Speculation about the Saudi regime's vulnerability to radical Islamists is now commonplace. But further east, another authoritarian government that the United States has embraced recently faces a similar threat.
Islam Karimov's iron-fisted regime in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan -- which he ruled as the local Communist Party boss from 1989 until the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991 -- is lurching toward crisis. It continues to be rocked by bombings and assassination attempts, most recently bomb attacks late last month on the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Tashkent, Uzbekistan's capital.
Not long ago, Uzbekistan's problems would have been regarded as an upheaval in a distant country. But since Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. military has been deployed in this Central Asian country, so America could be drawn into Karimov's battles against his enemies at home.
The predicament Washington could face in Uzbekistan exemplifies a familiar pattern in American foreign policy. In the name of combating a variant of anti-American radicalism -- communism during the cold war, terrorism today -- the United States provides economic and military assistance to a dictatorship because, well, it seems better than the alternative. That engagement metamorphoses into entrapment when the regime, having extinguished all political participation and having failed to deliver enough economic benefits to offset the ill will generated by its repressiveness, begins to run up against violent opposition.
The regime then declares that its overthrow would constitute a grave setback for American interests, not least the loss of military bases and political influence, and gradually America starts down the road of identifying the regime's enemies as its own. But the government is so unpopular among its citizenry that deepening American involvement becomes a fool's errand.
The wise course of action would be to induce the regime to gain more legitimacy by opening up its political process and taking steps to improve the economic lot of ordinary people. But the effort to goad dictatorships toward reform rarely works, despite the aid and military assistance extended.
For one thing, U.S. leverage is limited. The regime understands that Washington acts out of perceived self-interest, not benevolence, so the implied threat to leave is hardly convincing. Second, the unsavory methods of such regimes are not avoidable choices but essential means for wielding and preserving power. Democratization strips dictatorships of control, and dictators are not about to commit political suicide to please America. In addition, Karimov has been masterful at depicting the opposition movements that he has dismantled as terrorists or Islamic fundamentalists.
As Uzbekistan's instability grows, U.S. apologists for Karimov will argue that America must stay the course because he is a safeguard against militant Islamic movements linked to Al Qaeda. They will warn that the the U.S. military base at Khanabad is essential to the war on terrorism. They will claim that Karimov's repressiveness has been exaggerated and that Uzbekistan is a natural ally against both millenarian Islam and Russian hegemony in Central Asia.
Radical Islamist movements are not unknown in Uzbekistan. The poor, densely populated Ferghana Valley is particularly receptive to Islamic political doctrines. And the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, whose key leaders have been captured or killed, was tied to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Yet a government that knows how to rule by force alone, and that hounds political parties that are hardly proponents of terrorism or violence, begets the very radicalism it fears.
You might think the United States had learned a lesson or two from its previous encounters with dictators. But in Uzbekistan, it looks like America could soon be implicated in a familiar quandary yet again.
Copyright 2004, International Herald Tribune