Barack Obama’s Uzbekistan Problem

Realpolitik ambushes Obama, and not just at home.

The Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan 

President Barack Obama’s administration is not yet a month old, and editorialists have already accused the new president of losing his innocence after he was forced to abandon his lofty talk of bipartisanship over the economic stimulus plan. But a touch of partisan politics at home is nothing compared with the ethical predicament now looming in Central Asia, where Obama may soon need to choose either funding a vicious dictator in Uzbekistan or hindering the mission in Afghanistan. Getting into bed with Uzbekistan could be Obama’s first ugly but necessary foreign-policy compromise.

On Feb. 3, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the president of the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, announced that he would close a U.S. air base that the United States opened in October 2001 to supply the campaign in neighboring Afghanistan. Two days after the Kyrgyz announcement, the AP  reported  that Washington is looking to reopen its air base in neighboring Uzbekistan, which had been shuttered in 2005, to take up the slack.

The question of reopening the U.S. base in Uzbekistan is no small matter. The U.S. State Department  calls  Uzbekistan an authoritarian state whose human rights record is poor and getting worse; Islam Karimov, president since the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, holds power through a combination of arbitrary arrest, torture, and forced psychiatric treatment. A number of political prisoners have died in custody, including two members of a religious sect who were  boiled to death  in 2002. There is no freedom of the press or religion, no right to free assembly. By any measure, the regime is among the world’s most oppressive.

Uzbekistan’s human rights record is so odious that even the Bush administration—no pushover for world opinion—cut ties with it four years ago. The United States had opened a base in Uzbekistan at the same time it opened its base in Kyrgyzstan and for the same reason: to support the Afghan campaign. But criticism over the U.S.-Uzbek relationship mounted, as many observers, such as Slate’s Fred Kaplan,  asked  if it was really a good idea for the United States to be seen to coddle a dictator like Karimov.

The final straw came in May 2005, when Uzbek security forces opened fire on demonstrators in the eastern city of Andijan, killing hundreds of civilians. The U.S. government joined others in publicly condemning the Uzbek regime, and Karimov responded by ordering U.S. troops out of the country. The last U.S. plane left  that November, and with it American payments to the Karimov regime ceased, apparently ending one of the darker chapters in the story of America’s war on terror.

At least, until now. Washington is looking at renewing its relationship with a country that seemed untouchable four years ago. This will upset some of Obama’s liberal supporters—as it should. But the new administration may have no choice. Uzbekistan hasn’t changed, but the dynamics of the region have.

First and most obvious, there’s a new administration in Washington. During his campaign, Obama promised to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Senior officials are already trying to dampen expectations of quick progress there; last weekend, Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the war in Afghanistan will be ”much tougher than Iraq.” But there’s no getting around the fact that the success of Obama’s foreign policy will be measured by his progress in Afghanistan.

Second, Pakistan, the other main access point for supplies headed to Afghanistan, is a mess compared with 2005. Pervez Musharraf, who resigned as president in August 2008, may have been an unsteady ally, but his successor, Asif Ali Zardari, has been even more critical of U.S. attempts to engage Taliban fighters in Pakistan’s border region. If anything, those fighters are getting more brazen: On the same day that Kyrgyzstan’s president announced plans to close the U.S. base, militants in Pakistan blew up a bridge in the Khyber Pass, a main supply route between Pakistan and Afghanistan. If Obama wants to increase the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, relying on the Pakistan route seems less and less tenable.

Finally, the Obama administration has to deal with a more confident and aggressive Russia. Russia’s summer 2008 invasion of Georgia marked a new low in post-Cold War relations between Russia and the United States, and reminded Russia’s former satellites that spurning Moscow can mean more than just strong words and trade sanctions. In January, Russia cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine; Moscow blamed a price dispute, but others saw the move as an attempt to demonstrate Russian influence.

Washington also saw Russia’s hand in Kyrgyzstan’s decision to close the U.S. base―a decision that was announced by Bakiyev during a trip to Moscow, where he received promises of more than $2 billion in Russian aid. Eurasianet called the Russian aid a  bribe  to get Kyrgyzstan to close the base.

The shifting landscape around Afghanistan is closing off options for Obama, who must now begin to think about unsavory compromises if he wants to make progress in the Afghan campaign. Washington may yet find a way to maintain its supply lines without returning to Uzbekistan. The Kyrgyz leadership could relent, perhaps in the face of increasingly generous offers of financial remuneration from the Pentagon. Uzbekistan might refuse American overtures. Or maybe not. Hope works better on the campaign trail than in the conduct of foreign policy.

President George W. Bush, though largely indifferent to public opinion, could afford to do the honorable thing in 2005 by walking away from an ugly regime in Uzbekistan, when Afghanistan was looking better and the base in Kyrgyzstan was still available. Obama, whose inauguration speech promised that the ideals of rule of law and rights of man “still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake,” may have to let his image suffer because he lacks the options of his predecessor. But that’s the rub of realism: Sometimes, the wrong people get hurt.