Since September 11, the Bush White House has supposedly made democratization a centerpiece of its foreign policy, claiming (correctly) that only the spread of liberal democracy will halt the radicalism that feeds organizations like Al Qaeda. In a major speech last fall, Bush announced that "sixty years of Western nations excusing the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe," and declared that the U.S. would now make promoting democratic institutions throughout the world a top priority. Since then, the president has often cited the democratization of Iraq as a reason for invading the country, while his advisors have highlighted the White House's democratizing efforts around the world; U.S. embassies now even distribute fact sheets touting the administration's supposedly stellar record in promoting democracy. Conservative commentators have jumped on board, praising the White House's stance. Tony Blankley, a columnist for The Washington Times, has lauded Bush as "one of history's heroes" for his commitment to global democratization.
Unfortunately, the White House's actions belie its rhetoric, as events last week in faraway Uzbekistan highlighted. As part of the war on terrorism, the Bush administration has not only failed to effectively promote democracy around the world--it has actually actively undermined democracy in a range of developing nations.
Asia has been the region where the Bush administration has committed the most sins against democratization. Shortly after 9/11, the White House sought closer relations with several Central Asian states -- many of which the State Department had criticized for their poor human rights records -- in order to obtain bases from which to attack the Taliban. But even after the war in Afghanistan, Washington has continued to build ties with authoritarian nations in Central Asia, as part of the Pentagon's new strategy of having many small, flexible basing arrangements around the globe. In the past three years, Uzbekistan has received hundreds of millions of dollars in American aid, and the U.S. has upped aid to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as well.
The dictatorial rulers of these Central Asian countries have responded to U.S. support in a predictable manner -- they apparently think it gives them carte blanche to repress their opponents. In Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov has over the past two years obtained a constitutional amendment arbitrarily extending his term of office and strangled the economy with restrictions, pushing nearly 80 percent of the population into poverty. And, according to Robert Templer of the International Crisis Group, Karimov has thrown 6,000 people in prison for their religious beliefs and even boiled dissidents to death -- abuses responsible, in part, for anger that led to a wave of violence in Uzbekistan over the past month. While the United States remains close to Karimov, other Western nations have responded to his abuses. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, a leading financial organization that invests in eastern Europe and central Asia, has chosen to limit its investment in Uzbekistan because of the country's backsliding on human rights and reform.
In Kazakhstan, meanwhile, Human Rights Watch reports that the government "is undermining the prospects for free and fair parliamentary elections by seriously harassing its political opponents." And in sunny Kyrgyzstan, the least repressive of the three authoritarian countries, Human Rights Watch reports that the government has banned non-governmental organizations for getting involved in politics, manipulated election monitoring, and "enacted draconian laws ... to deprive citizens of their right to free assembly."
In other parts of Asia, the story is the same. Washington recently designated Pakistan a "Major non-NATO ally," a distinction the United States bestows on few countries, and offered Islamabad $1.5 billion in military aid -- despite the fact that General Pervez Musharraf, who overthrew an elected government, has allied himself with the most radical Islamist parties in Pakistan -- in order to preserve Musharraf's chokehold over the country for at least another three years. In Nepal, where the royal family has responded to a Maoist insurgency by dissolving parliament, ruling by executive order, and unleashing government forces to mount a campaign of disappearances -- moves that have sparked large anti-government protests in the capital, Katmandu -- the White House, with the approval of Congress, has offered some $14 million in new military aid.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration has allowed Beijing to conflate a separatist movement by Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority that lives primarily in western China, with international terror networks. Though there is little serious evidence that Uighur groups are closely involved with Al Qaeda, Beijing has claimed that the Uighurs are backed by Osama bin Laden himself. China has launched a brutal crackdown on all Uighur dissidents, even nonviolent ones, jailing thousands, executing critics of Beijing, and burning thousands of Uighur books. Though China has done little to aid the United States in the war on terror, the Bush administration has tacitly allowed this scorched-earth campaign, saying little about the destruction of the Uighurs and even naming an obscure Uighur group to the State Department's list of international terrorist networks, a move quickly trumpeted by Beijing. As Graham Fuller and Jonathan Lippman, two experts on the Uighurs, argue in a new book on the region, this "U.S. declaration [was] catastrophic" for the Uighurs. America, previously the main defender of Uighur rights (Radio Free Asia is a primary source of information in Uighur) has now given Beijing "carte blanche to designate all Uighur nationalist ... movements as 'terrorist.'"
Farther south, in Malaysia and Thailand, the United States has also betrayed democrats. Though the Clinton administration had condemned Malaysia's jailing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who was arrested and tried in 1999 in what appeared to be a rigged case, the Bush administration has been silent on Anwar, since Malaysia has offered some cooperation on intelligence-sharing. In fact, President Bush has lauded the "important relationship" between Washington and Kuala Lumpur and invited Malaysia's former autocrat, Mahathir Mohamad, to the White House. Meanwhile, in Thailand, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has presided over a campaign of repression since 2001, silencing the local media through a combination of coercion and force, but the White House has designated Thailand, too, as a major non-NATO ally, making it easier for the Thais to buy U.S. weapons. And on a visit to Bangkok last fall, Bush said little about Thaksin's crackdown on dissent.
Nor is the Bush administration's betrayal of democratization limited to Asia. In North Africa, the White House has developed closer relations with Algeria, an authoritarian nation where, according to Human Rights Watch, thousands of civilians were "disappeared" by state forces during a bloody civil war in the 1990s. These men and women remain missing. Yet the U.S. is trying to gain basing access for American troops in Algeria, and to increase intelligence cooperation with the country, which has a long history of radical Islam. According to The New York Times, Washington has agreed to sell military equipment to the Algerian government. The White House has said little about Algeria's human rights abuses.
Similarly, in Morocco and Tunisia, two other nations developing closer counterterrorism ties to the United States, arbitrary arrests and jailings are rife, yet, as the Times reported, on a trip to North Africa in December, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced a quadrupling of economic aid to Morocco, invited Tunisia's president to visit President Bush at the White House, and said almost nothing about human rights abuses in the two nations
The irony of the White House's undemocratic commitment to democratization is that the U.S. probably doesn't have to coddle human rights abusers in order to obtain effective cooperation in the war on terror. Most of these nations depend in large part on trade with the United States for their economic survival, giving Washington significant leverage. Thailand desperately wants to sign a free trade deal with the U.S., one of the largest investors in the country; China's increasingly high-value industries depend on American technology and support; Central Asian nations rely heavily on American investment to exploit their natural resources, the only assets they have; and Morocco has just inked a free trade agreement with the United States.
Previous American presidents understood that the U.S. could build relations with foreign states while simultaneously pushing them to reform. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan drew close to Mikhail Gorbachev and traded with Moscow, while simultaneously giving high-profile speeches about the need for freedom of expression and religion in the Soviet Union. Some in the administration seem to remember their history: After three years of inaction, the administration likely will sponsor a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Commission condemning China's abuses. But for many people in developing countries who look to the U.S. as a beacon, this action is too late.
Joshua Kurlantzick is the foreign editor at TNR.