Cooley on How the U.S. Lost its Base in Kyrgyzstan

Cooley on How the U.S. Lost its Base in Kyrgyzstan

Alexander Cooley of Barnard College and the Harriman Institute at Columbia University has an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune looking into how and why the U.S. is in the process of losing its air base in Kyrgyzstan.

The story really gives a sense of the brass tacks of the so-called New Great Game: actually a not-so-great game of payoffs, more payoffs, threats, and opportunistic maneuvers. (Not that it was any different in the 19th Century.) After recounting the recent history of (seeming) payoffs and quid pro quos, Cooley shows how the U.S. airbase received its coup de grace:

Given the importance of the economic dimension to the Kyrgyz, it is hardly surprising that Bakiyev’s cash-strapped government was finally swayed to break its agreement with the United States when the Russian Federation promised even greater benefits. At their summit meeting in Moscow, Bakiyev secured from President Dmitri Medvedev an economic package in excess of $2 billion, including an emergency $300 million loan, $180 million in debt write off and $1.7 worth of financing for Kyrgyzstan’s hydroelectric sector, more than the prevailing unofficial quid pro quo of sundry assistance programs offered by Washington.

Cooley then takes his argument in a different tack than I expected. Rather than saying the U.S. should have been quicker with the blank check, he argues for smarter bargaining going forward in a manner that would avoid hostaging all other U.S. bases to costly re-negotiations:

Though the United States has the resources to match and exceed the Russian package, it should not participate in a bidding war over Manas. Any significant increase in compensation granted to Bishkek will signal to other global U.S. base hosts that they, too, can unilaterally abrogate and renegotiate access arrangements and use the interest of geopolitical rivals such as Russia and China for short-term economic leverage. The long-term damage to American interests worldwide would be great.

Instead, U.S. officials in their last-minute discussions can offer to organize a multilateral conference for Kyrgyzdebt restructuring and forgiveness, and encourage EU member states active in the Afghanistan campaign to expand their economic engagement with the Central Asian country. They should emphasize that trans-Atlantic commitments are credible, unlike those being offered by a cash-strapped Moscow that may not be in a position to deliver on its pledges (and which failed to do so for neighboring Tajikistan as part of their 2004 bilateral basing accord).

Finally, he suggests that Kyrgyzstan may not have been as strategic as it thought in its turn to Russia:

Moreover, without the presence of the Manas base, Bishkek itself will have far less leverage in its future dealings with Russia. On the other hand, alternative hosts such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan will become newly valued members of the international effort in Afghanistan and their bargaining position vis-à-vis Russia will be enhanced.

For more on Cooley’s work on how U.S. military bases affect the poltics of their host countries, see his book Base Politics.

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Asia-Pacific, Europe, Foreign Relations Law, National Security Law
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