How to Be Outraged Effectively

by Joshua Foust on 11/4/2011 · 26 comments

There is a continuing debate over whether the U.S. government should work with the abusive government in Uzbekistan or not. On one side is a coalition of human rights groups who object to the idea of working with a notorious rights abuser, and on the other is a rag tag, and uncoordinated group of analysts, policymakers, and officials who really don’t see any other options in the region (I am a part of the latter group).

Freedom House, one of the organizations that drafted (pdf) an open letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton imploring her not to reestablish relations with the Uzbek regime, has published a blogpost by Susan Corke, who left the State Department to head Freedom House’s Eurasia Program this year. Corke’s piece explains the primary objections to the arrangement. After reading it, however, I’m left more confused than ever about what, exactly, these human rights groups would have the U.S. government do.

For example, after noting the Uzbek government’s terrible human rights record, Corke asks, “why is the United States wooing one of the world’s most repressive regimes?” She answers her own question: Afghanistan, and the U.S. government’s need to use the Northern Distribution Network to move supplies and people out of Afghanistan as it withdraws. On this, everyone seems to agree: the U.S. is making a temporary alliance with the Karimov regime so it can withdraw from Afghanistan and maybe put pressure on Pakistan (a bonus to the policy which Corke does not mention). Corke, however, objects: “no policy goal is well served by sacrificing core values or downplaying strategic strengths.”

She goes on to complain that the U.S. government phoned Uzbek dictator Islom Karimov and hosted their Minister of Foreign Affairs.

This sort of high-level attention—with phone calls and visits involving the top representatives of the U.S. government—sends a troubling signal to elites, citizens, and beleaguered civil society activists, not only in Uzbekistan, but also in other authoritarian countries and in states that are teetering between democratic and authoritarian trajectories. To make matters worse, the courtship was not accompanied by basic steps like informing human rights groups of the planned secretarial visit early on, and soliciting their views on how to extract concessions from the Uzbek regime.

I’m not certain where Corke gets the idea that Uzbekistan is “teetering between democratic and authoritarian trajectories.” In fact, the entirety of her piece before this statement was about how Uzbekistan was irredeemably abusive and that was why the U.S. should not engage with the regime.

The second part of that paragraph, however, is even more troubling: why should the U.S. government solicit the views of the human rights community for “extracting concessions from the Uzbek regime?” Up until last month, the U.S. government was following the course of action the human rights industry had demanded it follow in 2004 — rapid, deep disengagement with the regime on the basis of its atrocious human rights record. Later in her piece, Corke admits, “Since 2005, the human rights situation has only gotten worse.” Moreover, the human rights industry’s methods of hectoring, fashion protests, and counterproductive boycotts has been especially ineffective at altering the regime’s behavior. Why should the State Department solicit their views, when the human rights industry has such a poor track record of effectiveness in Uzbekistan?

I’m sure that some human rights groups would argue they have been effective in changing the government’s behavior Uzbekistan. That’s a point I’m open to, and I will admit I’m wrong if presented with evidence (I’ve been looking for it for years, though). Unfortunately, Corke then begins a type of analysis I simply cannot abide, especially coming from a former employee of the State Department.

Sending the secretary of state to meet with a dictator like Karimov conveys legitimacy on a repressive regime. Doing so without first requiring positive steps toward addressing systemic human rights abuses is atrocious. Moreover, as the past year has reminded us, propping up dictators with the goal of preserving stability and security often has the opposite effect.

This is, put simply, a ludicrous standard for U.S. diplomatic engagement. Islom Karimov is abusive and his method of rule is unacceptable, but he is not an illegitimate ruler (at least in the sense of lacking some sort of mandate to govern, which the elites in Tashkent clearly convey to him). He is the head of government and recognized as such by the U.S. government. There is no additional “legitimacy” to convey. Moreover, if the Secretary of State should demand “positive steps” in the host nation’s human rights record before meeting the head of a repressive state, then the Secretary of State should never visit Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Russia, China, North Korea, Burma, Pakistan, Sudan, and dozens of other countries the Secretary of State clearly engages and meets with.

The thing is, basic statecraft requires working with unsavory regimes. There is a huge difference between limited engagement like the current U.S. plan for Uzbekistan, and total patronage like Saudi Arabia (and I’m certain Corke is smart and experienced enough to know that). And given the hemming and hawing with which the human rights industry greeted Human Rights Watch’s expulsion from Tashkent, the community is aware that in order to have any hope of changing a regime’s behavior, you must be there, and interact with them to do so. Demanding change as a precondition for engagement is not only backwards, it is little more than pouting guaranteed to be ineffective.

