Russia

Georgia On My Mind

Posted by Cutler on August 13, 2008
France, Georgia, Germany, Great Power Rivalry, Russia / 1 Comment

If I were blogging these days–which I am not–I would want to take up some old themes about the role of Georgia (along with Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Iran and Turkey) in US-led efforts to circumvent Russia in the export of Caspian oil and natural gas to Western Europe and to Israel.  (Note recent reports that Israeli was involved in the initial Georgian military offensive into South Ossetia on August 8.)

After all, the US-Russian proxy war in Georgia is a perfect example of Great Power Rivalry.

But I’m not blogging these days.

But if I were, I might also note that the US has been coordinating closely with its man on the Seine, Nicolas Sarkozy.  Formally, the French president is being consulted as the key US interlocutor because France currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.  And yet, I wonder whether there isn’t something more to it.  Yes, Sarkozy is the most pro-American French leader since… well, since Gilbert de Lafayette.  But the flip side of the pull toward Sarkozy is the “problem” of Angela Merkel.  No, I am not talking about the back rub.  I’m talking about the relatively cozy relationship between the Germans and the Russians.

And where is Angela Merkel on the question of Georgia?  Ask Moscow.  Back in March, AFP reported:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel signalled on Monday that she opposes granting NATO membership to former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia.

“A country should become a NATO member not only when its temporary political leadership is in favour but when a significant percentage of the population supports membership,” Merkel said in Berlin in reference to Ukraine and Georgia.

“Countries that are themselves entangled in regional conflicts, can in my opinion not become members,” she added after talks with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Saturday during a visit by Merkel to Moscow that NATO was aiming to replace the United Nations and warned this raised the potential for conflict.

The White House is already signaling a willingness to engage Russia militarily in Georgia.  But it might prove quite awkward for Bush to have to “save Europe” from a future of Russian energy blackmail if Germany seems uninterested in being “saved.”

Learning to Love Tehran?

Posted by Cutler on August 26, 2007
Iran, Russia, Turkey / No Comments

When I’m not musing on the news, I’m waiting for it.

In this instance, I’m waiting for Cheney to embrace the Iranian regime.

In a recent post, I suggested that a Russia hawk like Cheney could easily learn to love the Iranians:

From Cheney’s perspective, it might even be argued (as he did during the 1990s), that Iran–as a Caspian regional power–would do well to align itself not with Russia or China, but with the United States.

The sub-headline of a recent article in The Economist helps make the point.  The article is entitled, “Too energetic a friendship – Turkey and Iran: An attempt to bypass Russia annoys the United States.”

An attempt to bypass Russia annoys the United States.  Huh?

Only folks Cheney used to decry as “sanctions happy” local politicians beholden to the Israel lobby would forfeit a shot to bypass Russia in the quest to deliver Caspian energy to Europe.

As The Economist explains, this is the “paradox” of US policy toward Iran.

Cocking a snook at America seems an odd way to launch a second term in office for a government eager to prove its pro-Western credentials. Yet that is what Turkey’s mildly Islamist Justice and Development party (AK) appears to be doing, just weeks after its landslide victory in the July 22nd parliamentary election.

Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, dispatched his energy minister, Hilmi Guler, to Iran last week where he concluded a raft of deals. They include the establishment of a joint company to carry up to 35 billion cubic metres of Iranian natural gas via Turkey to Europe, and the construction of three thermal power plants by Turkish companies in Iran.

America swiftly complained. “If you ask our opinion, do we think it’s the right moment to be making investments in the Iranian oil and gas sector, no we don’t,” sniffed a State Department spokesman.

Mr Erdogan’s critics have seized on his dealings with Iran as proof that he is trying to steer Turkey away from the West. In fact, they have just the opposite aim…

EU countries import half their energy, with around a fifth of their oil and gas coming from Russia’s state monopoly, Gazprom….

Russia’s use of its energy riches to flex its muscles on the world stage is one reason why America is lobbying so hard for the creation of an east-west energy corridor—a network of oil and gas pipelines running from former Soviet Central Asia and Azerbaijan via Turkey, and on to European markets…

Turkey has turned to Iran, according to Necdet Pamir, a veteran Turkish energy analyst. Iranian gas would not only help to fill the Nabucco pipeline, another mooted conduit from the Middle East or Central Asia, bypassing Russia, but would also reduce Turkey’s own dependence on Russian supplies: over half of Turkey’s natural-gas demand is met by Gazprom….

The paradox for America is that Iran is the only country other than Iraq that can truly undermine Russia’s [energy] supremacy,” observes Mr Pamir.

Funny, the Russians seem to understand this and are allegedly quite concerned about the Iranian-Turkish pipeline deal.

So, what prevents Cheney from reverting to his old position in favor of doing business with Iran, especially after Putin’s recent Caspian coup?

One possible answer: the power of the Israel lobby, especially in a Congress controlled by Democrats.

Or maybe his Right Zionist allies–very hawkish on the incumbent Iranian regime, at least for now–will revert to their old position in favor of an anti-Arab tilt toward the revolutionary Iranian regime.

For now, I’m just waiting for news of that shoe to drop.

Unless it is the bomb that is going to drop.

Iran and Great Power Politics

Posted by Cutler on August 15, 2007
China, Great Power Rivalry, Iran, Iraq, Russia / No Comments

Iran is, by most accounts, riding high these days, with unprecedented influence within Afghanistan and Iraq and powerful Mediterranean proxy forces like Hezbollah and Hamas.

Who am I to disagree?

Nevertheless, a few small news stories shed a slightly different light on the Iranian strategic position.

For example, an August 11, 2007 report from BBC Monitoring of Al-Sharqiyah Television suggests the limits of Iranian influence in Iraq, if not also Russia:

“Diplomatic sources in Moscow said that the Iranian Government played a mediatory role in the visit of Iraqi Oil Minister Husayn al- Shahrastani to Moscow. Sources close to the Iranian Embassy in the Russian capital added that Iran asked Al-Shahrastani to agree on Russia’s demands to re-negotiate the investment of some southern oil wells based on a memorandum of understanding signed by the former Iraqi regime with a number of big Russian oil firms in the early 1990s. The sources went to say the Iranian step seeks to secure Moscow’s support for its nuclear programme.”

As I noted in a previous post, Shahrastani appears to have resisted Russian pressure for re-negotiation on the West Qurna fields–Iranian “mediation” notwithstanding.

What does it say about Iranian influence in Iraq if the Iranian regime cannot “deliver” Iraq for Russia?

And, can this outcome bode well for Iranian attempts to renew Moscow’s support for its nuclear programme?

Even as the US attempts to use financial pressure to isolate the Iranian regime, there are signs that Iran may be having some difficulty lining up Great Power allies.

The Washington Post reports:

The key obstacle to stronger international pressure against Tehran has been China, Iran’s largest trading partner. After the Iranian government refused to comply with two U.N. Security Council resolutions dealing with its nuclear program, Beijing balked at a U.S. proposal for a resolution that would have sanctioned the Revolutionary Guard, U.S. officials said.

China’s actions reverse a cycle during which Russia was the most reluctant among the veto-wielding members of the Security Council. “China used to hide behind Russia, but Russia is now hiding behind China,” said a U.S. official familiar with negotiations.

Be that as it may, there are also limits to China’s willingness to shelter the Iranian regime.

The Financial Times reports on China’s potential reluctance to back Iranian efforts to get a seat at the Shanghai Co-operation Organization:

Russia that is pushing the latest efforts to give the [Shanghai Co-operation Organisation] more muscle. Moscow is expected to lobby this week for Iran’s inclusion, which would deepen the rift with the US over Washington’s plan to site missile interceptors in central Europe.

While Russia is at odds with the US, Nato and the European Union on a range of issues, China regards the recently sealed US nuclear pact with India with deep suspicion and could see that as justification to allow Iran’s entry…

Some analysts, however, believe China would block any proposal to allow Iran to join the SCO. “Admitting Iran would further strain already tense Chinese-US relations and would not advance China’s main priority in the SCO, which is to manage relations with its western neighbours,” says Martha Brill Olcott, a central Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for Inter-national Peace.

It would be a mistake to underestimate Iranian strategic leverage in the Middle East, the Gulf, and Central Asia.

But there are limits.

From Cheney’s perspective, it might even be argued (as he did during the 1990s), that Iran–as a Caspian regional power–would do well to align itself not with Russia or China, but with the United States.

That seems difficult to imagine, given all the tough talk between the US and Iran.  But stranger things have happened.

Cheney, Putin, and the Battle for Iraqi Oil

Posted by Cutler on August 13, 2007
Great Power Rivalry, Iraq, Russia / 1 Comment

Vice President Cheney allegedly continues to beat the drum for war with Iran.  The McClatchy Washington Bureau reported as much last week:

Vice President Dick Cheney several weeks ago proposed launching airstrikes at suspected training camps in Iran run by the Quds force, a special unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to two U.S. officials who are involved in Iran policy.

The Bush administration has launched what appears to be a coordinated campaign to pin more of Iraq’s security troubles on Iran.

Last week, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the No. 2 U.S. military commander in Iraq, said Shiite militiamen had launched 73 percent of the attacks that had killed or wounded American troops in July. U.S. officials think that majority Shiite Iran is providing militiamen with EFPs, which pierce armored vehicles and explode once inside.

Cheney and Odierno appear to be particularly close allies.  Cheney, in his recent interview with Larry King, singled out Odierno for his service:

General Petraeus is a very impressive officer… I don’t want to put the whole burden on him… there are a lot of people working at it, too. General Ray Odierno, who is his number two, a superb officer. A man who spent about 28 months in Iraq himself so far, whose son served and lost an arm, who is dedicated — is just as dedicated as Dave Petraeus is to the success of this enterprise.

Perhaps all this anti-Iranian talk risks undermining the Bush administration’s relationship with Shiite-led political figures in Iraq.

But the White House appears to be working hard to maintain the image of a distinction between the Maliki government and the Iranian regime–even if neither Maliki nor the Iranians appear to put much stock in the distinction.  Al Jazeera reports:

When asked whether he thought al-Maliki shared his views on Iran, Bush said: “So the first thing I looked for was commitment against the extremists.

“The second thing is ‘does he [al-Maliki] understand with some extremist groups there’s connections with Iran’, and he does. And I’m confident…

“Now, is he trying to get Iran to play a more constructive role? I presume he is. But that doesn’t – what my question is – well, my message to him is, is that when we catch you playing a non-constructive role there will be a price to pay.”

The White House later clarified with Al Jazeera that Bush was referring to Iran when talking about a price to pay.

All of which goes to the central question: is Cheney secretly horrified by the Maliki government?  Is there anything to the old assertion from the Economist that Cheney was “said to favour an alternative Shia leader as prime minister”?

Or does Cheney share the enthusiasm for the Shiite-led Maliki government expressed by Right Zionists like Fouad Ajami and Reuel Marc Gerecht?

If there is any reason to believe that the latter is true, it might have something to do with the politics of Iraqi oil.

However closely–and provisionally–aligned Cheney may be to Right Zionists, his most consistent enduring commitments center on Great Power rivalry with Russia.

This has significant implications for US-Russian relations in Europe–i.e., Kosovo, missile shields, etc.–and the Caspian–i.e., Turkmenistan, Georgia, etc.

