Stockholm syndrome

June 20, 2005

SEVERAL DECADES ago, Swedish investigators made what is now a fairly common observation: Under certain circumstances, the hostage begins to see the world through the eyes of the hostage-taker. Now it looks as though Washington may be in danger of falling into that unfortunate role, with Uzbekistan as the unlikely desperado.

It has been more than a month since Uzbek police opened fire on a crowd in the eastern city of Andijan. The official death toll is 176; witnesses believe it was more like 750. The regime of Islam Karimov promptly blamed Islamic terrorists, and said, in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary, that no civilians had been killed by government forces.

The United States has an interest because there is an American air base at Khanabad, about 150 miles from the Afghan border, and because Uzbekistan provided help in the war against the Taliban. But the Bush administration has also declared its intention to agitate for democracy around the world, and this is inconvenient because Uzbekistan is about as undemocratic as it is possible to be.

The State Department has called for an inquiry into the Andijan massacre, but the Defense Department has reportedly been undermining that stand, behind the scenes, and so far there has been no inquiry. Journalists and human rights monitors have been harassed and detained; a United Nations mission was refused entry. Last week, as polite American diplomatic protests continued, Mr. Karimov sent a signal by restricting U.S. flights at Khanabad.

American policy is held hostage this way: Uzbekistan has two large neighbors, China and Russia, and if the United States becomes too difficult for Mr. Karimov, well, he has other powers to turn to. China and Russia have both applauded Mr. Karimov's crackdown and accepted his explanation that his forces were dealing with terrorists.

And if that's not persuasive enough, Mr. Karimov hasn't been shy in pointing out to Washington just how vulnerable all of Central Asia might be to an Islamist revolution. Tolerating a little rough stuff on his part might be a small price to pay for maintaining an American presence in this region so rich in petroleum, gas and turmoil. That, at any rate, is his message. And it seems the Pentagon has willingly bought into it.

But it's blackmail. Even the Defense Department should have sense enough to understand that cozying up to a despot can only hurt American interests in the long run; it will stir bitterness, resentment and doubts about American sincerity, and pay negative dividends for years to come. The people who first diagnosed the Stockholm syndrome have it right: Last week, the Swedish government said it plans to shut down its small air force operation at the Uzbek base in Termez. The Swedes won't be taken hostage.

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