TCS Daily

The Uzbek Dilemma

By Lee Harris - May 18, 2005 12:00 AM

It is difficult at this point to know what is really happening in Uzbekistan, but at first glance the scenario would appear to be one with which we are all too familiar from the history of authoritarian governments. A spontaneous uprising of the people is violently crushed by the brutal forces of authority, leaving behind, according to some reports, as many as 700 dead protestors, and leading the Associated Press to declare the incident to be "some of the worst state-inspired bloodshed since the massacre of protestors in China's Tiananmen Square in 1989."

And what has been the response of the Bush administration to this government-backed massacre?

So far it has been as non-committal as possible. We have merely asked that both sides should seek to work out a peaceful solution to the conflict -- a surprisingly neutral response that cynics will no doubt attribute to the fact that the United States has military bases in Uzbekistan and that President Islam Karimov, despite his authoritarian leadership, has generally been regarded as a close US ally in the war on terror.

Liberal critics of the Bush administration will undoubtedly seize on its failure to denounce the Uzbek massacres and will attack the administration's silence as evidence of its hypocrisy. In doing this, however, these liberal critics will be doing exactly what they have done ever since the war in Iraq began -- they will be distracting the American people from the real crisis that is currently looming before us, in order to indulge their petty passion for taking potshots at George Bush.

If the Bush administration has failed to denounce the massacre in Uzbekistan, it is not because Bush and his advisors are hypocrites, but because the Uzbek uprising has offered a profound challenge to the administration's policy of bringing democracy to Muslim societies, such as Uzbekistan. The Uzbek uprising was, from all appearances, a spontaneous and popular one, a genuine manifestation of the people's will. Yet the Uzbek uprising was sparked off by a people whose sympathies lie not with the United States, but with Islamic extremists and militants. The uprising itself, according to reports, began with an attack on a prison where 23 Muslim businessmen were being held for trial as terrorists -- an attack that ended not only in freeing the 23 Muslim businessmen, but everyone else who was being held in the same prison.

History often repeats itself, but the catch is, whenever it begins to repeat itself it is never quite clear which part of itself it is repeating. For example, was the freeing of 23 Muslim businessmen the repetition, in a distinctly minor key, of the Fall of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, and thus the victory of the people in their eternal struggle against tyranny? Or was it the repetition of the freeing of prison inmates that frequently occurs whenever there is a momentary triumph of the mob over the rule of law and the forces of order? Or was it both?

To put the dilemma confronting the administration as simply as possible, were the 23 Muslim businessmen dangerous terrorists, freed through the criminal violence of Islamic extremists? Or were they merely victims of an oppressive regime, eager to use the war on terror as a pretext for eliminating political rivals and opposing factions? Was the prison breakout a triumph for the terrorists in the ongoing war on terror, or was it the manifestation of an aggrieved populace whose long-suffering patience could bear no more?

How this question is answered will depend on which side of the struggle you are on. If you were part of the uprising, then the massacre was the most brutal type of state-sponsored oppression. If you are Uzbek President Islam Karimov, on the other hand, then the uprising was a dangerous opportunity for Muslim extremists and militants to seize power, in order to replace the current government with a Taliban-inspired regime sworn to promote acts of terror against the USA and the West.

Herein lies the brutal choice that the Bush administration currently faces in Uzbekistan, and which it will have to face in other regions throughout the Muslim world in the coming months and years. It is a choice between two principles that, taken together, constitute the foundation of Bush's policy toward the Muslim world. First, the administration is committed to fighting Islamic terrorists and militants. Second, it is committed to promoting popular democratic government in the Muslim world.

For over two years now the Bush administration has insisted that there was no conflict between these two principles. Indeed, the essence of Bush's policy toward the Islamic world has been that the way to end terrorism was by making Muslim societies more democratic, and thus more responsive to popular sentiment. Yet if Muslim popular sentiment turns out to be violent anti-American and virulently pro-terrorist, then what?

Given this unattractive choice, there are only two solutions. The Bush administration can continue to insist on more democracy, even if this ultimately means the Talibanization of the entire Muslim world, and the dissemination of virulent anti-Americanism from one end of the region to the other. Or else the administration can do a complete about-face on democracy: discourage the spread of popular government in Islamic societies, and be prepared to back authoritarian governments that are willing to use brutal means to check popular uprisings whenever these uprisings, however popular, threaten to overturn pro-American governments and to replace them with hostile anti-American Taliban-like regimes.

Of course, there is always a third alternative, which is simply to pretend that there is a third alternative, when in fact there isn't. Regrettably, this is the course that the Bush administration appears to be following at the moment. How long it can continue to be guided by the this noble delusion, before dismal reality shatters it beyond repair -- that is the sixty four thousand dollar question. Tragically, it may be that the Bush administration is too committed to its delusions to make the choices that we must make if we are to survive. If so, the blame will lie as much in those liberal critics of Bush who have chosen to focus on trifling and petty issues, such as "Did he lie," instead of concentrating on the one thing needful, namely, how to meet the challenge posed by an enemy who has made it clear, over and over, that he does not like us, and will never like us, and that he will use any opportunity given to it to embarrass us, to attack us, and to kill us.

If America, and the West, has slept, it has been because its pundits and wise men, both on the left and on the right, have made no serious effort to wake it up, preoccupied as they have been, by and large, with tweaking each other's noses and scoring debating points. They have permitted the United States to pursue a policy that could be entertained only by an intelligentsia that has lost touch with the springs of the human heart, out of a sincere, noble, but profoundly misguided attempt to convert into friends those who have no desire to share even the same planet with us.

Lee Harris is the author of Civilization and Its Enemies.


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