But it also may help clarify Cheney’s enthusiasm for the Sistani-backed regime in Iraq.

If the US invasion of Iraq was motivated, in part, by the desire to prevent Russia from winning access to Iraqi oil after the collapse of UN sanctions, then Cheney is being well served by his Shiite friends in Iraq.

I first made that argument in an April 2007 post entitled, “The US-Russian War in Iraq” in which I suggested that the details of the draft hydrocarbons law tended to leave Russian-backed companies–especially Lukoil–out in the cold.

Last week, Sistani-backed oil minister Hussain al-Shahristani confirmed Russian fears.

In meetings with Shahristani, Russia sought to use the promise of debt relief to win better terms for Lukoil.  According to Kommersant, that plan to make debt relief conditional appears to have crumbled:

It was Iraq’s Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani that announced yesterday the results of his Moscow meeting with Russia’s Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko. According to al-Shahristani, Russia confirmed it would fully execute Paris Club’s decision to write off the debt of Iraq and today’s concern is ensuring some technical procedures. Writing off is conditioned to nothing…

Paris Club raised the issue of writing off $140 billion from Iraq after the U.S. invasion of 2003. Russia pressed for conditioning its pardon to reviving the West Kurna-2 agreement but wasn’t backed up by other creditors. So, the agreement of 2004 spells out writing off 80 percent of amount due to Paris Club nations….

The agreement on Iraq’s debt will be inked till this year-end, Deputy Finance Minister Sergey Storchak announced not long ago. Hussein al-Shahristani was expected to deliberate on the terms of the deal in Moscow, but the minister arrived with no authority given to the effect. As a result, Russia was forced to confirm adherence to Paris Club commitments without additional conditions.

As noted in some press reports, Shahristani had a few nice words to say about Lukoil:

“Lukoil has done much in Iraq, has experience of working in our country, possesses vast data about Iraqi oil deposits. These temporary advantages raise the company’s chances for winning free and transparent oil tenders,” the minister said.

But this sweet talk tended to obscure the real issue of control over the enormous West Qurna fields.  The oil industry journal, Platts, explains:

Shahristani, who spoke at a press conference in Moscow, said Iraqi
oilfields currently in operation, including West Qurna, would fall under the
control of the national oil company.

“For the discovered fields where there are no risks involved…we do not
see any necessity for foreign companies to take control. We think the Iraqi
national oil company can do it with the cooperation with other oil firms,” he
said.

“All the discovered and producing fields will be assigned to the national
oil company, this includes West Qurna,” Shahristani said. “It is up to the
Iraqi national oil company to decide how it can develop that field.”

In other words, the West Qurna field will be under the political control of the national oil company under a Shiite-led, US-backed administration.

The Saddam-era deal had promised Lukoil commercial control.  RIA Novosti reports:

“Assigning oil fields to the National Oil Company means that the company will have the right to choose foreign companies under contract terms,” Hussain al-Shahristani told a news conference in Moscow….

Under the [Saddam-era] West Qurna deal, LUKoil held 68.5% and Iraq’s SOMO organization 25%.

In other words, Russia can forget about control.

As for the new fields, Shahristani has not ruled out the “necessity for foreign companies to take control.”

Could Cheney have found a better ally in Iraq?

Now, if he can deliver on his promise to get the oil legislation passed in September, Cheney should be able to sleep soundly…

Even as he allegedly dreams of war with Iran.

Cold Wars Are Not What They Used To Be (They Never Were)

Posted by Cutler on June 06, 2007
Great Power Rivalry, Russia / No Comments

Thank heavens the President of the United States relates on “a first-name basis” with the President of Russia.

Watching Bush discuss US relations with Russia, one almost gets the sense that the President of the United States is convinced that personal “friendship” will prevent Russian President Vladimir Putin from appreciating the growing tensions between Washington and Moscow.

Here is Bush in Prague on Tuesday:

“My message will be, Vladimir — I call him Vladimir — that you shouldn’t fear a missile defense system,” Mr. Bush said during a morning appearance with the leaders of the Czech Republic at Prague Castle, high on a hill overlooking the city.

And Bush in Germany on Wednesday:

“I will continue to work with President Putin — Vladimir Putin — to explain to him that this (the missile shield) is not aimed at him,” Bush said.

Asked if the meeting with Putin would be tense, Bush said: “I’ll work to see to it, that it’s not (tense).”

Perhaps personal chemistry between “Condi and Sergey” will work similar wonders.

Does all this chummy warmth have any political meaning?  Maybe amidst all the talk of a new “Cold War,” there are pro-Russia forces pressing the President to tone down the hawkish rhetoric.  According to the Financial Times, the Russia hawks at the Jamestown Foundation seem worried:

But Glen Howard, president of the Jamestown Foundation, a security think-tank, noted Mr Bush’s invitation to Mr Putin to become the first foreign leader to visit Mr Bush in the family home in Maine in early July. US policy was not hardening, Mr Howard said. “It is just the opposite…”

The “family home” in Maine belongs to Bush Sr.–long criticized by Russia hawks like Frank Gaffney for being soft on Russia.

But the Financial Times also reports on fears among self-proclaimed Russia “realists” that Russia hawks are gaining ground inside the Bush administration:

Dimitri Simes, president of Washington’s Nixon Center think-tank… noted the “hardline” speech on Russia given last week by David Kramer, a State Department official.

Mr Simes said the departure of Thomas Graham as senior Russia director in the national security council in February had led to a lack of “realistic thinking” in policy. “There is no alternative voice in the administration now,” Mr Simes said, describing the more dominant role played by “hawks” Daniel Fried and Mr Kramer in the department.

In truth, the “new” Cold War began even as the “old” Cold War was ending.  The only difference today is the increasingly harsh tone of the rhetoric.

On Wednesday, Bush insisted, “The Cold War is over.  It ended.”

In a way, he is right.  Soviet Communism is dead… so the Cold War must be over.

Some folks–like Stephen Cohen, a writer for the Nation and partner of its publisher, Katrina vanden Heuvel–seem to think the “new” Cold War was always about Communism and, indeed, still about Communism.

Alluding to that myopia on the part of people who had sought the destruction of the Soviet state, a Moscow philosopher later remarked bitterly, “They were aiming at Communism but hitting Russia.”

Similarly, Cohen seems dismayed that during the post-Cold War era, “US policy has fostered the belief that the American cold war was never really aimed at Soviet Communism but always at Russia.”

The advent of a “new” Cold War should foster the belief–a crucial revisionist project–that for many elements of the foreign policy establishment, the “old” Cold War was never really about Soviet Communism so much as Russian empire.

Perhaps the “crisis” of the Soviet Union was not so much the Soviet part but the “Union” that allowed Russia to win control of Eastern Europe, Central Asia, etc.

Stephen Cohen’s view of the Cold War is, in some sense, overly ideological.

But even the “ideologues” have long recognized (even as they regretted) that much of the Cold War was about the old fashioned power politics of the Great Game rather than ideology.

Norman Podhoretz, in his 1999 Commentary essay, “Strange Bedfellows,” expressed the disappointment of ideological true believers:

Of course, Kissinger and Nixon were themselves strong anti-Communists as well as devotees and practitioners of Realpolitik. Yet it was realism that won out over anti-Communism in the most spectacular example of their efforts (in Kissinger’s words) to “seize the initiative and control the diplomatic process.” This was the opening to China. From the realist perspective, it was a great triumph, driving a wedge between the two major Com munist powers; even many hardline anti-Com munists, to whom an alliance with Communist China against the Soviet Union was analogous to the one we had made with the Soviet Union in fighting Hitler, applauded it as a masterstroke.

But other hard-liners, I among them, saw matters differently…

In the American policy of holding the line against any further expansion of Soviet power, no one, up until that moment, could easily distinguish between ideology and power politics…

However, in allying itself with Communist China (even if, for diplomatic reasons, the word “alliance” was never used), the United States was in effect announcing that the enemy in the cold war was not Communism but Russia. This being the case, the methods of Realpolitik were best suited to dealing with it. Those of us who disagreed-who, in other words, saw the cold war as a struggle against Communism, not against Russia as such-feared that the new turn of events would confuse public opinion about the true nature of the enemy, and that the willingness of the American people to go on supporting the struggle would thereby be undermined. For we had no doubt that this willingness had always been based-as our own was-on a moral and ideological opposition to Communism rather than to Russia as a nation.

Today, Russia hawks like Anne Applebaum at the American Enterprise Institute try to muster some of that “moral and ideological opposition.”  But it rings hollow and they seem to know it:

Last week, I found myself in Dom Knigi, the very largest of all the very large Moscow bookstores, staring at the history section.

Spread out over an entire wall were books of a sort I’ve never seen in such quantities during 10 years of visits: endless glorifications of Soviet fighter pilots, Soviet war heroes, even Stalin himself. Stalin: the Author of the Great Victory was one title; others had cover illustrations featuring red stars, or hammers and sickles.

I don’t think this new publishing trend heralds a new period of Stalinism, or not exactly. But it does illustrate a growing Russian fascination–encouraged and manipulated by the Kremlin–with Russia’s imperial past.

Cold Wars are not what they used to be.  Indeed, they never were.

Cheney: Beyond Hypocrisy

Posted by Cutler on May 30, 2007
Great Power Rivalry, Iran, Right Arabists, Right Zionists, Russia / 1 Comment

In many respects, the factional battle lines that have formed around the US invasion of Iraq have been pretty stark and predictable.  In my ZNET essay on foreign policy factionalism, “Beyond Incompetence: Washington’s War in Iraq,” I suggested that the US invasion of Iraq tended to split the foreign policy establishment into two camps: Right Zionists and Right Arabists.

One of the central puzzles, from that day to this, has been locating Vice President Cheney on that spectrum.

Of course, Cheney has been very clearly aligned with Right Zionists for some time now and he continues to surround himself with Right Zionist advisers like David Wurmser.

But Cheney was not always perceived as a “sure thing” for Right Zionists.   Cheney was not always thought of as allied with Right Zionists.  Among other things,  the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has never forgotten that Cheney—serving as a Congressman from Wyoming in 1981—voted to support the AWACS sale to Saudi Arabia.

Back in the 1990s Cheney did not seem to be above taking pot shots at the Israel lobby and its zeal for US sanctions against Iran.

Nick Snow interviewed Cheney for Petroleum Finance Week at a 1996 Energy Conference and filed the following report:

Halliburton Co. Chairman Richard B. Cheney sees many opportunities worldwide for U.S. oil and gas producers, drilling contractors and service and supply companies. But he’s also concerned that sanctions sought by domestic politicians to please local constituencies will hurt U.S. business growth overseas…

But he also considers sanctions the greatest threat to Halliburton and other U.S. companies pursuing opportunities overseas. “We seem to be sanction-happy as a government. The problem is that the good Lord didn’t see fit to always put oil and gas resources where there are democratic governments,” he observed during his conference presentation.

If anything, Cheney was probably considered a Right Arabist eager to do business with the Saudis and willing to find a modus operandi for doing deals with the Iranians.

Something changed.  Cheney closely aligned himself with Right Zionists.

Commentators who note the change often seem to focus primarily on Cheney’s hypocrisy.  Be that as it may, there are important questions to be asked about what triggered Cheney’s change of “heart.”

