Bases Send Crucial Signals

Just a few months ago the United States seemed to have few choices in the strategically important Muslim countries of Central Asia. All were ruled by undemocratic regimes, placing them at odds with U.S. President George W. Bush's freedom policy, but several nevertheless were emerging as key partners of the Pentagon, both in support of operations in nearby Afghanistan and as potential locations for long-term U.S. bases. The administration's response to this dilemma was to embrace schizophrenia: The State Department criticized the Central Asian despots even as the Defense Department embraced them.

The Pentagon still behaves as if there were no choice. Though President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan recently ordered the massacre of hundreds of his own citizens in the town of Andijan and now bluntly rejects demands by the United States and the European Union for an international investigation, the Defense Department insists there is no alternative to continued coddling of the dictator in exchange for access to the Uzbek airbase at Kashi Khanabad. Far from rethinking the relationship, forged in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would like to make it permanent -- one of a string of forward bases he envisages for U.S. forces in Eurasia.

To swallow this policy is to make two assumptions: that there is no prospect for political change in Central Asia, no matter what the United States does, and that outside bases are still urgently needed to support operations in Afghanistan. The second is a judgment for military experts, though it's worth noting that the giant former Soviet air force base at Bagram, north of Kabul, will be at the disposal of U.S. forces for the near future. President Hamid Karzai has proposed a long-term security alliance with the United States.

The first premise is quietly being revised by Uzbekistan's neighbor, Kyrgyzstan, which also hosts an American air base -- and where a democratic transformation is underway. That, anyway, was the message last week of Roza Otunbayeva, the acting foreign minister of the transitional government.

Otunbayeva, the first senior Kyrgyz official to visit Washington since that rebellion drove autocratic President Askar Akayev into exile, had two points to underline during a hurried trip: Her government is determined to hold free and fair elections for president on July 10, and the new democratic regime will want to preserve a finely balanced security policy that involves alliances with both the United States and Russia. "The July election is our most challenging final examination, which we have to pass in order to prove our intention to become a democratic country," Otunbayeva told a group at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington.

The job of the democrats, of whom Otunbayeva has been a leader, is daunting in their poor and mountainous country. Akayev had ruled since before Kyrgyzstan became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991; a large part of the economy came under the control of his family and political allies. In contrast to the democratic uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine, the revolution that removed the strongman turned violent -- and the bloodshed persists, with assassinations and attacks on leading figures both of the former and current regimes. Otunbayeva said she had met with "a lot of skepticism" in Washington about whether the attempted transformation will take hold.

Her response was to ask Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for help: help in funding fledgling independent media, help in training Kyrgyzstan's security forces. She praised U.S. Radio Liberty for its role in the democratic uprising and begged that it not be cut back. In short, she asked "for the United States to protect democracy and build democracy."

All of which raises the question: Why should the Bush administration not begin to focus on Kyrgyzstan as a military and political partner, while conspicuously leaving Uzbekistan, and Karimov, in the cold? It's possible logistically: In fact, some U.S. Air Force operations have already been shifted from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan at the impetus of Karimov, who has curtailed flights from Kashi Khanabad out of pique over the State Department's demands for an investigation of the Andijan massacre. It would give a large boost to Kyrgyzstan's democrats, who could argue to their countrymen that democracy brings vital rewards, in the form of a privileged partnership with the world's superpower. And it would send a clear message to the nations of Central Asia: The United States will not support dictatorship, even in exchange for a landing strip.

Jackson Diehl is a columnist for The Washington Post, where this comment first appeared.