Ken Silverstein on Fred Starr

by Nathan Hamm on 5/25/2006 · 18 comments

At Harper’s, Ken Silverstein rips into Fred Starr.

It was all in a day’s work for Starr, who is perhaps the Karimov regime’s most outspoken advocate in Washington—a regime that once tortured a political prisoner to death with methods that included the use of boiling water and then arrested his elderly mother when she complained. He also speaks fondly of several other despotic governments in central Asia, a region he views almost exclusively through theprism of American geopolitical interests and with little interest in issues like human rights and corruption.

What was all in a day’s work was a Starr comment that appears in this EurasiaNet story on the Hudson Institute-CACI screening of the “Tragedy of Andijan” video. Starr accused independent journalists who wrote eyewitness accounts of Andijon of lying about what happened there in order to further their anti-Karimov agenda.

I want to defend Starr. Honestly, I do. I do sometimes agree with him and think his arguments should be dealt with on their merits. But I certainly do not agree with his own way of criticizing those with whom he disagrees.

For example, Silverstein criticizes Starr thusly,

At one congressional hearing in 2004 he said that Uzbekistan was making important strides on democracy and attacked human rights groups, suggesting that they were exaggerating problems under Karimov.

And also thusly,

In a 2004 story in the Washington Times, he decried Congress’s refusal to certify that Uzbekistan was making progress on human rights, which had led to a partial aid cutoff. “This is a shortsighted, poorly informed and self-defeating decision that contradicts the view of some of the best experts in the State Department itself and of independent experts as well,” he told the newspaper. “The decertification is a body blow to many known reformers in the Uzbek government.”

And also,

On May 16, 2005, just days after the Andijan massacre, Starr was already peddling the Karimov regime’s line in an interview on NPR. He generally blamed problems in the country on Islamic militants, described the country as a “linchpin of the region,” and said a revolution there “could be a disaster.” The United States, said Starr, has “a very serious interest there, not jut a security one but a large regional one because it borders all the countries in the region.”

Just because Starr goes after those whom the Ken Silversteins of the world find to be beyond reproach because of their good intentions and the policy decisions which have possible bad consequences in the real world despite the emotional satisfaction they provide, he is not necessarily wrong. Silverstein fails to mention why these two particular positions necesarrily make Starr a bad guy, leading me to assume that Silverstein similarly thinks others who share Starr’s opinions on these issues are goods damaged beyond repair.

Starr makes a few good points in these quotations. First, I do think there is a case to be made that the attention paid to the human rights situation in Uzbekistan by the human rights industry community is over-amplified and gives an inaccurate picture of what reforms are most needed in Uzbekistan. (For example, I would argue that economic rights reforms rank as a higher need and concern for most Uzbeks, though I rarely see HRW or AI write 100+ page reports on this issue.) Second, he points out that decertification has unintended consequences–that it trades opportunities slow reform for the certainty of backsliding. (Though here, I admit I am reading a bit of my own position in to his statement. He is, I assume, far more optimistic than me about Uzbekistan in general.) And in the third quoted passage, Starr is absolutely correct on three of the four claims he makes.

On the other hand, I have a really hard time standing up for a guy who accuses human rights organizations of “Stalinism” for using anonymous testimony in their reports on Uzbekistan. And I also think it is downright despicable call the journalists who were in Bobur Square liars without evidence of malfeasance. Perhaps they were wrong (and I’m not saying they were), but being wrong is not the same as being a liar.

Fred Starr absolutely has an agenda. And he is at times irresponsible and unethical. (I cannot, unfortunately, elaborate.) In some ways, I appreciate that he has obvious biases. Everyone has biases. At least his are easy to spot. Silverstein seems troubled that Starr’s connections and biases are not mentioned alongside his comments in the media. But let’s not pretend that if Starr is to subject to such criticisms, folks like Allison Gill and Holly Carter, both as biased as Starr even if they are “the good guys,” certainly should be too.

