Wednesday, February 9, 2011

NATO's dangerous games in Asia

Colin Powell was regularly called a “dove” when he was America’s secretary of state. It was a misnomer. While he may have quarrelled with other members of the Bush administration on tactical issues, Powell’s entire military and political career was dedicated to world domination. One of his first acts as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was to lead an invasion of Panama. “We have to put a shingle on our door saying ‘Superpower lives here’,” he said on its first day in December 1989.

Hype would have us believe, too, that there is a substantial difference between Republicans and Democrats on foreign and economic policies. In reality, there is little. Barack Obama has been eager to convince the world that he is not under the spell of the oil industry in the way that George W Bush was. Yet the perks enjoyed by energy giants remain largely unchanged; on top of not having to pay any corporate income tax last year, Exxon Mobil was given a refund worth $156 million.

That businessmen headquartered in the state of Texas continue to wield enormous clout in Washington can be seen from a presentation given by Robert Blake, a State Department official dealing with Central and South Asia, in Houston during January. Blake suggested that the regions covered by his portfolio were replete with untapped resources, declaring – with considerable understatement – that these were bound to be of interest in the Lone Star state. The passage about Uzbekistan read like it was copied from a brochure for an industry fair: “Though often overlooked as an energy source, Uzbekistan has substantial hydrocarbon reserves of its own and produces about as much natural gas as Turkmenistan. Located at the heart of Central Asia, much of the region’s infrastructure – roads, railroads, transmission lines, and pipelines - goes through Uzbekistan, offering it a unique opportunity to expand its exports with little investment in new infrastructure.”

There was no mention of how Uzbekistan is ruled by the brutal dictator Islam Karimov (the same Karimov who was welcomed to the headquarters of NATO and the European Commission recently). Exploiting “overlooked” resources was evidently deemed more important than the lives of the hundreds of unarmed demonstrators killed at Karimov’s behest during the Andijan massacre in 2005.

Blake was – perhaps unwittingly – expanding on a theory posited by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the political scientist and one-time national security adviser to Jimmy Carter. In his 1997 book The Grand Chessboard, Brzenzinski argued that control of Asia was essential if the US was to cement its position as the world’s only superpower. “For half a millennium, world affairs were dominated by Eurasian powers and peoples who fought with one another for regional domination and reached out for global power,” he wrote. “Now a non-Eurasian power is pre-eminent in Eurasia - and America's global primacy is directly dependent on how long and how effectively its preponderance on the Eurasian continent is sustained.”

NATO, Brezinski added, would be a vital tool in preserving that dominance. His words appear prescient. According to the official narrative, the invasion of Afghanistan and the consequent expansion of Western military bases in neighbouring countries were a response to how the Taliban was sheltering Osama bin Laden. But can it be a coincidence that the war followed the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation a few months earlier? Was it not a signal to the SCO members like Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that the US was the boss, so they had better reduce their ambitions for greater energy cooperation?

Ever the obedient servant, some of the EU’s most powerful states are helping to increase US penetration into Asia. Following the Andijan massacre, the Union imposed sanctions on Uzbekistan in 2005. The newspaper Tageszeitung revealed last year that Germany defied the sanctions by secretly giving military training to 35 Uzbek soldiers. In 2009, Angela Merkel’s government succeeded in convincing the EU to drop those sanctions. Access to the German military base at Termez in Uzbekistan – which hosts aircraft used in the war in Afghanistan – shouldn’t be affected by something as trivial as human rights, she decided.

NATO has also supplied troops to bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both of which neighbour China. Statements pumped out in Washington and Brussels might habitually describe Beijing as a “partner”. But the games played by NATO in China’s backyard tell another story.

It is a similar situation with Russia. Visiting Georgia last summer, Hillary Clinton effectively told Moscow that only the US and NATO could station troops in the former Soviet Union. Ordering Russia to withdraw its troops from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Secretary of State said: “The United States does not recognise spheres of influence.”

During his aforementioned trip to Houston, Robert Blake told his audience that Turkmenistan may hold the key to one of the five largest reserves of gas on the planet. To emphasise their interests in getting hold of gas from the Caspian Sea, delegations from the European Commission and the US government visited Turkmenistan in January. It is hard to imagine that those delegations had not seen a warning issued late last year from Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, about certain countries wishing to “interfere” in the Caspian region.

The scholar Edward Herman has described NATO as a “US and imperial pitbull”. The pitbull is barking simultaneously in the directions of Russia, China and Iran. It needs to be sedated.

·First published by New Europe (, 6-12 February 2011

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