Corke concedes that Secretary Clinton called for more political freedom and human rights. “But her remarks were censored by the Uzbek media and went unheard within the country,” she writes. “Uzbek human rights activists (and others) were left with the impression that the United States cares more about deepening its relationship with Karimov than about improving human rights conditions for the people of Uzbekistan.”

This doesn’t scan. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan routinely called for greater political freedom and respect for human rights within the Soviet Union. His remarks were consistently censored by the Soviet media. The Soviet human rights activists still heard about his remarks. In Uzbekistan, the human rights activists (and by “others,” I presume Corke means the 99.999% of Uzbeks who are not human rights activists) have an even better understanding of what happens outside their country thanks to the Internet. The only way they would come to Corke’s conclusion about Secretary Clinton’s support for their rights is if activists like Corke keep insisting to them that that is U.S. policy (which it probably is: the government should prioritize its own citizens’ interests above those of any other country).

Unfortunately, this sort of backward thinking has come to define the human rights industry rebuke of the State Department’s outreach. In her recommendations, Corke says that first the U.S. government should “use its substantial leverage to require that the repressive regime take several tangible steps toward improving its human rights record.” But if the U.S. refuses to even visit with the regime beforehand, what leverage would it possibly have to coerce such a concession (as it stands, one of her examples of “tangible steps,” the release of political prisoners, took place after the U.S. government began its re-engagement). Her other suggestions, like meeting with activists, and somehow magically ensuring official remarks are not censored, are so unworkable in practice that I’m curious what, exactly, her expectations are. Is Hillary Clinton able to do this on state visits to China? What about Madeleine Albright’s visit to North Korea?

The sad fact of the matter is, human rights are only one concern among a great many in official U.S. decision making. With a war going on that is killing thousands of civilians and hundreds of U.S. troops ever year, officials must prioritize ending that conflict first, before worrying about how to help a country whose best hope under the current leadership is marginal and symbolic changes. And as much as the human rights industry waves away the calculation that this new Uzbek policy is a way to alter the government’s relationship with Pakistan, they have yet to proffer a viable alternative.

It’s sad to see the proper and correct outrage at Uzbekistan’s human rights record directed at the one thing with even a remote chance of ever improving it: U.S. engagement and pressure. But, it seems, effectiveness is not the priority of the human rights industry right now — feeling outraged is. And meanwhile, the people of Uzbekistan, in whose name the human rights industry acts, continues to suffer.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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joshkamiller November 4, 2011 at 1:18 pm

So this piece leaves me wondering. Just what is the definition of legitimacy? The noble definition would say that legitimacy is conferred by the people. However, we live in the real world. How many people need to agree? Did Gaddafi lose legitimacy so it was ok to overthrow him? How about Assad? What’s the magic number? Does it help if you kill everyone who disagrees with you? If you do it fast enough then everyone left agrees with you and you are “legitimate.” Obviously that isn’t going to fly.

Your article says Karimov has been given legitimacy by the elite in Tashkent. The fact of the matter is Karimov is the leader of Uzbekistan no matter who agrees. That fact confers legitimacy on him more so than the number of people willing to go along with it.

So what is the State Dept’s definition of legitimacy? It seems like it is conveniently undefined to suit the ever-changing wind. The only thread I can see is that after you’ve killed a certain number (percentage?) of your own people you lose legitimacy. The problem there is that US policy does not stipulate that we MUST unseat de-legitimized (based on that definition) leaders. See: Korea, North. So we meet with them to get things done, and I don’t argue against that. I totally agree engagement is better than shunning. The US teeters back and forth between noble ideals and reality depending on the situation. We confer legitimacy as we see fit. So do all the other countries.

I guess maybe that’s the whole point of the State Dept: to get stuff done abroad. “Legitimacy” is just a tool we use. It is the means, not the end and THAT point seems to be where Corke diverges. That’s probably why she now works for a human rights group rather than the State Dept now. I could go on about how that tension is actually necessary but I’ve probably rambled long enough as it is.

Cornelius November 4, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Your argument for engagement is based on hopes, not on a solid analysis of US-Uzbekistan relations or any other sort of evidence. The only sort of proof that you cite for your hypothesis is the release of political prisoners, which is in fact one political prisoner only and not the plural you suggest. If you follow the policies of imprisoning and releasing political opponents or human rights activists in Uzbekistan more thoroughly you will soon realize that they are essentially bargaining chips, not success stories of engagement. They capture one, they release one. Systemic change its definitely not. So suggesting that there is any sort of causality here between the general policy of engagement that you advocate and any sort of bettering the human rights situation has nothing to do with evidence-based arguments, but all to do with drinking the DOS kool-aid.

There are other twists in your argument here but I think I’m wasting my time. Your mind is made up and you feel comfortable in the position of accusing everybody else of being stupid.

