- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

“The Mouse that Roared,”a 1950s book and later a movie, concerns an imaginary tiny country in Europe, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, that proudly retains a pre-industrial economy and, in a series of absurd situations, goes up against superpowers and wins.

The script presaged a real little country with a hard-to-pronounce name (it’s missing too many vowels), Kyrgyzstan, that is taking center stage on the world stage, and in the process is causing some headaches for the United States and Russia alike.

Last week Kyrgyzstan stunned the U.S., when it announced it would close the American air base there, which the U.S. had counted on to ship vital supplies to Afghanistan in the wake of increasing attacks on convoys going through Pakistan to reach troops in land-locked Afghanistan. The base also is key to being able to send up to 30,000 more troops there to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists. The Kyrgyz announcement followed word that Russia was giving the impoverished country more than $2 billion in financial aid and credit. Last Friday Kyrgyzstan said its decision was final, which some U.S. officials attribute to alleged Kremlin heavy-handed pressure.

Judging from a statement last week by the Central Asia project director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, Paul Quinn-Judge, “The Americans don’t seem to be moving very fast on making a counterbid, if indeed they intend to do so. The first signs one can see is that they may be resigned to just closing the base and moving on.”

But someone at Foggy Bottom (the State Department) or the Puzzle Palace (the Pentagon) apparently woke up. By Monday Kyrgyzstan had delayed its parliamentary vote on closing the U.S. air base and the U.S. said negotiations were going on (which Kyrgyzstan denied). It was, perhaps, shades of another 1950s publication, Mad magazine, which ran a delicious cartoon (inspired by real-world events) of the head of a third-world country threatening to turn to the Soviets if the U.S. didn’t provide aid, and saying the same thing to the Soviets about turning into the American orbit, thereby getting aid from both.

Russia, for its part, was in a conciliatory mood in recent days, granting transit rights through its territory for non-lethal U.S. military supplies heading to Afghanistan, rights that it already gives to alliance members such as Germany, Spain and France. Russia is concerned that if Afghanistan implodes into anarchy and instability, Islamic radicals will spread northward through Central Asia into Russia. Moscow also is trying to make sure the U.S. must go through it on any Central Asia matters, and its making-nice may also be a chit for possible discussions with the U.S. on other thorny issues, such as missile defense in Europe, a new strategic arms control treaty, and NATO expansion.

Whether the U.S. decides to trump the Russians’ $2 billion package in a bidding war, as it could easily do, is as yet unresolved. On the one hand, topping the Russian aid would be a green light to other countries hosting U.S. bases that, as Alexander Cooley wrote in the International Herald Tribune, “they, too, can unilaterally abrogate and renegotiate access arrangements and use the interest of geopolitical rivals such as Russia and China for short-term economic leverage. The long-term damage to American interests worldwide would be great.” On the other hand, it’s hard to make other arrangements that are fully adequate.

It’s a tough call.

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