New York, 1 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- When Lorne Craner took office midway through 2001, Central Asia was what he called a "diplomatic backwater" for U.S. policymakers.
But by the time Craner finished his term as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor in August, Central Asia had become a priority region. It had also become a place where human rights and antiterror efforts were in constant tension.
The 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks dramatically shifted the region's strategic importance for U.S. military planners. But Craner credits the Bush administration with maintaining pressure to bring about some democratic reforms through Central Asia while enlisting the states' help as allies.
In an interview on the sidelines of the Republic convention, Craner pointed to developments like press freedoms in Kyrgyzstan and the registering of human rights groups in Uzbekistan as signs of positive change.
"They're not nearly what we would have hoped to have seen these three years after 11 September," Craner said. "But they are certainly, across the board in the region, I think you can definitely say things are better in terms of basic freedoms, with the exception of Turkmenistan."
Craner remains concerned about Uzbekistan, a country he visited four times during his term in office. The State Department in August announced Uzbekistan had failed to meet reform and human rights commitments under the 2002 strategic Partnership Agreement signed by the two countries. That froze up to $18 million in economic aid.
"They're not nearly what we would have hoped to have seen these three years after 11 September. But they are certainly, across the board in the region, I think you can definitely say things are better in terms of basic freedoms, with the exception of Turkmenistan." -- Lorne Craner, the U.S. State Department's former top human rights official
That move and the U.S. support for a UN Human Rights Commission resolution condemning Turkmenistan's rights record were signs that Washington remains serious about promoting rights in the region, according to Craner.
Despite the pressure on Uzbekistan, he is doubtful about the parliamentary elections set for December:
"I think Uzbekistan's [elections] are going to be very problematic, because in an election it's usually expected that you have an opposing viewpoint," Craner said. "In Uzbekistan it's not clear that any opposition parties are going to be allowed to register, which is usually considered a prerequisite in a real election."
Aside from the normal challenges in pushing for reforms, U.S. credibility as a human rights champion was dealt a blow earlier in 2004 by news of the U.S. abuses at Iraq's Abu Ghurayb prison. The potential for undermining U.S. human rights efforts was great, said Craner.
"People said it's a stain on the United States, and it should be a stain on the United States," Craner said. "But the question became, does that mean the United States should stop being an advocate for people in Darfur, for people in Burma, for people in Belarus, for the editors in Uzbekistan, for the women in Afghanistan?"
Craner said the outcry in U.S. society made a difference in foreign reaction to the scandal. Particularly important, he said, was the intense media scrutiny of the scandal, including photos of abuse, as well the U.S. Congress summoning Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for testimony.
Countries such as Sudan initially exploited the scandal to distract U.S. pressure from their own major rights problems. But Craner said rights activists in many repressive states continued to seek U.S. help throughout the Abu Ghurayb case.
"I think there were difficulties encountered from authoritarian governments that tried to throw [Abu Ghurayb] in our face," said Craner. "I think if we were self-conscious about it and navel-gazing, then we would damage our ability to act on behalf of the people who pled with us to keep acting, who said, 'We know you're not perfect, but you're the best there is on these issues; please keep helping.'"
This summer Craner moved from his State Department position to head the International Republican Institute, a U.S.-financed organization that seeks to help democratic development in transition states. It operates much like the National Democratic Institute, a U.S.-funded group identified with the Democratic Party.
The organizations are working together in Afghanistan and Iraq to help prepare political groups in both states for critical upcoming elections. In Iraq, Craner said, the Republican Institute is working on projects that include setting up public policy institutes, helping civil society, and engaging women in the political process.
Craner said that throughout the Middle East, he has been told that democracy movements are heavily dependent on what happens in Iraq.
"If Iraq succeeds, if Iraq becomes a democracy -- just to quote a Saudi gentleman I met -- there will be no excuse for any leader in the Middle East not to move ahead," Craner said. "When you have a large, wealthy, multireligious, multiethnic state in the Middle East that is democratic there will be no excuses left. I think you can also say the same of Afghanistan."
The Bush administration announced late in 2003 a Middle East Partnership Initiative aimed at spurring democratic reforms throughout the region. U.S. officials are hoping the initiative can become as inspirational as the Helsinki agreements of 1975, which democracy activists used to challenge communist rule.