So if this post is an application letter for a post with Bob “Yeah, I do believe him” Blake’s staff or as Shirin Akiner’s research assistant it’s totally fine, otherwise I would suggest reading up on the pertinent literature on where and under what circumstances engagement works.

Nathan November 4, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Cornelius, out of honest curiosity, I’m wondering if you think I’m on to anything in this post in speculating the differences in position result from approaching the issue from different perspectives.

At the end of the day, I don’t think that “we should limit ties with Uzbekistan because it is an abusive government and little will change” and “circumstances in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) require engagement with Uzbekistan*” are necessarily mutually exclusive arguments. I don’t think the engagement policy can be looked at in a vacuum. And while I think it’s an unfortunate necessity, I don’t think it should be sold as something that’ll achieve amazing things in the region. (The point you made on Twitter about NDN traffic undermining increased trade promised in the New Silk Road hooey was a good one, highlighting that the policy as a whole is actually counterproductive.)

For what it’s worth, I am still interested in the question I posed in that post. I really would like to hear other pitches for strategic approaches to Uzbekistan and/or Central Asia.

*I’m tremendously shortening the case and I think reasonable people can disagree while acknowledging that any choice carries considerable, undesirable costs.

Cornelius November 5, 2011 at 6:40 am

Nathan, I think generally Joshua K and Cathy F have already made excellent points

I think what Joshua misses in his analysis – or completely underestimates – is the dependence of Karimov on the west which is based on the fear of entrapment by the Russians and the Chinese. We see this not only in actions and statements that come out regarding the Eurasian Union (re Russia) and the SCO (re China), but this is also the text between the lines that comes out of meetings with Uzbek officials, people who have have recently been to Uzbekistan on policy level talks, etc. Uzbekistan needs the US – and the EU – to balance its foreign policy.

So currently Uzbekistan has three strategic options:

1. Uzbekistan can implement meaningful reforms and take credible steps to enforce international standards and agreements that they have signed on to, let independent observers back into the country, open up spaces again for independent media and international assistance, etc.
2. Karimov can accept the Russian embrace and allow Moscow to represent Uzbekistan on the world stage.
3. They can remain what they are: an international pariah and a closed, autarkic system.

Out of these options only the first one would allow Uzbekistan some wiggle room and any options outside of what’s being offered by Russia (and to a much lesser degree China). To me this looks like much better statecraft and smarter diplomacy, and this – not “well they made improvements on human rights so now its ok to give them military aid” should be the line of the DOS.

Nathan November 7, 2011 at 9:46 am

Fair enough. I thought Josh K especially had some good points.

That said, while I agree that Uzbekistan needs external partners and that relations with the West is in many ways an ideal partner, I’m not sure that it’s safe to assume Uzbekistan’s government sees the need as strongly. My take on Karimov’s government is that it’s not as unitary, stable, and secure as it might appear and that it’s foreign policy is largely responsive to domestic threats. Insofar as foreign partners strengthen the domestic position of the government, then foreign partners are great.

However, I think it’s hard to look at Uzbekistan’s domestic media (especially print media), full of virulent hostility to any external influences, and not conclude that the government does its accounting differently than one might assume. Remaining an autarkic pariah doesn’t seem to rank too low on the option list for Uzbekistan, diminishing the leverage anyone has over them. (Although I would expect this to change if their economy is doing as poorly as it seems to be.)

I agree with you that it would be preferable to utilize the leverage we do have. Given the primacy of Afghanistan in regional policy considerations and our predisposition to short-term thinking, I’m not holding my breath. Generally, I’d prefer we ignore Uzbekistan and elevate our relationships with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan to a higher tier in the region.

Cornelius November 8, 2011 at 1:26 pm

Nathan, I think we are pretty much on the same page here.

Just as a last though here I am pretty sure that ignoring Uzbekistan and elevating the relationships with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan is also unlikely to endanger the flow of supplies through the NDN. There is just too much money to be made from that for the Karimovs and their cronies, plus the Uzbeks are wary of what will happen if Afghanistan really goes down the drain. Case in point here is Germany’s current relations with Uzbekistan. These have been pretty frosty and that came out clearly during a visit of Norov to Berlin in May. Basically Angela Merkel publicly snubbed Karimov, saying that as long as she is Chancellor she would not meet with with him. There were a couple of other things that went grossly wrong for the Uzbeks during that visit. Yet they did not get kicked out of Termez, and German companies that operate and invest in Uzbekistan that I talked to said their business relations were not touched by the diplomatic spat.

So that gives you an idea of the kind of leverage that could in theory be utilized vis-a-vis Uzbekistan if the US had a better informed foreign policy towards them.

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick November 8, 2011 at 6:50 pm


I think that’s a good model — what you say Merkel is doing.

But to argue the other side of this — German businesses have been touched. There was the German baker that got raided and the German ambassador even got roughed up, remember? And there was the cancellation of the German parliamentary delegation, even though the German business delegation went forward. Then there are all those German demands for debts to be paid back.

