If you can supply energy to world markets, do you really need the United States and its conflicting priorities and bureaucracies, along with all that yammering about human rights and democracy? For Islam A. Karimov, the dictatorial ruler of Uzbekistan, the answer is a big NO.
Karimov's recent order to the United States to cease operations at the K2 air base and pull its troops out of his Central Asian republic within six months came only after he had reached new understandings on energy and other subjects with the leaders of China, Russia and his immediate neighbors. Tyrant and butcher Karimov may be; fool he is not.
Karimov received assent or encouragement -- official Washington is not sure which -- from Russian President Vladimir Putin and from China's collective leadership to stick his thumb in Uncle Sam's eye by closing the base, a move that complicates the resupply of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
That makes the U.S-Uzbek rupture more than a diplomatic spat over human rights. It becomes a focus for global strategy as well, raising serious questions about the Bush administration's ability to sustain an American military presence in Central Asia as other major powers reassert their perceived interests in the region.
Settling on a strategy toward Karimov alone was not that difficult for Washington. Superpowers have a history of cutting adrift once-useful bloodstained dictators. But charting why Putin is now asking President Bush to set a timetable for U.S. withdrawal from military bases in all of Central Asia is a far bigger, still unfolding task.
So is reconciling the meaning of a U.S. commitment to democracy and human rights abroad with the demands of the global war on terrorism and the rapidly changing, energy-dominant global economy. While principles remain constant, the reflexes developed during the bipolar Cold War era seem insufficient today.
Karimov became an obstinate and embarrassing partner for Washington following the police massacres of hundreds of civilians in the town of Andijan on May 13. He refused to respond to public U.S. demands for an independent international investigation -- and declined to meet privately with any U.S. official in the weeks that followed.
Instead he journeyed to China to sign new "friendship" and energy agreements with Beijing, and he reaffirmed Uzbekistan's contracts with Russia for natural gas exports. On July 5 those three countries joined the other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to issue a communique calling on the United States to set a timetable for military withdrawal from the region.
Despite the implied threat, "we were not willing to be silent about the problems" in Uzbekistan, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told me last week. Burns was chosen to travel to Tashkent to deliver a tough message to Karimov, who had finally agreed to see the State Department's No. 3 official on Aug. 2.
But the Uzbek dropped the other shoe on July 29 after the United Nations infuriated him by airlifting out of the region 439 Uzbek political refugees from the May 13 shootings: He informed Washington he would take back the base at K2, as the facility at Karshi-Khanabad is known.
Burns immediately canceled his trip, and the United States announced it would meet Karimov's deadline. Washington also let it be known that midair refueling and continuing use of facilities in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan would help take up the slack.
The speed and the studied shrug with which Washington greeted the Uzbek president's expulsion seem to reflect not only a bowing to Uzbek sovereignty but also an assessment that Karimov's political viability is running on empty. The former Soviet bureaucrat is playing a losing and possibly short-lived hand at home, in this view.
He superficially resembles a 21st-century Mobutu Sese Seko, Ferdinand Marcos or Erich Honecker. Those Cold War-era satraps became more trouble than they were worth to their superpower patrons when they were openly repudiated by their own people. Communicating their expendability was often more a matter of calculation than of conscience.
Because the United States is reaching so deeply into the former Soviet sphere of influence to fight Islamic extremism, Washington does not have wholly owned clients there. Actions or words from Washington that undermine Karimov (or his autocratic neighbors) also affect Putin's hold on power in the Kremlin in a direct way.
This makes Washington's support for human rights abroad a more complex but even more important undertaking than it was in the Cold War. How other nations, and particularly Islamic nations, treat their citizens is today the substance, not just the form, of international relations.