An Impossible Moral Choice

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by Joshua Foust on 1/12/2012 · 30 comments

Eurasianet editor David Trilling flags a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists:

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. 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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{ 30 comments }

Sarah Kendzior January 12, 2012 at 12:41 pm

A couple of brief points:

1) I disagree a bit with your characterization of the media situation in Uzbekistan. There is indeed a thriving, dynamic Uzbek media. There is not, however, a thriving, dynamic Uzbekistani media. My article that you cite concerns Uzbek online media – a media whose surveillance by the Uzbek government is disproportionate to its influence among ordinary Uzbek people. The CPJ article is right: independent media has been essentially silenced within the country. That does not mean that information from other sources does not trickle in. But I think that the Uzbeks who use non-state-sanctioned media sources tend to be those who actively seek them out – i.e., Uzbeks who are already interested in politics and willing to risk looking up censored information online.

2) That said, I think the CPJ and Eurasianet articles – particularly their dramatic titles – are misleading. Your argument here is right on: the United States faces a terrible moral choice regarding Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. That they are engaging with Uzbekistan does not mean that they “support” Karimov’s horrible policies, as CPJ erroneously proclaimed – it means that they are ignoring them to pursue another geopolitical goal. That could be construed as support, I suppose, but doing that implies that if the US only clamped down on Karimov, things would change in Uzbekistan. It implies, falsely, that Karimov remotely cares about U.S. (or international) condemnation. I dislike the phrasing of the Eurasianet title for the same reason – it implies that if only Obama stopped giving Uzbekistan a “free pass”, media freedom in Uzbekistan would improve. Media freedom has been abysmal in Uzbekistan for the past twenty years (and in the USSR before that), and has become particularly awful since Andijon, and there is very little a foreign state can do to change that.

Nathan Hamm January 12, 2012 at 1:08 pm

Sarah, the thing that bothered me about CPJ’s characterization of the media environment was that toward the end, they were misusing it to making a policy point. This:

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.

isn’t about the media so much as it’s about how and whether or not US messages are communicated to the Uzbekistani public, which, as I think we can agree, doesn’t have very much to do nowadays with whether or not there are independent media operating and publishing within Uzbekistan’s borders. (And it’s kind of wrong about the state press, which more clearly demonizes the US than it does trumpet how awesome it is that we’re friends.)

It’s become vogue lately to say that the Arab Spring proves the risks of engaging repressive regimes, therefore, we should not engage Karimov’s government. I frankly don’t see the evidence that the West is at the heart of things in North Africa or the Middle East, and I certainly don’t see that’s the case in Central Asia. The policy aspect of this whole debate is so frustrating in part because there’s an assumption, offered as fact, from disengagement proponents that a warm phone call and some radiological scanners make us, in the eyes of Uzbeks, co-conspirators in their oppression. The self-centeredness of it is phenomenal, but not surprising; we excel at this in the West.

Sarah Kendzior January 12, 2012 at 1:52 pm

I agree with what you wrote. I also doubt that Uzbek citizens are as concerned with US policy — much less the nuances of how the US presents its policy — as the articles imply. I see this sort of Western-centric logic a lot in the works of Ted Rall and other pseudo-analysts who use the region as an excuse to complain about the US. The CPJ article isn’t that bad, but it leans in this direction.

DW January 12, 2012 at 8:28 pm

This is a really key point, actually, as much as I agree with the defense of independant media in Uzbekistan, it’s really massive flaw in the CPJ argument. Everyone who’s said the Uzbek official press DOES NOT brag about the new very slight rapprochement with the US is absolutely right–they do the exact opposite. Uzbekistani government media continues to absolutely skewer the US, our culture, our role in the world, our music, our movies, our values–anything you can think of. And they actively attempt to discourage Uzbek citizens from traveling to the U.S. or engaging with the US. They not only don’t brag about engagement on the NDN, they don’t for the most part acknowledge that it exists.