I’m not for reading a huge amount into these incidents, there’s a tendency to look at every little ting and read it with magnifying glasses, but in the case of Germany it really does seem a pattern. But the bottom line is, they didn’t kick Germany out of Termez. And that’s why there should be snubbing and should be pushbacks. I will be interested to see if that parliamentary delegation gets back on track.

Anonymous November 10, 2011 at 4:30 am

This post is in not specifically a reply to your post but to other posts above yours too.

How are you going do deliver the goods through NDN by ignoring the relationships with Uzbekistan and elevating them with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan? Like it or not, there is no direct rail route that bypasses Uzbekistan and you have to deal with it. You can’t ignore its geography (borders with 5 Central Asian countries) if the U.S. wants to integrate Afghanistan/Pakistan into the Central Asian region to the north. I am sure the NDN will bring money to Uzbekistan, but it is not Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan who are notorious for begging for more money (recall Manas airport and Tajik officials requesting more transit through their country or their bargaining with russians to pay for their base there). I believe Uzbekistan is more interested in the stability of Afghanistan rather than the money it can earn from the NDN transit ( U.S. didn’t pay for the K2 base).

Knowing Uzbek mentality and GoU’s sensitivity to any criticism, the assumption that snubbing would work doesn’t hold water. Uzbekistan didn’t kick Germans out of Termez because Germans didn’t criticize the government after Andizhan and they are one of its major trade partners. I don’t believe Merkel publicly snubbing Karimov, she didn’t meet with him or any official from Uzbekistan recently. If it was public, please provide the source (Cornelius). Uzbekistan uses the relationships with the EU and U.S. in its bargain with Russia, but if it is isolated by the West, it will quickly turn 180 degrees to Russia, as they did before, and can even kick the Germans out. And believe me nothing will happen because it trades mostly within the CIS.

Seriously, why is so much attention to Uzbekistan? Is it because HRW was kicked out of the country and they are trying to revenge? Why I don’t hear rights advocates and journalists alike criticize countries, such as Saudia Arabia or Pakistan who are not exemplary in human rights matter and who has or had good relations with the U.S.? I know this site writes mostly about Central Asia, but I am yet to see human rights or the like fussing about the visit by the U.S. government officials to those countries. Hypocrisy!

Joshua Foust November 4, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Cornelius, I have to admit: the DOS kool-aid is cherry flavored and very delicious. You should try it sometime! Or at least help me understand why my regional calculus is wrong, or maybe note this “pertinent literature” I see always mentioned but never cited, and maybe not also falsely associate me with Shirin Akiner (or, as you know, the DIA).

Cornelius November 5, 2011 at 6:22 am

Joshua, with the Akiner association I was pulling a Foust on you, but the more I think about it it actually makes sense. When it comes to presenting a policy argument based not on meticulous and rigorous research but on taking quotes out of the context, having shaky empiric data and a questionable methodology, dishing out platitudes such as “human rights industry” etc the association with Shirin Akiner – in spirit that is – actually makes sense.

Joshua Foust November 5, 2011 at 8:52 am

Hey Cornelius,

So let’s do this properly. “Pulling a Foust” actually requires responding to an argument, and not crossing arms and saying “well you just don’t get it.” You said earlier that you felt this criticism of Freedom House was alright because they had made a weak argument. But you think my counterargument on Uzbekistan is also weak. Make that case.

And if you read very closely, you’ll see that I did not call Susan Corke names, or compare her to Fred Starr or something. I responded to her argument, on the basis of her argument. That is a Fousting. If you think this policy argument — about the context of human rights in the larger milieu of U.S. decision making — is based on “taking quotes out of context, having shaky empiric data, and a questionable methodology,” then you need to actually explain where I took quotes out of context (did I?), explain how the data is either not empiric or is flawed in some way, and actually explain where the methodology fails.

Or, you could just grow the fuck up and realize this is a blog and not an academic journal. In which case your name calling makes perfect sense. Just a thought.

Bekay November 4, 2011 at 4:58 pm

I fully understand that “basic statecraft requires working with unsavory regimes”. What’s irritating, though, is the US double standard, the huffing and puffing when other states wish to apply the same principle in their dealings with, e.g., Hamas in Gaza (who funnily enough have far more legitimacy than Karimov could dream of).
On a side point, a secondary reason for the US’s comfort in engaging with Uzbekistan is the fact that much of the opposition – who are chased, imprisoned, tortured, boiled & frozen to death – are Islamist in nature and so, frankly, the US doesn’t give a monkey’s about what happens to them anyway. As we saw in Tunisia & Egypt, the US and Europe (and Al Jazeera) never gave succour to the revolutionary movements that defied those regimes for many many years prior to 2010/11 because of their Islamist nature and objectives. It was only when a credible secular movement gathered momentum that the West (and Qatar) felt that their rights and their blood had value.

