Getting it Right Takes Time

by Nathan Hamm on 6/28/2005 · 2 comments

I have never really been a big fan of Ahmed Rashid, and articles like this are why. What particularly bothers me about this is that is uses a particular style of argument extremely common to partisan pundits–the argument that the failure to make monumental changes or realize radical and complete change in a very compressed timeframe is proof of lack of or ill intent/incompetence/etc.

Rashid argues that the United States (well, Western nations really, the US just gets singled out up front) is ignoring bad behavior of the Uzbek government. His evidence is that the response has not been loud enough to the crackdown in Andijon or to pressure on NGOs, that there has not been enough pressure to force the international investigation, and that there have not been significant changes to policy. He argues that this only encourages bad behavior elsewhere in the region.

In these points lie valid complaints. Bureaucratic infighting is an obstacle to an effective US policy. Western nations are taking a lot of vile criticism from the Uzbek government without response.

But, at the same time, let’s talk about some unchallenged assumptions Rashid makes.

Honestly, what substantive value does an international investigation have? Keep in mind, I am saying this as a supporter. I get the distinct impression that I view it very differently than my fellow supporters to the left of me–many of whom appear more to fetishize the process. Where does Rashid stand? Well, I certainly do not think he sees the investigation as I do–as a tool to shame and isolate Karimov that may in turn cause fissures to develop within his government. I think it has value, but we should not fool ourselves into thinking that if it does not happen all hope is lost. Conversely, we should not think that the investigation would make much difference in the lives of most Uzbeks.

And the big one to me–the on that really bugs me–is that the event to which we are trying to respond happened six weeks ago. I am sure that Rashid would agree that Uzbekistan is sufficiently important to require that we take the time to get things right. I do not ask for a blank check and I also agree that much more effort could go into changing the Uzbekistan policy. But, I also think that six weeks is not much time and that these past six weeks have been an incredibly charged environment–a bad one in which to decide with finality where to steer the ship.

It might help if there was a little more recognition in the discussion that our options regarding Uzbekistan are extremely limited at the moment. There is little that Western states can do to either force the Uzbek government to change or to improve the lot of the Uzbek people in the short term. There’s little that would come of making an enormous fuss besides constraining our future options. Which bring up Rashid’s final assumption–that rhetorical fury will have an impact on the Uzbek government and speed the arrival of democracy in Central Asia.

Because there is little to be done at the moment, there is something to be said for just sitting, waiting, and following the advice discussed here and here.

P.S. Rashid is kind of full of it on the Peace Corps thing. They were not technically kicked out. Some did not get visa renewals, so can more or less be considered passively expelled. The rest were pulled out because of the recent safety warnings and the unwelcoming attitude of the government. The press release on this is here. Not making a big deal of it is a wise decision as Peace Corps is very concerned with keeping a degree of separation from the rest of government so that it can legitimately say that it does not actively promote official US policy. It also only stays at the invitation of the host government. Anything potentially perceived as forcing the Peace Corps on a country (such as bitching about their expulsion) undermines this policy.

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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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david l June 28, 2005 at 6:37 pm

well, i don’t know, six weeks in a 24-hour media world would seem to be quite a big chunk of time. And do we really think there’s such a range of sophisticated policy options that it takes that long to sort it out? Getting two departments to agree would seem to involve one stormy meeting in Cheney’s office. Sure, there’s not much anyone can do if Karimov doesn’t want to join the 21st century. But there’s some things that can be done to ensure that the West doesn’t get tainted with his appalling behaviour. And you’re rather splitting hairs on the Peace Corps thing perhaps. Everybody knows how the Uzbeks do these things. Kicked out is about the size of it. The real question is how much more humiliation is the world’s only superpower going to take for the sake of a strip of concrete near Karshi? A little bit of US self-respect would be refreshing.

Nathan June 28, 2005 at 10:33 pm

I don’t know that I am splitting hairs that much regarding the Peace Corps. I think there certainly are operational concerns elsewhere to worry about (and the Peace Corps does worry about them quite a bit), and not giving the Uzbek government the satisfaction of letting the visas expire for the second evac group certainly could be interpreted as a slap in the face.

As for the rest of it, yes, a war of words would be refreshing (and goodness would I enjoy the inevitable defenses of Karimov against US bullying from certain quarters in the West), but I’m not sure what it would achieve besides self-satisfaction. Even were six weeks a reasonable time for bureacracies to change course, I certainly think there is something to be said for waiting for the chips to fall (I’m not convinced they all have) before deciding where we’re going. Not that I’m convinced we necessarily will get things together, but I’m not one for fast decision-making. And I’m certainly convinced that those who want to think we’re tainted will do so regardless of the facts.

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