I take this, in fact, as evidence of just how transactional and shallow this relationship really is.

Uzbek January 13, 2012 at 3:35 pm

What you pointed out is very true. The Uzbek press mentions ties with the US only when it serves the ruling elite. Uzbek citizens are discouraged from traveling to the US and Europe and the government does everything to create obstacles to prevent people from “running away”. One example is that H1B visas (US work permits) are usually given for 3 years and then renewed for another 3 during which you get a green card and eventually a US citizen. If you go to US Embassies anywhere in the world your passport will be stamped for 3 years. An Uzbek residing in a free country like the USA for 3 consecutive years is considered a danger to the Uzbek regime. So the Uzbek government asked the US Embassy in Tashkent NOT to give to Uzbek citizens visas for more than a year. This is why the US Embassy stamps Uzbek passports for 1 year maximum now and you have to go back to Uzbekistan every year. This is absurd but true. As an Uzbek citizen the only way to really “run away” is to go through the ordeal of relinquishing the Uzbek citizenship. You pay a huge fee to relinquish it and wait for the wizards to decide your case, if they want to “let you go” so to speak. You never know what they may come up with to make your life difficult, they solicit bribe by intimidation, it is endless – all in the name of getting your money. So young people like me leave the country the first chance they get and it is a huge loss to Uzbekistan.

Ted Rall January 13, 2012 at 10:32 am

Either you have nuance or you have morals. You can’t have both.

If the US wants to engage in neoimperialist realpolitik in Central Asia it is of course free to coddle dissident-boiling madmen like Islam Karimov. But then it cannot claim to be concerned about human rights.

Many Uzbeks will tell you that fear of US military intervention on the side of the Karimov regime prevents them from building a credible opposition force that could violently overthrow the existing order.

Would Karimov be the same evil bastard without legitimacy bestowed by the Obama Administration? Almost certainly. But he’d be oppressing his people without our help. And his reign of terror wouldn’t last as long.

As you were.

Sarah Kendzior January 13, 2012 at 11:15 am

Thank you for sharing your opinions, Ted. I am curious about your claim that “Many Uzbeks will tell you that fear of US military intervention on the side of the Karimov regime prevents them from building a credible opposition force that could violently overthrow the existing order.” I have been interviewing Uzbek opposition members for years and have never once heard this claim. I have also never seen it written on Uzbek opposition websites. Can you please point me to someone saying this? Thank you!

Ted Rall January 14, 2012 at 7:40 pm

I’m not surprised they wouldn’t express these thoughts online. They’re dangerous.

I wouldn’t out a source. But I’ve heard this over and over. I assume most visitors to Uzbekistan have, but every experience differs.

Sarah Kendzior January 14, 2012 at 8:08 pm

What are you talking about? Uzbek dissidents express thoughts that could be deemed “dangerous” all the time. They routinely critique the regime, themselves, and the American government on their websites. Many of them have expressed disappointment that the American government appears indifferent to their plight. But no one, in anything I’ve read or in any conversation I have had, has claimed that fear of the US military backing Karimov against the opposition is what deters them from building a credible opposition force.

The wonderful thing about the internet is that Uzbek dissidents can speak for themselves. You might try reading what they have to say instead of inventing it for them.

Pierce Labret January 12, 2012 at 2:52 pm

I agree that US and Uzbekistan are not becoming BFFs, and that they are not going to do anything beyond some possible agreements to cooperate on the field of terrorism. Uzbek media is not being suppressed and US has nothing to do with that, it’s not it’s target.

Joshua Foust January 12, 2012 at 4:07 pm

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?