I have tried to offer up some explanations, including one that focused on post-9/11 tensions between Cheney and Saudi King Abdullah.

More recently, I have also found reason to suspect that at least some of Cheney’s shift might have begun before September 11th.  According to this account, Cheney was handed a huge defeat by the Israel Lobby in early 2001.  Unable to beat them, he joined them.

Those who do not attend to the factors the triggered Cheney’s change are least likely to anticipate the possibility that other factors might cause Cheney to change course again.

In several recent posts last week (here, here, here, and here) I pondered the possibility that Cheney might “come to terms” with the Iranian regime.

Needless to say, these are merely speculations.

Even as Cheney “allowed” the US-Iranian meeting in Iraq, there are signs that he is far from committed to this track.

Apart from Cheney’s own strident, anti-Iranian bluster during his recent visit to the Gulf, there are also rumors that he and his Right Zionist allies are telling friends to discount all the “diplomatic” talk.

In early May, the Jewish Daily Forward reported such a rumor:

Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams told a group of Jewish communal leaders last week that the president would ensure that the process does not lead to Israel being pushed into an agreement with which it is uncomfortable.

Also last week, at a regular gathering of Jewish Republicans, sources said, Abrams described President Bush as an “emergency brake” who would prevent Israel from being pressed into a deal; during the breakfast gathering, the White House official also said that a lot of what is done during Rice’s frequent trips to the region is “just process” — steps needed in order to keep the Europeans and moderate Arab countries “on the team” and to make sure they feel that the United States is promoting peace in the Middle East.

Was Abrams speaking truth to the “Jewish Republicans” or was he trying to manage their potential discontent?  Hard to say.

More recently, Steven Clemons has offered up alleged details of a similar “reassurance” campaign among Right Zionist allies:

Multiple sources have reported that a senior aide on Vice President Cheney’s national security team has been meeting with policy hands of the American Enterprise Institute, one other think tank, and more than one national security consulting house and explicitly stating that Vice President Cheney does not support President Bush’s tack towards Condoleezza Rice’s diplomatic efforts and fears that the President is taking diplomacy with Iran too seriously…

There are many other components of the complex game plan that this Cheney official has been kicking around Washington. The official has offered this commentary to senior staff at AEI and in lunch and dinner gatherings which were to be considered strictly off-the-record, but there can be little doubt that the official actually hopes that hawkish conservatives and neoconservatives share this information and then rally to this point of view…

Is there any reason to doubt that the “senior aide on Vice President Cheney’s national security team” who has been “meeting with policy hands of the American Enterprise Institute” is either John Hannah or David Wurmser?

As Juan Cole has suggested, Steven Clemons is “very well connected in Washington,” especially among Right Arabists.  I’m in no position to discount the rumor.  I do think it is peculiar that, according to Clemons, there is “little doubt” that the “Cheney official” hoped “hawkish conservatives and neoconservatives would share this information.”  So far, only Clemons appears to be sharing the “information.”

In a more general sense, I think it is unwise to assume that Cheney will remain forever faithful to his Right Zionist allies.  He has bigger fish to fry.

Specifically, Caspian Sea fish.

I have no doubt Cheney would gladly discard his Right Zionist allies if he thought the incumbent Iranian regime could become a useful foil to Russian geopolitical aspirations.

Putin’s Caspian Coup, Cheney’s Iran Plan

In a major coup, Russian President Putin has clinched a deal to export Central Asian gas via Russia’s preferred overland route and has almost certainly dealt a fatal blow to Vice President Cheney’s vision of a submerged Trans-Caspian pipeline that would bypass Russia.

Putin claimed his Great Game prize at a weekend meeting with Turkmenistan President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov and Kazakhstan Presdient Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Cheney had personally courted Kazakh President Nazarbayev in a bid to win support for the Trans-Caspian pipeline.  And the US had made similar overtures to Turkmenistan President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov after the sudden death of his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, in December 2006.

Kazakh President Nazarbayev had been slated to attend an energy summit of ex-Soviet bloc leaders meeting in Poland to discuss pipeline projects designed to bypass Russia.

Instead of bypassing Russia, Nazarbayev bypassed Cheney.

This is an enormous victory for Putin in the increasingly intense Great Power rivalry between Russia and the United States.

Turkmen President Berdymukhamedov, seemingly eager to forestall an inevitable US-led smear campaign against his authoritarian regime, has held out hope that the Russian pipeline agreement does not preclude alternatives, including the Trans-Caspian pipeline:

Turkmen ambassador to Austria Esen Aydogdyev told the Viennese daily Der Standard that ‘Turkmenistan has enough gas to export it in all directions; the project involving a trans-Caspian pipeline remains an option. The West doesn’t need to have any worries.’

Austrian oil and gas company OMV AG plays a leading role in the consortium currently planning the Nabucco natural gas pipeline and recently confirmed its commitment to the project.

Nevertheless, officials in the US and Russia appear to read the situation differently.

Russian Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko, clearly gloating, suggested that Cheney’s pipeline is now dead:

“In my view, technological, legal, and environmental risks that are involved in the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline project make it impossible to find an investor for it, unless it is viewed as a purely political project and unless it does not matter what this pipe will pump,” Khristenko told journalists in Turkmenbashi on Saturday.

Khristenko’s American counterpart, US Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, appears to view the outcome as a significant setback for US efforts to help break European dependence on Russia.

U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said Monday that a deal to pipe gas from Turkmenistan to customers in the West via Russia was bad for Europe.

Speaking at a press conference on the sidelines of an International Energy Agency meeting here, Bodman said: “It would not be good for Europe. It concentrates more natural gas to one supplier.”

Implications for Iran

Putin’s Caspian delight may have significant implications for US policy toward Iran.  Cheney had been hoping to use the Trans-Caspian Pipeline, along with the Baku-Tiblis-Ceyhan oil and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum gas pipelines, to bypass Iran and Russia.  The gas would eventually flow to Europe through the NABUCCO pipeline.

Now, Cheney will arguably be forced to choose between “the lesser of two evils.”

From the perspective of Great Power politics, there is no question: Cheney will try to reconstruct an alliance with Iran.

The only question now may be how Cheney will rebuild ties between the US and Iran: diplomacy or regime change.  For the vice president, mere “containment” of Iran is no longer an option.  Cheney will not be likely leave office without an alliance with Iran.

One challenge, among several, is to pry Iran away from Russia.

Several weeks before the news of Putin’s Caspian coup, Nikolas K. Gvosdev–a self-proclaimed Washington “realist”–published an article in the National Interest entitled, “The Other Iran Timetable.”

Gvosdev argued that Europe needed Iranian gas for the NABUCCO pipeline:

[T]here is only so much time before Europeans will decide that Iran, which has the world’s second largest reserves of natural gas, is a critical part of ensuring their energy security. So far, the United States has been largely successful in convincing Europeans to delay proposed investments in Iran’s natural gas sector and has expressed strong disapproval of plans to connect Iran to the so-called NABUCCO pipeline (designed to bring Caspian gas via Turkey to Europe).

But NABUCCO has limits. Many Europeans are skeptical that there is enough Caspian gas to really make a difference for their consumption… In the end, I was told, for NABUCCO to make sense, it will have to include gas from Iran.

This means that sooner or later Europe’s ability to give Washington support on isolating Iran will give way to its own needs for energy….

[W]as this is a case of advising, “Whatever you do, do it quickly”—meaning that if the United States were to pursue forcible regime change the preference would be to do it sooner?… [B]y 2011 or 2013, large-scale European investment in Iran will begin no matter whether it is still the Islamic Republic or some other form of government…

Right Zionists like Michael Ledeen were once champions of engagement with Iran.  That idea seems to have collapsed after 1991.

During the middle of the 1990s, Cheney was himself a leading petro-realist, advocating direct engagement with Iran.  That idea seems to have collapsed by July 2001.

Will Cheney and the Russia hawks go wobbly on Iran now that the US appears to have lost Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan?

Will Right Zionists revert to their earlier support for an opening with Iran?  Or is Russia the “lesser of two evils” for Right Zionists, especially in light of Israeli interests in Turkmenistan and Iranian support for Hezbollah and Hamas?

Or, will Cheney and Right Zionists constitute a united front toward regime change in Iran?

Is Rice Really Nice?

Posted by Cutler on April 26, 2007
Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestinian Authority, Right Arabists, Russia / 1 Comment

In a recent post on Cheney, Iran, and the whole “British hostage” affair, I asked whether Cheney might not have sabotaged an Iranian-American quid pro quo that would have involved the release, by the United States, of the “Irbil Five”–Iranians held by the US in Iraq.

At first glance, the whole hostage affair seems to represent a loss for Cheney.

And he may, indeed, agree with Bolton that the whole deal was a victory for Iranian hardliners.

It is also possible, however, that Cheney is not quite finished.

The British have been release. But the Iranian “Irbil Five”?

No sign of them. At least not yet…

Is it possible that those are Cheney fingerprints on “the realpolitik of today’s Iraq”?

That was April 11th.

Yesterday, Michael Ledeen offered up some gossip that appears to confirm these suspicions, beginning with Ledeen’s discussion of a news story by Robin Wright in the Washington Post:

[A] story written… by one of Secretary Rice’s favorite journalists, Robin Wright of the Washington Post… said:

After intense internal debate, the Bush administration has decided to hold on to five Iranian Revolutionary Guard intelligence agents (sic) captured in Iraq, overruling a State Department recommendation to release them, according to U.S. officials.

I’ve been told that “intense internal debate” is exactly right–it was one of the most contentious debates in quite a while. Wright reports that Vice President Cheney led the charge against Rice’s position, and I am told that Secretary of Defense Gates was equally adamant. This is reinforced by a statement by General Petraeus, to the effect that we intended to keep them and keep interrogating them as long as we had food and they had things to say. Moreover, I am told that the intensity of the debate was due to the fact that Rice was not merely recommending the release of the Iranians, but had informed the mullahs that we would release them.

On the Iranian front, then, it certainly looks like Cheney and Gates leading the hawkish faction with Rice working to open diplomatic avenues.

The mystery here is Rice.  In an April 22, 2006 analysis, the Financial Times (subscription required) suggested that Rice was looking increasingly “realist” in her positions.

To judge from Ledeen’s anger (and Perle’s earlier accusations), one could imagine that Rice is something less than a Neocon “true believer.”

And yet…

The record is uneven, even on Iran.  On the Palestinian Authority and Lebanon?  Rice looks pretty hawkish.

And then there is Rice on Russia.  On missile systems in Europe, Rice doesn’t appear particularly dovish.

Perhaps there is an underlying logic to all this, but it escapes me.

Want to Play a (Great) Game?

Posted by Cutler on April 16, 2007
Russia / 2 Comments

Somebody in Washington wants to play hardball with Russia.

If the Russian Duma is to be believed, the US is fanning the flames of internal dissent.  The Moscow Times reports:

Duma deputies unanimously approved a resolution expressing concern over “growing and unprecedented attempts” by the United States to interfere in internal issues.