[Somewhat on the side, does anyone have quotes from Starr on human rights and the need for liberalization in Uzbekistan? Having been on the receiving end of such criticisms, I often find that by criticizing human rights groups, one ends up being accused of not thinking reforms are needed. This is absolutely untrue, and I have found myself in the past spending more time trying to prove I am not a heartless bastard than arguing the preferability of policies that might lead to slow reforms. I have a sneaking suspicion that Starr does not so much think that all is hunky-dory in Central Asia–even though he does come off that way too often–but instead that he spends most of his time criticizing those who say things are far worse than he thinks they are.]

Hat-tip to a handful of folks for the link.

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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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Alexander May 25, 2006 at 3:46 pm

Well I don’t agree with anything that Starr says. Ever. Nor do I feel any desire to do so. It is true that (at least in my experience) people in Uzbekistan spend far more time complaining about the near-impossibility of making a decent living honestly than they do talking about Human Rights abuses (then again, there are good reasons why they wouldn’t want to draw attention to themselves by mentioning the latter). However, I don’t notice Starr criticising Karimov’s absurd economic policies either. He (and Akiner, whom I know much better) are both Fellow-Travellers who enjoy the flattery, the embassy receptions and the feeling of self-righteous martyrdom that this brings. A familiar breed, in a new(ish) setting. Why give them the time of day? Their neutrality as academics has long been hopelessly compromised. They belong with the Milosevich and Lukashenko-lovers.

Nick May 25, 2006 at 4:51 pm

I’m not being flippant, but I am wildly curious (thank you google!) about Fred Starr’s background in jazz scholarship. Sure, every man has to have a hobby, but how could he also be the same Fred Starr who is widely lambasted for his stance on Central Asia?

Mind you, on a related note, and partly prompted by my own reading, Yuri Bregel has argued that the Soviet Studies background of many current Central Asia experts and analysts has produced a profoundly biased and lopsided body of scholarship on the region. Any thoughts? (I should state that I’m a non-Russian speaker who knows a little Uzbek, is studying Farsi, and is more widely-read in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies.)

Brian May 25, 2006 at 5:34 pm

This gem is from The Oberlin Review on Fred Starr as the failed president of Oberlin University:

… the incident caused so much concern the General Faculty created a committee to investigate the protest that resulted in violence.
Professor of English Robert Longsworth said, “Once people become suspicious of their leader [Fred Starr] then it’s very difficult to dispel that sense and, again, what is referred to as an instinctively autocratic government and hierarchical decision making management tended to reinforce that suspicion.”

Ahhh… and the picture becomes a bit clearer. 🙂


Spanky McBean May 25, 2006 at 6:54 pm

Wow, Brian. The Oberlin piece is like the Hope diamond and the Harper’s a mere garnet from plucked from the steaming pile of dung that symbolizes Fred Starr’s academic career. Even in official Washington, where shills, hypocrites, thugs, finks and weasels proliferate like head lice, vermin of Starr’s ilk help bring the bar down just a bit lower. That said, the innocents dying at the hands of the Bush regime ought to provoke similar calls for sanctions from the righteous.

James May 25, 2006 at 8:21 pm


I think you are dead on with your comment about Soviet-study biases in Central Asia; I have heard many people who study this region notice the proliferation of scholars who think an expertise in Russia translates into expertise in Central Asia. It does seem that the world could use more people taking a different approach, as you are.

That being said, some background in Soviet studies is pretty much essential, and since Russian is also basically a necessity, it’s not hard to see why so many people come at it from that direction…

Jonathan P May 25, 2006 at 9:37 pm

I would also concur with Nick and James.

But I would add that coming into the study of Central Asia through the Russian backdoor is the easy way in, actually. The Russians wrote a lot about Central Asia (much of it tainted garbage, IMO). So it’s easier to become a well-read “expert” by reading these types of works in American library collections than it is to actually go over there and study some of the very-hard-to-find stuff written in Tajik, Uzbek, etc., and interview old scholars who have lived there their whole lives.

I also would like to say that Fred Starr is a weasel. 😉

Dolkun May 26, 2006 at 1:08 am


Your explanation of why Starr and Akiner do their thing — “He (and Akiner, whom I know much better) are both Fellow-Travellers who enjoy the flattery, the embassy receptions and the feeling of self-righteous martyrdom that this bring” — is about as close as I can get too.