(UPDATE: I decided to append this to the end of my post as a clarification as well)

joshkamiller January 12, 2012 at 5:05 pm

I think one of the things the Twitter discussion highlighted for me was that taking the moral high ground, condemning abuses, and generally making frowny faces IS realpolitik. If we harp on Belarus for its abuses, it’s not necessarily for the sake of Belarus and our relations there. We apply some pressure, don’t expect too much from it, and then high-five Freedom and Democracy Lovers across the globe. We gain Morality Points at little to no cost. That is in the interest of the US and thus satisfies the realpolitik beast. Morality Points are essentially the currency of realpolitik. Little pieces of paper with no intrinsic value, but we can earn and spend them to get what we want. We play ball with Uzbekistan because we have something to physically gain. It costs some points (and some dollars), but we get what we want.
Pragmatic? Yes.
Cynical? Hell, yes.

Joshua Kucera January 12, 2012 at 7:14 pm

You asked “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 has been a theme of yours lately, so permit be to be a bit meta in my response. A pattern has emerged wherein, whenever anyone writes critically about U.S. policy in Central Asia and how that relates to human rights, you attack. And you don’t attack the substance of the argument, but some tangential issue. In your response to my IHT piece reference here, you say there is no data that the human rights situation in Uzbekistan is worsening. To the CPJ, you complain that they ignore samizdat and social media. To David’s excellent report on Central Asia Online, you complain that he ignores the bureaucratic history of the Transregional Web Initiative. And to everyone, you ask the question, what specific policy recommendations do you have? I know what you will say: to get the policy right, you have to get the facts right, there are no easy choices, etc. But honestly, it reads more like nitpicking, obfuscation and smoke-blowing to obscure the real issues at hand here.

One blogger eloquently discussed this issue recently, and didn’t offer any moral alternative policies, claimed – without supporting data! – that U.S. security assistance has helped Central Asian governments repress their own populations, failed to cite legislation as to what governs U.S. assistance to Central Asia. And despite those failings, the post was good. Forgive me for quoting at length:

———
It is that belief—that our interests are best served whilst in bed with the local thugs contributing to the problem—that brought us to our current dysfunctional relationship with Pakistan. We would do well to avoid the same mistake in Central Asia. Hopefully without ruffling too many feathers, this is a common mistake when people who do not understand Central Asia very well try to craft policy in the region.

As I noted in my six-year retrospective on the Andijon massacre, the U.S. government gets a deeply distorted picture of the players and problems in the region when they rely too heavily on the local governments for understanding. It was how the assumption—as false as they can get—that Akromiya was behind the initial street protest took root in the DC policy community, and how, even to this day, some former administration members insist some super-secret shadowy Islamist group no one ever really hears from was behind an uprising that never happened.

Christian Bleuer has documented on more than one occasion that in Tajikistan—the Tavildara area “scares the shit out of us,” according to a senior Obama official in 2009—the reports of “insurgency” are little more than rumors. The “insurgency” there has very little to do with radical Islam, but is instead about social and political factors.

As a result, the U.S. is slowly funneling more and more money into “military training centers” both in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (they’re hiring!) to address a problem that actually has very little to do with us. In effect, we are helping those countries suppress their populations—with the unintentional consequence that we actually make the al Qaeda problem we’re seeking to contain much worse in the long run. (There is a related problem: the popular writers people listen to about Central Asia, like Ahmed Rashid, actually have no idea what they’re talking about and are consistently wrong about the region.)

The end result of relying too much on host governments to get intelligence about a problem we don’t understand leads, predictably, to building bases to train militaries that don’t actually address the problem we’re concerned with. This is important, though not the most important thing to U.S. strategy in the region—and in fact, many would say that it suggests even less engagement so as to prevent the accidental misuse of resources. But that’s not quite right either…

The NDN through Central Asia is America’s best shot at disentangling our reliance on Pakistani territory for supplies and transit, thus increasing the leverage we could exercise over Pakistan’s support of militancy—yet it is given barely more than a passing mention by the CNAS authors. And let’s not even talk about Manas, and the many problems we’ve contributed to Kyrgyzstan through a laser-focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan to the exclusion of smaller, “unimportant,” states in the region (or, for that matter, the nasty choices our desire for an air base in the region has prompted policymakers to make).