“Under the guise of helping to conduct free and fair elections for the State Duma in December 2007 and of the president of the Russian Federation in March 2008, U.S. taxpayers’ money is being used to fund numerous training courses, surveys, seminars and other events that propagandize … and distort the situation,” the resolution said…

The Duma resolution, which mentions the U.S. report, also accuses U.S. officials of participating in events organized by “openly extremist forces” — an apparent reference to the attendance of several U.S. officials at a Moscow conference held by The Other Russia last year. Among The Other Russia’s organizers is the unregistered National Bolshevik Party, which prosecutors call extremist.

The Duma also called on the president, the Cabinet and the Prosecutor General’s Office to boost enforcement of the 2006 law that bans NGOs from participating in political activities and establishes strong bureaucratic control over their finances, particularly over foreign grants.

So, who is spoiling for a fight with Russia?

In a March 22, 2007 Los Angeles Times Op-Ed, Dimitri K. Simes points a finger:

[There is an] influential group of neoconservatives and liberal interventionists inside and outside the Bush administration [for whom] compromise is unacceptable. For them, foreign policy is a morality play; the Russians are the bad guys and should be taught a lesson…

In terms of “liberal interventionists,” Simes doesn’t name names.  Maybe he has in mind Katrina vanden Heuvel–publisher of The Nation–and her husband, NYU Professor Stephen F. Cohen who might identify themselves as decidedly anti-Putin.

Regarding the “neoconservatives,” I am even less sure if the label fits.

As I noted in a recent post, some strident supporters of Israel–including House International Relations Committee Chairman Tom Lantos–have recently “gone wobbly” on Russia.

If Lantos is prepared to ease the way for the lifting of Jackson-Vanik trade sanctions and help shepherd Russia into the WTO, others in Washington are not yet on board.

Mosnews has noted signs of a split in Washington:

U.S. Trade Representatives Susan Schwab said that Moscow was making only “slow progress” for entry into the 150-member world trade body.

“We would like to see Russia a full fledged member of the World Trade Organization and hope that Russia will undertake the commitments and responsibilities, the obligations that come with being a WTO member,” she said, quoted by the AFP…

Schwab also said the US Congress was not prepared to revoke Cold War-era legislation intended to pressure Soviet authorities over emigration restrictions…

As MosNews has reported, several U.S. officials including Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez and Congressman Tom Lantos, have spoken in favor of lifting the amendment as soon as possible.

Schwab, however, seems to have a different idea. “The question that I get asked when it comes to Jackson-Vanik and permanent normal trade relations with Russia is, is the WTO ready to let Russia in and the answer is, ’not yet,’” she said.

What is Schwab’s beef with Russia?  It may be more narrowly “commercial” than geo-strategic.

Nevertheless, there are Russia hawks in Washington and Cheney is arguably the ringleader.  But it is not obvious that Right Zionists constitute the core of his anti-Putin coalition precisely because Right Zionists might be tempted to “go wobbly” on Russia in exchange for cooperation in containing Iran.

But, as Dimitri K. Simes points out, there are Russia hawks in this administration.  Simes identifies one key figure: Dan Fried, assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs.

Consider, for example, his recent Congressional testimony on US relations with Turkey:

On energy security, the United States has offered strong support to help realize the Baku-Tbilisi- Ceyhan oil pipeline, working with Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan and with companies to establish a public-private partnership that has resulted in one the most complex and successful pipeline projects of all time. A companion natural gas pipeline, the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum, a pipeline, is about to begin delivering Azerbaijani natural gas to Georgia and Turkey.

Over the next decade, we hope a trans-Caspian gas pipeline from Kazakhstan and even Turkmenistan will connect with this BTE pipeline. We have also just launched trilateral discussions with Ankara and Baghdad on developing gas production in northern Iraq.

This so-called Southern Corridor can change Eurasia’s strategic map by offering Europe its best hope for large volumes of natural gas supplies that will allow diversification away from a deepening European reliance on Gazprom.

Daniel Fried makes one thing clear: the Great Game is alive and well.

Perhaps it is no accident, then, that one of the leading figures in the recent Russian Dissent is a champion of the “Great Game,” chess master, Garry Kasparov.

The US-Russian War in Iraq

Posted by Cutler on April 04, 2007
Great Power Rivalry, Iraq, Russia / No Comments

Was the US invasion of Iraq was an opening salvo in a US-Russian war?

According to such a scenario, the “crisis” that led some in the Bush administration to press for an invasion of Iraq was not WMDs, a terror threat, domestic repression of Shiites and Kurds, etc.  The crisis came when Saddam began to slip out of his “sanctions” cage by shacking up in 1997 with Russian oil giant, Lukoil, for an agreement for the development of the giant West Qurna field.

So, have those most concerned to keep Iraq from Russia managed to do so?

Not yet.

Lukoil–and its American partner, ConocoPhillips, which owns a minority share in Lukoil–are still eager to try to get back in the game.

An April 2 Reuters report details a campaign by Lukoil and the Russian foreign ministry to insure that Lukoil doesn’t get shut out:

Russia’s top oil producer LUKOIL… signed a partnership deal with the foreign ministry on Monday and said it counted on its support as it prepares for talks to revive a giant oil deal in Iraq.

LUKOIL and the ministry said in a statement that the deal, the first of its kind in Russia, aims to support LUKOIL’s projects abroad, defend the firm’s interests by diplomatic means and facilitate the firm’s meetings abroad…

“Our company is entering new regions, including politically unstable regions. We will especially need support of the ministry in Iraq,” Interfax news agency quoted LUKOIL chief executive Vagit Alekperov as saying at a signing ceremony which was closed to reporters from foreign media organisations.

Nevertheless, Lukoil may have reason to worry that the proposed Iraqi oil legislation will leave the Russians out in the cold.

Much of the chatter in the US has been about the “scandal” of proposed “production sharing agreements” in the hydrocarbons law.  These are said to offer up the prospect of a massive money grab by the Oil Majors by coming very close to “privatizing” Iraqi oil.

That gets folks in the US all excited about the ways in which the US invasion of Iraq was all about the spread of neo-liberal market ideology.

When the so-called “Left” thinks about these issues, it misses the Great Power battle and sees only a struggle between the forces of statist justice and market greed.  Christian Parenti, for example, deserves props for noticing that the new Iraqi oil law is not all about privatization.  He even mentions that the Lukoil deal will be restructured.  But he appears to be comforted rather than alarmed by the implications:

Nor does the proposed oil law simply serve Iraq up on a plate to the oil giants. One London-based oil analyst who expected a more decentralized and free-market law called it “bloody confused.” On key questions of foreign investment and regional decentralization versus centralized control, the law is vague but not all bad

The draft law will leave ownership of the oil in state hands….

Indeed, the new law does not mention PSAs and it stipulates that firms will have to negotiate on a field-by-field basis.

The law will restructure the oil industry in other important ways: It will appoint a Federal Oil and Gas Council led by the prime minister to oversee all future contracts as well as review existing deals. Those agreements include the five contracts signed by the Kurdish Regional Government and six outstanding PSAs signed between Saddam Hussein and a mix of companies–most notably Lukoil of Russia, Total of France, the China National Petroleum Corporation and Italy’s Eni.

A single state-owned Iraqi National Oil Company will be reconstituted under central government control.

So close.  And, yet, so far.

The “scandal” may not be American market ideology in Iraq.  The real scandal may be the US move to nationalize some key elements of the Iraqi oil industry in an effort to thwart Russian (and French) ambitions.

Platts Oilgram News offered up this analysis of the Iraqi hydrocarbons law (Faleh al-Khayat, “New Iraqi oil law to open upstream sector; Gives powers to rejuvenated national company,” March 6, 2007):

The final draft of Iraq’s long-awaited oil and gas law opens up the country’s prized upstream sector to private, local and foreign investors for the first time since the 1970s, but appears to give more powers to a revived national oil company to manage current producing fields and giant undeveloped discoveries.

Platts has obtained the final draft of the law in Arabic, dated February 15 and approved by the Council of Ministers February 26, along with annexes classifying the oil fields and blocks to be opened up…

The law, now awaiting approval by parliament, re-establishes the Iraqi National Oil Company (INOC), which was disbanded in 1987…

INOC will operate Iraq’s producing fields, numbering 27, and, significantly, the partially developed fields of Majnoon, Halfaya, Nahr BinUma, Suba and Luhais, Tuba, and the whole of the giant West Qurna field. The ousted regime of Saddam Husssein had given France’s Total the right to negotiate exclusively a production sharing contract for the giant fields of Majnoon and Nahr Bin Umar. Saddam’s government also signed in 1997 an agreement with a Lukoil-led consortium to develop the West Qurna field, but the agreement was later terminated.

The inclusion of these fields under INOC’s direct responsibility would exclude foreign companies from any production sharing role and limit them to service or management contracts.

All of which amounts to saying that the Russians may get back into Iraq via the West Qurna field, but it will have to operate under the terms of the national oil company under the political control of the Iraqi government.  The same goes for France which would lose its “production sharing contract” agreed with Saddam Hussein’s government.

Some of the Russian press seems to agree that the terms of Iraqi hydrocarbons law are designed to hurt Russian interests.  Kommersant published a story, “Lukoil to Be Stripped Off A Field In Iraq“:

Russia’s oil blockbuster, LUKOIL, could be stripped off a field in Iraq, lentar.ru reported. The government of that country has presented to parliament a bill implying revision of crude oil agreements concluded in time of Saddam Hussein.

If passed, the bill advocated by today’s government of Iraq will hit two companies of Russia. One of them is LUKOIL that is developing the West Qurna-2 field, the second is Stroitransgaz that has a geological exploration contract for the fourth block of the West Desert, Vremia Novostei reported.

Under the bill that lobbies the U.S. interests, 51 fields and 65 exploration blocks will be split into four categories. The first one will include 27 fields that are currently developed, while the second category will specify the fields with proven reserves located near the fields of the first category. The remaining fields will form the third category and the forth category will be represented by exploration blocks.

Predictably, the fields of the first two categories, including West Qurna-2, will pass under control of the national oil company of Iraq that is being created now.

If the US invasion of Iraq was part of a Great Power battle with Russia, then the key decision on the Iraqi hydrocarbons law may have been to renationalize those Iraqi oil fields that were set to fall into the hands of Russia and France.

Cheney and Iran

Posted by Cutler on March 21, 2007
Great Power Rivalry, Iran, Right Zionists, Russia / No Comments

What is the relationship between Cheney and Iran?

In a March 20, 2007 New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof describes the VP as “Iran’s Operative in the White House.”

Is Dick Cheney an Iranian mole?

Consider that the Bush administration’s first major military intervention was to overthrow Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, Iran’s bitter foe to the east. Then the administration toppled Iran’s even worse enemy to the west, the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.

You really think that’s just a coincidence? That of all 193 nations in the world, we just happen to topple the two neighboring regimes that Iran despises?

Moreover, consider how our invasion of Iraq went down. The U.S. dismantled Iraq’s army, broke the Baath Party and helped install a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad. If Iran’s ayatollahs had written the script, they couldn’t have done better — so maybe they did write the script …

We fought Iraq, and Iran won. And that’s just another coincidence?

Kristof, it seems, is joking.

O.K., O.K. Of course, all this is absurd. Mr. Cheney isn’t an Iranian mole…

Mr. Cheney harmed American interests not out of malice but out of ineptitude. I concede that they honestly wanted the best for America, but we still ended up getting the worst.

