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, Paris, December 2007

Fostering Fundamentalism: Terrorism, Democracy and American Engagement in Central Asia

The short-term security assistance and long-term democracy building in authoritarian regime

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Ref.: Matthew Crosston. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006

Languages: English

Document type: 

The democracy in authoritarian regimes

In his book, Matthew Crosston lays out an interesting and worthwhile argument: that by focusing on short-term security assistance and long-term democracy building in authoritarian regimes, the United States is unwittingly creating conditions for extremism and anti-American sentiments throughout the world. His case study is the region of Central Asia—one that had largely been ignored by policymakers until the need for non-OPEC energy that increased in the 1990s and the military actions in Afghanistan that began in October 2001. According to Crosston, given the newfound strategic importance of Central Asia in its “global war on terrorism,” the U.S. government has all but abandoned the notion of advocating democracy in the region. He emphatically states, “There has been no real oversight to gauge whether vibrant democracies are being established [in Central Asia]. And there has certainly not been a process where regimes have been singled out and denounced for the fact that they have consistently denied their citizens the right to chose their leaders and engage their governments in peaceful opposition and open debate” (p. 18). This particular theme runs throughout the book under the moniker “Wonka Vision of Democracy” which suggests that U.S. policymakers ignore the “reality of democracy” while professing “admiration for the fantasy democracy supposedly emerging.” Crosston quotes excerpts from various public statements of U.S. government officials in a variety of settings to show that this is a “bipartisan effort” to avoid the difficult challenges raised by providing assistance to authoritarian regimes.

After an initial chapter outlining the threat of terrorism and emerging extremism in Central Asia, the author examines what he sees as the fundamental contradiction in U.S. policy: “how foreign policy is professed philosophically and how foreign policy is implemented financially” (p. 14). His case study is the region of the Ferghana Valley, which, he notes, is an ideal test case as it presents itself as a highly contentious piece of territory. Moreover, it is a region that has repeatedly been considered a hotbed of Islamic extremism. This is a concern raised by the respective national governments of the Ferghana Valley, as well as analysts and officials from outside of the region. Three subsequent chapters focus on the countries that possess part of the valley—Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. In each of these, Crosston highlights examples where he believes that the United States has purposefully, or unknowingly, overlooked the lack of democratization efforts by the governments in an effort to curry favor and remain engaged in Central Asia. He follows this set of studies with a brief chapter on Hizb ut-Tahrir and concluding remarks on how shortsighted U.S. policies in the region exude a sense of “double-standards” that will only make the populations in the respective countries skeptical of U.S. intentions.


In short, this book makes no apologies for its harsh criticism of U.S. policy toward Central Asia, and the author states that he hopes to have brought “light to the manner in which the United States provided aid to the region and how such manners compromise our security in the more important long term. While the local regimes increased their repression we looked duplicitous and self-serving” (p. 163). Legislation exists that should limit such partnering with authoritarian regimes, but in actuality, policymakers prefer to overlook these principled measures for short-term gains. This theme is repeated throughout the book, indicating that the author had a clear conclusion drawn at the beginning of the text. Not surprisingly, discussions throughout the ensuing chapters serve to support this claim, giving the book more of a feel that it is ultimately polemical in nature, rather than a social science exercise. Part of this can be explained by the fact that Crosston attempts to examine a range of issues in very little space, and so one has to accept the fact that this is not a thorough historical examination of the forces at play in the region.