France's Charles De Gaulle once said countries don't have friends or foes, only interests. For the Bush administration, the time has come for it to decide what its interests are in the most dictatorial nation in Central Asia, Uzbekistan.
The key US interest there since Sept. 11, 2001, has been a military base to support American troops in neighboring Afghanistan. But in the week since the security forces of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov killed hundreds of unarmed, protesting civilians on May 13, the US has had to do some soul-searching on whether its greater interest is bringing democracy to this "friend."
The Bush administration realists say the immediate need is to keep relying on the base to chase down Al Qaeda. But even the Pentagon wonders if that's a thin reed. It's taking the precaution of scaling back its operations at the airbase in the town of Khanabad because of the new political uncertainty in Uzbekistan.
The Bush idealists have joined the UN and other international bodies in putting pressure on Mr. Karimov - who's ruled ruthlessly since the former Soviet republic's independence in 1991 - to let an international team investigate the massacre in the southern city of Andijon. That's only a baby step, however, toward bringing a modicum of human rights to this nation.
Mr. Karimov thinks he can weaken this foreign pressure by claiming he's simply keeping radical Islamists from taking power in his Muslim nation. That argument carries less weight these days as more Muslim nations move toward democracy and discover radical Islamic groups either don't keep their popularity at the polls or go moderate. The US, for instance, doesn't buy that same line from Egypt's leader Hosni Mubarak and is pushing him toward democracy.
A (name your color) revolution in Uzbekistan, like recent ones in other former Soviet republics, still seems far off. But the US needs to more clearly show the way for Karimov to free his people of his tyranny. The Uzbeks can only hope the US is doing its utmost to accomplish this.