June 22, 2005

Far From Ideal

More on Uzbekistan. Daniel Nexon of the new and excellent Duck of Minerva says it's time to cut Karimov loose. Nathan Hamm's not so sure. Duck of Minerva makes an impressive case, but I think I'm still with Nathan on this one. I do agree that "ugly" actions—like, say, cozying up to Uzbekistan—can hurt America's legitimacy and moral authority around the world, and that's bad. But I'm not convinced that all ugly actions are the same—every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Our undying support for Husni Mubarak's regime in Egypt, for instance, obviously has real costs and makes people hate the United States—to the point where they're blowing up our skyscrapers. That's terrible. But support for Uzbekistan isn't like that. As Nathan has pointed out before, it's not at all clear that most Uzbeks are chafing at the bit and hate the United States for supporting Karimov. (In fact, they don't seem to give us much thought at all.)

Meanwhile, sure, there's a whole barricade of human rights and liberal groups out there blasting the United States for siding with Karimov and his torture chambers. But let's face it: as much as I respect these groups, they're not going to stop criticizing the United States for moral hypocrisy anytime soon. That's not to say they're wrong, it's just that these aren't the sort of "swing voters" who will start to consider the United States the world's shining beacon or morality all because we disengage from Uzbekistan. (There's a useful point about incentives to be made here.) So how much legitimacy do we actually lose from supporting Uzbekistan? Daniel Nexon might well be right that it's a lot; I just want to see the evidence.

Onto Nexon's more important point: If Uzbekistan's really in danger of sidling up closer to China (and he argues that this potential sidling is probably overblown), then that just proves that we never had much leverage over Karimov in the first place. Well, that's true, and as Nathan says it seems unlikely that we'll be able to shove Uzbekistan down the democracy path anytime soon. Still, engagement could lead to all sorts of minor little pushes and nudges behind the scenes: aid and cooperation with Uzbek NGOs and civil society groups, for instance. And then there's military cooperation which, as Joseph Braude explains here, can at least get you a few steps closer to democratization, by promoting transparency in defense planning and democratic control of security forces. (Steven Cook has done some thinking along these lines too.) Just because we don't have much leverage over Karimov, and can't "force" him to, say, hold free elections, doesn't mean nothing positive can come out of friendly engagement. In theory. Of course, if Karimov's intent on scuttling the Uzbekistan-U.S. relationship, as he seems to be, then there's no sense chasing after him. Engagement doesn't mean frantic pandering. Foreign affairs are ugly but they don't need to be pathetic.

Last note: I am worried about the United States getting dragged into Uzbekistan's internal conflicts. If there is, as Nathan says, a risk of the country "collapsing into a chaotic civil war," one would prefer that the U.S. had nothing to do with it. On the other hand, who are we kidding? If civil war did happen, the U.S. would get involved like it or not, so it may as well stick around for the time being, preparing for that possibility.
-- Brad Plumer 2:54 PM || ||