No one ever thought it would be easy to conquer the outposts of tyranny or to destroy the sponsors of terror. But it shouldn't be that hard, most of the time, to hold American foreign policy to some minimum standards: no rewards for gross acts of dictatorial oppression; no blind eye to facilitation of terrorism; no benign neglect for nuclear proliferation; no free passes for aiders and abettors of tyrants. Are we meeting those standards?
Not as much as we should be, and not as much as we could be.
On May 13, Islam Karimov, the Uzbek dictator, crushed a demonstration in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon, causing over 500 deaths. This was his response to what had happened in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in recent months. There, autocrats had bowed to popular sentiment and foreign pressure, and yielded power. Karimov chose another path. He was quickly supported by his fellow strongmen Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao. But U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who values our military base in Uzbekistan, has apparently (so far) blocked attempts by others in the U.S. government to insist on an investigation of the massacre, or to withhold U.S. aid.
Leave aside the fact that Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan would be more than happy to provide similar bases. Karimov has so far paid no price for his actions. Surely the United States should do what it can to prevent dictators elsewhere from inferring that repression works. Unless the Karimov regime is a lot more central to U.S. foreign policy goals than any of us knew, necessity does not compel Washington to make an exception in this case.
Combine our inaction with respect to Karimov with our passivity in the face of crackdowns in places ranging from China to Zimbabwe to Saudi Arabia in the past couple of months, and there is a real danger that the democratic momentum from earlier this year could be lost. The global story of 1989 happily turned out to be more Berlin Wall than Tiananmen Square -- but that wasn't inevitable. Nor is it inevitable that the story of 2005 will turn out to be one of democratic triumphs rather than regressions toward dictatorship. One thing is sure: Dictators around the world (and democrats, too) are watching our actions in response to their various efforts.
As are the terror facilitators: The June 8 Washington Post had a front-page article about Abu Ibrahim, a Syrian who, with the tacit approbation of his government, has been for months shuttling Saudi money, and Saudi and other jihadists, into Iraq to kill Americans and Iraqis. Yet it seems Syria remains a safe haven for terror sponsors. The Defense Department apparently refused a CIA request to launch an attack on a Syrian terror-sponsoring target within the last two weeks. Shouldn't it be the case that if Assad can't police his border, we won't respect it either, since we have to defend ourselves and our Iraqi friends against jihadists infiltrating Iraq from his territory?
Surely our inaction with respect to Syria is a poor precedent if we're fighting a war on terror. For that matter, is the Saudi government doing as much as it can to stop its young men from trooping to Iraq to kill Americans? How much pressure have we put on either government? Wasn't it a big mistake of the 1980s and the 1990s not to make the friends and enablers of terror pay a real price for their activities?
And wasn't it a mistake to allow nuclear proliferators, like A.Q. Khan, and nuclear cheaters, like North Korea and Iran, to move ahead with impunity? Are we being tougher today? Are we doing all we can to destabilize the ghastly Kim Jong Il regime? To help dissidents in Iran? To insist that China not prop up the North Korean regime? Evidently not. If actions hostile to the United States and our interests, and disdainful of our warnings, have no meaningful consequences, surely there will be more of them--many more.
The Bush administration has had a pretty good understanding of who our friends are, and of who our enemies are. More important, it has grasped what kind of regime is likely to be friendly, and what kind tends to be an enemy (or at least a problem). In recent weeks, there have been some good speeches and gestures by the Bush White House, and some useful deeds. But the dictators have had smooth enough sailing in the last couple of months that we should worry. It would be unfortunate if the spring of 2005 went down in the history books as a turning point -- in favor of the dictators.