The Belarus Democracy and Human Rights Act of 2011, which Obama signed into law a week ago after its passage through Congress, updates legislation from 2004 and 2006. Its aim is to compel Lukashenko, also known as the last European dictator, to release his jailed opponents and stop repressing the media… But whereas the European dictator and his officials are not welcome in the U.S., his Uzbek counterpart, President Islam Karimov, has received stunningly cordial treatment from the Obama administration. A former Communist party leader, Karimov has ruled nonstop, with the help of referendums and rigged elections, since 1989. He personally oversaw the May 2005 massacre in the city of Andijan, and his regime virtually annihilated the independent press after it spread the word about those brutalities.
This is an important point to raise, as it gets at the fundamental moral conundrum of statecraft: how to use morality as a guiding principle. However, it’s also a bit misleading: for the past six years, Uzbekistan has been on the receiving end of hostile policies and travel bans in response to its human rights record. Those restrictions are easing now, however (a sore spot for Central Asia watchers and for this blog). Why?
Put simply, the U.S. has nothing at stake in Belarus. That is, Belarus is not essential for any major U.S. policy, strategy, or goal, so therefore the U.S. government can afford to lecture, isolate, and pressure Lukashenko’s regime. In other words, enacting harsh sanctions and reprimands on the regime in Minsk carries either zero or very little cost to U.S. interests.
Uzbekistan, on the other hand, happens to be located in a strategically important transportation corridor. As CPJ notes, “It’s no secret that Uzbekistan’s proximity to Afghanistan, and the heavy use of its territory as a land supply route for American troops there, are the main reason behind Obama’s policy toward Karimov.” What they don’t note is the importance of Uzbekistan to withdrawing from Afghanistan as well — though they did link more than one Eurasianet article that discusses precisely that. CPJ has a good point: the regime in Tashkent is odious, and they abuse regular Uzbeks in a horrific way. But CPJ misses the critical political and strategic context to the U.S. reengagement with Tashkent: the plans to withdraw from Afghanistan.
The failure of human rights and other advocacy groups to understand and contextualize their advocacy within political and strategic realities is common in Central Asia. Human Rights Watch added a lot of unnecessary, distracting, and plain incorrect polemic language in discussing U.S. policy in its latest report on Uzbekistan. The result was a really good report with stunning (and shocking) new details about abuses in the regime that got subsumed in the reaction against rather petty and amateurish politicking during the report’s release.
CPJ is doing the same thing now. To wit:
But no geopolitical or military interest should justify any kind of support–be it a phone call or a courtesy handshake–of such a repressive regime. Policymakers and executors in Washington must realize that by dealing with Karimov and equipping his army, they are participating in the repression. They’re helping him to stifle the media and perpetuate abuses. Karimov already showed the world in 2005 what his army and special forces will do with weapons and training received from the West…
The administration must understand: even if they scold Karimov on his government’s rights record during private talks, no criticism leaves the negotiations room in a country where all independent media has been silenced. Rather, the state-controlled media tells the Uzbeks that the U.S. is his friend and an ally.
These two paragraphs are laced with frankly ridiculous caricatures of regional politics, U.S. policies and strategy, and Uzbekistan itself. The first point, that there are no interests that could “justify any kind of support” for the regime is not only an extreme position, it is clearly false. By this argument, the international community should never send food aid to North Korea, knowing a big chunk of it is diverted to the Kim regime, because nothing can possibly justify supporting the regime. It is moral absolutism taken to such an extreme it becomes immoral in the process.
Secondly, there is the argument that by engaging with the regime in Tashkent, the U.S. is becoming complicit in abuse. Human rights activists are fond of repeating that the U.S. is incapable of modifying the behavior of the regime in Tashkent; how, then will engaging with it to achieve the limited goal of transporting material into and out of Afghanistan result in “participating in the repression?” If the U.S. can’t change it one way or another… does it actually matter? And here, too, the complicity argument applies: is the WFP morally complicit in the repression of North Koreans because its food aid is diverted to the very state organs that engage in repression? Some might argue that, but they’re really not in the mainstream.
Moreover this argument demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what the U.S.-Uzbekistan agreement is and what it enables. The two countries are not becoming BFFs, and they are not going anything more than some tentative agreements to cooperate on some limited counterterrorism goals. To then imply that those agreements mean the U.S. is helping to suppress Uzbek media is not only unsupported by facts, it is illogical.
Which brings up the last bit there, about how Uzbeks can’t learn anything about the outside world if the Uzbek state media doesn’t report it. That, too, is clearly false, as evidenced by the huge number of non-state media groups that operate in and around Uzbekistan, and by the number of Uzbeks who participate in them (Sarah Kendzior covered one such event). It also misses the point: is the point of U.S. officials scolding the Karimov regime for its human rights record to make sure regular Uzbeks hear about it, or is it to try to change the regime’s behavior? If it’s the latter then the reaction of Uzbek state media (which, to be precise, does not actually say “the U.S. is [Karimov's] friend and an ally,” but rather the opposite) doesn’t matter; if it’s the former then the reaction of Uzbek state media doesn’t matter because a large number of Uzbeks already get their news from other sources that do report U.S. statements on human rights.
