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Book Review

The Great New Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia

by Lutz Kleveman

New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003, 287 pp.

ISBN: 0-87113-906-5

When You’re Wounded and Left in Afghanistan’s Plains/And The Women Come Out to Cut What Remains/An’ Go To Your Gawd [sic] Like A Soldier.”

Rudyard Kipling in The Young British Soldier quoted in The Great New Game


Before the war in Iraq there was one Osama bin Laden; now there are one hundred.”

President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt


I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian.”

Dick Cheney, CEO of Halliburton Oil in a 1998 speech to oil executives in Washington, D. C.

          Muqtedar Khan correctly voices concern in the 11-17 November Al Ahram Weekly about the direction of American foreign policy in the wake of the re-election of George W. Bush. He duly notes the role of the ostensibly Christian vote in the President’s successful re-election, with a block vote of roughly 40 million voters paving the way for Republican ballot box successes on November 2nd–roughly 34% of the voting electorate in the estimation of the Brookings Institution fellow and Adrian College political science professor. The word “theocracy” is not used in the Professor’s fine essay, but is implied in his expressed fears regarding the implications of the electoral results from the first Tuesday in November. The essay would have been even better with analysis of the extent of the effect of the Dispensationalist wing of the Christian Right in bringing Mr. Bush the stated vote totals in his relatively clean sweep of John Kerry. One may be forgiven for the conclusion that the President will now give Ariel Sharon an even wider berth and blank check than the latter already possesses for his inflammatory policies in Palestine. It is a safe bet that the Administration payoff for AIPAC, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and John Hagee will unfurl after the Inaugural, with the expansion of war and casualties to be accompanied by an even higher raising of the ultimate stakes for all the major players in the game. Negotiation, nuance, and diplomacy will be even further removed from the scene, with the endgame yet to be determined.

          If the War Party enthusiasms of the Dispensationalist wing of the Christian Right and the Israel First crowd are designed to enshroud American-Israeli land grabs in theological and ancient Biblical language, they may also work to the advantage of Western oil and natural gas consortiums as well. The latter constituency’s concern is basic: the deadly serious competition emerging over wells, deposits, and pipeline routes in Central Asia in what German author Lutz Kleveman calls The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia. The former Great Game involved the 19th century struggle between the British Empire and Tsarist Russia. Kleveman sees The New Great Game in his introduction as one where:

Now, more than a hundred years later, great empires once again position themselves to control the heart of the Eurasian landmass, left in a post-Soviet power vacuum. Today there are different actors and the rules of the neocolonial game are far more complex than those of a century ago. The United States has taken over the leading role from the British. Along with the ever-present Russians, new regional powers such as China, Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan have entered the arena, and transnational corporations (whose budgets far exceed those of many Central Asian countries) are also pursuing their own interests and strategies. The greatest difference in today’s Great Game are the spoils. While in the Victorian-era struggle, London and St. Petersburg competed over access to the riches of India, the new Great Game focuses on Caspian energy reserves, principally oil and gas. On its shores, and at the bottom of the Caspian Sea, lie the world’s biggest untapped fossil fuel resources. Estimates range from 50 to 110 billion barrels of oil, and from 170 to 463 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The U. S. Department of Energy comfortably assumes a 50 percent probability of a total of 243 billion barrels of oil reserves. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan alone could sit on more than 130 billion barrels of oil, more than three times the United States’ own reserves. Only Saudi Arabia, with 262 billion barrels, can claim greater resources. As recently as the summer of 2000, the giant Kashagan oil field was discovered off the Kazakh coast, believed to rank among the five largest fields on earth (p. 3).

          The oil and natural gas reserves are, in turn, inextricably linked to another perpetual challenge for the respective competitors–control of the “pipeline map” (p. 7). Kleveman notes that the Caspian Sea is “entirely landlocked,” necessitating the development of a network of pipeline routes and networks as the “umbilical cords for the industrialized world” in the transport of energy resources to warm water ports, tankers, and safe havens in Europe, Japan, and the United States.

          Logically, in The New Great Game, oil, gas, and pipeline transportation networks cannot be developed and utilized apart from the domination of nation-states and transnational corporations in the coveted territories in question. This domination can be implemented only with the judicious use of overt and covert actions to stabilize or destabilize regional governments, guerrilla movements, human rights organizations, and NGOs. Basic instruments in the exertion of control range from covert intelligence operations and the politicized use of central banking mechanisms; to the deployment of conventional infantry, naval, and air forces in securing land, protecting pipelines, and maintaining open sea lanes at key maritime choke points. The cost/benefit analysis occurs in comparing actual and potential costs in money and lives with the economic largesse available to the highest bidder with the most stamina. In a worst case scenario, the possible political and military miscalculations could lead to a conflict of regional and global powers mushrooming into a Third World War.