While definitely not at the center of the immediate threat coming from the region South and Central Asia, it is shortsighted to pretend that the Central Asian states don’t really matter to the region’s future. They matter deeply, and if they’re not paid attention to, they have the potential to act as spoilers. They can also contribute substantially to a good outcome. But only if we take the time to understand what they’re like, what their priorities are, and how we can work with them and through them.

——

Yes, as you figured out, that’s you, in May: http://www.registan.net/index.php/2011/05/25/our-other-perennial-theme-central-asia/. So, what gives?

Joshua Foust January 12, 2012 at 7:56 pm

What gives? Let’s unpack what you quoted, working backward:

1) Relying on Pakistan is a huge mistake that the U.S. should avoid. I’ve stayed consistent on that.

2) The NDN is the best shot the U.S. has at disentangling itself from Pakistan as an alternative to managing the crisis in Afghanistan. I’ve stayed consistent on that.

3) I don’t recall addressing the basing issue when it comes to Uzbekistan; can you provide an example? Similarly, I noted that people who advocate for less engagement aren’t right either. I’ve stayed consistent on that.

4) In fact, the training center thing is about Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which are a wholly different set of issues that are not related to the decision to use Uzbekistan as a transit corridor. This is unrelated to the topic under discussion here (and there is no similar freak out in the human rights community over the U.S. engaging with Bishkek or Dushanbe).

5) Best I know I haven’t altered my analysis about relying on local intelligence services for information about terrorism in those countries. This is unrelated to the decision to use Uzbekistan as a transit corridor.

6) “Getting in bed with local thugs” was (in context!) clearly a reference to the type of relationship the U.S. had with Islamabad. It is not an analogy for the limited, transactional relationship currently unfolding in Tashkent. The two situations are apples and oranges.

In fact, had you quoted more of that piece, you’d see me arguing quite spiritedly for more U.S. attention and engagement with Central Asia — using U.S. negligence of Uzbekistan’s internal politics as my example!

Next time, Joshua, please read posts more carefully before you attempt cleverness through blockquoting. And at least quote relevant sections.

Quoting from my Andijon piece in May:

That debate continues to this day, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring, where U.S. allies and bases are under threat in Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, and elsewhere. It is not an easy choice to make, from a political perspective—the public desire to condemn violence notwithstanding, no elected politician in his right mind would want to risk being blamed for, say, the next AQAP terrorist attack because he chose to “punish” the Yemeni regime for its appalling anti-protestor violence by withdrawing all U.S. aid and support. At the same time, that same politician faces relentless criticism for continuing to engage with odious, abusive regimes on a perfectly understandable, moral ground.

Engaging with abusive governments is a delicate dance. There are surely levels and types of abuse the U.S. government considers worth tolerating, and some kinds of abuse the U.S. government does not. No one really says what that is, however. At the same time, while it’s obvious that for at least the last decade counterterrorism considerations have taken precedence over everything else, it’s not at all clear that CT is worth the worldwide loss of prestige, moral authority, and even geographic access our involvement with abusive regimes has cost. Both of these make judging whether engagement with a certain abusive government to gain some CT objective a difficult calculation to make, and those governments don’t always make our job easier by summarily kicking us out when we complain too much…

These sorts of violent events—Andijon, the Southern Kyrgyzstan riots, and others—have long-lasting effects on the communities where they take place. They also can have surprising and far-reaching effects on governments the International Community rely on as partners in the global struggle against violent extremism (as the “War on Terror” is now known). Yet, the full range of consequences that result are rarely understood, and often get lost in the scramble to move on to the next crisis happening somewhere else. As a result, we very rarely spend the time to understand why they happen in the first place—making it much more difficult to even contemplate calculating the risks of engagement with any regime in the region. Until that changes, until the international community and especially the U.S. policy community takes an interest in the causes and effects of communal violence in Central Asia, the basic contradictions of American policy toward the region will never be resolved.

