Fighting Words

The Brother Karimov

America’s friend, Uzbekistan’s dictator.

Karimov: tyrant and ally

I have just come back from a series of debates on Iraq, including one sponsored by the Economist in England, where I only learned one new thing from the other side. All of them have recently learned to pronounce the name “Islam Karimov” and that of the country, Uzbekistan, over which he rules. Karimov has been an absolutist for some time and has lately felt himself obliged to order fire on demonstrations of his own citizens. In the city of Andijon, in the eastern portion of the country, no fewer and perhaps many more than 500 people have been killed, with thousands more seeking refuge over the border.

The official pretext for this and for other Karimov recreations, such as the stewing of prisoners in boiling water, is that Uzbekistan is threatened by Islamic reactionaries, as quite possibly it is. However, the United States not only maintains air bases on Uzbek soil but has “rendered” wanted prisoners to Karimov’s tender mercies, so we have no right to be neutral about what goes on there.

I was not born yesterday or even the day before, and I can see perfectly well what is being implied here. How can America claim to be the protector of new liberties in Muslim lands if it acquiesces in Karimovism? Actually, this question could be phrased more powerfully. The Chinese have justified their repression of the Uighur minority with reference to the “war on terror.” Some Hindu fundamentalists in India and some messianic settlers in Israel’s occupied lands have sought the same justification for their own conduct. This doesn’t take anything away from the salience of the jihadist threat, but it ought to put us on notice that there are those who exploit it opportunistically. No doubt the Uzbek regime knew what it was doing when it offered help at once in overthrowing the Taliban (and one should still be properly grateful for that, as Bush’s critics of course are not). But our military and intelligence chiefs were not born yesterday, either, and they should have accepted Uzbekistan’s pre-existing anti-Taliban policy while not taking the existing regime at face value.

Karimov is not morally equivalent to the Taliban or Saddam Hussein. He has not invaded neighboring states, or committed genocide, or subverted the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or hosted international gangsters. However, the fact remains that he is a nasty tyrant, and that American policy has come to adopt a position that post-Soviet states should be helped to overcome post-Soviet dictatorial malaise. The record here, in Georgia and Ukraine and Kyrgizstan and (soon, one hopes) Belarus, is not too discreditable. The president has changed the lazy manner in which he used to greet the appalling Vladimir Putin and has quite rightly criticized the post-Yalta settlement and its ancestry in the Hitler-Stalin pact. The defensible elements of this policy succeed only in making Uzbekistan an even more conspicuous and ugly exception. And one ought never to forget Chechnya, where the West in general has been amazingly supine in the face of Russian depredations.

Anna Politkovskaya’s wonderful recent book, Putin’s Russia, shows how in large swaths of the former USSR there has emerged a kind of “worst of both worlds” system, combing Mafia capitalism with KGB methods of government and policing. States and superpowers cannot only be moral individuals, and even moral individuals may need to make shabby compromises for survival, and there may be an occasional need to practice realpolitikfor pressing military reasons, but in all cases it is necessary to be aware that one is doing so. Don’t make a habit of it, in other words. It’s therefore rather depressing and alarming that President Bush has not said a word about conditions in Uzbekistan, or indeed in Saudi Arabia. Uzbekistan has been a hypocritical ally of regime change, and Saudi Arabia a cunning foe in the guise of a friend, but our complicity in both is about the same.

It has always to be remembered that such regimes will not last forever, and that one day we will be asked, by their former subjects, what we were doing while they were unable to speak for themselves. Better to have the answer ready now and to consider American influence in a country as the occasion for leverage rather than as the occasion for awkward silence. The common term for this dilemma during the Cold War, when things were much more zero-sum, was “double standards.” Michael Kinsley wrote a column a few weeks ago, satirizing the subsequent change of heart among neocons. In the old Jeanne Kirkpatrick days, many of them were aggressively unsentimental about ties with “authoritarian” and anti-Communist despotisms. Now they pose as idealists and democracy-builders. If they don’t acknowledge that they have changed, how can we be sure that their alteration is genuine, or permanent?

An excellent point, but one where the irony is also partly at Kinsley’s expense. If Bush’s critics are implicitly demanding that he do something about Uzbekistan, are they not also conceding that his policy there blemishes the wider support for regime-change? The United States did not invent or impose the Karimov government: It “merely” accepted its offer of strategic and tactical help in the matter of Afghanistan. Presumably, those who criticize Karimov’s internal conduct are not asking that we repudiate such help (or are they?). They are, at any rate ostensibly, demanding that we use our influence to amend Uzbekistan’s internal affairs. So it seems as if, when all the rhetoric is examined, the regime-change position is only being criticized for its inconsistency. That strikes me as progress of a kind.