I have no problem stipulating a lot of ineptitude in the Bush administration, starting at the top.  But I have also warned–in my essay, “Beyond Incompetence: Washington’s War in Iraq“–that the simplistic charge of ineptitude can lead one to underestimate opponents.  This is almost certainly the case when thinking about Cheney and geopolitical strategy.

So, without suggesting that there is any transparency about Cheney’s current thinking about Iran, it might be worth recalling that Cheney was not always an Iran hawk, especially when it came to thinking about Russia and the Caspian Sea.

Dick Cheney, chief executive officer of Dallas-based Halliburton Co. and former U.S. defense secretary, argued Wednesday the U.S. policy toward Iran hampers another American effort, to encourage Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and the other countries in the Caspian region to act independently of Moscow.

Policies against Iran interfere with our policy of independence for the Caspian nations,” Cheney said. (“U.S. moves to foil Iran pipeline; Kazakhs seek loans for alternate routes,” The Houston Chronicle, November 20, 1997, p.2)

A lot has changed since then.  Among other things, Cheney’s potential overtures to Iran in 2000 were blocked by the Israel lobby in the US Congress.

But Cheney has certainly not lost his focus the urgency of “our policy of independence for the Caspian nations.”  Some of that has meant working mightily to construct energy pipelines that bypass Russia and Iran.  But some of it has also meant preparing the way–one way or another–for a new dawn in US-Iranian relations, all at the expense of Russian influence in the Caspian.

Indeed, according to Cheney’s own calendar, the time is coming near:

“I think we’d be better off if we in fact backed off those [Iran] sanctions . . . didn’t try to impose secondary boycotts on [Australian] companies like BHP trying to do business over there,” he told the Business Sunday program.

For several years BHP has been discussing a 2400km natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan through Iran to Turkey but has been reluctant to commit to the project for fear of US reprisals…

“I think the [hawkish] Iranian policy the US is following is also inappropriate, frankly,” he said.

“I think we ought to begin to work to rebuild those relationships with Iran . . . it may take 10 years but it’s important that we do that.”  (“BHP pipeline should not face US sanctions, says Cheney,” The Australian, April 20, 1998, p.35.)

It may take ten years.  Hmmm.  That gives him until April 20, 2008.  Mark your calendars.

Cheney and the Neocons

Posted by Cutler on March 19, 2007
Great Power Rivalry, Iran, Right Zionists, Russia / No Comments

If there is any daylight to be found between Cheney and his Right Zionist allies–and I’m not sure if there is–look to the Russia-Iran axis as the source of the split.

The alliance between Russia and Iran also provides a foundation for the alliance between Cheney and Right Zionists.

Insofar as a split develops between Russia and Iran, however, Right Zionists would likely to try to bring Russia into the anti-Iranian camp.  For Cheney and other Russia hawks, the temptation would be to bring Iran into the anti-Russian camp.

The possibility of such a split has become far more likely in recent days, as Russia has distanced itself from Iran’s nuclear program.

Public Enemy #1: Iran or Russia?

For the most part, Right Zionists join Cheney in his hawkish approach to Russia.  Richard Perle, for example, took the lead back in 2003 in demanding that Russia should be thrown out of the G8.  And Right Zionists are very well represented in campaigns that castigate Russia for its war in Chechnya.

But there are several countervailing tendencies that might make Right Zionists go “wobbly” on Russia.  One is Iran.

For Right Zionists, the Iran Question–as a threat and an opportunity–arguably trumps the Russia Question.

Can the same be said for Cheney?

Cheney’s approach to regional actors like Iran, Iraq, and much of Central Asia mirrors Teddy Roosevelt’s approach to Great Power rivalry a century ago: battles were fought in places like the Philippines, but the War was with another empire, i.e., Spain.

Cheney is focused on Great Power rivalries with China and Russia.  Iraq and Iran are pawns in the Great Game.

Right Zionists are, not surprisingly, focused on Israel and its neighborhood.  Russia and the US are, in effect, viewed as pawns in a Zionist game.  For much of its history, the Zionist movement has proven itself adept in courting Great Powers and making them compete for its loyalty.

So, what happens when hawks are forced to choose between Iran and Russia?  It depends on the hawk.

Zionists Go “Wobbly” on Russia

The most high profile sign of a major shift on Russia among Zionists in the US came in February when Congressman Tom Lantos, Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, visited Moscow and turned heads with a dramatic flip-flop on Russia.  As one media source suggested in reference to the Lantos visit, “the hitherto staunch critic of Russia” had now embarked on a path of “good will and appeasement to Russia” (Natalia Leshchenko, “U.S. Promises to Lift Trade Restrictions with Russia,” Global Insight Daily Analysis, 21 February 2007).

Even as Washington was reeling from Putin’s anti-American speech in Munich, Lantos found nothing but blue skies ahead for US-Russian relations.  A report from Kommersant tells the story of the Lantos conversion:

In 2003, Mr. Lantos set the tone for the discussions of the Yukos affair in the US, and at that time he was one of the authors of the congressional resolution that called on the US President to bar Russia from the G8. Thus far this year, Mr. Lantos has already at least twice confirmed his reputation as the “bad cop” when it comes to Russia, first by accusing Russia and China of throwing up “constant roadblocks” to the resolution of the Iranian nuclear question, and second by sending a letter to the State Department in which he called on the department to include the sentence “Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are political prisoners” in its annual human rights report.   In his letter, Mr. Lantos wrote that the former Yukos executives “are imprisoned not for any crime that they committed but for their political activities, which threatened Putin’s totalitarian regime.”

Tom Lantos arrived in Moscow soon after President Vladimir Putin’s speech in Munich, which was followed by more harsh anti-American rhetoric from the Russian leadership that has caused many to comment on the threat of a return to Cold War-era relations between the two countries. However, his visit has not caused the scandal predicted by many observers. [State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Konstantin Kosachev] Konstantin Kosachev, who spoke with his American colleague for more than an hour, told Kommersant that his impression of Mr. Lantos during their conversation was entirely positive… In reply to a question from Kommersant about whether they had discussed the Yukos affair, the problems of democracy, or other Russian domestic issues, Mr. Kosachev said that such questions had not come up. “He did not bring up those subjects, and so we didn’t either,” he explained, adding, “I liked Mr. Lantos’ attitude. He had a lot to say about how Russia and the US are on the same side of the barricade, and that the problem is that in many cases they have not yet arrived at mutual understanding when confronting threats and challenges that they both face.”

With his trip to Moscow, Mr. Lantos appears determined to shed the image of Russia’s “chief persecutor.” Yesterday he captured the interest of Russian journalists by promising that at his press conference today he will make “an important statement, one that will have historical significance for Russian-American relations.” Kommersant has learned that the surprise up his sleeve is thought to be a statement of America’s readiness to repeal the infamous Jackson-Vanick Amendment, which has hobbled trade relations between the two countries ever since it was introduced by Congress at the height of the Cold War. Thus, America’s “chief persecutor” of Russia may well become Russia’s “chief savior.”

A column in RIA Novosti described as “sensational” the announcement by Lantos that he would, indeed, support the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, thereby facilitating Russia’s WTO entry.  [The “Jackson” in the Jackson-Vanik amendment is Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the late Senator from Boeing/Washington, also mentor in the 1970s of two young Right Zionist staff aides, Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz].

An Associated Press report included remarkable quotes from a Lantos press conference in Moscow:

The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said Wednesday he would call for the removal of Russia from the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which has restricted bilateral trade and remained a key irritant in relations between Moscow and Washington.

It’s time to put behind us this relic of the Cold War,” Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., said at a news conference. “I will spare no effort to bring this about and I have every expectation that I will be successful.”

Moscow has long urged the United States to abolish the Jackson-Vanik amendment tying Russia’s trade status to whether it freely allows Jewish emigration…

In what appeared to be an attempt to strike a conciliatory note, Lantos said Putin’s [Munich] statement was a “fully understandable” attempt to demonstrate that his country, a former superpower, was resurgent after years of post-Soviet demise and stressed that Putin’s criticism should not stand in the way of the two countries’ cooperation.

The United States and Russia have far too many common interests and long-term goals,” Lantos said… “We certainly will not allow… [Putin’s Munich] speech to stand in the way of our very positive attitude towards Russia and our future cooperation.

What was the cost, for Putin, of all this “appeasement” from Lantos?

The answer appears to have arrived on February 19 while Lantos was in Moscow: Russia’s retreat from Iran’s nuclear program.

A source in Russia’s nuclear power agency Rosatom told Reuters it was obvious the timetable for the Bushehr plant needed to be “corrected” because Tehran had not made payments for the work for more than a month.

Moscow had been due to start nuclear fuel deliveries for the plant in March, ahead of the reactor’s planned September start. It was unclear how long the delay would be. Moscow has already pushed back completion several times, citing technical reasons…

Atomstroiexport, the Russian state company in charge of the Bushehr work, said existing U.N. sanctions against Iran were also contributing to the delays because of a trading ban on certain atomic equipment.

“There are certain obstacles affecting our work in Bushehr,” said spokeswoman Irina Yesipova. “Because of the embargo a number of third countries declined to supply equipment (to Iran). That’s why Russian producers have to provide all the equipment all of a sudden. It’s a tough situation.”

Right Zionists took note and suddenly began to elaborate the potential joys of diplomacy.  When the news broke, Cliff May had this to say over at the National Review Online:

If ever there was a time for skillful diplomacy, this is it. The focus should be on Russia. Whatever his faults (and they are many) Putin can be made to see that Russia’s future should not be as the junior, infidel partner to an aggressive, expansionist, radical Islamist, nuclear-armed Iran.

Russia Hawks Go Wobbly on Iran

Even as some Right Zionists were cooing over the prospect of a US-Russian axis against Iran, Russia hawks in the Bush administration–focused on Caspian Sea energy politics–were arguably going “wobbly” on Iran.

Consider, for example, the case of Matthew Bryza, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs.

Within the Bush administration, Bryza is one of the figures responsible for finding ways to break Russia’s leverage as a supplier of natural gas to Europe and its monopoly control over energy routes out of the Caspian Sea.  Iran looms large as both a source of fuel and a potential route for natural gas from Turkmenistan.

Bryza’s recent interview with Turkish Daily News speaks volumes about his priorities when it comes to Russia and Iran:

[T]he planned Nabucco [pipeline] raises hopes for providing Europe with natural gas from Central Asia, not Russia. It is set to run through Turkey to Vienna via Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. However there are concerns that the Azerbaijan gas fields are not yet suitable for extraction.

I don’t know if Nabucco needs a lot of help from America and Europe, but we are all for it,” said Bryza.

“Nabucco needs good, clear gas production from Azerbaijan. We believe that within five to 10 years this could be achieved and Azerbaijan could be producing enough gas”…

Asked whether the United States felt apprehensive about Russian state-owned Gazprom’s tactics, Bryza said that the United States stood for a free, competitive market.

“Gazprom is a monopoly,” he emphasized, “and monopolies behave as monopolies. We don’t like monopolies…

In recent statements President Putin raised the possibility of a Russia-Iran agreement on the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) model. Bryza said it was hard to tell if these were empty threats, adding, “I think the Iranians have proved themselves to be difficult associates”…

“Although President Bush has said that no option is off the table, I don’t think a [U.S.] attack on Iran is likely. Our policy is to change the behavior of the Iranian government through diplomacy, not to change the regime,” stated Bryza.

