The False Promise of Autocratic Stability

Sunday, October 30, 2005

In my travels to more than 50 countries, I have been thrown out of only one—Uzbekistan—just a few months after its emergence as an independent state in 1992 under its first and only president, Islam Karimov. My crime? Working for an American democracy promotion organization and meeting with human rights activists.

Back then, 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 U.S. foreign policy in Central Asia was to strengthen Uzbekistan’s independence, thus ensuring that the Soviet Union would not be reconstituted. Karimov has ruled Uzbekistan as a dictator ever since, yet his repressive ways never impeded his developing close ties with the United States. In the 1990s, Uzbekistan, which had emerged as an active participant in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, appeared eager to check Russian influence in the region. Kremlin leaders despised the independent Karimov; by contrast, the U.S. relationship with the Uzbek strongman helped check Russian influence in the region and guarantee that no Soviet or Russian empire would ever be reconstructed in the region again.

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, this strategy of engaging with Karimov’s regime reaped great short-term benefits for American national security interests. 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, near the Afghanistan border, was a real asset in rapidly and successfully deploying American forces into 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 orga-nization with ties to the Taliban and other international terrorist groups. Karimov’s method of rule seemed both pro-American and stable, atypical of that region.

However useful in the short run, autocrats 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, autocrats resort to even more repression as a way to stay in power, a response that sidelines moderates and strengthens extremists within society, be they Communists, fascists, or Islamic fundamentalists. These explosive situations often end in revolution, civil war, or state collapse, outcomes that almost never serve American interests. Second, autocrats also have no legitimate way to hand over power, meaning that transitions from one leader to the next can be precarious moments for our friends. Democracies, for all their faults, make successions more predictable. Third, autocrats make for bad allies because they have no enduring values shared with democratic states and answer to only a small number of people within their societies. They therefore can reverse external commitments on a moment’s notice. Friendly dictators quickly become hostile.

Karimov today is demonstrating the limits of relying on autocrats as strategic allies. On May 13, 2005, Karimov ordered his troops to fire on unarmed demonstrators in the city of Andijon, killing hundreds. The circumstances that sparked this massacre remain murky, but Karimov’s response has been crystal clear: more repression. More surprising, however, has been Karimov’s decision to blame the West for the Andijon tragedy and turn against the United States, even though Washington’s criticism of Karimov has been measured. Our once stable and solid ally in Central Asia has now suddenly embraced Russia and China and called for the eviction of American forces from his country. Our close association with Karimov is also an embarrassment to American ideals and 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 only ally in Uzbekistan, we are squandering the opportunity to foster the kinds of democratic organizations and democratic institutions that make for enduring and stable U.S. allies.

Dictators seeking to curry favor with the United States always present “our” strategic options in Manichean terms—we must either work with them (and ignore their internal critics) or face the consequences of instability and hostility. In fact, this choice is a false one. American diplomacy is at its best when U.S. officials engage with their counterparts in an autocratic regime on issues of mutual self-interest and, at the same time, nudge their autocratic friends and engage democratic actors in society in the name of fostering democratization. In the 1980s, this dual-track diplomacy worked in the Philippines, Chile, South Africa, and ultimately even in the Soviet Union.

These lessons from two decades ago must be revisited now. In fact, U.S. government officials can present a different stark choice to our autocratic friends: begin the process of political reform now and manage an evolutionary transition to democracy as they did in South Africa, or refuse to reform and witness a revolutionary transition to a new form of autocracy as they did in Iran. What is certain is that change is under way in Uzbekistan and many other regimes in that region of the world. The only question now is will it be evolutionary or revolutionary change. Pretending to stay the course, as we and our partners have done for too long in Uzbekistan and elsewhere in the region, is no longer an option.