Kisses for Karimov

Uzbekistan's dictator is another Qaddafi-in-waiting. Realism is one thing, but the United States can't be afraid to call the devil by his name. 

"If you are strong, everybody is nice to you. If not, bye-bye." So said Saif al-Islam, son of deposed Libyan autocrat Muammar al-Qaddafi, a few months ago when asked why the West had turned against his father.

And who can blame him? For years, the United States and Europe downplayed Qaddafi's brutality to secure his favor and his oil. For $2.7 billion, they let him buy their forgiveness for the Lockerbie attack. For his help against al Qaeda, they shipped Libyan militants whom they captured around the world to his dungeons. "Dear Moussa," began the warm letters U.S. and British intelligence officials sent to Qaddafi's top security official, Moussa Koussa, arranging these renditions.

So is it right to kiss up to tyrants when their fortunes are up? The question may be moot when it comes to Qaddafi, but it's a decision that U.S. officials still confront every day -- not only in the Arab world, but also with regard to other brutal and undemocratic "allies," for example in Central Asia.

Looking at Libya, some might still say yes. After all, for a little love from the West, Qaddafi gave up his nuclear program and suspended his support for terrorism. These were not trivial concessions. And in any case, with whom was one to deal in Libya if not Qaddafi? The bedraggled human rights activists of Benghazi? They appeared to be just a handful of lawyers picketing a courthouse, when they weren't in prison themselves. Few imagined that they would one day inspire a revolt and then help lead their country. Libya's dissidents were certainly fine people, the sort one might invite to a "civil society" chat with a visiting dignitary or take on a study tour to Sweden. But governments did not take them seriously.

Yet cultivating Libya's dictator also carried costs. It reinforced the cynicism with which many people in the Middle East viewed American and European claims that they were pursuing principled policies in their region. As it turned out, that cynicism was shared by the Qaddafis themselves. It may have contributed to their miscalculation in March, when they ignored the U.N. Security Council's demand that they stop a brutal military offensive against opposition-held areas.

The Qaddafi family clearly thought that if it could crush Libya's revolt quickly or at least hold out long enough, Western powers would soon be back begging for oil -- as they eventually did the last time they tried to isolate the country. To the Qaddafis, the notion that the West would suddenly stand firm for human rights or anything else must have seemed, as Saif told many interviewers, a "joke."

U.S. President Barack Obama has thoughtfully addressed the lessons of America's dealings with authoritarian allies in the Middle East. He has said that the United States has security interests that it will continue to advance, which will require working with the governments it knows. At the same time, he has stressed that "failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our interests at their expense." Additionally, he has acknowledged that "societies held together by fear and repression may offer the illusion of stability for a time, but they are built upon fault lines that will eventually tear asunder."

But can the U.S. government turn hindsight into foresight?

Look just past the region touched by the Arab Spring and to the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan. Before Republican presidential contender Herman Cain immortalized it as "Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan," it was mostly known for being the place where a dictatorship boiled its enemies alive. Its leader, former Soviet apparatchik Islam Karimov, presides over a ruthless, corrupt state that imprisons and tortures anyone who dares to champion a democratic alternative. He harbors hopes, it has been said, to pass power to his daughter, whom leaked U.S. cables call the most hated person in the country. His subjects once tried to revolt, in 2005, but were massacred; now they seem passive, but seethe beneath the surface. The government promises the West it will reform, but does nothing.

In all these ways, Uzbekistan is just like Qaddafi's Libya. It, however, has one asset Qaddafi lacked: It borders Afghanistan. The Pentagon needs transit routes to get supplies to U.S. troops there and eventually to get the troops out. It needs, in effect, a "yes-fly zone" over Uzbekistan. To buy access, the administration has asked Congress to waive human rights restrictions on military aid to Uzbekistan, which were imposed the last time the country's security forces shot protesters. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, two weeks ago to cement the relationship.

