"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.