Friends like these

August 02, 2005

THE UNITED STATES just got the boot from the miserable Central Asian country of Uzbekistan, and it's a good thing, too. The Uzbek regime is one of the worst in the world, a liability as an ally and not an asset. Late last week, the Uzbeks told the Bush administration it had six months to shut down the U.S. airbase at Khanabad, and no one in Washington has been shedding any tears.

American policy has been evolving in President Bush's second term, and the Uzbek eviction shows just how far that process has come. After the attacks of 2001, the administration sought a military solution to the problem of terror; the base at Khanabad was opened - with the cooperation of the Uzbeks and the blessing of next-door Russia - as part of the war on the Taliban regime of Afghanistan. That was four years ago - four years of war and continued terror, and a growing realization in America that victory will ultimately have more to do with sapping extremism than with putting boots on the ground.

There's no question that Uzbek President Islam A. Karimov is an enemy of Islamist extremists; he's reportedly had some of them boiled to death. But his is the sort of mentality that creates more enemies than it can eliminate. The United States faced a very real danger in staying by his side.

It appears, though, that he may have begun to sense the danger to him from the new winds blowing in Washington. Mr. Karimov is naturally a defender of the status quo, as are his big neighbors in Moscow and Beijing. Mr. Bush is not, emphatically. His desire to bring about change led him into the disaster of Iraq, but it also made Washington receptive to, and ultimately helpful toward, the peaceful revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. For several years, the airbase at Khanabad may have been more important than the promotion of democracy in Central Asia, but the balance has tipped. Last month, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld received assurances from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that the U.S. could use its bases in those countries, and now even he can accept the loss of Khanabad.

The precipitating event was the massacre of protesters at Andijan, in eastern Uzbekistan, in May, and the fate of about 400 refugees who had fled to Kyrgyzstan. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice engineered their removal to Romania, and Mr. Karimov had his excuse to act.

Uzbekistan will now draw closer to Russia. A source of friction between Mr. Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who had been growing more alarmed over the American presence on his doorstep, may have been removed. The Bush administration often acts without much thought for the weight of history or the demands of local culture - but backing away from a formerly Soviet despot like Mr. Karimov can't be a bad idea.

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