In my travels to roughly fifty countries, I have been thrown out of only one—Uzbekistan—just a few months after its emergence as an independent state under its first and only president, Islam Karimov. My crime: meeting with human rights activists.
At that time, Karimov's campaign to limit contact with Westerners was not considered a strategic concern for U.S. officials. Immediately following the USSR's collapse, the central aim of American foreign policy in Central Asia was to strengthen Uzbekistan's independence, thus ensuring that the Soviet Union was not reconstituted. Karimov has ruled Uzbekistan as a dictator, yet his repressive ways never impeded his developing close ties with the United States. In the 1990s, Uzbekistan emerged as an active participant in NATO's Partnership for Peace program and appeared eager to check Russian influence in the region.
The early strategy of engaging with Karimov's regime reaped huge short-term benefits for the United States in the immediate aftermath of September 11. Without hesitation, Karimov allowed U.S. and other NATO forces to use Uzbek air bases during the invasion of Afghanistan. The Uzbek base in Karshi-Khanabad proved a great asset in deploying U.S. forces in the region.
Moreover, Karimov's regime looked as though it would be an asset in fighting the war on terror because he claimed that it was successfully fighting the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a fundamentalist terrorist organization. Karimov's method of rule seemed both pro-American and stable, atypical of that region.
Autocrats, however, never make for good allies in the long run. First and foremost, the internal stability that dictators provide is never permanent. In the face of societal unrest, oppressive autocrats eventually fuel societal resistance by resorting to even more repression to stay in power, sidelining moderates and strengthening extremists, such as Islamic fundamentalists. These situations rarely serve U.S. interests. Second, they answer to no one and can reverse external commitments at a moment's notice. Friendly dictators quickly become hostile.
Karimov today is demonstrating the limits of relying on autocrats as allies. On May 13, he ordered troops to fire on unarmed demonstrators in Andijon, killing hundreds. The circumstances that sparked this massacre remain murky, but his response has been crystal clear: more repression. Even more surprising has been his decision to blame the West for the Andijon tragedy and turn against the United States. Our once stable and solid ally in Central Asia has now embraced Russian president Vladimir Putin and called for the eviction of U.S. forces. Our close association with Karimov is also an embarrassment to President Bush's liberty doctrine.
Even more threatening is the combustible political situation in Uzbekistan. Thirteen years of dictatorship have not reduced the terrorist threat to Uzbekistan or the region; any regime that must slaughter its citizens to remain in power is not stable. In banking on Karimov as our ally, we are squandering the opportunity to foster the kinds of democratic institutions that make for more enduring U.S. allies.