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John Simkin

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One of the myths of Bush's foreign policy is that he is trying to spread democracy to the rest of the world.

Take the example of Uzbekistan. Elections took place in this country in December, 2004. However, opposition parties were not allowed to take part and President Karimov was allowed to maintain his control of Uzbekistan. Not one member of the US administration criticised these elections. On the surface this may seem surprising as Karimov is a former member of the Communist Party. However, Bush does not mind communists when they are his communists.

Uzbekistan is a country with a government that wages war on its citizens. According to the UN report published in 2002 torture in Uzbekistan is “widespread and systemic”. Last year Human Rights Watch produced a book with more than 300 pages of case studies. This included the boiling to death of Muzafar Avazov and Husnidin Alimov.

Over the last couple of days an estimated 700 civilians have been killed while peacefully protesting against Karimov’s government. However, Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, announced to the press that Karimov’s troops had opened fire on “Islamic terrorists”. He also urged them to seek democratic government “through peaceful means, not through violence”. Jack Straw, the UK foreign secretary did indeed condemn these attacks on peaceful demonstrators but insisted that: “It’s for the people to decide on a change of regime, not outsiders”. This is the same Jack Straw who helped facilitate regime change in Iraq.

Bush has not been interested in human rights abuses in Uzbekistan. In fact, when the British ambassador in Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, complained about these human rights abuses, Bush put pressure on Blair to sack Murray. This he did and as a result Murray stood against Jack Straw in the recent general election.

Bush not only refuses to condemn Karimov, he helps to prop up his regime. For example, in 2002 the US gave Uzbekistan over $500m in aid, including $120m in military aid and $80 in security aid.

Why is Bush so keen to keep this communist dictator in power? The same reason why he removed Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Oil. The US has troops stationed in Uzbekistan. The reason for this concerns the building of a pipeline to bring central Asia’s hydrocarbons out through Afghanistan to the Arabian sea. Control of Uzbekistan is vital in order to preserve this pipeline. So, as you can see, Bush cares nothing for democracy or human rights.

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Think of it as the sonofabitch school of foreign policy. Legend has it that when Franklin D Roosevelt was confronted with the multiple cruelties of his ally, the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, he replied: "He may be a sonofabitch, but he's our sonofabitch."

More than 60 years on, that serves as a pretty good expression of American, and therefore British, attitudes to Islam Karimov, the tyrant of Tashkent who has ruled the central Asian republic of Uzbekistan since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

That he is a sonofabitch is beyond dispute. Like so many despots before him, Karimov has looked to medieval times for ever more brutal methods of oppression. Hence the return of the cauldron, boiling alive two of his critics in 2002. Uzbekistan holds up to 6,000 political prisoners; independent economic activity has been crushed; religious practice is severely restricted; there is no free press; and the internet is censored. On December 26, when the world was marvelling at Ukraine's orange revolution, Karimov was hosting an election that was not nearly as close - he had banned all the opposition parties.

But, hey, what's a little human rights violation among friends? And Karimov has certainly been our friend. Shortly after 9/11, he allowed the US to locate an airbase at Khanabad - a helpful contribution to the upcoming war against Afghanistan. Since then he has been happy to act as a reliable protector of central Asian oil and gas supplies, much coveted by a US eager to reduce its reliance on the Gulf states. And he has gladly let Uzbekistan be used for what is euphemistically known as "rendition", the practice of exporting terror suspects to countries less squeamish about torture than Britain or the US. This was the matter over which the heroic Craig Murray, the former UK ambassador to Tashkent, fell out with his employers: he argued that Britain was "selling its soul" by using information gathered under such heinous circumstances.

Brushing Murray's qualms to one side, London and Washington remained grateful to Karimov. A procession of top Bush administration officials trekked to Tashkent to thank the dictator for his services. Donald Rumsfeld, not content with that 1983 photo of himself shaking hands with Saddam Hussein, praised Karimov for his "wonderful cooperation", while George Bush's former Treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill, admired the autocrat's "very keen intellect and deep passion" for improving the lives of ordinary Uzbeks.

And perhaps this egregious example of sonofabitchism would have remained all but unnoticed had it not been for the past few days. For having ugly friends can only work if people don't look at your companion too closely - and this week the world saw Karimov in action. When opponents took to the streets last Friday, the dictator ordered his troops to open fire. Uzbek official figures speak of 169 dead; human rights groups estimate the toll at between 500 and 750 - most of them unarmed.

When crowds demonstrated in Lebanon, Ukraine and Georgia, the Americans welcomed it as "people power". But the brave stand in Uzbekistan brought a different response. Washington called for "restraint" from both sides, as if the unarmed civilians were just as guilty as those shooting at them. In the past couple of days, the tune has changed slightly. Now the state department wants Tashkent to "institute real reforms" and address its "human rights problems". It is at least possible that Washington may soon decide Karimov has become an embarrassment and that he should be replaced by a new, friendlier face - but one just as reliable. Less of a sonofabitch, but still ours.


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