Anyway, so that CPJ report has some serious flaws, which sadly distract from the very good point it makes about the moral choices in U.S. policymaking. And then, true to form, David Trilling piles on with a really obnoxious statement:
This isn’t the first time a respected watchdog has slammed the hypocrisy in Obama’s realpolitik. With Uzbekistan increasingly essential to the war, it won’t be the last.
Sigh. This is one of those times where getting out a dictionary or taking an introduction to international relations class really comes in handy. Put simply, if the U.S. is practicing realpolitik with regard to Uzbekistan, then there is no moral component to the policy, making the charge of hypocrisy meaningless. But the “realpolitik” charge is clearly not true, since U.S. officials publicly berate Uzbek officials, including Karimov himself, for Uzbekistan’s human rights abuses. So what is the hypocrisy?
In a word, it is the insistence, by human rights advocates and friendly journalists, that the world operates in clear, pure, moral terms. That is at best naivete about how the world actually works, and is at worse a self-defeating method of advocacy. Realists do not deny the role that morals play in policymaking (one can go back to Hans Morgenthau’s 1978 book Politics Among Nations for a discussion). Rather, realists play moral considerations in the context of successful political action: that is, universal morals cannot be applied consistently to state action, since time and place and context and perspective alter one’s moral calculus.
In what we’re discussing here, U.S. policymakers face a very stark choice: do they prolong the war in Afghanistan (or worse, enable the sponsors of international terrorism and global nuclear proliferators in Pakistan) by not going through Uzbekistan? Or do they decide ending the war in Afghanistan is a higher and more desirable goal than keeping the regime in Tashkent at arm’s length? Policymakers have clearly chosen the latter; what the human rights industry must argue if they’re to convince the U.S. to make a different choice is why renewing its relationship with Pakistan and, in the process, prolonging the war in Afghanistan, is a greater moral value than a short term, transactional agreement with Uzbekistan.
I have not yet seen the human rights industry grapple with this choice, because they want to pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s easier to wag one’s finger that way, no? In a vacuum, the decision to engage with Tashkent is a horrible decision. In context, it is the only possible choice a policymaker in the U.S. has. If the human rights groups loudly complaining about the Uzbekistan policy want to be effective, they have to stop arguing as if Uzbekistan exists without any regional or strategic context, and start engaging with the very pressing issues that are constraining and directing U.S. choices. Otherwise, they will lose their messaging campaign.
UPDATE: Joshua Kucera reminded me on twitter that there really isn’t a binary choice here: the U.S. always has the option to simply not mention human rights issues when it deals with Uzbekistan (and that if it is going to avoid acting on human rights concern in Uzbekistan it should not mention them in Belarus either to avoid charges of hypocrisy). It sounds like a great argument, except it’s really not for two big reasons:
- For one, the government is legally obligated to comment on the human rights practices of other countries, as stipulated in Sections 116(d) and 502B(b) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (FAA). That is the law that requires — not suggests, but requires — the State Department to assemble its human rights reports. So legally, they have to account for the human rights of these countries some way.
- A secondary, but related point, is that no one is obligated to react to & defend human rights in an identical and consistent way in every circumstance. This was dealt with somewhat philosophically in Amartya Sen’s book The Idea of Justice, but it’s a good point. As he puts it, “The recognition of human rights is… rather, an acknowledgment that if one is in a position to do something effective in preventing the violation of such a right, then one does have a good reason to do just that — a reason that much be taken into account in deciding what should be done. It is still possible that other obligations, or non-obligational concerns, may overwhelm the reason for the particular action in question, but the reason is not simply brushed away… There is a universal ethical demand here, but not one that automatically defines contingency-free, ready-made actions.”
In other words, Sen is arguing not that human rights are unimportant, but that one can behave inconsistently in supporting or promoting them without veering into moral hypocrisy by doing what one can when one can. Another way of putting it is, where such actions might be effective and where they have a reasonable chance of working, it makes sense to take those actions. But in a place like Uzbekistan, where such actions do not usually work and where there is little chance of them succeeding should be they be tried again, there is little moral imperative to place those concerns above others.
So, I really don’t get the argument, or the charge of hypocrisy. The U.S. government cannot simply shut up about the issue, as Kucera urged in his IHT op-ed (discussed here). But even from a moral perspective, there is not necessarily hypocrisy in trying to pressure Belarus to clean up its act while Uzbekistan is given a softer treatment in the service of other, more urgent goals.
Which brings me back to my original argument: what, exactly, is a proper, more moral alternative policy for the United States? Can any critics of the current Uzbekistan policy come up with one?
(This is posted as a comment below but I think it’s good context to this discussion so I appended it here.)