IT LOOKS as if the Obama administration might have lucked out in Kyrgyzstan, the obscure Central Asian nation that is host to an important U.S. military base.
The coalition that consolidated power this week after a popular uprising includes several liberal democrats with pro-Western views, including interim president Roza Otunbayeva. Consequently, the new government appears prepared to forgive the fact that the United States courted the corrupt and autocratic former ruler, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, and apparently allowed members of his family to pocket the profits of supplying the Manas Air Base.
Ms. Otunbayeva told Lally Weymouth of The Post and Newsweek that the U.S. lease on the base, which is important to operations in Afghanistan, would be extended "automatically" and that "we will continue with such long-term relations" with the United States. Considering that Russia has been trying to force the closure of Manas and supported the ouster of Mr. Bakiyev after he reneged on a promise to do so, Ms. Otunbayeva's stance was a significant act of goodwill.
The former ambassador to Washington did, however, deliver a well-deserved tongue-lashing to the Obama administration. "I would say that we have been really unhappy that the U.S. Embassy here was absolutely not interested in the democratic situation in Kygryzstan," she told Ms. Weymouth. "We concluded that the base is the most important agenda of the U.S., not our political development and the suffering of the opposition and the closing of the papers and the beating of journalists. They turned a blind eye."
Those words should offer a lesson to the administration as it crafts policy for Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian states. All are strategically important to the United States because of their proximity to Afghanistan; all are also undemocratic. In the first years after Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration sought to promote political liberalization in Central Asia even as it cut deals about military bases and transit routes. But the policy was largely abandoned after 2005, when U.S. criticism of a massacre in Uzbekistan prompted its strongman, Islam Karimov, to close a U.S. base.
The Obama administration has accelerated the shift toward a "realist" embrace of the autocrats. The president met this week with the brutal ruler of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who just granted military overflight rights; the administration is meanwhile taking steps to improve relations with Mr. Karimov. There are defensible reasons for this policy: The United States will soon have 100,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan; it needs bases and cooperation from neighboring states; and it arguably lacks the leverage to force democratic transformation in Central Asia.
Kyrgyzstan nevertheless has offered a reminder that the appeasement of autocrats has its own costs. Even from a strategic point of view, that strategy is ultimately counterproductive. Ms. Otunbayeva says that her interim government aims to create a democracy, with free elections in six months. The Obama administration can atone for its past behavior by providing unqualified support for that transition.