Tom Malinowski, the Washington Director of Human Rights Watch, made an interesting comparison today in Foreign Policy:
After all, for a little love from the West, Qaddafi gave up his nuclear program and suspended his support for terrorism. These were not trivial concessions. And in any case, with whom was one to deal in Libya if not Qaddafi? … Yet cultivating Libya’s dictator also carried costs. It reinforced the cynicism with which many people in the Middle East viewed American and European claims that they were pursuing principled policies in their region. As it turned out, that cynicism was shared by the Qaddafis themselves. It may have contributed to their miscalculation in March, when they ignored the U.N. Security Council’s demand that they stop a brutal military offensive against opposition-held areas…
To the Qaddafis, the notion that the West would suddenly stand firm for human rights or anything else must have seemed, as Saif told many interviewers, a “joke.”
He goes on to explicitly compare Uzbekistan to Libya. And this is fine, as Libya has set a precedent for the relationship of the human rights industry to regime change, whether they like it or not. The problem, which Malinowski completely glosses over, is that such a deliberate association also turns human rights activists into agents of regime change. That is, the argument Human Rights Watch is advocating — essentially an endorsement for the violent overthrow of a regime, and the strong role that human rights play in that violent overthrow — creates the relationship between human rights and threats to regime survival.
In such a situation, what would any dictator do? If Islom Karimov is looking at Libya the same way Human Rights Watch is, then surely the lesson he is drawing is that any concessions to the West on human rights, terrorism, or anything else — those non-trivial concessions Malinowski notes — will result in regime failure. It is a disincentive to ever cooperate on social issues, not the other way around.
Surely this is not what Malinowski wants to argue. But it is the inevitable result. From a big picture perspective, the intervention in Libya makes improvements in human rights elsewhere less likely, not more so — especially when the human rights industry draws an explicit parallel between Libya and another target dictatorship.
And this is pretty apparent even if you ignore the annoying confusion of Realism, which is a theory of international affairs and foreign policy, and realism, which is choosing to take the world as it is rather than what you wish it to be. I couldn’t agree any more with Malinowski’s endorsement of the latter concept, which is why his policy prescriptions here are so confusing. To wit:
That said, I think that the administration could have driven a harder bargain with Uzbekistan. Karimov should not have had to be bribed to help the United States succeed in Afghanistan; he benefits from stability there, and his cronies already profit handsomely from U.S. military contracts.
As a realist (small-R), does this make any sense, whatsoever? One of the challenges to creating a regional security solution for Afghanistan, I argued in a paper for the Century Foundation’s Task Force on Afghanistan and Pakistan last year, is that the Central Asian states do not necessarily have the same interests in Afghanistan as the United States. The Uzbek regime in particular is infamous for using the threat of Islamic militants to not only scare money out of Western countries but also to justify brutal crackdowns on political opponents — something Human Rights Watch itself has documented and criticized. How would Karimov and his cronies benefit from stability in Afghanistan, if it denies him that very convenient excuse for oppression?
Moreover, this “harder bargain” language fascinates me. For weeks, as the human rights industry has shrieked in paroxysmal rage at the U.S. reengagement with Tashkent, there have been calls to use America’s “substantial leverage” to try to force more concessions from the Uzbek government. This leverage is almost never stipulated (i.e. “what is the leverage that we have”), nor is the method by which this leverage can be used to gain more concessions. I really want to see some realistic (small-R) talk from the human rights activists about this, since it is one of the main pillars of critique against working with the Uzbek regime. (It’s worth noting that, despite weeks of requests for alternatives, the rights community has been disturbingly silent on how to actually do this.)
As a small-R realist, Malinowski should be grappling with these issues. He should describe the political context comprehensively, rather than tacitly endorsing violent revolution (a shocking thing for a human rights activist to do). He should also come forward with how the U.S. can better achieve its primary goal — withdrawing from Afghanistan — in a way that does not offend his sensibilities. Right now, however, the outcry over reengagement with Uzbekistan is stuck at complaining Islom Karimov is a bad man, and the U.S. should never work with bad men. Worse than being unhelpful, such a stance excludes the human rights people from participating in the policy discussion, since it reduces their criticism to the level of unserious whining instead of constructive engagement.
Then again, that’s what a lot of human rights activism in Central Asia has been reduced to anyway. So I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised.