SOMETIMES, IT'S important to give credit where credit is due. And the administration's decision to help organize an airlift of 439 Uzbek refugees out of Kyrgyzstan late last week deserves credit. The refugees -- men, women and children -- had escaped from Uzbekistan following a street demonstration that turned into a mass killing in the city of Andijan in May. Since then, the Uzbek government had demanded they return home, even attempting to abduct some from refugee camps. After the Kyrgyz government did send some of the refugees back, they disappeared into Uzbek government custody, where they may have been killed or tortured. This would not be unusual in Uzbekistan, where the president, Islam Karimov, a former member of the last Soviet Politburo, has arrested thousands of political prisoners in the past several years. For that reason, U.S. diplomats were right to step in and arrange the transfer of the refugees to Romania, where they will be supported by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees until a permanent solution can be found.
But in agreeing to help, the administration did have to pay a price. Last week, in retaliation for assisting the refugees -- and already angered by U.S. demands for an independent international inquiry into the May riots -- the Uzbek government terminated an agreement that had allowed the U.S. military to use the K2 air base in southeastern Uzbekistan. The air base, set up soon after Sept. 11, 2001, has been used by planes and troops fighting in Afghanistan. Whatever its military uses, its existence, which required the goodwill of Mr. Karimov, has also distorted U.S. policy in Central Asia. Pentagon references to the thuggish Uzbek leader as a "valuable partner" and an "ally in the war on terror" didn't exactly contribute to the promotion of democracy in the region. For that reason, the gains offset the loss: Ending the fiction of U.S.-Uzbek friendship will, in the long term, make everyone better off.