Intervention Magazine, December 7, 2003
by Lawrence McNamee

In the 1980s I worked for a semi-retired Texas businessman. His education reflected the values and discipline of an earlier America. At age 73, Al McGehee could still recite Rudyard Kipling’s long poem “Gunga Din” from memory. This unique ability may seem irrelevant in the computerized, globalized, post-9/11 reality that most of us live in today, but in many parts of the world the geopolitical clock is running backwards. Conditions of the late nineteenth century have returned and are effecting foreign policy in Central Asia. This being the case,the value of Kipling’s literary works, the lessons of British Imperialism, and even the merits of the earlier American education system deserve fresh examination in the new century. Kipling’s novel Kim introduced the phrase “The Great Game of Empire,” which referred to the military and diplomatic conflict over India between the British Colonial and Czarist Russian Empires of the late Victorian era. German journalist, Lutz Kleveman, illuminates the current-day practice of the Great Game as a geopolitical term of art, by reviewing its contemporary application to the political and economic aspirations of the United States, the new Russia, China, and Iran toward the petroleum resources of Afghanistan and the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia

The Great Game today is about access to the region’s substantial and largely underdeveloped reserves of petroleum and natural gas. The former Soviet Republics of the Caucasus region are also players in this story. Before the United States occupied Iraq and before Osama bin-Laden became a household dirty word, American foreign policy favored an economic plan to build an oil pipeline from post-Soviet Azerbaijan, through post-Soviet Georgia, to an Eastern Mediterranean port in Turkey. This pipeline, if built, might also transport oil from other friendly former Soviet Republics in Central Asia. The neighboring Russian Federal Republic, People’s Republic of China, and Islamic Republic of Iran have not been consulted in the formulation of this plan. All three nations have since expressed muted hostility at American involvement in the region. The pipeline’s purpose would be to reduce or eliminate American/Western dependence on oil produced by the Arab states in the Persian Gulf. Most of the Caucasian and Central Asian nations do not have a history of hostility toward Israel and none of them are, or have been, members of OPEC. Both conditions are concentric to current American foreign policy.

U.S. support for Israel’s continued existence in the Mideast remains a mainstay of American foreign policy, but an energy policy linked to finding a reliable source of reasonably cheap fossil fuel is relatively new. OPEC’s boycott of the sale of oil to the United States after the 1972 Yom Kippur War has made filling the gas tanks of American cars at agreeable prices a goal of American foreign policy and an achievement which any political party in the U.S. wanting to successfully run a presidential candidate would want to take credit for. Our current Chief Executive can offer his impression of Woodrow Wilson in preaching the expansion of American-style democracy in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere all he wants to, but Lutz Kleveman’s interviews with Afghan, Russian, Uzbek, and other regional leaders indicate that something else is the primary motivation for American presence in the region. Such people believe that U.S.involvement in Afghanistan is neither about promoting democracy or stopping Al Queda. The Americans are believed to be in Central Asia for oil and, with respect to Afghanistan, the right of way for an oil pipeline. The United States’ supposed “democratic reconstruction” of the national government of Afghanistan appears shallow in Kleveman’s reporting. Local warlords lack the systematic brutality of the Taliban, but remain very much in charge of their regions. With one group of Islamic fundamentalist thugs gone, another group of political muscle men now seem to be in charge. These local bosses refer to Afghanistan’s President Karzai as the “Mayor of Kabul.”

East of Kabul, many of the Taliban and Al Queda fighters that our forces battled in the caves of the Hindu Kush are now welcomed and glorified in neighboring Pakistan. Much of Pakistan along the Afghan border is not controlled by Pervez Musharraf’s government in Islamabad. Pakistan’s Khyber Agency is in much the same situation as was Northern Mexico in the early twentieth century. Just as the national government in Mexico City was unable to offer the United States the head of Pancho Villa on a platter in 1916, Islamabad does not have the necessary power in the frontier region to offer up Osama bin-Laden to the American justice system. Elsewhere in Central Asia, the prospects for pro-American ideas and institutions are shown as not particularly bright. On the economic front, visions of a new American source of petrodollars range in the author’s estimation from hard-choice deals to improbable fantasies in this part of the world.

It is generally thought that our current foreign policy is guided by our successes and mistakes from the Cold War. The New Great Game’s presentation of the situation in Central Asia suggests to the reader that we are fighting a transnational force of enemy religious fanatics in the same way we fought ideological enemy nations in the 1950s and 1960s. Kleveman is not particularly anti-American. He has seen enough of conflicts in the non-developed world to be a realist on the subject of this region’s present and likely future. The author is knowledgeable about the international petroleum industry without being allied with it or adversarial to it. He mentions current developments in Iraq without constantly connecting them in the reader’s mind with similar, earlier ones in Afghanistan. The exception to this being that both nations might be key to the United States developing oil resources outside of the Gulf States. While lessening the increasingly risky American dependence on nations like Saudi Arabia might be a good thing, forming new relationships with Central Asian strong-man regimes is shown to be a less-than-satisfactory alternative. Also, the U.S.-backed plan to pipe Baku oil through Georgia to Turkey is viewed by Kleveman as equally risky, given the smoldering ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus region. Finally, the region’s external “players” in the Great Game are many and formidable. The new Russia sees the United States as a geopolitical rival. China sees us as an economic competitor. Iran fears they are already targeted as America’s next target for “regime change.” Each of the former Soviet Republics have their own agendas and intrigues to advance their own governments’ selfish interests. A question strongly implied for the American reader is, “is this a neighborhood we really want to move into?”

Central Asian and Caucasian oil resources seem to present exciting opportunities to realign U.S.foreign/energy policies away from oil dependence upon the Persian Gulf. In reality, drilling Central Asia’s oil patch may prove as frustrating as accessing the elusive “China market.” If the price of doing business in the region casts the United States in the role of Kipling’s British Empire, with respect to Russia, China, and Iran, it just might not be worth it. In Afghanistan and much of Central Asia the social structure is more tribal than political. This results in the sort of strong-man regime seen in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Willingness to work with such governments makes our call for greater democracy in the Mideast and elsewhere fruitless at best and hypocritical at worst. The price of playing the Great Game may be too high for most
Americans. Still the deals continue to be made. Lutz Kleveman closes the book with an ironic observation of some CNN footage he was watching on TV. It showed the bombing of Baghdad interspersed with commercials for SUVs and painkillers. Are these images symbolic of America’s foreseeable future?



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