- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice successfully navigated the difficult diplomatic terrain of Central Asia on her trip to the other side of the world. She obtained a commitment from Kyrgyzstan’s new government to allow the United States to continue operating its military base there. This will undergird U.S. military action in Afghanistan and preserve a U.S. footprint in the geopolitically sensitive region.

Miss Rice argues that the Bush administration is not required to choose between supporting democracy in Central Asia and using the U.S. military to fight terrorism. The United States, she says, is not willing “to make a choice between our objectives in terms of the immediate concerns about military access and our objectives in terms of democracy, because we see that there is an inextricable link between our strategic goals of democratization and fighting the war on terrorism.” This is largely wishful thinking, at least in the short-term.

The United States was asked by the government of Uzbekistan in May to pack up its military base in that country after U.S. officials pressed for an investigation of a massacre of dissidents. The defense of principle can thus exact a cost in Central Asia as elsewhere in the world. In the case of Uzbekistan, the cost was bearable, and the administration has earned credibility for its support of democracy by pushing an investigation into the massacre.

Having been evicted from Uzbekistan, the U.S. forces needed a launching pad for operations in Afghanistan. The Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan, where approximately 1,000 troops are stationed, is now the only base in Central Asia for staging operations in Afghanistan. Since Kyrgyzstan has become the most democratic country in Central Asia, the U.S. base there poses fewer conflicts for administration policy. The president of Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, last week told Miss Rice that the United States could continue using its air base “until the situation in Afghanistan is completely stabilized.”

Until this agreement was reached U.S. rights to operate the base were in play. In July, Central Asian nations, including Kyrgyzstan, Russia and China, asked the United States to say when it would close its bases in the region. Shortly afterward the Kyrgyz defense minister indicated the United States could continue to use the base. When the Bakiyev government was elected in July after a popular uprising, U.S. use of the base was called in question. The deal that Miss Rice struck now formalizes U.S. rights to the base.

Miss Rice acknowledges that this glosses over the need for further democratic progress in Kyrgyzstan. While she was in Kazakhstan, with its abundant oil riches, Miss Rice stressed the need for that country to hold verifiably free and fair presidential elections in December; some critics insist she should have pushed more forcefully for progress on other fronts.

U.S. credibility and leadership requires officials to uphold minimum human-rights standards and discernable progress toward democratic government. The administration has to make difficult judgments on when a government’s actions require reproach or punishment. Miss Rice seemed to strike an approximate balance. It is not clear, however, why the secretary cannot recognize that pushing for human rights can exact a cost of military objectives. Without that acknowledgement, the administration divorces itself from reality.

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