Nope, that’s not really what you’re trying to say, either. Let’s see where I’ve said Security Assistance can help Central Asian governments repress their populations. … Nope, can’t find it in the last 2 years, though I can find myself arguing the exact opposite, going so far as to reference actual Uzbek political prisoners who want more Security Assistance to improve the professionalism of security forces. Whoops.

As for your point about a “pattern” in my criticism of this stuff: why, yes! If you go back to when CJ Chivers gave my book (which was really a compendium of posts from this blog) a glowing review, he noted the same pattern.

Read this book in the spirit of its author’s intention, all the while remembering that if Mr. Foust were to have a slogan, it might be this: “What’s your evidence?”

In fact, the same people now clutching their pearls when I ask for very basic adherence to commonly accepted definitions, evidence for claims in analysis, and even just basic logic in argument, used to leap with glee when I would apply this same sort of inquiry to the crappy war boosterism that got us Surged into Afghanistan. One even told me, privately, that he was disappointed to see me “turning my cannons” on the human rights community, because now such questions are no longer amusing.

My response to that is: who the hell cares? You can pretend I’m not making substantive criticisms of the current human rights community output, which amounts to crossing their arms and pouting that life is unfair and things suck. That’s your right, and I wish you luck in ever having an effect on the world if you do.

But if you’re going to accuse me of hypocrisy in analysis, which you did here, at least do some basic diligence and get your facts right. THAT, too, is a pattern in my writing on this topic, and I really wish people — yes, including you — would stick with what they know and what they can actually support with data and evidence.

Meanwhile, we’re left without real choices or how the U.S. government could possibly react to the criticisms levied by the human rights community and the independent journalists who totally don’t advocate for them because of their independence from advocacy organizations. If you have a legal way for the U.S. to do what you want and stop talking about human rights issues — good luck advocating for an amendment of the FAA! — I’m all ears. If you have other ideas, I’m also all ears.

In fact, I’d LOVE to hear of a way to disentangle from Pakistan and Uzbekistan. I’m not creative enough to think of one. Can you? Can anyone?

Joshua Kucera January 12, 2012 at 8:24 pm

I didn’t say your positions were inconsistent, I said you demand a standard of detail and evidence from others which your own (good) pieces don’t meet. But I do appreciate the suggestion that my opinions are bought and paid for by my “dependence on advocacy organizations.”

Ted Rall January 13, 2012 at 10:34 am

“In fact, I’d LOVE to hear of a way to disentangle from Pakistan and Uzbekistan. I’m not creative enough to think of one. Can you? Can anyone?”

Sure.

Close our embassies. Bring home our ambassadors. They should probably take planes. They’re fast and convenient.

Nathan Hamm January 12, 2012 at 8:24 pm

But what about me? I called him out on the lack of evidence.

What gets me about this is that there isn’t much of a debate here.

The administration’s policy is short-sighted, driven by more pressing priorities, etc. And I think it knows that, and I think we can all agree it’s patronizing and silly when it pretends otherwise.

On the other side, there is a group of critics, whom I hope I don’t mischaracterize in describing as people who believe we should live by our moral principles. That’s admirable, if a bit unrealistic in my opinion. But I find it similarly frustrating when there’s an attempt to frame this argument in material rather than moral terms.

When these arguments start getting into the material aspects of the policy debate, some of the “tangents” are the heart of the matter. Yes, we get it, the US government is acting hypocritically and Uzbekistan is awful. But if the claim is, for example, that the Arab Spring proves that there’s all kinds of blowback from dealing with authoritarian regimes, well call me nitpicky, sectarian, childish, whatever, but I think it’s worth unpacking how Uzbeks actually get information and whether or not they (or Libyans or Syrians or Egyptians, for that matter) spend all that much time worrying about the white people across the ocean in their relationships to their government.