Plus I’d add that “any PR is good PR.” Name me a higher-profile academic on Central Asia than these two. Then, maybe there’s an element of seeing oneself as an uber-realist.

I’m curious if anyone else has additional or alternate theories. I’d rule out an honest search for the truth, because Starr is so ready to damn those who disagree, and Akiner so blithely crossed over into criminal forensics (be a good suspense novel: bookish academic turns super sleuth). Let me quote one chestnut from her report, even though it’s been done before on this blog and elsewhere.

“If the government troops had raked the area with automatic fire for any significant period of time there would have been quantities of empty casings lying around. No matter how swift and efficient the clean-up operation, some of the spent cartridges would surely have escaped notice and been found by the local population. This does
not appear to have happened.”

First the phrase “this does not appear to have happened.” Not exactly intellectually honest. Earth orbiting sun? Doesn’t appear so. Man descended from monkeys. Nope, doesn’t seem right.

And according to the government itself, there should have been at least 400 shell casings, assuming one bullet, one dead/injured terrorist/fatherland protector. So clearly the casings were swept up, or Akiner would have seen some of these among the well-tended flowers.

Back to the point, though. Does anyone have alternate theories of what motivates Starr and Akiner?

Alexander May 26, 2006 at 1:26 am

Ah Bregel, Barthold’s closest rival for the title of “The Gibbon of Turkestan”. Who could forget his blistering attack on Martha Brill Olcott in “Notes on the Study of Central Asia”? I met him once at a conference in Bloomington, although we all we talked about was the impossibility of finding any decent tea in the U.S.: he was reminiscing fondly about some Ceylon tea he’d tasted at a Sri Lankan Embassy reception in Moscow before his defection…..but I digress. Despite the end of the Cold War, many academics working on the former U.S.S.R. still seem to think that they are gathering intelligence. There is a marked tendency amongst ‘area specialists’ to view Central Asia as an extension of Post-Soviet studies, somewhere to be studied strategically, rather than academically, whether as a potential source of oil or of Islamic terrorism. I’m fed up with seeing endless flashy books on ‘The New Great Game’, and such a paucity of historical work that’s actually based on archival research (Laura Newby, Adeeb Khalid, Virginia Martin, Daniel Brower, Allen Frank and Robert Crews are the only western historians I can think of who have actually done proper research in the region – do they ever get called upon for their opinions? Not on your Nelly. That’s left for the Akiners, Starrs and Olcotts of this world). That said, I don’t think you can study Central Asia properly without knowing Russian, any more than you can study India without knowing English. Not everything that Russian historians wrote was garbage (nobody has yet produced work that supersedes that of Barthold, A.A. Semenov and O.D. Chekhovich on the medieval and early modern period). In addition to this the bulk of the historical records in the Uzbek State Archives are in Russian, consisting as they do largely of administrative documents from the Turkestan Governor-Generalship. For the pre-colonial period Persian is much more useful than ‘Turki’, and thanks to alphabet changes modern Uzbek is no use at all. I accept that if you do contemporary stuff it’s a different story, but even so the language of the educated in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan is still Russian, and most of the best recent work (e.g. Beisembiev’s, Babajanov’s) is published in that language.

Alexander May 26, 2006 at 3:25 am

I should, of course, have mentioned Jurgen Paul and Anke von Kugelgen amongst serious scholars of the region. I think my point still stands though: their names barely register in the public consciousness compared with Akiner and Starr

Nick May 26, 2006 at 3:47 am

Furthermore, I’ve heard some of these Post-Soviet analysts and ‘experts’ disparage the academic community for its navel-gazing and unrealistic outlook! It seems to be quite a bitchy world : one of the above mentioned people said of another, “Of course, they don’t really know anything about Central Asia … ”

Meanwhile, I’m well aware of the neccessity of learning Russian – something I expect to rectify at IU.