For years, successive administrations told the Uzbek government -- and its beleaguered opponents -- that aid would never be provided absent some improvement in human rights. Now the Uzbeks are in danger of learning what the Qaddafis once thought they knew: If you have something the Americans want, hold out -- they won't stand on principle forever. And therein lies the danger. If men like Karimov think American principles are malleable, they won't believe the United States the next time it threatens them with consequences for their misbehavior on human rights or any other issue.

If push came to shove, it would not be surprising if Obama placed the needs of 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan over the needs of Uzbek dissidents. This is the kind of choice realists tell us presidents must sometimes make. That said, I think that the administration could have driven a harder bargain with Uzbekistan. Karimov should not have had to be bribed to help the United States succeed in Afghanistan; he benefits from stability there, and his cronies already profit handsomely from U.S. military contracts.

Additionally, if they are set on being realists, U.S. officials should at least be realistic when discussing countries like Uzbekistan. Instead, they talk about incorporating its sclerotic economy into a "New Silk Road" linking Central Asia to Europe. They say they believe Karimov when he promises to leave a democratic country to his children -- just as some once harbored hopes about taming Qaddafi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

A true realist would understand that these things are not going to happen. In all likelihood, there will be stagnation and repression in Uzbekistan until the fault lines do indeed tear asunder. And then the United States will have a sadly familiar choice to make.

It would be best if the United States did not go through the same cycle with Karimov and others like him that it went through with so many of its repressive allies in the Middle East. But if U.S. officials think security interests require it, they should at least be honest about what they are doing. Avoid happy talk about engagement bringing forth a bright new day. Forge a transactional relationship -- conducting only what business is required, only as long as necessary -- while consistently condemning human rights abuses, pressing for concrete improvements, and reaching out to civil society. And be ready for the day when it is time to say, in Saif al-Qaddafi's choice words, "bye-bye."

In other words, deal with the devil when you must. But always call him by his name. And then don't forget to give him what he's due.



Look South, Not East

The Obama administration is turning to Asia for the defining competition of the next century. But if the United States actually wants to win, it'll need Latin America.

With Barack Obama's administration pivoting toward Asia and with the U.S. president now off to Hawaii for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit (and then to Australia and Indonesia), let's remember that the most important trip of his time in office was not east but south. In March, in the midst of the fallout from Japan's tsunami and nuclear meltdown and the brutal escalation in Libya, Obama made an international trip the Western media almost entirely ignored. His destination: Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador. There was pressure to cancel the visits, and photos and media reports revealed that Obama was accompanied by his military advisors and was getting constant updates on both crises from a secure camouflage tent.

Of course, the date for the trip was not movable, especially as it was precisely the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's declaration of the "Alliance for Progress," which brought about an industrial expansion from Mexico to Argentina. Obama's journey thus had a grand strategic purpose missed by Washington's Mideast- and China-obsessed elites (not to mention previous administrations -- one recalls George W. Bush in 2005 being startled by a map of South America and exclaiming, "Wow! Brazil is big!") By setting out to "forge new alliances across the Americas," Obama has implicitly acknowledged the emerging geopolitical reality that Latin America is nothing less than the third pillar of the West, alongside Europe and North America.

The United States certainly can't take Latin American loyalty for granted, if it ever could. This is an age of multialignment, with most powers playing all sides. South America has rolled out the welcome mat to the new Asian power, with Brasilia and Beijing declaring a strategic partnership years ago and many South American commodities exporters like Chile and Argentina owing much of their recent growth to China's massive appetite for raw materials.

Indeed, the first aim of geopolitics is access to resources, which South America has in abundant supply. Some 30 percent of the world's total biocapacity resides in South America. It may sound cliché to say that the Amazonian rain forest is the world's lungs, but it's true. The continent is also the world's breadbasket. Most of the global supply of bananas, sugar, oranges, coffee, soybeans, and salmon, as well as a major share of beef and pork, come from South America. It also has massive mineral deposits: silver, copper, lead, tin, zinc, iron ore, and lithium.