Joshua Foust November 4, 2011 at 5:49 pm

You’ll get no argument from me on the double standard issue. The only consideration I’d suggest is that, which it is annoying, it is also common of all states. The U.S. rhetoric aspires to be better, but at the end of the day it’s as contradictory and frustrating as anyone else.

Joshua Kucera November 4, 2011 at 5:39 pm

You know, your “rag tag, and uncoordinated group” includes the Pentagon, State Department and White House, so I’m not sure your fight is quite as lonely as you make it out to be. And while your criticism of this Freedom House piece is right on, in general you’re painting the engagement skeptics with too broad a brush.

Almost no one is suggesting completely isolating Uzbekistan. I think most skeptics would argue that yes, engagement is necessary and even desirable, but the question is how you go about it. I thought Scott Horton put it best (

“[T]urning Uzbekistan into a new military-logistics hub… requires us to retreat from our principles by coddling dictators and blathering inanities about them. Doubtless, the needs of U.S. and allied soldiers in Afghanistan will take precedence, and the U.S. will bend in Tashkent’s direction to meet its needs. But one can fairly question whether the United States has to take leave of its senses in the process. The bargain is not only morally but tactically questionable.”

I think there’s no way to know, over the last ten years, whether U.S. military engagement has been healthy or harmful for Uzbekistan. I’ve had human rights groups tell me that during the K2 days the U.S. was more responsive to their issues ( and that the NDN has caused the US to become more distant ( Wikileaked cables have shown that US officials have been able to get the government to listen (at least at a cocktail party) to human rights groups, although those groups have complained that human rights engagement “has taken a backseat” to Afghanistan-related issues. (

So it’s a mixed bag. The human rights situation has gotten worse when the U.S. wasn’t engaged, and it’s gotten worse when it has been engaged. The U.S. doesn’t have that much to do about it. To me, the question is how does the U.S. manage this balance between military expediency and not conferring too much prestige on a terrible government. And when Clinton says things like the human rights situation is improving, which isn’t true, and other State Department officials take at face value Karimov’s word that he’s trying to create a better country for his grandchildren (that Harper’s article), that just makes the U.S. look hypocritical and mendacious, and that’s at least where my criticism comes from.

Joshua Foust November 4, 2011 at 5:55 pm


This is a great response and challenged me in some interesting ways.

I keep stumbling at this discussion of principles, however. It strikes me as an overly utopian interpretation of the history of U.S. foreign policy to say that our government does not engage with governments over their human rights records and does reward countries who behave well with alliances and whatnot. In fact, I’d say the opposite is much more true: while shortsighted, the government tends to make policy with a view toward the short term, and often this requires short term arrangements with repulsive regimes. That’s largely what we’re discussing with Uzbekistan.

The long term implications are a different matter entirely. I don’t think this arrangement with Uzbekistan IS long term, in fact, I’m almost certain it will last until 2014 and then be up for reconsideration by whomever is in the White House. In the short term, however, given what you yourself say about our inability to affect things in Uzbekistan, I’m left scratching my head about why the government shouldn’t do what’s best for its soldiers and the war in Afghanistan, and then see later on if that presents an opportunity for some marginal changes.

Officials will always say silly things at press conferences. A general just got fired for speaking largely true things in Afghanistan. That is, sadly, just how the world works.

Joshua Kucera November 4, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Yeah, I think the U.S. had actually been managing it pretty well until this decision to reinstate arms sales, which made it look like they were changing their tune on human rights, which looked bad. And then for Clinton to say that the human rights situation was improving — yeah, it was at a press conference, but surely they knew that question was coming up and should have had some better boilerplate ready.

Joshua Foust November 4, 2011 at 9:21 pm

I’m not sure the total disengagement from 2005 onwards was “managing it” per se, but it was at an equilibrium.

But let’s also not oversell Clinton’s statement on the human rights issue. Year over year, the State Department report noted a few moderate changes from 2010 to 2011. That’s not like “omg they’re doing so much better,” but unless there is a report showing human rights got worse over the last year — I haven’t found one yet — I don’t think it’s fair to imply she’s lying about the situation there.

Aidan November 4, 2011 at 6:12 pm

She doesn’t argue that Uzbekistan is “teetering between democratic and authoritarian trajectories.” She says “not only in Uzbekistan, but also in other authoritarian countries and in states that are teetering between democratic and authoritarian trajectories.” When she talks about Uzbekistan and “other authoritarian countries,” she is grouping Uzbekistan in with those other authoritarian countries. Notice that she didn’t say “Uzbekistan and other states teetering between democratic and authoritarian regimes.”