That kind of talk is enough to drive Right Zionists–committed, as they remain, to popular insurrection and regime change in Iran–into fits of rage.

Is it also enough to allow some daylight between Cheney and his Right Zionist allies?

German Gas

Posted by Cutler on March 07, 2007
Germany, Great Power Rivalry, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia / No Comments

So many enemies, so little time.

It cannot be easy to be Dick Cheney.  When your list of enemies gets long enough, you are inevitably asked to compromise and support the lesser evil.

For Cheney, the challenge is to keep both Iran and Russia in the crosshairs at the same time.

Take Germany, for example.

The German appetite for natural gas makes Russia and Iran attractive trading partners.

The Russian option is championed by Gazprom subsidiary Nord Stream and has the active support of ex-German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

As suggested by an article in Business Week, the former chancellor–now on the Gazprom payroll–retains influence within the Merkel administration.

The German ex-chancellor caused a furore at home when he took the lucrative Gazprom job in 2005 just weeks after brokering the pipeline deal at government level. Current chancellor Angela Merkel has backed the pipe, but has frostier relations with Russia’s Mr Putin, once described by Mr Schroeder as a “crystal-clear democrat”…

But the ex-chancellor also showed glimpses of the canny pragmatism that characterised his foreign policy while still in power and which continues to function inside the German government in the person of foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier – Mr Schroeder’s ex-cabinet chief.

The “canny pragmatism” mentioned above refers to Schroeder’s question, implicitly directed at Vice President Cheney:

Where are the alternatives to Russia?” Mr Schroeder asked in the context of soaring EU gas imports, mentioning Algeria, Libya, Qatar, Nigeria and international pariah Iran. “You have to think if this would be politically better than Russia. My view…is that as far as security and stability of supply goes, Russia is the best option.”

Schroeder’s reference to Iran is not merely an exercise in hypothetical speculation.  Spiegel Online reports that the German energy giant E.on is in talks with Iran to buy natural gas.  The Iranian initiative is depicted as a move to break German dependence on Russia.

German energy giant E.on has confirmed it is in talks with Iran to buy natural gas — although Germany is currently discussing further sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program with its allies.

Germany has for years been talking about diversifying its natural gas supplies to reduce over-reliance on Russia. But the solution currently being considered by German energy utility E.on may end up being just as controversial — the company wants to buy gas from Iran.

Berlin has become increasingly skeptical about the reliability of Russia as an energy supplier as Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled gas company in charge of most of Siberia’s vast reserves, has repeatedly flexed its muscles in price spats with Russia’s neighbors. But E.on’s interest in Iran comes just as the international community is discussing further sanctions on Tehran for its controversial nuclear program.

So, Vice President Cheney: Is Russia the lesser evil?  Or is Iran?

Cheney’s answer (like Clinton’s): BTC.

One can only hope that the gas arrives in time for the American Eagle to free the German Adler from the clutches of the Russian Bear and the Persian Lion.

What is Kazakhstan’s inner animal, anyway?  I don’t remember Borat ever having mentioned it…

Who Lost Germany?

Posted by Cutler on March 06, 2007
Great Power Rivalry, Russia / 3 Comments

The New York Times has published an article–“U.S. Moves to Soothe Growing Russian Resentment“–that appears to signal a shift in the Bush administration’s hawkish approach toward Russia.

Not a chance.

The report by Thom Shanker and Helene Cooper seems to suggest that after Putin’s speech in Munich, the Bush administration has been “shocked, shocked,” to find Moscow upset with Washington and they are now contrite. Indeed, Bush administration officials have launched a new “initiative” to calm bilateral tensions.

In the wake of criticism from President Vladimir V. Putin and his inner circle of political advisers and generals, there is a growing acknowledgment among officials in Washington that the United States has not responded as rapidly or eloquently as it might have to a widespread sense of grievance in Russia…

Senior administration officials said their initiative called for engaging Russian leaders in private discussions to illustrate that the United States was putting extra effort into nurturing the relationship and that Russia deserved a more thorough dialogue on American foreign policy and national security plans.

A senior administration official involved in developing the strategy said that under the program, “we’ll have more consultation and we’ll do it more extensively and more intensively, so that there is a good understanding of each other’s views.”

It strains credibility to suggest that anyone in Washington thinks the problem here is miscommunication.

But the report goes on to suggest that the substance of US policy toward Russia–all the well-communicated disagreements that constitute the crux of Russian animosity–will not change:

Administration officials have said they will stand their ground in defending the United States against the substance of the Russian critique. In particular, the officials say, Russian threats will not halt Washington’s plans to place elements of a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, nor diminish Washington’s support of NATO expansion.

The notion that Putin’s objections can be met with responses that are simply more rapid or eloquent is implicitly insulting to the Kremlin. Can the Bush administration actually believe that this kind of talk–the new “strategy”–will actually appease Moscow?

No.

Rather, the real target of the “eloquence strategy” is Germany.

The stunning directness of Moscow’s recent public complaints is viewed as undermining United States-Russia relations. Equally worrisome to the administration is that the harsh tone of the Kremlin’s comments has greatly troubled European allies caught in between, especially in former Soviet client states in Eastern Europe that later joined NATO.

This is the real news story. The headline is that the Bush administration moves to soothe growing European anxiety.

The charm offensive, insofar as one can see evidence of it, is directed toward Europe, specifically what Rumsfeld called the “old” Europe.

The “problem” with the “old” Europe was supposed to have been solved with the triumph of German Chancellor Angela Merkel over her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder. (I guess that was before the “back rub.”)

Merkel is “going wobbly” on Russia and it is to this development–not Putin’s anger–that has the Bush administration scrambling.

The Financial Times captures the political dynamic in its reporting:

Angela Merkel, German chancellor, added her voice to the heated international debate over the missile defence system by calling for Nato to be given responsibility for defusing concerns over the [US missile defence system planned for eastern Europe]…

“Nato is the best place for discussion of this issue,” she told the Financial Times in an interview, arguing that Washington should step up consultation with its western allies and Russia.

Her statement reflects concerns over increasing east-west tensions since Vladimir Putin, Russian president, delivered a speech in Munich sharply criticising US unilateralism, and the US formally asked Poland and the Czech Republic to host parts of the anti-missile system…

Mrs Merkel said that Nato should be the forum for greater consultation by Washington of both its western allies and Russia on the issue of missile defence. “It is better to have more discussion on this issue rather than less,” she said…

German officials said Berlin was concerned that while the defence system was not targeted at Russia, there was a danger its creation could mark a departure from the international trend since the early 1990s towards disarmament.

At an EU meeting yesterday, Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s foreign minister, was more outspoken, calling the US plans “incomprehensible”.

“We will have no stability in Europe if we push the Russians into a corner,” he said.

Nevertheless, the US charm offensive toward Europe has ceded little or no ground on questions of substance.

In recent remarks to the Atlantic Council, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns–a Russia hawk and an architect of NATO expansion during the Clinton administration–was unrepentant. The speech is worth quoting at some length, for it gets to the heart of some of the key tensions:

[One] intra-European issue that is so much a part of our current agenda is what to do about Russia, how to relate to modern Russia, how to be a partner with Russia, but also how to protect NATO and the European Union and the states of Central Europe from whatever dangers may lurk in the future.

You’ve all seen the extraordinary — you’ve heard about or saw the extraordinary speech that President Putin gave at the Wehrkunde Conference in Munich two weeks ago. You’ve seen this unusually unwise and irresponsible statement by the Russian General Staff about targeting the Czech Republic and Poland because they have the temerity to negotiate with the United States a missile defense agreement.

Our response to that has been that we need to seek a balanced relationship with Russia. We need to take account of what is working in our relationship with Russia but also to be very clear about where we disagree with the Russian leadership — whether it’s on the lack of democracy inside Russia itself, the declining fortunes of the democrats in the Russian political spectrum; whether it’s on Russia’s attempts to, we think, be overbearing at times in their relations with their neighbors; or whether it’s the recent Russian reaction to our attempt to establish a modern missile defense system in Europe, not aimed at the Russians themselves, of course, but aimed at the threats that emanate from Iran and other countries to the south of Russia…

[T]he Russians and our government — perhaps other governments in Western Europe — are operating at cross-purposes.

We believe that Georgia should have a right to define its own future. We believe that Georgia should have the right to seek membership or association with international organizations like NATO in the future if that is what Georgia elects to do, and if Georgia, of course, at some point in its future history meets the requirements of NATO membership.

We believe that Moldova should be allowed to overcome the internal divisions that have held that nation back since the breakup of the Soviet Union in December 1991.

And we certainly believe that the three Baltic countries — Estonia and Latvia and Lithuania, now members of both the European Union but especially of NATO — have a right to live in peace and free of the harassment that is sometimes afflicted upon them by the Russian Federation.

We’re concerned about the lack of democracy inside Russia itself, the declining fortunes of those who stand up for democracy in Russia.

So I know that President Putin put a number of criticisms before the world audience about United States foreign policy. We have been equally clear about where we disagree with the Russian Federation, and that’s our responsibility to do that — to define a modern relationship in those terms, to be frank about what’s working and to thank the Russian Federation when we are able to achieve things together whether it’s on counter-terrorism or counter-proliferation, but to be equally frank that when there are challenges in the relationship we face those challenges, and we disagree with the Russians publicly when they do things that are profoundly not in our

Russia is going to have to understand that NATO will continue to exist. NATO will continue to grow. We will continue to add members to the NATO Alliance. And the strength of NATO will be based on our common will and our ability to project NATO as a force for peace and for stability as it certainly is in its Afghan mission. And Russia has to understand that NATO is not and has not been, for the history, for the many years since 1989, ’90 and ’91, directed at all against Russia, but is the one uniquely unifying force for peace and stability in Europe itself.

NATO enlargement… has brought so many positive benefits to the Europeans, as well as to the North Americans over the last 15 years that we think NATO’s vocation has to be strong in the future.

We have invited Russia into a NATO-Russia partnership five years ago in Italy. It has worked well at points, but it’s been sometime disappointing in a lack of a strategic engagement. That was apparent in the Russian reaction to our plan to establish a very small number of interceptors in Poland and at radar sites in the Czech Republic, to have some capacity to deter the looming missile threat from Iran and other states in the Middle East that all the European countries and the United States face.

To think that in this day and age a member of the Russian General Staff would threaten two NATO countries because they have the temerity to consider negotiating this agreement with us is really quite astounding. Secretary Rice said today when she was asked about this in Berlin, “It was profoundly unwise for that statement to be made, and we hope that the Russians will think twice about such statements in the future.”

Burns has offered up a relatively frank version of US policy toward Russia.

The “strategy” toward Germany, on the other hand, is to try to offer some political cover for a Chancellor who will find it increasingly difficult to defend US policy in the face of Russian pressure.

The question is no longer “who lost Russia?” That was settled long ago. The spark behind the New York Times article about a Bush administration “initiative” toward Russia is an attempt to forestall a more contemporary question: “Who lost Germany?”