Laurence May 26, 2006 at 7:15 am

While one may disagree with Professor Starr’s interpretation of events in Central Asia, it is certainly McCarthyite–if not Stalinist–of Silverstein to use ad hominem attacks , guilt-by-association, and innuendo against an opponent in a policy debate. Even if Starr may not be up to Alexander’s standard of “Barthold, A.A. Semenov and O.D. Chekhovich”, he deserves an argument based on empirical evidence rather than name-calling. If he charged someone with “lying,” it is up to Silverstein to show that Starr is wrong. Give us the facts of the case, present Starr’s complaint in detail, and let us see who was lying–or not.

Silverstein doesn’t do that. He argues ex cathedra, in essence saying: “How dare you criticize journalists for lying?”

But journalists have been reported lying on other occasions–for example, Janet Cooke at the Washington Post and Jayson Blair at the New York Times. We’ll need much more hard evidence than Silverstein provides to decide whether or not journalists also lied about Andijan.

Nick May 26, 2006 at 8:30 am

“If he charged someone with “lying,” it is up to Silverstein to show that Starr is wrong. Give us the facts of the case, present Starr’s complaint in detail, and let us see who was lying–or not.”

Eh? Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? This isn’t a British libel court, y’know; if Starr has accused journalists of propagating falsehoods, as he he did earlier this month, then it is up to him to prove it.

I agree with Nathan that it is highly tasteless to attack the credibility of journalists and witnesses present at the events of 13 May, and I’ve read other reports which have done precisely that, but once again the debate about Andijon is in danger of becoming a mud-slinging match over the credibility of Western experts.

Laurence May 26, 2006 at 9:02 am

Alexander, my point is that Silverstein is attacking Starr for criticizing journalists and NGOs rather than reporting and responding to the substance of the criticism.

And in fact, I don’t think it is at all “tasteless” to question the credibility of journalists present at an alleged massacre, especially when the event is being used for political purposes. Especially if the journalists involved might be partisan themselves.

They have gotten it wrong before, for example, in the case of Israel’s alleged “Jenin massacre.” Initial eyewitness accounts, journalistic coverage, and NGO reports were shown to be incorrect. See “Anatomy of Anti-Israel Incitement: Jenin, World Opinion, and the Masscre that Wasn’t” (

Alexander May 29, 2006 at 2:57 pm

Remind you of anyone?,15569,1362616,00.html

I wonder if they know each other yet? if not, I feel introductions are in order. They’d get on like a house on fire……..

Alexander May 31, 2006 at 5:45 am

“He (and Akiner, whom I know much better) are both Fellow-Travellers who enjoy the flattery, the embassy receptions and the feeling of self-righteous martyrdom that this brings. A familiar breed, in a new(ish) setting.”

A friend of mine has pointed out that in fact there is strong evidence in Silverstein’s article that Starr is motivated by more than academic egoism (which perhaps sets him apart from Akiner, and from John Laughland, whose motivation seems more ideological). If this smelly trail of oil money from Chevron can be traced back to Starr (and perhaps to Central-Asia Caucasus Analyst, with which he is deeply involved) then this could become really interesting……

Hugo_UZ June 1, 2006 at 2:15 am

A Soviet studies background is very useful for understanding how the governments of Central Asia work. All the high officials were educated and got their first job experience in the Soviet system. Transpose the Soviet bureacracy on the Central Asian clan/family system (which is not hugely different from Russian nepotism and city/region-based clans), and you have the system of government that was in place in the Central Asian republics in the 1960s and 70s. This system is more or less unchanged in its essentials to this very day in Uzbekistan, and to a lesser degree in the other republics.

I should point out at this point that Ken Starr speaks really bad Russian, and I have doubts about his qualifications as a Soviet specialist, much less a Central Asia expert. Sitting in a library in the U.S. and reading sources in English translation, I suppose you could pass yourself off as an expert in anything.

General Tsao June 8, 2006 at 9:22 pm

The man is a great writer, a fine professor, and who knows, probably an excellent musician. And his point about Uzbekistan being key to Western interests is right on. But he’s on the wrong track by defending Karimov and denying Andijan. He’s entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts.

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