History Repeats Itself in Uzbekistan

Here’s the scenario: Muslim extremists are viewed as serious threats by the West. Among others, the United States supports a brutal, but immediately useful, leader who is willing to kill his citizens he deems threatening.

Sound familiar? It should, at least twice.

It was the case in the 1970’s and 1980’s, when Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran began stirring Muslim hatred of the West. Fearing that the sentiments could sweep the Middle East, President Reagan looked to Saddam Hussein, a leader known for his brutality, to quell Iran’s aggression.

Of course, Saddam later became a bitter rival of the United States. He aquired and used chemical weaponry, massacred separatist Kurds rather than honestly deal with them and waged war on Kuwait.

More recently, the scenario reflects events in Uzbekistan, where protestors released prisoners from a jail in the eastern city of Andijan and were fired on by government troops, the resulting clash leaving 173 dead.

After the massacre in Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov’s similarities to Hussein become both startling and ominous.

Possibly worse than the clash itself are the reactions from the United States, Russia and China. Bush has essentially dodged the issue, Putin is resisting an investigation into the shootings, and President Jintao of China “firmly supports the crackdown.” The rationale behind these stances? Karimov is opposed to terrorism and Muslim extremism.

Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, was dismissed for condemning Karimov and calling on the West to cut ties with him. Murray, speaking with Al Jazeera, calls the Uzbek regime “despicable,” saying Karimov’s only interest is “maintaining his own power and enriching himself and his family while the country gets poorer and poorer.”

“He has done all this with complete US support,” Murray notes. Like Iraq in the 1980’s, the brutal Uzbek regime is viewed as the lesser evil against Islamic extremism, and is strongly backed by the West.

But if Karimov can hold on to power, as Mr. Murray says is likely, what will his government look like in a decade or two? Will it harbor greater threats to America than Islamicists? Given the violent authoritarian tendencies Uzbekistan has demonstrated, it could very well become the West’s worst enemy in a matter of years.

So what might be a better course of action than condoning Karimov’s brutal excesses and offering him United States support? Murray offers some nuanced suggestions: “The U.S. gives Uzbekistan $100 million in aid each year and I would like to see a stop to that. I would like to see personal sanctions against Karimov and his family.”

Bush should also do everything he can to liberalize Uzbekistan and to support pro-democracy forces in the nation; for all his support of Mideast elections in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, he is strangely silent about democracy in Uzbekistan. President Bush should be consistent in his message, and must not let Islam Karimov become the next Saddam Hussein.

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