Barreling Around in Central Asia

From the September 29, 2003 issue of National Review

This ambitious book is an account of the international competition for oil and influence in one of history’s most turbulent regions. Rudyard Kipling coined the phrase “the Great Game” for the 19th-century rivalry between Russia and Britain for empire in Asia; today, the players and the stakes are different, but the game continues — perhaps deadlier than ever. The author, veteran German reporter Lutz Kleveman, explores the link between the quest for Caspian oil and the war on terror.

On the whole, the book impresses. Kleveman risked his neck traveling across Central Asia to interview a diverse cast of characters: diplomats and mullahs, businessmen and border guards. A compact style and a sharp eye for detail — we learn how the dictator of Turkmenistan shuts down his capital for an annual all-you-can-eat “Day of the Melon” — help the reader digest a huge and complex subject.

The world is interested in Central Asia because of oil. Vast reserves of petroleum — up to 200 billion barrels — lie beneath the Caspian Sea. These supplies easily rival OPEC’s, making them a strategic and economic prize sought by three great powers: Russia, China, and the United States. Each has a preferred pipeline route and is determined to win the region’s wily (and frequently corrupt) leaders to its side.

Moscow wants the oil pumped north so that Russia can profit from the economic domination of its former empire. (Most countries in the region have precious little else to export.) Beijing wants the oil pumped east into Xinjiang to power China’s industrialization. Yet another player — Tehran — is offering to pump or swap the Caspian crude southward to tanker terminals on the Persian Gulf. Washington certainly does not want Central Asia’s oil producers to be economically — and politically — dependent on Russia or China, and much less on Iran. U.S. policymakers favor a complicated route that would stretch from Azerbaijan’s Baku oil fields, through Georgia, and then on to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. Competition among these plans makes for rough diplomacy, and sometimes even war.

Kleveman’s account of the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia offers just one example of the obscure but ruthless power struggles of the new great game. In the early 1990s, Moscow encouraged the Abkhaz ethnic minority to rebel against the central government. The war threatened to make the country too unstable for Western pipeline investors, and furnished the Kremlin with a pretext for marching Russian troops back into Georgia, this time as “peacekeepers.” Fighting continues to this day under the drooping gaze of a U.N. observation force.

Russia does not officially recognize the Abkhaz separatists, but Kleveman says Moscow remains intimately involved with them. The rebels’ self-styled foreign minister (whose office, Kleveman observes, contains seven framed pornographic pictures) is open about the Kremlin’s support: “Moscow is an important ally for us . . . so what? Georgia is getting arms from America, is it not?” The response from a Georgian representative is also blunt: “We need the big oil pipeline so that we will continue to have the United States on our side against Russia.”

What, then, of the war on terrorism? Its link to oil is, after all, the “big idea” of the book. Here, sadly, Kleveman’s analysis begins to disappoint. Having brilliantly explained the battle for oil, he struggles — unsuccessfully — to explain the war on terrorism in the same terms. He frankly admits to a predisposition to find the roots of conflict in “the struggle for raw materials”; in this specific case, while he notes that the U.S. military effort in the region “appears” to be targeted against terrorists, his book might just as easily leave one thinking that the war on terrorism is just another resource war — no different, really, from Russia’s intervention in Abkhazia. There are plenty of dark allusions here to the Bush administration’s oil ties; Kleveman also tells us outright that, despite all “the rhetoric of disarmament and human rights,” the Iraq war was actually about “control over the earth’s remaining fossil reserves, as envisaged in the May 2001 Cheney report on U.S. national energy policy.” Nearly all the people Kleveman interviews, be they ministers or mechanics, echo this theme. A characteristic quote comes from a Kazakh pipeline engineer: “Who believes anyway that for the Americans this so-called ‘war on terror’ is about Osama bin Laden? This war is about us — it is our oil they want.”

A not-quite-subconscious European delight in portraying Americans as clumsy imperialists is evident in Kleveman’s later chapters. His journalistic façade slips noticeably when he laments “how many soldiers and civilians have so far died in Iraq and other Great Game battlefields for the sake of brazen energy imperialism.” Nowhere does he even try to explain why the U.S. spent a decade embargoing Iraqi oil it could have bought cheaply. Oil is, of course, an important factor in countless aspects of the war on terror and American foreign policy. We should care about oil. But it is a fundamental misreading of U.S. foreign policy to imagine the war on terrorism as an exercise in energy imperialism. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 threatened much more crucial national interests than the price of crude.

Even so, Kleveman’s book reminds us of how other actors in the region view us. Afghans, Russians, Chinese, and Uzbeks (Kleveman did not interview Iraqis) all explain the U.S. presence as energy imperialism. Whether this is true is less important than that it is thought to be true. In this sense, too, Kleveman’s editorializing about the U.S. is informative even if it is annoying. He is clearly an intelligent observer whose views are representative of a large proportion of global opinion. (Nor, indeed, is Kleveman that anti-American — compared, at least, to the 30 percent of young Germans who claim that the U.S. government itself bombed the World Trade Center.) The war on terror is in many respects a battle for international opinion. After a brilliant exposition of the competition for oil, Kleveman is able to wrongly diagnose the war on terror as a war for oil; his error is common, and suggests how great a challenge we still face.

—Mr. Ramos-Mrosovsky, a former NR intern, is a student at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He is the founding editor of American Foreign Policy, a publication at Princeton.



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