I am inclined to side with you on the larger issue of engagement with Uzbekistan, but I don’t think you accurately represented that particular line of argument.

Don Bacon November 4, 2011 at 9:46 pm

At the recent Istanbul Conference in the future of Afghanistan–

State: [W]e thought it was also interesting that Afghanistan’s neighbors and near-neighbors, and I include here Pakistan, India, China, Russia, Iran – as you’ll see from the statement, have really spoken in one voice to assure Afghanistan of their support for Afghan-led reconciliation and transition to Afghan national security forces.

But one country was conspicuously missing in the list of signatories: Uzbekistan.

But given the efforts the U.S. has been undertaking to gain Uzbekistan’s support for the Afghanistan military effort, and after the U.S. has been working toward this meeting and this agreement, there are likely some hard feelings in Foggy Bottom about this.

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick November 4, 2011 at 11:52 pm


You did so much denouncing here of how you think everybody else’s “outrage” is all wrong, that you forgot to tell us the right way for expressing outrage. Er, not at all?

Basically, engagement doesn’t work with a Soviet-style regime like Uzbekistan. Containment does. Selective engagement doesn’t work, either — the lessons and messages are lost. Containment doesn’t mean isolation; it means containment. Harm reduction. It means when all else fails, you can at least not confer legitimacy on a regime. That much you can always do.

Because you don’t get anything for your sacrifices, you don’t improve human rights, and you just lose and erode your own values. Of course, modern statecraft requires pragmatic bilateral and multilateral interaction, we get all that, but that’s different than the sort of “taking leave of your senses” that Scott mentions. You don’t have to send the A-team, for one. Uzbekistan, like all bad regimes, craves legitimacy more than anything. That’s why they wanted Hillary — and they even jumped the gun and announced she was coming before she actually came, two years ago, remember? So eager were they for Hillary.

Given the total lack of human rights concessions and the backsliding (the expulsion of Human Rights Watch, more obvious US-related political prisoners, etc.) the US should have sent Blake or even Elliot to meetings about the NDN and the Embassy shouldn’t have been cowed about having them meet with human rights activists.

Scott Horton and Freedom House aren’t really that different on Uzbekistan, they are just in different organizational clans based on historic differences, but they do agree about the nature of the regime and the remedy: outspoken rhetoric and balancing the private diplomacy with public gestures. While Susan Corke’s claim “teetering” may be an exaggeration, given Karimov’s age and infighting in his regime, there are different paths opened up and maybe one of them is perhaps a more law-abiding form of authoritarianism.

Susan Corke actually provided a very useful and pragmatic list of how this could work — and has worked in the past with the Soviet regime and other similar regimes around the world. She formerly worked in the State Dept. and has inside knowledge of these dynamics. First, there should be some list of benchmarks communicated to the government before they get the level of a meeting like Hillary Clinton (this was done with Belarus, for example, in the past). Second, there should be more consultation with even those few human rights activists who remain within Uzbekistan. Third, there should be consulting with the US human rights community well in advance and broader than USAID-funded GONGOs — none of that was done and human rights groups didn’t even know Hillary was going until the last minute — that was deliberate, so that the criticism would be muted or at least delayed.

That means that entire State-Department-engineered intervention with Tajikistan (and by extension Uzbekistan), telling them to allow Muslim believers more latitude or they will face extremism was never discussed with the US Commission on International Religious Freedom experts and others who might have made this venture more effective (as if “clinging to religion” is a hydraulic problem that leads to “clinging to guns”).

Third, the message should be delivered past the state media censors separately, on other US government websites, preferably on the Embassy’s and State Department’s and not segregated on the ghetto for press releases the Department hopes no one will notice. In a funny way, this happened because some civil society people in Dushanbe themselves spoke up in the town hall meeting and asked Hillary about human rights in Uzbekistan, but then nothing of the sort was held in Tashkent, and she only met with four rather tame civil society representatives.

There was no reason for that. Karimov might threaten to end cooperation with the NDN over something like that, but his bluff has to be called because there’s as much in it for him as there is for the US, both in terms of sheer profits and in terms of leverage against Russia.

I often wonder what you call your politics, Joshua. You’ve obviously not conservative, and you seem to sneer at liberal values like vocal human rights defense. Are you an example, in fact, of that “progressive” type of the leftist that never seems to criticize these post-Soviet regimes adequately and thoroughly — something that the Putin lovers deny even exists on the left?
It’s not really about fear of a critical policy being ineffective — because you can’t really prove that silence *is* effective. Proving that it has no instant effect is easy — but that’s not the point.

