One more reason to shrug and go: Karimov himself has begun to turn against us. On May 5, Uzbekistan withdrew from GUUAM, a regional group of five former Soviet republics complaining that some of the group's members—namely, the new regimes in Ukraine and Georgia—were using the organization as a pro-Western, anti-Russian front. According to a dispatch on the Web site EurasiaNet.org—a superb source of seasoned analysis and on-the-ground reporting—this move "confirms a geopolitical turn … away from the United States towards Russia." The story continues: "Karimov has lost interest in Uzbekistan's alliance with the United States, apparently reaching the conclusion that Washington cannot or will not provide a solid guarantee for the preservation of his regime."
Karimov is right—and so it should be. Russian President Vladimir Putin still defends Karimov's actions (he remains a more stalwart friend than Bush or Clinton ever was). Yet Putin too has recently approached Karimov and expressed worries that the violence in Uzbekistan might destabilize the entire region.
On one level, it's tempting to leave that worry to Putin. Then again, depending on the course of this destabilization (say, if a Taliban-like group comes to power in the heart of central Asia), it might become our worry, too. This probably won't happen. Putin has a record of ruthlessness at dealing with such threats (look at Chechnya). Karimov is no pushover either. There are no organized dissident groups in Uzbekistan, no politicians offering alternatives (as Boris Yeltsin did in Russia or Viktor Yushchenko did in Ukraine), mainly because Karimov has not let them come into being. Just because demonstrators rally in a public square, as Uzbeks did in Tashkent last week, doesn't mean an Orange Revolution comes next.
Still, who knows? When such revolts spiral, they tend to do so very quickly. And it's unpredictable who might grab power.
With this in mind, there is one scenario that might—might—justify maintaining a U.S. presence in Uzbekistan. Given the growing fear of instability, some analysts wonder if Karimov's lieutenants—say, Interior Minister Zokir Almatov or secret police chief Rustam Inoyatov—might be itching to step in. One can imagine U.S. intelligence agents in Uzbekistan (and it's naive to think there aren't any) approaching such figures and offering them a deal: We will help you topple Karimov, and help you stay in power, if you promise to institute real reforms.
Such a plot—like most plots that big powers have helped foment—would be risky. Karimov pledged reforms several times and never followed through. A prospective successor could do the same; these lieutenants seem to be no less nasty than their boss, after all. In that case, we would wind up in the same boat—and be seen as responsible for the outcome. It would be better, of course, if we could somehow help the leader of an Uzbek democratic movement rise to power, but there seems to be no such entity.
This scenario is, admittedly, fanciful. Bush and his team may have no appetite or opportunity for it. In that case, they should explain their appetite for staying in Uzbekistan and associating with Karimov—or leave as soon as possible.