I know we’re running perilously close to talking past each other on this whole thing, but I cannot stress enough that in suggesting policy, good information hopefully makes better policy. “EVIDENCE!” has been a rallying cry here for a long time in critiquing journalism, pundits, officials, etc. That’s what’s happening here too. There has been a sharp uptick in the last six months of calls to, well, it’s hard to say, but not do the policy we’re doing in Central Asia. So, “EVIDENCE!” because I think it’s lacking in some of these calls.

And since I have to give this disclaimer now, my preferred policy for Uzbekistan would be to just ignore it and lavish attention on its neighbors. Hopefully we can get down to that post-2014.

Joshua Foust January 12, 2012 at 8:43 pm

I like this idea. Do Uzbekistan’s neighbors have the capacity to handle two-way NDN traffic? My understanding is that they don’t, but if they do then I think this should be fleshed out more.

Nathan Hamm January 13, 2012 at 12:35 pm

No, they don’t, which is why the short-term, transactional relationship with Uzbekistan is an unfortunate necessity.

Joshua Kucera January 12, 2012 at 8:46 pm

Nathan — Sorry for leaving you out of this! I agree that there isn’t much of a debate here. I agree with everything you say there, and as my quoting of that post from May suggests, I think Josh and I agree on 99 percent of the issues. But the recent emphasis on the silly things that human rights organizations say makes it seem like you think the NGOs are the real problem. I don’t think they should be spared from criticism because they’re right, but because they’re frankly not that important in the scheme of things. It’s like Fox News going on and on about voter fraud — sure, that stuff happens, but it’s really not the story. If the point of journalism/blogging/commenting is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, I just question the editorial judgment that decided that the human rights groups are the comfortable ones and the people actually making the policy are the afflicted ones.

Joshua Foust January 13, 2012 at 11:43 am

Joshua,

Since I am not a journalist I don’t share your instinct for harassing officials simply because they’re officials and therefore deserve it (and who ever said or intimated that human rights groups were comfortable? I argue they’re wrong, which is very different). In fact, I reject that entire framework because I don’t operate in it. As an analyst I am deeply concerned with not only getting the facts right — all the way right, since you complain that blowing details doesn’t matter — I am also concerned with affecting positive change. That has nothing to do with the comforted or the afflicted; it does, however, have everything to do with honestly reporting things that exist and working off facts.

Others have said it before, as have I: getting this stuff wrong — yes, even the margins — undermines the purpose of this activism. Trilling’s article on Central Asia Online is a great example: his article was so incomplete, and so unfairly argued, that he ruined any chance he might have had of getting his criticism in front of the right people at SOCOM who could have actually acted on it and either shut down or reformed the program. Instead it was written off as the ignorant rantings of an anti-American lefty — not a terribly fair description of him, but that’s the price of getting details, history, and context wrong. It’s also worth nothing that his stable of writers at Eurasianet (including you) vigorously attack and criticize pro-military writings that blow off history, details, and facts.

And here’s the thing: that is appropriate! We should all be concerned with getting things right. I love it when you criticize the DOD for getting something badly wrong, because they need that criticism to get it right.

The same thing, however, applies to the NGOs working on human rights. Right now, several of them have adopted a weird polemical style that involves twisting facts, omitting relevant history, and making breezy, unsupportable assertions about Uzbekistan to argue that the U.S. policy is wrong (another example). This undermines their message, and makes it less likely that the message will ever get through and affect things!

In that example I linked, Swerdlow for some reason forgets to note that the U.S. was kicked out of Uzbekistan for protesting the Andijon massacre (and doesn’t mention the EU’s new round of sanctions this year over the cotton industry) because those facts get in the way of his attempt to paint the last decade as unwavering subservience to Karimov’s political machinations.