You don’t have a boycott of Uzbek cotton merely to reduce their sales; you have it to reduce your own complicity in their wrongdoing. That is a moral imperative, and it’s ok to have such imperatives in foreign policy. In fact, there are even US laws that mandate not using the products of forced labor, not that they are adequately enforced, yet they still reflect an ideal regime to which the US in principle aspires. The point is to build a wall of shame around Uzbekistan, and in fact that has been successful. Tashkent would never go through the motions of signing on to ILO conventions and pretending to have inspection commissions and making a misleading arrangement with UNICEF for “observation” if in fact it didn’t feel pressure from international censure of exploitation of children, and if in fact there weren’t some forces even within the government that would like to see an end to this practice.

And for all your RealPolitik and cynicism, I am often puzzled why you don’t suggest that the US play hardball more than it does (at least visibly). Is that a reluctance to project American power that comes with being “progressive”? Or some form of 21st Century e-Statecraft? I personally don’t find much to support in the war in Afghanistan other than trying to curb the murderous Taliban, who kill the overwhelming majority of civilians. But I’m happy to concede there might be better ways, even if unattractive options like having the hegemon of Central Asia do its 6+3 thing.

But if the US were to say, look, if you don’t like us here and don’t like helping us with shipping our troops supplies, we can pull out faster, and you can deal with the spillover and aftermath on your own. Call Russia, and see if the CSTO is busy this weekend. You jeered at my notion that Russia has been jockeying to try to turn the Afghan conflict into a drug war so that it can mobilize both its international position and the CSTO, but I think that’s about the right call. In some ways the US is trying to turn it into a drug war as well, however uneven its fight.

The engagement strategy didn’t get Karimov to the table in Istanbul on November 2, now did it. I don’t know whether it was promised and the US and German special envoys to Afghanistan then got burned or whether he never committed. Likely the latter. And that’s why it’s silly to do human rights half-measures.

It just strikes me that even with the collapse of the route from Pakistan and the obvious problems there, the US has options and has leverage and has it with Uzbekistan. And that while it’s all a balancing act, it can do a better job of balancing than it’s doing.

I don’t see the treatment of Hamas as a “double standard” — Hamas does sponsor terrorist acts. There might be other double standards one can point to, but so what? Just because you can’t do everything doesn’t mean you can’t do something. You can hardly be a practitioner of RealPolitik and then get all indignant about double standards!

And that “something” can be very symbolic and cost nothing, like inviting dissidents to the Embassy or vocally protesting imprisonment or calling for the ILO to enter the country to inspect the cotton fields — in Tashkent, in a high level meeting. My God, even José Manuel Barroso, the EU Commission president, was able to do that with Karimov in Brussels; so was the German human rights commissioner when Norov visited Berlin.

As for your complaints about the harping on Gulnara or the boiling of two prisoners — these are bloggers’ conventions and like the bloggers conventions on many, many issues. But it’s not like they’re made up. You only look churlish when you accuse me of publishing a story of “rumours” and “anger” when all I’ve done is report accurately cases of boiling and recent cases of freezing reported by competent and reliable lawyers, and when all I’ve done is cite valid criticism, not “anger” from Freedom House with a sturdy recipe for dealing with authoritarian regimes that has been used with other countries and at other times.

Quiet diplomacy can only work when there is a noisy bunch of human rights activists to which the diplomats can always refer. They can even do this cynically, as Holbrooke was caught doing by WikiLeaks:

But they can do it, and it works. You seem to be unwilling for different international actors to take different roles — and in any event, you can’t control them, as people will go on picketing gala dinners and fashion shows precisely because they are symbolic, and you can no more get effect by trying to shush them than in fact you think they have effect by being vocal. It’s not important to have effect; it’s important to do the moral thing, and the rest will eventually catch up.

Gulnara Karimova isn’t just an obvious target for satire because she’s the president’s daughter; she was once reportedly invested in a state conglomerate that had many major transnational companies involved with it, and she is her country’s ambassador to Spain and the UN agencies in Geneva. So she is a symbolic state figure and it is appropriate to protest to her.

What strikes me more than anything about Clinton’s trip was how seemingly uninformed and even incompetent some of the briefers were with the press, and how Clinton herself wasn’t strategic. She gave 3 or 4 major interviews with the mainstream networks, including Amanpour at CNN, in Tashkent, but never mentioned anything about Uzbekistan itself. She should never have implied that anything was improving after meeting Ganiev — she could be in “engagement” mode yet not have to prevaricate in that way.

The unnamed officials seemed clueless as they stumbled through briefings under a barrage of questions as to why Obama called on the 28th of September — it was to congratulate (even belatedly) Karimov on Uzbekistan’s independence day (one of those Soviet-style formalities that those regimes set store by). The “legacy” thing was really inept — it could have been reiterated with something more briskly normative, i.e. “Karimov says he would like to leave a legacy for his grandchildren and we appreciate that and hope he will do that by increasing Internet freedoms and releasing some political prisoners.”

