Scott Horton lays out the details behind our eviction notice from our Kyrgyz airbase:
But this is far from the whole story. In fact at the time the Kyrgyz agreed to let the United States open the base, the two nations enjoyed excellent relations and the Kyrgyz public was arguably the warmest and most pro-American of the region. That changed rather dramatically, and the change did not result as much from Russian propaganda as it did from American ineptitude and misconduct. For a decade, American advisors and aid contractors had lectured the Kyrgyz on the need for budgetary transparency and anti-corruption measures. Yet when the United States Government first arrived in country with a serious contract to negotiate—for the creation of the air base—it wound up concluding an under-the-table deal with the president’s family under which most of the financial benefit from the airbase wound up parked in offshore bank accounts. That deal was cut by Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon with Rumsfeld’s direct involvement. Had a private U.S. company cut such a deal it would probably have found its officers on the other end of an indictment under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act brought by a U.S. attorney. However, following an FBI investigation that confirmed these depressing facts, the Bush Administration concluded that in this as in other areas, it would hold itself immune from the criminal law standards it applied to ordinary citizens.
But the longer-term problem was with the Kyrgyz. A prominent Bishkek lawyer discussing the dealings over the base with me pronounced a judgment that I heard consistently: “We finally got an up-close look at your government. You’re a bunch of hypocrites, no less corrupt than our own government–just a lot bigger.”
Off to a bad start, things quickly got even worse. In 2006 U.S. serviceman Zachary Hatfield shot and killed Aleksandr Ivanov, a truck driver employed by the base’s aviation fuel contractor. The incident was catastrophically mishandled by U.S. military and diplomatic personnel. U.S. spokesmen issued a statement claiming that Ivanov had physically threatened Hatfield with a knife, and that Hatfield shot him in self defense. While making vague and unconvincing statements of “regret” about the “incident,” the soldier was whisked away back to the United States. That was flight to avoid prosecution and to block a homicide investigation–such flight, of course, a serious crime unto itself. While offering vague assurances that the soldier would be dealt with under the military justice system (something which, in the eyes of the Kyrgyz, never occurred), American officials did little to atone for the crime. Kyrgyz newspapers made mincemeat of the proffered excuse, reporting that Hatfield’s claims that Ivanov was armed with a knife were untrue and establishing that Ivanov had made numerous prior deliveries to the base, and was known to the soldier. The Kyrgyz media fanned suspicions that the homicide was an unprovoked act, accounts that American officials only fueled by issuing a false report and failing to convincingly show either contrition or an intention to bring the soldier to justice. The U.S. government offered a $2,000 damages payment to Ivanov’s family on account of his death, an act widely viewed in Kyrgyzstan as a calculated insult. Although the U.S. embassy later clarified that this was an interim payment only and that a larger sum would be paid later, the damage was done.
The American management of the incident was totally bungled, leaving the local population with the idea that the Americans on the base were arrogant and not accountable to the law. The public’s view of Americans underwent a radical and sudden transformation. A nation once seen as generous benefactors now were seen as arrogant bullies.
“This base is doomed,” I was told repeatedly. It is only a matter of time before public opinion forces its closing. The question at this point is whether America will learn any lessons from this experience.
Lest anyone think this is an isolated occurrence, remember the problems we have had in Korea and in Okinawa recently over similar criminal acts involving local people. No one expects that you can avoid all criminal activity by soldiers, but how it is handled is critical. It's not just a question of strictly following the rules, it's a question of diplomacy. Soldiers shouldn't be handed over to the mob to appease the locals, of course, but they equally need to face the music just as they would back home.
Unfortunately, or Kyrgyz critic was right, the U.S. under Bush was just as corrupt as the local government, and for much the same sorts of reasons. Obama may correct this, but much of the damage has already been done. It only takes one "Aw shit" to cancel a lot of "attaboys" and Bush's "aw shits" erased the hard-earned attaboys of 200 years.