Front Man for Freedom

Bush's handlers burnish him as a human-rights defender, but there's an Uzbek in the ointment

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One or the other: Above, exiled Uzbek dissident Muhammad Salih at the Lincoln Memorial in 1995. Below, Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov defacing the Ground Zero memorial in 2002 by adding his signature to it.

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Government (for now) of Uzbekistan

It seems like only yesterday that George W. Bush was safely inside Republican Square Garden, protected by thousands of armed troops from half a million freedom-loving dissidents.

That was last August in New York City. Now, Bush's handlers are steering him into photo-ops with selected foreign dissidents. The idea is to create an image of Bush as a defender of human rights. Peter Baker and Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post outlined this morning the new deployment of the POTUS:

    Bush lately has begun meeting personally with prominent dissidents to highlight human rights abuses in select countries, a powerfully symbolic yet potentially risky approach modeled on Ronald Reagan's sessions with Soviet dissidents during the Cold War. Besides [North Korean defector Kang Chol Hwan], Bush played host to a top government foe from Venezuela at the White House and met Russian human rights activists during a trip to Moscow last month. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met opposition leaders from the former Soviet republic of Belarus.
The Post reporters, who have been nipping at Bush's heels regarding Uzbekistan, note that a severe test of Bush's new image is approaching: Muhammad Salih, the most prominent Uzbek political exile, is coming to the U.S. later this month and is angling for face time with Bush and other American officials. Salih would be wise to stay away from Don Rumsfeld—the Pentagon's liable to "render" Salih, the leader of the Erk (Liberty) Party, right back into the arms of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov.

Rice has spoken out about Karimov's repressive rule—not specifically mentioning Karimov's boiling prisoners to death but at least trying to light a fire under him. However, Rumsfeld, who himself likes a good naked pyramid now and then, still wants to be the Uzbek despot's fuck-buddy.

Karimov has been doing a nice job of playing Bush, Rumsfeld, and others, including New York's Bukharan Jews, as I wrote yesterday. Others see Karimov's gamesmanship as well. The Post reporters note:

    Karimov's government has curtailed U.S. military flights at the Uzbek base in response to the Bush administration criticism, but Rice promised rights groups yesterday not to ease up on calls for an international investigation of the Andijan massacre.

    "I told her that the State Department approach was absolutely right, but they're being completely undercut by the Pentagon, and the Uzbeks are playing them," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch. "She looked me in the eye and said, 'We will not let Karimov play us.' "

Salih, a prominent Uzbek intellectual (he founded the "metaphoristic" genre of Uzbek poetry) is no political lightweight, either in his own eyes or Karimov's. Back in November 2001, he was held in Prague, and human-rights activists feared for his safety (he got out of that fix). At the time, Galima Bukharbaeva, the intrepid Tashkent reporter for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, wrote:

    There is no mystery behind Tashkent's determination to see Salih behind bars. In spite of the fact that he has been out of the country for eight years, he remains a symbol of the secular opposition to Karimov's autocratic style of government and is still a potential rival.

    At home, the absence of political freedom, of any real opposition or freedom of speech, have prevented the appearance over the last 10 years of any single politician capable of presenting a political platform to the public.

    Opposition supporters in Uzbekistan fear that the government is using its increasingly close ties with the US to crush political dissent under the guise of prosecuting Islamic terrorists.

So, if Bush reaches out to Salih, it would signal that we're washing our hands of Karimov. But if that's the case, what will happen to our cherished military outpost at Karshi-Khanabad, in southern Uzbekistan? Will Karimov, who has already started embracing Russia again, kick us out? Can he afford to? Stay tuned to see what Bush's puppet-masters decide to do.

It seems like only yesterday that Bush was sucking up to Karimov.



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