Joshua Foust November 5, 2011 at 9:25 am


Has “containment,” if by that you mean U.S. policy the last six years, done anything to alter the situation in Uzbekistan? In Corke’s piece, she said it has not, and that over this period of time things have gotten worse. Can you really say that that makes for an effective solution for what’s going on in Uzbekistan?

But all of this talk about how to fix that place misses the point entirely. Reengagement has nothing to do with the situation inside Uzbekistan. From the start I’ve tried to explain that those considerations are at best a side note to the bigger regional issues (and still, there is the stumbling logic that if engagement doesn’t work and disengagement hasn’t worked, then why object based on what doesn’t work?).

I do not argue with the statement that Clinton blew the PR side of her trip. Frankly, I didn’t pay attention to it because I don’t care what officials say in speeches — that rarely has any effect on the actual policies they are enacting.

It is those policies that concern me. Your statements notwithstanding, I’m missing what else the U.S. could have done to secure an alternate route away from the terrorism sponsors and nuclear proliferators in Pakistan. When casting about for a way to leave Afghanistan, you have to choose some country to go through. They all suck.

But Uzbekistan is less sucky than Pakistan, and given the much more limited nature of the government’s engagement with Tashkent than its engagement with Islamabad, it is a better choice. You, and none of the other activists freaking out over this policy, have addressed that — not even when Nathan has tried to ask in a nice, less emotionally charged setting. Crickets. You say there’s leverage to apply, but cannot say what it is — much like Corke in her piece.

All the speculation about my personal politics, much like Cornelius’s accusation that I’m just like Shirin Akiner, is pedantic and unnecessary. I’ve kept this discussion to the arguments without saying the people I disagree with are bad people — wrong on this topic, but not bad people. The two of you are making me reconsider my decision to not engage in personal attacks.

peter chamberlin November 5, 2011 at 12:04 pm

The Freedom House (Soros crowd) approach is intended to further the goals of the “Arab spring” subversives at the State Dept. They insist that, whatever is done, be done in a fashion shaped to erode the state’s powers. They are against any deal or compromise which doesn’t undermine Karimov’s rule. Human rights issues cannot be our primary concern, if we are truly making the deal to acquire an escape route.

Our real concern should be with the military agreements that have been made, especially what military materiel is to be transferred to the Uzbek govt. and how that will upset the balance of power with Tajikistan, where issues like dams and water shortages threaten to turn hostile if the situation escalates.

We will not know the size or shape of that military aid until we understand what has been agreed to. Did Karimov give Obama an escape route or a highway from Afghanistan into Central Asia? Did we collar the Asian Devel. Bank into upgrading the Uzbek A373 highway simply to gain egress for heavy equipment moving into the Ferghana Valley, where NATO forces could reinforce troops in Kyrgyzstan, especially in any unwanted eviction from Manas air base?

John Walker November 6, 2011 at 1:13 am

Whatever dude! Those Uzzies sure have it coming to them one of these days. Shit rolls downhill, know what I’m saying?!!
Joshua Foust Rulez!!!!!

Xenophon November 8, 2011 at 10:02 pm

Here’s an idea: Instead of coddling a murderous dictator in Uzbekistan, why don’t we stop trying to isolate Iran–a much more civilized state, arrive at an entente with them and let them provide MUCH easier access to Afghanistan?

There’s no compelling evidence that Iran is building nuclear weapons, and even if they are, they won’t use them and they’ll be much more secure than those in the Pakistani state we have worked so effectively to destabilize.

With another access corridor into and out of Afghanistan (and Central Asia), we can afford to play a bit more hard ball with Karimov.

Anonymous November 10, 2011 at 4:45 am

I don’t know who you are, but “civilized” Iranians hate the U.S. Do you seriously believe they can offer you an alternative access to Afghanistan? Or is it being a dictator in somewhat lesser degree makes the one no longer a dictator? At least, women in Uzbekistan has more freedom and do not publicly execute its own people unlike in the “civilized” Iran.

Anonymous November 10, 2011 at 5:23 am

Instead of coddling with a dictator, why don’t you ship all of your goods through Pakistan. After all, it is not Uzbekistan who begged for the NDN supply route. Apparently, Pakistan is no longer friends with the U.S. and they made it clear they are not going to follow the U.S. directives. The mentality of those who are against the relationships with Uzbekistan is so naive: become friends with the enemy (also a dictator) instead of a dictator who is willing to change. Obviously, isolating a country never achieved a change, or did it?
Of course, Uzbekistan tries to have a good relationship with the U.S. for its foreign policy goals, but I don’t think it is so naive to believe that Afghanistan will become a stable country right after the U.S. exit. Even if Afghanistan goes down the toilet, it doesn’t pose a serious security threat to Uzbekistan.

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