs risk of collapsing into a chaotic civil war. For all of these reasons, if we can maintain some kind of military relationship in Uzbekistan without having to bend over backwards to placate the Uzbek government, we probably should at least think thrice before jumping ship.

As unsavory as it is, with no popular democratic opposition group on the horizon, ties to officers in the Uzbek military are a very valuable thing. I made a comment to this effect at Coming Anarchy specifically mentioning that a Mr. Zakir Almatov has good reason to be nursing a grudge.

Not that I want us to be even the least bit involved in selecting new leaders for Uzbekistan or giving anyone even the slightest reason to think that if Karimov falls our dream is to see another dictator take his place. But as Karimov pushes us away (which, as I have mentioned, I am thoroughly willing to accept), it would be wise to prepare ourselves for the power struggle that will replace Karimov or follow his leaving office.

And, somewhat tangentially, if it is not already weird enough that I totally agreed with someone who writes for Mother Jones above, I definitely think that Curzon is seriously misplacing blame in this post. The deterioration of US-Uzbek relations is entirely the fault of Islam Karimov and is not something we need to be bending over backwards to reverse. See my comments to the post for a little more.

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

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.

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


Mukhtar June 22, 2005 at 2:07 pm

“Our total withdrawal presents no chance for improvement in the country.”

Assume, as most Uzbeks in Uzbekistan do, that we have entered the “end-game” scenario, vis-a-vis Karimov. What, then, does maintaining a knee-jerk relationship with Karimov do for the U.S. government?

Curzon June 22, 2005 at 6:16 pm

Well, to those so predisposed, we have already lost it.

Too true..

Previous post:

Next post: