"Kick-Me" or "supine" diplomacy is what Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post called the Obama Administration's world view on Friday. Krauthammer was reacting to news that the Soviet Russia had persuaded (via $2.15 billion) Kyrgyzstan to push the "eject" button on the US Manas Air Base, used to resupply NATO troops in Afghanistan. Whereas, according to Vice President Biden, the button was supposed to be the "reset" one, as in a different dynamic in international relations now that Bush is gone.
I can see why Krauthammer would be a mite upset, in the same week that Russia announced other stick-in-the-eye moves like setting up an anti-NATO rapid reaction force. But we didn't hear from the neocon Mr. K. back in 2005, when the Bush Administration was ousted from Karshi-Khanabad Air Base ("K2"), in Uzbekistan. For background, read "The World's Fireman and Its Lily Pads: The Case of K2" by Dr. Stephen R. Schwalbe in The Air & Space Power Journal.
Dr. Schwalbe, Air Force veteran and adjunct professor for Air Command and Staff College, describes former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's lily pad strategy as "employing numerous and varying types of bases and base agreements to allow maximum flexibility when required to conduct military operations." You'll remember Rumsfeld's enthusiasm for bases in "New Europe," when what he disparagingly called "Old Europe" didn't sign up as willing partners for the invasion of Iraq.
Rumsfeld's lily pads started to prove to be rather unstable platforms even while he was still in office. The May 2005 massacre in Uzbekistan of some 1,000 unarmed demonstrators resulted in the US ouster from K2 when human rights concerns were expressed. But the US still had other lily pads, notably Manas in Kyrgyzstan. Rumsfeld had to shore up wobbly Kyrgyz commitments in the wake of the Uzbek crisis, after the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) called for the closure of all US bases in Central Asia.
But wait - Kyrgyzstan is no paragon of human rights, as the US State Department's most recent report indicates. While probably not the worst perpetrator in the region, State catalogues a litany of abuses including "pervasive corruption, torture, child labor, discrimination against women..." You get the picture. We're being bounced out of a joint that maybe we shouldn't have tried to enter in the first place.
BBC correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes reported from Kyrgyzstan this week, and visited Manas Air Base, speaking with its "extremely perky" officers who try to put a smiley face on their efforts to bond with their host country. But the BBC reporter concludes that
there is little to show for the eight years America has spent here. Inside the Manas airbase the buildings all look distinctly temporary. For all their talk of "partnering", the Americans have not even fixed the broken concrete runway.
They pay a paltry $60m a year in rent. And one day, when their war in Afghanistan is done, they will go home. Unlike the Russians, who have already been here for well over 100 years.
By the way, that "broken concrete runway," some 13,800 feet long, was built for Soviet bombers. According to GlobalSecurity.org,
American airmen said Ganci [note: informal American name for Manas Air Base] was setting a new standard for comfortable deployments downrange. Compared to the dusty and desertlike temperatures at the tent city at Karshi-Khanabad, also known as K-2, in neighboring Uzbekistan, Ganci was almost like a resort.
In his 2007 book America Town: Building the Outposts of Empire, Mark Gillem provides a detailed look at American military outposts. Like Manas, as the BBC's Wingfield-Hayes says, "inside, it's the American Midwest." Gillem, himself an Air Force Reserve officer and architect, says "these outposts might as well be islands." Lily pads, perhaps.
During the Bush "with us or against us" days, authoritarian Central Asian leaders thought they knew which way the wind was blowing, and "lily pads" might have appeared a relatively cheap and expedient way to project 'American power. Now that they are sinking, the challenge for the Obama Administration will be to find relatively stable arrangements in an extremely unstable region to service US and international community goals in Afghanistan.
I don't know what those arrangements should be. But I do know that they will call for enhanced diplomacy, and a recognition that there are others in the region - Russia, China, and the SCO - who want to be consulted. Supine - as Krauthammer thinks - I think not; but for sure, no longer supremely arrogant.
(Image source: National Association of Conservation Disticts - NACD)