Perhaps most importantly, Latin America is fundamental to any strategy for energy self-sufficiency. North America's energy future already looks strong with oil and gas deposits under the Arctic seabed, Canada's gigantic oil sands, wells in the Gulf of Mexico, and newfound shale-gas deposits in the United States. Add to this the major discoveries of oil off Brazil's Atlantic coast, plus Venezuela's abundant reserves, and you have a comprehensive solution for total energy independence from the turbulence of Eurasia and Africa. There is also a sustainability angle here. Brazilian sugar cane-based ethanol is four times more efficient to produce than North American grain-based ethanol.

According to energy expert Daniel Yergin, the new Western Hemispheric energy axis runs from Alberta, Canada -- from which the United States gets another 1 percent of its oil imports each year -- through Texas and the Gulf of Mexico down to Venezuela, French Guiana, and Brazil. U.S. energy policy should be increasingly Western Hemispheric -- just as China's energy policy is increasingly Middle Eastern. In this context, the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to Texas can be delayed (as it just was), but it is nonetheless inevitable.

Building a new hemispheric economy is crucial to tackling not only energy independence but also industrial competitiveness. Latin America's 900 million people (about 12 percent of the world's population) represent a $6 trillion economy -- equal in size to China's. Furthermore, Latin America is younger and more urbanized than Asia, making it a highly productive partner for the United States. Additionally, Latin economies now feel the Chinese economic threat as much as the United States does. China has dumped everything from clothing to cell phones onto the region, threatening an estimated 90 percent of Latin America's manufacturing exports (which account for 40 percent of all its exports) and undercutting trade. Almost half of Brazil's manufacturing exports go to other Latin American countries, and two-thirds of those markets (in everything from shoes to cars) are at risk from Chinese competition.

Rather than outsourcing to Asia and accelerating the rise of economic competitors, U.S. firms could look much closer to home, forging joint ventures in energy and manufacturing across the region. This is already happening to some extent, but the opportunities have not been seized. With coastal Chinese wages rising, numerous U.S. companies are relocating to Mexico, which offers logistical proximity, a more predictable exchange rate, and a closer political relationship -- all of which mean less risk and eventually greater profits. Even the $100 billion IT outsourcing industry could be brought back from India into the United States' time zones. In the long run, such a hemispheric industrial policy is the only way for the Americas to remain competitive with an Asia that has caught up in brawn and is catching up in brains.

With concerns over competition from China growing and with suspicion of multinationals giving way to pragmatism about the need for foreign investment and technology, now is the time to reinvigorate the goal of a hemispheric pact. Currently, U.S. free trade agreements (FTAs) with Colombia and Panama are under consideration, but more FTAs around the region could mean more exports and more jobs for the struggling U.S. economy. But here's how not to strengthen ties: tariffs on Brazilian steel and wavering on a free trade agreement with Colombia. Accelerating job creation and economic growth in the erstwhile "banana republics" of Central America benefits the United States not only through decreased illegal migration but in real dollars: Most of these countries export their goods through Florida, using U.S. airlines and ports.

Seeing Latin America as a grand strategic prize rather than the object of congressional politicking is Obama's fundamental challenge. He could take a line from Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, who recently declared, "Integration is an imperative because in a world of large blocs, we will be stronger if we are united."

It is fashionable for pundits to declare that the world's center of gravity is shifting east. But that need not be the case. Elevating South America to its rightful place as the third pillar of the West alongside Europe and North America could be the most decisive geostrategic maneuver still to be deployed. In the coming decades, the United States may well need to direct and project its power to the east, but the source of that power will increasingly be the south. There are some who think that the future of competition will come from across the Pacific -- and they may be right -- but if the United States can succeed in forging a new hemispheric economy with Latin America, the East would have an even longer way to go in catching up with the West.

Parag Khanna is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and author of The Second World: How Emerging Powers Are Redefining Global Competition in the Twenty-First Century and How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance.