TCS Daily

Thanked or Damned?

By Michael Totten - June 9, 2005 12:00 AM

Uzbekistan's Soviet-style dictator Islam Karimov massacred between 500 and 1000 civilians in Andijon province for daring to stand up to his authoritarian rule. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration has uttered nary a peep of a protest in public.

At this point, maintaining Karimov as an "ally" in the Terror War is likely to cause far more trouble, for the U.S. as well as the people who live there, than if we were to dump him. George W. Bush understands what I'm getting at. He said it himself at the Air Force Academy in 2004.

"For decades, free nations tolerated oppression in the Middle East for the sake of stability. In practice, this approach brought little stability and much oppression, so I have changed this policy."

My friend and blogosphere colleague Nathan Hamm -- who worked in Uzbekistan with the Peace Corps until shortly after September 11, 2001 -- understands the country better in his sleep than I do when I'm awake and paying attention. So when he's a bit impatient with simple-minded moralistic analysis I do sit up and take notice.

He has some questions for those who breezily think it's time to send Karimov curbside. They're good questions, too, and they deserve a response. So I'll make my case on his terms.

What should US policy towards Uzbekistan have been from 01/01/92 to 5/12/05? Explain how that alternate policy would have either resulted in the liberalization of Uzbek government and society or how it would have prevented the massacre in Andijon.

I have no substantial beef with our policy toward Uzbekistan, at least not from September 11, 2001, up through the time of the massacre. We could not have turned down Karimov's offer of help in the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Regime-change in Kabul absolutely was necessary for our own self-defense. And we needed allies. The U.S. can't easily launch ground invasions of landlocked countries without help from the border states. The decision to declare Karimov a realpolitik "ally" was the correct one. It was the Roosevelt-Churchill-Stalin anti-Hitler alliance writ small.

But all bogus friendships must come to an end. The United States had no choice but to break with the Soviet Union and send "Uncle Joe" Stalin packing after the Nazi regime was demolished. Likewise, it's time to dump Islam Karimov.

Uzbekistan is governed largely as it was when it was part of the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the Taliban are history. They are not returning to power. The odds that such a culturally secular and moderate country will be swept up in an Islamist tide without American backing are miniscule. Under those circumstances, if we don't urgently need Karimov's help it makes no more sense for us to ally ourselves with him than it would for us to pal around with Fidel Castro.

What should the short-term US response to Andijon be? What are the long-term implications of your answer?

The short-term response, at absolute minimum, is a public condemnation of the atrocity and, by extension, the regime. Most likely the Bush Administration had a few words with Karimov in private. But that does no good at all if he refuses to take our advice about moderating his rule and behaving by civilized norms. After Andijon, he clearly does not.

Quietly twisting Karimov's arm while lauding him in public gives the Uzbekistan "street" legitimate reasons to hate the United States. We are allied with a man who stomps on their face and kicks them in the stomach. That's no way to make friends. But it's a terrific way to make enemies.

If the US is to support democratization programs under the nose of a very hostile government, should it abandon the project or accomplish what it can?

Of course we should accomplish as much as we can. But right now whatever progress might have been made has been cancelled by Karimov's crackdown. And it's being blown back in our faces because we are rightly seen as carrying the dictator's water.

Should the US be willing to curtail its public, rhetorical commitment to democratization and liberalization in Uzbekistan for the sake of maintaining its ability to support NGOs and democratization projects?


If Karimov's rule were slowly improving it would be worthwhile to accomplish whatever we can. Being labeled hypocrites is a price worth paying if it yields tangible results in the real world. But Karimov's rule is not improving. It's getting worse. And it's getting worse at a time when we need him a lot less than we recently did. Over the long run, and perhaps over the medium run as well, we do need the people of Uzbekistan to have at least neutral -- if not positive -- views of the United States.

Something different needs to happen. If it doesn't, a second realpolitik alliance very well may be added to the first. Uzbekistan's liberals and other various secular oppositionists could side with the Islamists against the regime. That's exactly what happened in Iran during the 1970s when the U.S. supported the tyrannical Shah Reza Pahlavi. Since that time the Ayatollah Khomeini's dark Guardian Council has been deeply entrenched in power for more than a quarter century.

A liberal-Islamist alliance may end up forming in any case out of perceived necessity, just as it may have in Iran no matter what we might have done there. But we can help influence who leads and sets its terms.

If we continue to support Karimov, Islamist hatred of the United States will gain traction with some of the liberals. If we publicly oppose Karimov and throw our weight behind whatever democratic opposition exists, some the more moderate Islamists will swing to their side -- and by extension to our side.

Karimov's regime, like all dictatorships in this world, will come to an end. Our future relationship with Uzbekistan will be determined on the day the people elect their first government, when they either thank us or damn us. We won't have the time to wait for the next Bill Clinton to say he is sorry if we don't do the right thing right now.

Michael J. Totten is a TCS columnist. Visit his daily Web log at


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