A policymaker, reading that, will scrunch her face and say “this guy is just ranting, he either doesn’t know what happened or doesn’t care” and will then discount his otherwise appropriate message about the substantial moral costs of engaging with the Uzbek regime. By pushing into polemic and away from analysis or reporting, such writing undermines its otherwise effective moral message and reduces it to the din of a crowded field of shallow punditry.

So yes, I focus on this stuff because I think it’s vitally important. The abuses of the Karimov regime are horrifying enough without needing to twist and exaggerate things; the U.S. policies in the region have enough problems without having to misrepresent them either. The human rights side of this campaign has a strong case on its own; there’s no need to reveal a deep insecurity about it by descending into polemics that by their very nature get important things very wrong.

But keep questioning such editorial judgment. That’s your right.

Joshua Kucera January 13, 2012 at 12:31 pm

Of course human rights groups shouldn’t be given a free pass. But in the period that you’ve been writing about them with such vigor, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a report on Central Asia, Hillary Clinton visited Central Asia and made several statements, and Obama talked on the phone with Karimov. In addition, there are a bazillion Wikileaked cables out there describing, in detail, US policy. All of these are products of people who actually make policy — not just who hope to influence it — and yet none of them has gotten even a perfunctory Fousting.

Joshua Foust January 13, 2012 at 1:17 pm

But this gets back to the kind of silly complaint that I’m not criticizing enough of the “right” people. It was awesome when it was the DOD or whatever, but now that it’s human rights people it’s not awesome. That’s a dodge and it is a distracting from the content in this post.

I don’t read the wikileaked cables for a variety of reasons, among them my desire to not reward that organization’s appalling recklessness with my attention. But I’ve also not been terribly inconsistent on this: despite its faults, I think the current U.S. policy is the only real option available. While yes, Secretaries Clinton and Blake have said some silly things to get the deal through, I think I’ve been pretty consistent about trying to understand the need for officials to sometimes play a weird public game to get things done. I don’t think you can reasonably say I’m overall uncritical of U.S. officials or U.S. policy — I’m less critical than normal on this specific issue but that most certainly does not describe the vast majority of my writing the last five years.

As for that SFRC report? Let’s see what you said about it.

“The challenge for the United States is to strike a balance between its short-term, war-fighting needs and long-term interests in promoting a stable, prosperous and democratic Central Asia,” John Kerry wrote in the introduction to a report released on Dec. 19 by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations entitled “Central Asia and the Transition in Afghanistan.”

This is a difficult needle to thread, but Washington has so far largely succeeded. The U.S. has kept the supply lines running while compromising little on its principles. The yearly State Department human rights reports have remained consistently critical, even as military cooperation has blossomed. Human rights advocates in Uzbekistan — a small, beleaguered community — still say that, for the most part, they feel like the U.S. Embassy is an ally…

“Achieving our security goals and promoting good governance and human rights are not mutually exclusive,” the Kerry report says. “In fact, security and political engagement are complementary strategies that are more likely to be effective when pursued together.”

The report doesn’t back up that assertion, and in the case of Uzbekistan it plainly isn’t true.

See, there I disagree with your analysis and agree with Senator Kerry’s statement. Political engagement is often a necessary prerequisite for security policies to go into place, especially in a case like Uzbekistan where we need Karimov more than he needs us. What, exactly, am I supposed to subject “even a perfunctory Fousting?” I don’t get it — by and large you didn’t find much in that report to criticize either.

Nathan Hamm January 13, 2012 at 12:33 pm

I don’t see that being the journalism/blogging/commenting, though; at least not mine. I like the truth. These organizations, which have broadcast their position frequently and loudly in recent months, have been as fast and loose with the facts as those they’re criticizing.

Ian January 13, 2012 at 12:05 pm

Now that we know Nathan’s preferred policy, I think we’re all curious to see a two- or three-sentence statement on Josh Foust’s preferred policy. I’m completely lost in a forest of “I focus on this stuff because it’s vitally important” and “We should all be concerned with getting things right.”

