WASHINGTON – President Bush and administration officials have spoken in glowing terms recently about the Rose, Velvet, Orange, Purple, Tulip and Cedar revolutions, affixing vibrant colors and flowers to successful democratic movements supported by the United States throughout the world.
But foreign policy experts say not all uprisings may be destined for such colorful characterizations. Case in point: the cautious U.S. reaction to a violent government crackdown on protesters in Uzbekistan (search) that is believed to have ended in the deaths of hundreds of civilians.
Washington's response to the Uzbekistan uprising has been much more tepid than the encouraging rhetoric America afforded the recent protest movements in Lebanon and Uzbekistan's fellow former-Soviet states of Georgia and the Ukraine.
Calling Uzbekistan a "friend," President Bush told reporters on Tuesday that the United States expects leaders there to "honor human rights."
"We want to know fully what took place there in Uzbekistan, and that's why we've asked the International Red Cross to go in," Bush told a Rose Garden news conference. "We expect all our friends — as well as those who aren't our friends — to honor human rights and protect minority rights."
The timeline and accuracy of the Uzbekistan events are still being pieced together as President Islam Karimov (search), who has ruled since the country's liberation from the Soviet Union in 1991, continues to shut out most international media access. After initially allowing a few investigators in for unrevealing tours of the aftermath, he has rebuffed further international calls for an independent inquiry.
The violence began on May 12 after members of a reportedly peaceful protest outside of a city courthouse were arrested and thrown into jail. They were demonstrating outside the trial of 23 Islamic businessmen who were jailed a year earlier for "religious extremism."
The next morning, armed gunmen broke into the jail, freed the 23 men, their supporters and others. The jailbreak reportedly led to deaths inside the prison while several thousand protesters gathered outside to rally against unfair imprisonment, poor economic conditions and the government's alleged human rights abuses.
Numerous witnesses on the ground during the crackdown, including demonstrators and local human rights groups, reported to international news services restricted from the areas immediately following the events that the demonstration was largely peaceful and the majority of people there were not connected to the jail break-in as the government contends.
According to limited news reports from the region, at one point during the protest, armored vehicles rolled up and government troops began firing into the crowd, mowing down demonstrators, many of whom were women and children. Over the next few days, the number of dead rose to more than 500, reported independent sources.
The Uzbek government, however, counted 169 dead, none civilians, a number it reached after revising upward its estimate from a few dozen "terrorists." Karimov has blamed the jailbreak and ensuing violence on the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (search), an extremist group tied to terror attacks against U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and in Uzbekistan as recently as 2004, according to the State Department.
Meanwhile, U.S. forces in Uzbekistan said they knew little of the violence that was going on in Andijan, where the prison is located. Approximately 1,750 American personnel are stationed in Uzbekistan today.
The majority of Uzbekistan is Muslim, but Karimov's government only allows worship at state-sanctioned mosques and has long repressed any religious dissent, according to experts on the region. Critics have suggested the extremists are being used as a scapegoat for Karimov's crackdown.
Condemnation of the crackdown and calls for investigations have come from the European Union, NATO, the United Nations and the United States. The State Department denounced the government's response and strongly urged political and economic reforms there. However, officials made clear that the U.S.-Uzbek relationship is unchanged.
"We have, I think, in many ways, in public and in private, made clear to the government of Uzbekistan that we think there needs to be a credible and transparent assessment of the events in Andijan with international participation. That is really the only way to clear up all the questions that have been raised, both about the violence that started this, the violence against government buildings and prisons and the government's response, which by many reports involved indiscriminate shooting," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher last week.
"The kind of cooperation we can have with Uzbekistan — again, the fight against terrorism — is based on common interests, interests that the United States has in the region, interests that we all have, that the government of Uzbekistan has in fighting terrorism. It doesn't do any of us any good to abandon the effort against terrorism in this critical region. So we will continue work with them in many areas, including the fight against terrorism," Boucher added.
In remarks on May 17 during a joint press conference with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stressed that Karimov needs to make some changes.
"I think you would find that we have over the last few years, but especially since the president's democracy agenda has been so far advanced, a record of going to the Karimov government and telling them in no uncertain terms that it is time to open up their political system and to reform," she said.
Last year, an estimated $11 million in aid was withheld from Uzbekistan because of what the State Department said were "numerous serious abuses." Last week, Boucher warned that $22 million in U.S. aid would be at stake if Karimov didn't cooperate with calls for human rights reforms.
Nonetheless, critics say Washington risks setting a hypocritical tone, given the recent violence.
David Phillips, director of preventative action at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the U.S. military base in Uzbekistan, used as a staging ground for American troops in its operations in neighboring Afghanistan, is no excuse for not being more vocal and tougher on Uzbekistan's autocratic president.
"We're totally willing to soft-pedal mass killings and human rights abuses when they are considered a so-called ally in the War on Terror," Phillips said. "It undermines [the administration's] credibility."
"There is not much we can do about it as long as we need the [U.S military] base. It's a sad fact of life," said Steven Blank, professor of national security studies at the Army War College in Pennsylvania. He said each country's opposition movement must be weighed against American interests, especially in a region that plays such a pivotal role in the War on Terror.
"That does not mean we should abstain from pushing reform," he said. But he added: "There is considerable unease about Uzbekistan's direction."
Lee Harris, an historian and author of "Civilization and Its Enemies," said the Uzbekistan situation is a good example of how Bush's muscular doctrine for promoting democracy across the globe can fall short of realistic expectations.
"I think we are holding out an illusion that is going to disappoint," he said, noting that until all the facts on the ground are known, "caution is certainly advisable," because no one wants to help toss out one autocrat, only to put in its place an anti-American extremist replacement.
Blank said as long as the United States is in Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda remains a threat to the region, "we don't want to put that at risk" by encouraging the toppling of the regime.
"Up until the present, the priority for the United States in regard to Central Asia has been winning the global War on Terror," he said. "Support for liberalization and democratization always came after that in the hierarchy of objectives."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.