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Gain a Base, Lose a Friend

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In an amazing op-ed in today’s Washington Post, Kyrgyzstan’s long-time ambassador to the United States gives us an inside look at the dealings that led to the opening of Ganci (Manas) Air Force Base. You Americans didn’t just lose this base because of Russia, he says—things are much more complicated than that. But even more consequential are his judgments about how having the base affected the conduct of America towards his country: all for the worse.

One thing has consistently troubled me about the relationship between the United States and my country. Once the base was set up, I saw a fairly radical change in American attitudes. Before, Washington had consistently juggled a series of priorities–broadly speaking, they were security concerns, economic concerns, and advocacy of human rights and democracy. But once the base was established, it became clear that while other concerns might be voiced from time to time, only one thing really mattered: the air base. In the end, this shift served neither country’s interests.

Imagine: this is the man who was on the receiving end of American criticisms about democracy and human rights in his country. He had to fend these criticisms off. And yet he says it was a good thing for his country and for the United States that we kept an eye on these things and spoke with candor about them. I suspect Ambassador Abdrisaev is not alone in this category. I know diplomats and government leaders across this region who pray for an America that can recover its voice as a genuine advocate of democracy and human rights in the world. Can Barack Obama achieve this?

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