TCS Daily

Dictatorships and Double Standards, Revisited

By Melana Zyla Vickers - May 23, 2005 12:00 AM

When Indonesia's president, an ex-general, visits Washington this week, he'll take heat for the Indonesian military's murderous abuses against its own citizens in East Timor and for foot-dragging on judicial and democratic reform. But while human-rights groups push to isolate the Indons, the Bush administration will be pushing the other way: to strengthen military-to-military ties and improve cooperation.

Pick any spot on the globe -- Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen -- and this tension plays itself out again and again. On the one hand there's American opprobrium for governments that abuse and silence their own people -- or shoot them, as was the case in Uzbekistan this week. On the other hand there's a need for the U.S. to enlist and strengthen cooperation with these same countries, because they're on the front lines of the war on terrorism.

It's all a flashback to the Cold War and the dilemma described by Jeanne Kirkpatrick in her famous treatise on "Dictatorships and Double Standards." Back in the early 1980s, the Reagan official said the U.S. ought to enlist authoritarians in Central America, the Philippines, and elsewhere in the fight against Communist totalitarianism, even though such cooperation meant ignoring the authoritarians' abuses against their own people. "Our authoritarians" are better than "their totalitarians," she said, because the authoritarians leave in society the seeds of reform down the road -- religious institutions, occasionally free press, courts, democratic experiments -- whereas the Communists kill off everything. Besides, she argued, Communism, not petty authoritarianism, was the more formidable U.S. foe.

Kirkpatrick proved right, in a sense. Toward the Cold War's end, authoritarians such as the Philippines' Ferdinand Marcos began to fall as soon as the U.S. stopped propping them up, and gave way to pro-democratic progress.

The new dilemma often looks like a choice between authoritarians who run the military and religious extremists who foment rebellion, and might be described as "Iron Fists or Ire and Fits." And the new dilemma has its own difficult dimensions. Since 9/11 the U.S. has established critical military bases in Uzbekistan, where President Islam Karimov has been ruling with an iron fist for 16 years. In Pakistan, ground zero in the war on terrorism and perhaps the United States' most important partner in the war, we've seen a return to the old-style rule by a general in civilian clothing. And Indonesia -- whose far flung islands provide shelter to Islamic militants and sit astride some of the world's most important oil-trade lanes -- has long given its military a central role in stabilizing and unifying the country, with often disastrous results.

As was the case in the Cold War, the U.S. is forced to choose between its strategic priorities in particular countries and its human-rights ones. The governments don't make it easy, either, quickly seizing on their contribution to U.S. strategic priorities as their reason for letting human-rights violations grow unchecked, or learning the lingo of reform without actually implementing it.

Uzbekistan's Karimov, for example, is claiming the unarmed civilians his government gunned down were all terrorists, when other reports suggest many were unemployed workers protesting the economic conditions Karimov has failed to fix. Indonesia's Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf, for their part, are playing the same cards now that their predecessors Suharto and Zia played in the Cold War.

The difference between this fight and the Cold War, though, is that the enemy is almost everywhere. Which means the U.S. needs close ties with a variety of countries, and almost any country can try to excuse its human rights violations in the name of the war on terror. They can get away with it, because truly it often seems that these countries' homeland security is the United States' national security.

To sort through all this, the Bush administration needs some standards. It needs to distinguish between countries where military ties are truly vital and those where there are alternatives.

Pakistan, for instance, must be held close no matter the price: It is a nuclear armed state, a hotbed of terrorism, and has only a thin green line between the authoritarian in power and the radical Islamists that could take over instead. Saudi Arabia, while not a nuclear state, has oil wealth and powerful fundamentalist opponents that make it similarly problematic.

Uzbekistan, by contrast, may be a place where the U.S. can have some influence. While it's true that it now houses U.S. bases that were critical in the Afghanistan war, those bases could be moved to Afghanistan if Karimov proved unreformable or didn't leave power. In addition, the U.S. could militarily tackle a domestic Islamist threat there, if one came to power. There are many reasons the U.S. ought to make an example of Karimov, siding with human rights over strategic priorities because, in Uzbekistan's case, that tradeoff is manageable. If anything, Uzbekistan's Karimov risks losing his close relationship with the U.S. and finding himself in what might be termed an uncomfortable 'Marcos moment.'

Indonesia, meanwhile, is increasingly important, and this twilight before full U.S. military relations are restored -- as they may be this week -- remains the best time to extract concessions toward reform.

On occasion, the U.S. has found it possible both to have strategic partnerships with countries and to steer them toward greater reform. The U.S. has had hundreds of thousands of troops in South Korea, for instance, and the country has long been a bulwark against Communism, yet the U.S. managed to nudge South Korea from military dictatorship in the 1980s to multi-party democracy and free-market economy by the end of that decade. Egypt, too, has been a military and political friend, and has made modest progress towards greater openness.

Whether the U.S. will be able to build a South Korea-style relationship with Indonesia, Uzbekistan or Pakistan, and whether "our authoritarians" in the war on terror will in time give way to reform, remains to be seen. But there's no doubt about one thing: We've returned to an era where U.S. strategic priorities, by necessity, take uncomfortable precedence over U.S. human-rights ideals.



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