The Score

Posted by Cutler on March 02, 2007
Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Russia / No Comments

A little score keeping.  No surprises, but some helpful guideposts:

1. Rice’s Diplomatic Outreach to Iran: Right Zionists… very upset; Right Arabist establishment… quite delighted.

2. Cheney’s visit to Pakistan: definitely looking like a crackdown on the Taliban (about which I was initially skeptical).  There are some signs that Russia and the US are both competing for the loyalty of the so-called “Tajik clique” that currently “governs” Afghanistan.

3. A pro-Shiite Tilt in Iraq: more howls of protest from the pro-Sunni political elite.

Karzai’s Russian Card

Posted by Cutler on March 01, 2007
Afghanistan, Great Power Rivalry, Russia / No Comments

In a recent post–entitled “Choosing to Lose in Afghanistan?“–I suggested that Vice President Cheney might have geopolitical reasons to want to support the Taliban in Afghanistan, notwithstanding the links between the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The central idea was that the Taliban is today–as it was in the 1990s–a bulwark against Russian influence in Afghanistan. As a Russia hawk, Cheney might choose to “lose” in Afghanistan–i.e., to lose the Karzai government and the NATO battle against the Taliban–in order to keep Moscow out of Kabul.

It was an interesting exercise to try to make the argument. And it may have some merit.

Nevertheless, there are very few signs of any US overture to the Taliban (i.e., pressure for the cooptation and integration of Taliban forces as part of the political landscape in Kabul). And, well, tensions between the Taliban and Cheney seemed kind of intense this week, what with the former trying to kill the latter.

I continue to think the the Russian angle is part of the story, but I’m not sure that support for the Taliban is the only option for a Russia hawk.

It is true, as I argued, that the so-called “Tajik clique” behind the Karzai government was historically aligned with Russia. It is also true that the Taliban has had and continues to have very tense relations with Moscow.

Perhaps Cheney is now pressing for a major crackdown against the Taliban. Maybe Cheney thinks that the best way to grab Afghanistan and keep it from Russia is to compete for the hearts and minds of the “Tajik clique.” And maybe the “Tajik clique” of the Karzai regime is playing hard to get.

Back in December 2006, Fareed Zakaria published an essay that about efforts by Afghan President Karzai to get Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to crackdown on the Taliban:

Karzai argues that Pakistan has been tacitly—and often actively—supporting the Taliban along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and in Pakistan itself…

At the dinner that Bush threw for both presidents in September, Karzai was extremely blunt, according to those familiar with the discussions (who wish to remain anonymous because of the private nature of the event). Karzai warned that if the United States was forced to leave Afghanistan, Kabul would ally far more closely with India and Russia, which would not be in Pakistan’s interests.

Is it too much to suggest that Karzai was threatening Cheney as much as Musharraf?

Karzai is often caricatured as a well-dressed US puppet whose weak regime may control the city of Kabul, but little else.

Is it possible, however, that Karzai is using inter-imperialist rivalry between the US and Russia to leverage US pressure on Musharraf and the Taliban?

Choosing to Lose in Afghanistan?

Posted by Cutler on February 26, 2007
Afghanistan, Great Power Rivalry, Russia / No Comments

Vice President Cheney has made unannounced visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan. According to the New York Times, Cheney’s visit to Pakistan was intended to deliver “an unusually tough message” to President Pervez Musharraf.

The decision to send Mr. Cheney secretly to Pakistan came after the White House concluded that General Musharraf is failing to live up to commitments he made to Mr. Bush during a visit here in September. General Musharraf insisted then, both in private and public, that a peace deal he struck with tribal leaders in one of the country’s most lawless border areas would not diminish the hunt for the leaders of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Nobody is going to question the idea that Cheney can deliver a tough message when he wants to (see his latest warnings to Iran).

The real question is whether Cheney actually wants a fight with Musharraf. He might. I’m just not sure.

The “tough” message in Pakistan is being delivered by the House Democrats, not the Bush administration. Indeed, the Bush administration opposed the Pelosi bill that threatened to link Pakistani aid to a crackdown on the Taliban.

For Cheney, however, the problem with a tough message to Pakistan and a crackdown on the Taliban is that such initiatives may ultimately undermine Cheney’s anti-Russian goals in Central Asia.

In an August 5, 1999 article in the Financial Times (“Contest For Regional Supremacy Replaces Cold War Conflict in Afghanistan”), Charles Clover put the post-Cold War history of the Afghan factionalism in the context of geopolitical rivalries:

[T]he war in Afghanistan is not just a tribal or an ethnic conflict but a geopolitical one; that the superpower conflict between the USSR and the US in the 1980s has been replaced by a contest for regional supremacy, pitting Pakistan against Iran and Russia

“The Taliban are not Pakistani mercenaries but they are facilitated and trained by Pakistan. They are permitted to recruit in Pakistan. They are really a transnational, Afghan-Pakistani phenomenon,” said Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan expert at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations…

Jamiat-i-Islami… [is] the main faction opposed to the Taliban… Burnahiddin Rabbani, who is still recognised internationally as the president of Afghanistan, is the political head of Jamiat…

Funds for the Taliban appear to come mainly from the Gulf states or individuals, according to Mr Rubin. The movement is recognised by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in addition to Pakistan, as the legitimate government of Afghanistan…

[T]he prospect of Pakistani dominantion over Afghanistan proved too threatening for other countries in the region, and an unlikely alliance between Iran and Russia formed to support an anti-Taliban force made up primarily of… Jamiat-i-Islami.

“There is a big Russian and Iranian role with [anti-Taliban] forces, but it is not as extensive as Pakistan’s role with the Taliban,” said Mr Rubin…

Several times a week [anti-Taliban forces fly] an old MI-17 helicopter to Tajikistan, which has signed defence co-operation agreements with Russia and Iran. Tajik airbases such as the town of Kulyab have become centres for Russian and Iranian supplies…

In other words, the Afghani civil war of the 1990s was a proxy battle between US-backed forces–the Saudis, the Pakistanis, and the Taliban–and Russian-backed forces–Iran, India, Tajikistan, and the so-called “Northern Alliance.”

In a recent Washington Post Op-Ed (“Discarding An Afghan Opportunity”), Selig Harrison of the Center for International Policy argues that after 9/11, some elements of the Bush administration supported what amounted to a Russian- and Iranian-aligned “Tajik clique” in Afghanistan:

In 2001 the United States lined up with the Tajik ethnic minority, whose small military force, the Northern Alliance, helped dislodge the Pashtun-based Taliban and has subsequently dominated the Karzai government. Tajik generals and their proxies still control the army as well as key secret police and intelligence agencies hated by the Pashtuns. Karzai, a Pashtun, has attempted to soften Tajik domination with Pashtun appointments to top security jobs, but the real power remains in the hands of a U.S.-backed Tajik clique.

Does Cheney support this “Tajik clique”? Or does he accept NATO’s failure to defeat the Taliban as the price of blocking Russian and Iranian political dominance in Afghanistan?

In a recent Foreign Affairs essay–“Saving Afghanistan“–Barnett Rubin suggests that the US continues to send mixed messages about its geopolitical aims in Afghanistan.

The rushed negotiations between the United States and Pakistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 changed Pakistan’s behavior but not its interests. Supporting the Taliban was so important to Pakistan that Musharraf even considered going to war with the United States rather than abandon his allies in Afghanistan. Instead, he tried to persuade Washington to allow him to install a “moderate Taliban” government or, failing that, at least to prevent the Northern Alliance, which Pakistanis see as allied with India, from entering Kabul and forming a government. The agreement by Washington to dilute Northern Alliance control with remnants of Afghanistan’s royal regime did little to mollify the generals in Islamabad, to say nothing of the majors and colonels who had spent years supporting the Taliban in the border areas. Nonetheless, in order to prevent the United States from allying with India, Islamabad acquiesced in reining in its use of asymmetrical warfare, in return for the safe evacuation of hundreds of Pakistani officers and intelligence agents from Afghanistan, where they had overseen the Taliban’s military operations.

The United States tolerated the quiet reconstitution of the Taliban in Pakistan as long as Islamabad granted basing rights to U.S. troops, pursued the hunt for al Qaeda leaders, and shut down A. Q. Khan’s nuclear-technology proliferation network. But five years later, the safe haven Pakistan has provided, along with continued support from donors in the Persian Gulf, has allowed the Taliban to broaden and deepen their presence both in the Pakistani border regions and in Afghanistan. Even as Afghan and international forces have defeated insurgents in engagement after engagement, the weakness of the government and the reconstruction effort — and the continued sanctuary provided to Taliban leaders in Pakistan — has prevented real victory…

[F]ailing to address Pakistan’s support of the Taliban amounts to an acceptance of NATO’s failure.

Nobody is likely to accuse Cheney of accepting failure easily. Cheney is, however, willing make awkward alliances with unsavory forces in order gain advantage over a strategic rival.

The US and Russia seemed to get on well in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 because any move to unseat the Taliban aided Russian and Iranian allies in Afghanistan.

Perhaps Cheney harbors doubts about the wisdom of this idea.

If Cheney shies away from a direct US confrontation with the Taliban, it is not only because he has been distracted by the “diversion” in Iraq. It is because his attention is focused on Russia.

[UPDATE: The Taliban, on the other hand, is not shying away from a direct confrontation with Cheney.  I guess they didn’t read my blog post.]

Limits of Liberalism

Posted by Cutler on February 15, 2007
Great Power Rivalry, Russia / 3 Comments

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman asks so many of the right questions.  Too bad he provides so few meaningful answers.

Still, his views are so emblematic of the liberal mind that I cannot help find value (although not really enough to want to pay) in watching him construct his world.

One of my favorite questions is the one he asks in his most recent column, “Putin Pushes Back.”  He has recently returned from Moscow and now he wants to know, in essence, “Why do they hate us?

Friedman’s Answer: NATO expansion.

We need to stop kidding ourselves. After the end of the cold war and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1991, the Bush I and Clinton administrations decided to build a new security alliance — an expanded NATO — and told Russia it could not be a member.

And let’s not forget that the Russia we told to stay out in the cold was the Russia of Boris Yeltsin and his liberal reformist colleagues. They warned us at the time that this would undercut them. But the Clinton folks told us: “Don’t worry, Russia is weak; Yeltsin will swallow hard and accept NATO expansion. There will be no cost.”

Why would a patriotic dude like Friedman go and join the “blame America first” crowd after all that time defending the American crusade in Iraq (really wanted/wants to do Saudi Arabia, if you listen to the guy)?

Because it is his way of saying that our illiberalism was and is the cause of their illiberalism.  And that goes a long way toward salvaging the idea that there was no internal crisis of liberalism in Russia (or the US).

So, a couple of points:

1. A huge chunk of what went “wrong” in Russia (say, with the rise of the ultra-nationalists in the December 1993 parliamentary elections) was a backlash against the neo-liberal economic proposals (shock therapy, tight monetary policy with its deflationary bias, massive unemployment, relentless austerity) that Friedman constantly champions in his embrace of neo-liberal “globalization.”  The Russian liberals weren’t done in because they were abused by American illiberalism.  The Russian liberals imploded because they championed some of the most politically unpopular economic measures anyone could imagine in Russia.

Did Russian’s want consumer goods?  You bet.  But didn’t they also want cash to pay for all those goodies?  And, honestly, Tom, describe to me again the kind of delayed gratification that was and is required under the neo-liberal plan…

There has always been an antagonism between political liberalization and economic liberalization.  In Russia, it was nothing other than political liberalization itself that put paid to the idea of neo-liberal austerity.