Joshua Foust January 13, 2012 at 12:09 pm

Ian:

I think I’ve been pretty consistent and unambiguous over the last few months on this front: I think the current policy of a short term transactional deal with Uzbekistan to transit supplies and withdrawal through the NDN in their territory is the least bad option facing U.S. officials. Here are some links:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/10/why-the-us-should-work-with-uzbekistan/246221/

http://www.registan.net/index.php/2011/10/19/wishing-for-unicorns/

http://www.registan.net/index.php/2011/10/25/the-unicorn-principle-and-regional-strategy/

http://www.registan.net/index.php/2011/12/28/a-menu-of-poor-choices/http://www.registan.net/index.php/2012/01/12/an-impossible-moral-choice/

Joshua Kucera January 12, 2012 at 8:30 pm

Though I should add one point as to the substance. You ask, above: “Let’s see where I’ve said Security Assistance can help Central Asian governments repress their populations. … Nope, can’t find it in the last 2 years.”

In the May post I quoted from, you say: “the U.S. is slowly funneling more and more money into “military training centers” both in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (they’re hiring!) to address a problem that actually has very little to do with us. In effect, we are helping those countries suppress their populations”

Joshua Foust January 12, 2012 at 8:35 pm

Oh you’re right! My bad, I did indeed use that language in a different context about something else. You got me!

DW January 12, 2012 at 9:15 pm

Not to step into the middle of a fight, but I would object that one of the problems here is the inability to tell the difference between troops controlled by each country’s Department of Defence (Min Oborony) and internal security services troops.

The lack of training, proper equipment, and proficiency in Kyrgyzstan’s actual army arguably contributed in a major way to its utter ineptitude in quelling the June 2010 violence. So what’s the logic in refusing to train them, and how does that contribute to repressing the population? In Tajikistan, the only place the actual defense forces have been active within the country in recent memory (as far as I can recall) are in the operations in the Rasht Valley over the last year. Debating whether or not that was justifiable or wise or whatever else is a complicated question, but those operations are a far cry from firing on protesters.

In Uzbekistan, the ridiculous distortion of what the US is actually offering in terms of defense cooperation has totally skewed the argument, especially at Eurasianet. And there continues to be a fundamental misunderstanding about the difference between Uzbekistan’s defence forces and their internal security services, specifically the SNB. The SNB are a terrible, terrible organization that do terrible things to people. They are so terrible that equating them with Uzbekistan’s ordinary consripted soldiers is tremendously unfair. NOBODY in the US government or anywhere else is advocating assistance to the SNB.

These are all cases where getting the facts right, even exactly right, really matters.

Realist Writer January 19, 2012 at 11:01 am

“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.”

Then why not do only this policy for every country, Belarus or Uzbekistan or even North Korea? All these countries are strategically important in some way…and since we have these memos decrying human right abuses, why do we feel pressure to do “more”?

I mean, these State Department reports are all that’s really needed, right? Just report about human right violations, and say mean things, and you have successfully “defended” human rights and you don’t need to do anymore. You can go ahead and fund all dictatorships all you want because we have succeeded in our duty to defend human rights, so now we can go back to tending to national interests. It’s not hypocritical, we’re promoting human rights, and we did it. We are NOT OBLIGATED to actually ensure human rights are guaranteed, we have no real good reason to do that.

Something makes me think that these State Department reports aren’t effective at ALL, and it would probably be better if we terminate these reports. And cries of hypocrisy is justified: attacking the Belarus regime does not actually seem to actually lead to better human rights conditions (and it outright harms US interests by making Belarus less friendly to the European Union, an ally of the United States)…and yet it is still being done anyway. Amartya Sen’s quote about only promoting human rights when we have a good reason to should also be applied to Belarus…and there is no good reason to attack the Belarus regime.

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