BISHKEK, KYRGYZSTAN For anyone who has witnessed the slow erosion of democracy in Russia over the past decade, seeing…
BISHKEK, KYRGYZSTAN For anyone who has witnessed the slow erosion of democracy in Russia over the past decade, seeing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin win the public relations war over the recent revolution in Kyrgyzstan has been nothing short of maddening. Commenting on the violent ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who fled the country last week after violent riots protesting his corrupt and oppressive rule, Putin said he could “remember that when President Bakiyev came to power, he harshly criticized toppled President [Askar] Akaev for nepotism and giving his relatives or friends top economic and political posts at every corner. I have the impression that Bakiyev has fallen into the same trap.” Coming from the leader who serves as the 21st-century model for budding authoritarians around the world, laments the collapse of the Soviet Union, and routinely orders the police to break up the smallest of peaceful protests, it’s hard to take these sentiments seriously.
However strange this narrative of newfound Russian respect for human rights may seem, however, it has gained currency here in Kyrgyzstan, where it is Moscow that is viewed as a benign force and Washington derided as the imperialist bully. “In the most dramatic days of our lives, we never got any support and words of sympathy,” Roza Otunbaeva, the leader of the country’s interim government, told the Washington Post about the most recent drama in Kyrgyzstan’s complicated relationship with America. It’s easy to criticize the U.S. position in Kyrgyzstan as one of hypocrisy and turning a blind eye to authoritarianism. But doing so ignores both the hard choices Washington faces and the reality of American involvement here.
Otunbaeva is no Soviet holdover; a former ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom, she is widely considered to be one of Kyrgyzstan’s most Western-oriented leaders. “You came to us to help us build democracy,” she said, “and then just one day, you put your hands over your mouth just to have a base.” The base that she refers to is not just any American military waypoint but rather the Transit Center at Manas. Most American soldiers traveling to and from Afghanistan fly through it. Aerial refueling tankers are parked at Manas, and some 20 percent of military cargo on its way to theater passes through. Manas’s already vital strategic value rose even higher in 2005, when neighboring Uzbekistan evicted the Karshi-Khanabad air base, leaving Manas as the sole station in the region servicing coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Kyrgyzstan is the only country in the world to host both American and Russian military bases. This is an increasingly tenuous position, but it is something that Bakiyev milked for maximum value. Last February, four months after Russia agreed to give Kyrgyzstan $2 billion in economic aid in the middle of the global economic crisis, Bakiyev announced that he, too, would evict the Americans from his country. The Kremlin’s fingerprints were all over that decision; Putin had repeatedly expressed his displeasure at what he believes to be American meddling in Russia’s post-Soviet sphere of influence, and with Manas in particular. But when the United States offered to pay more than three times as much in “rent” for use of the land on which the facility lies, Bakiyev backed down. It was only a matter of time before Russian media, hugely influential in a country where most people speak the language, began airing virulent attacks on Bakiyev, highlighting the heretofore unmentioned corruption and repression it had conveniently ignored while the leader was deemed pliable to Russian diktats.
In other words, it was Bakiyev’s unwillingness to go along with Moscow that made him persona non grata at the Kremlin, not his abysmal human rights record or doling out of jobs and lucrative contracts to family members. There’s no doubt that had Bakiyev followed through with his threat to shut down Manas, he would have been lauded by Moscow as an independent and brave leader and enjoyed the same warm support from Russia as his fellow Central Asian despots, who are far more repressive than he.
Unfortunately, this dynamic does not seem to be understood on the streets of Bishkek. While some of the political elite comprehend the importance of close ties with the United States, this is not a view shared by the majority of ordinary Kyrgyz people whom I interviewed. A young man who participated in last week’s riots told me of his fears that Kyrgyzstan will become a target for terrorists because of the base, and another said that Kyrgyzstan, while presently an ally of the U.S., might soon become an enemy, just like the erstwhile American friend Saddam Hussein. This suspicious sentiment is partly due to Russia’s influence in the country (an estimated 1 million ethnic Kyrgyz, nearly 20 percent of the population, work in Russia, sending remittances that account for about a third of the Kyrgyz economy back home). But it can also be traced to a general perception, shared by some in the West, that America views Kyrgyzstan as little more than a pawn in the game of great power politics. Writing on the website of Foreign Policy magazine, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch said that for Washington, supplying 83,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan is obviously a higher priority than the internal problems of a small, remote country like Kyrgyzstan.
But the simple fact is that the war against the Taliban would be made immeasurably more difficult were the Manas air base to close. Insofar as the Taliban returning to power in Afghanistan would be a disaster for the people of that country and present a haven for al-Qaeda, ensuring a stable government there is not just an American concern but also a global one. And Bishkek has its own national interests in this realm as well. In the immediate years prior to 9/11, militants from the Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan, a terrorist group sheltered by the Taliban, launched multiple attacks into southern Kyrgyzstan. That doesn’t mean that the domestic problems of Kyrgyzstan are not important. But fixing them (something that is largely the responsibility of the Kyrgyz people themselves and beyond the seemingly awesome powers of the United States)cannot come at the expense of eliminating a vital supply line to Afghanistan.
Moreover, it isn’t true that the United States government was fully behind Bakiyev, a complaint I often heard on the streets. Last year’s State Department Human Rights report strongly criticized Bakiyev’s regime for a variety of abuses, including “restrictions on citizens’right to change their government,” “arbitrary arrest and detention,” and “pervasive corruption.” U.S.-government-funded organizations like the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute have long supported democracy-building and civil-society programs. Perhaps most significant of all has been Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz-language service of the congressionally funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which is the most trusted news outlet in the country thanks to its coverage of corruption, human rights violations, and everyday political developments. Nearly every person I speak to in Kyrgyzstan beams at the mention of its name. Indicative of this popularity is that the morning after Bakiyev escaped to the south, the chief of Azattyk’s Bishkek bureau became head of state television.
Nonetheless, the most important lesson to be learned from the events in Kyrgyzstan this past week is that supporting authoritarianism, no matter how valid the excuses, comes with a cost. This is something that everyone, especially “realists” who say that regime type should be irrelevant in the determination of foreign policy, ought to acknowledge. Soft-pedaling criticism of dictators who assist this or that American foreign policy objective, whether it be hosting a military base or supplying us with oil, may bring promised “stability,” but it is always illusory. As the behavior of Kurmanbek Bakiyev demonstrated, authoritarians are by their nature irrational and unpredictable. Worse, when an authoritarian regime falls, the people who take over naturally feel resentment toward anyone who supported those who oppressed them.
The importance of the Manas Transit Center to the ongoing mission in Afghanistan is not a tangible concern to the average Kyrgyz citizen, who has had to deal with the far more pressing issues of poverty, government corruption, deteriorating infrastructure, and the lack of open political channels through which to express frustrations with these systemic problems. The country’s interim government has promised elections in six months, and over the past two weeks the United States has been frantically trying to win assurances that it will be able to keep Manas open. But that won’t matter if the people here decide that America’s quiet support for the regime that oppressed them ought to come with a price. I can’t forget the man in a Bishkek bar who, upon discovering I’m American, kept wagging his finger at me and repeating that “money doesn’t buy relationships.” Now that Kyrgyzstan is on a shaky path to democracy, convincing its people to support our shared international objectives in Afghanistan is not something that will be so easily purchased.
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The Cost of Realism
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.