          Subsequent to his fine introductory chapter, the author takes the reader through a synopsis of the morass of problems inherent in any coherent political analysis of Great Power machinations in the Caspian region and in Central Asia. His narrative is buttressed by the maps and graphics of Peter Palm, which depict at a glance the dangerous maze of pitfalls inherent in The New Great Game. The visual presentations acquaint the uninitiated with the locales of the new Republics of the former Soviet Union–Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan; the key bodies of water in the region–the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf of Oman, the Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean; the principal oil and natural gas fields in various stages of development, including the Kashagan, Tengiz, Dagestan, and Chirag oilfields, and the Dauletabad and South Pars gas fields; and most significantly, the complex matrix of ethnic groups indigenous to the playing field at hand. Palm’s latter graphic lists four (4) major ethnic groups–the Indo-European, the Mongols, the Altaic Peoples, and the Caucasians, with subdivisions under each of the major umbrella categories. The Indo-Europeans include Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians) and Iranians (Persians, Kurds, Armenians, Ossetians, Beluchis/Tajiks, and Pathans [Pashtuns]); the Mongols include the Kalmucken and the Himaq-Hazara; the Altaic Peoples are described as Turks (Kazakhs, Azeris, Kyrgyz, Turkmens, Uzbeks, Osman Turks, Bashkiri, Tatars, and Karakalpaks); the Caucasians include the Georgians and the Dagestani tribes (Abkhaz, Ingush, Chechens, Cherkessians, and Kabardins); the Punjabi and Sindhi are included for good measure outside of categorization under any of the four (4) major collations.

          If, as has been suggested by Kleveman, American foreign policy in the region has furtively linked Bush’s “War on Terror” to “full spectrum dominance” of Central Asia and its natural resources, The Great New Game underscores the magnitude of the challenge confronting the President’s Neo-Conservative advisors bent on bringing the American Empire to greater heights in the new century. The preemptive war in Iraq seems destined to continue as an endless war of counterinsurgency in the Sunni Triangle and the Shiite south. Continued occupation of Afghanistan and the attempt to develop a viable central government under Hamid Karzai may be linked to American desires for gas and oil pipelines from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf through the Herat-Kandahar corridor. How many troops and how much money will be necessary to prop up Kabul and protect prospective pipelines ending on the Pakistani shore just east of the Strait of Hormuz? And the bet of the United States on the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline as the best proposition for the transport of Caspian Sea oil to the West–will it succeed in the face of a renewed Iranian-Russian opposition to the project? How far will Vladimir Putin be pushed in the projection of an American presence in the southern portion of the old Soviet Union, including the existence of United States military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan? How many American troops will become necessary to protect Azerbaijan if a Caspian Sea littoral state alliance of Russia, Iran, and Turkmenistan materializes against Washington and Baku? The one million Karabakh refugees in Baku who demand the initiation of a war against Armenia by Azerbaijan to reclaim the Nagorno–Karabakh region for the latter–--how does Washington avoid being caught in the middle of this smoldering Caucusus crossfire? What plans, if any, does the Bush Administration have in dealing with instability in Georgia, the electoral strife in a disputed Ukrainian Presidential election with Cold War overtones, Putin’s war in Chechnya, and the Communist Chinese struggle with the 9 million Islamic Uighur and the latter’s desire for independence in mineral rich Xinjiang province? Can an American alliance with Pervez Musharraf survive an insurgent Islamic fundamentalist movement in Pakistan and the threat of a Pakistani-Indian war over Kashmir? Will American-Israeli preemptive airstrikes on Bushehr, Isfahan, Arak, and Natanz in Iran (followed by thousands of infantry in occupation) be truly justified on national security grounds, or related in reality to the development of a Kazakhstan-Eastern Caspian-Turkmenistan-Bandar Abbas pipeline under the control of Western energy consortiums? These are but a few of the scenarios explicitly or implicitly raised by The Great New Game.

Lutz Kleveman’s work is essential reading. His bibliography includes another recommended work: Oliver Roy’s The New Central Asia.



(Mark Dankof is a Lutheran pastor and free-lance journalist, occasionally contributing to Iran Dokht, Al Bawaba, Nile Media, CASCFEN, PersianMirror, DixieInternet.com, and other Internet news sites. Once a 3rd party candidate for the United States Senate in Delaware [2000], he maintains the web-site Mark Dankof’s America while pursuing post-graduate theological education at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.)  His commentary may be found regularly on SARTRE's Old American Right and Republic news site, Breaking All the Rules His interview with 3rd party American Presidential candidate Michael Peroutka of the Constitution Party is widely available on various sites on the World Wide Web.)  



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