(The preferable model continues to be China where neo-liberalism need not worry about its popular mandate.  It thrives–so far–without all the fuss and bother of political liberalization).

2. We live in a world of great power rivalry.  What that means is that the US is neither the sole source of all things good nor all things evil.  The US is one locus of energy in the Great Game of Empire.  Friedman often oversteps by suggesting that the US is the sole source of all things good.  Here, he oversteps in the other direction by understating Russian “agency” in the Great Game.

Friedman:

Mr. Putin… said: “The process of NATO expansion has nothing to do with modernization of the alliance. We have the right to ask, ‘Against whom is this expansion directed?’ ” We all know the answer: it’s directed against Russia. O.K., fine, we were ready to enrage Russia to expand NATO, but what have we gotten out of it? The Czech Navy?

Disingenuous: we weren’t in it for the Czech Navy.  We offered the Czechs and others a security umbrella, not the other way around.  That has always been the story of NATO, so let’s not kid ourselves.

We were in it for control of Europe, for control of Caspian oil and natural gas, and much else to boot.  So were the Russians.

Friedman:

For those of us who opposed NATO expansion, the point was simple: there is no major geopolitical issue, especially one like Iran, that we can resolve without Russia’s help. So why not behave in a way that maximizes Russia’s willingness to work with us and strengthens its democrats, rather than expanding NATO to countries that can’t help us and are not threatened anymore by Russia, and whose democracies are better secured by joining the European Union?

This makes a mockery of the facts on several fronts.

Can he be serious that all throughout Eurasia countries were “not threatened anymore by Russia”?  The Russian-backed coup in Azerbaijan in wasn’t a threat?  The troops in Georgia weren’t/aren’t a threat?  Russian intervention in Ukraine and Belarus?  Russian control in Turkmentistan?  Russian support for Serbian nationalism?

It takes at least two Great Powers to tango.  We live in a world with at least two–quite a few more, really.

The whole point, in the world of Great Power Rivalry, is that Iran is a “problem” for the US because of its alliance with Russia.  Otherwise, a “deal” would have been done with Iran a long time ago.  This is why Cheney and Putin deserve one another: neither is willing to “share” Iran and so the Russians and the Americans fight over it.

Here is the tough question to send back Friedman’s way: does he advocate a world where Great Powers “share” the bounty of the “periphery”?

Given the very old, very real “Great Power” ambitions of Russia (all of which pre-dated the advent of the Soviet Union and continued on immediately after the demise), Friedman can only be suggesting a return to a world in which Great Powers carve up the “periphery” into exclusive spheres of influence.  Like Roosevelt, Friedman would then grant Russia its sphere of influence (everything but the Baltics, I guess).

I’m no fan of American empire.  I’m no fan of Russian empire.  But neither am I a fan of inter-imperialist collusion at the expense of the rest of the world.  If the “periphery” has any chance at leveraging a better deal in this world, it will have to come through effective efforts to play Great Powers against one another.

Bush Sr’s “New World Order” was specifically designed to try to keep that from ever happening again.  Part of the deal was that Russia could keep Ukraine and much else along with it.  Remember?  Tom?

Does Great Power rivalry always guarantee competition for the “hearts and minds” of the underlying population?  No.

Does it ever have that consequence?

Ask India if it could have won independence from Britain without the threat to go with the Germans in World War II.  A nasty business, but Gandhi’s entire campaign cultivating British conscience pales in comparison on the question of raw leverage for extracting concessions from the British.

While you are at it, ask the Egyptians if they didn’t play the Americans against the British.

And, Tom Friedman, ask the Israelis if they didn’t win statehood by playing both the Americans and the Soviets against the British.

Turkmenbashi

Posted by Cutler on December 21, 2006
Great Power Rivalry, Iran, Russia, Turkmenistan / No Comments

Saparmurat Niyazov, the President of Turkmenistan, is dead.

Turkmenistan–a Caspian Sea country which contains either the fourth or fifth largest natural gas reserves in the world and considerable oil reserves, as well–is a central site in the “Great Game” of inter-imperialist rivalry being waged between dominant forces within the US and Russia.

And if you care about US policy toward Iran, then the larger context of US-Turkmenistan relations might be of interest.

The gossip side of the news is simple. Niyazov was a nutty authoritarian dictator. The Times Online reports:

Saparmurat Niyazov, the colourful but authoritarian President of Turkmenistan, has died suddenly after 21 years of iron-fist rule which crushed his opposition and created a cult of personality that saw cities and even a meteorite named after him.

Mr Niyazov, who made himself President-for-life in 1999, died early today of a heart attack aged 66, according to a statement by the state-controlled media…

During his rule – extended in an unopposed presidential election in 1990 – he established a bizarre personality cult in which he was styled as Turkmenbashi the Great, or Leader of all Turkmens.

Obsessed with maintaining personal power, he ensured his presence was felt in every corner, commissioning thousands of hoardings and gold statues of himself across the country, as well as plastering his image on the national currency, carpets, vodka bottles and launching his own brand of perfume.

In a symbolic show of his unrestrained authority, the former Soviet leader also renamed the months and days of the week, titling January after himself – Turkmenbashi. His name has been given to a sea port, farms, military units and even to a meteorite.

From the perspective of Great Power Rivalry, however, the key question, is whether he was “our” nutty authoritarian.

Turkmenistan and Iran

Throughout much of the 1990s, the US worked very hard to win Niyazov away from Russian influence.

At first glance, this seemed easy enough. In 1997 Royal Dutch/Shell and Niyazov joined in a partnership to build a pipeline that would avoid Russia by carrying gas through northern Iran (“Shell to construct pipeline through Iran,” The Jerusalem Post, October 14, 1997, p. 10):

The Shell group… has responded to an invitation from the Turkmeni president and has agreed to be the lead party in trying to finance and manage the project, said a Shell spokesman in London.

The company believes it won’t run into opposition from Washington…

But Shell did run into opposition from Washington.

Turkmenistan, Iran, and Russia

The October 14, 1997 Jerusalem Post article reported a potential source of the trouble:

[T]he Turkmeni government has expressed its concern at Russia-based Gazprom’s decision to join Total SA in a $2b contract to develop the South Pars gas field in Iran. The Turkmenis fear the contract could prevent it from exporting gas reserves to Turkey.

Russian partnerships in Iran would, in fact, doom the Shell pipeline. The Boston Globe reported the story (“US warns against pipeline going through Iran, but few listen,” March 1, 1998, p.A12):

No one has welcomed the US policy promoting independence from Russia more than Turkmenistan…

Shell officials say they are wary of the US Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, designed to punish any company that invests more than $ 20 million in Iran. But they also express hope that Washington will soon abandon its efforts to exclude Iran from the Central Asian bonanza…

So do the Turkmens, who spent seven decades as a southern Soviet outpost with their 600-mile-long border with Iran shut tight. They are not about to let someone else tell them to close it again.

“I understand that the US has its interests as a superpower, but we have our interests, and we have to feed our people,” Yolbaz Kepbanov, Turkmenistan’s deputy foreign minister for economic affairs, said in the capital, Ashkabhad…

Perhaps in the spirit of supporting such independence, when the Iran-Turkmenistan pipeline was announced last July, Washington seemed tacitly to accept the deal.

But the number and scale of the projects involving Iran have increasedGazprom is planning to develop, along with French and Malaysian companies, a gas field in southern Iran.

As a result, Washington has restated its hard line. “US policy is to oppose all pipelines across Iran,” said a Western diplomat in Ashkhabad. “The Turkmens know the light is red, believe me.” But while Turkmen officials are aware of the US position, they say they are not bothered by it.

“Let the Americans say, ‘Don’t be friends with Iran,’ but we can’t do that, because we are a neutral country,” said Kepbanov, the Foreign Ministry official. “In our eyes, everyone is equal but Iran comes first. . . . We have to cooperate with them.”

The Israeli Connection

The US offered up an alternative–a pipeline under the Caspian Sea that would travel through Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, skirting both Russia and Iran.

This so-called “TransCaspian” alternative was actively promoted by an Israeli with very close relations to the regime in Turkmenistan. The Wall Street Journal covered the Israeli angle (“Israeli Is Subtle Player in Central Asia Oil–Ex-Intelligence Agent Advances Western Interests,” April 7, 1999):

A former Israeli intelligence agent… 53-year-old Yosef A. Maiman possesses probably the one key to success in the region: the ear of one of its autocratic leaders. For the past few years, Mr. Maiman has served as the right-hand man on energy matters to President Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, home to the world’s third-largest natural-gas reserves.

In this role, Mr. Maiman has wittingly or unwittingly furthered the geopolitical goals of both the U.S. and Israel. How? By nudging the Turkmen leader to bypass Russia and Iran in building the country’s main gas-export pipeline.

The race to find a market for Turkmen gas, and a way to get it there, has picked up great speed of late. Mr. Maiman was the behind-the-scenes player in the $2.5 billion agreement that Mr. Niyazov signed in February with PSG International to build an export pipeline between Turkmenistan and Turkey. PSG is a joint venture between Bechtel Enterprises, a unit of Bechtel Group Inc., and General Electric Co.’s finance arm, GE Capital Services. Mr. Maiman acted as the intermediary between the Turkmenis and the U.S. firms.

The contract represents a victory for the U.S. The companies involved are both American. And for Washington, the pipeline deal freezes out Russia and Iran, which Mr. Niyazov had been reluctant to challenge. Russia and Iran quickly denounced the project. In early February, Russian gas monopoly RAO Gazprom teamed up with Italy’s ENI SpA and Dutch financial backer ABN-Amro Holding NV to build a competing gas pipeline across the Black Sea from Russia to Turkey…

This is the Great Game all over,” Mr. Maiman says during an interview in his office in Herzliyah, an Israeli resort town, referring to a late 19th century, three-way contest for control of Central Asia. “Controlling the transport route is controlling the product.”

Israel’s security interests in the region have been furthered, as well. “Maiman is the Israeli-Turkmenistan relationship,” says Shmuel Meron, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s director of Commonwealth of Independent States affairs. “He is our ambassador at large. He opens doors and understands the rules of the game.”

For a time, Niyazov seemed to be playing along.

During the US Presidential transition in November 2000, however, the Russians managed to flip Niyazov.

Turkmentistan: “A Lost Cause”

James Dorsey reported (“US Blues as Turkmenistan Opts for Russian Route,” The Scotsman, November 15, 2000, p.10):

Turkmenistan’s President Saparmurat Niyazov appears to have sounded the death knell for US-backed efforts to ensure that Caspian Sea gas is exported to world markets via Turkey rather than Russia.

Mr Niyazov has announced that he has reached agreement with Russian gas monopoly Gazprom to sell it up to 30 billion cubic metres of gas next year. “If everything works out, we shall have an agreement by mid-November,” he told the cabinet.

The deal would account for most of Turkmenistan’s gas exports and leave little over for a $ 2 billion, United States-backed TransCaspian pipeline which would have been built from the Central Asian state via Azerbaijan and Georgia to Turkey by a consortium involving the Royal Dutch/Shell Group and a US contractor, Bechtel.

According to a May 2006 report in the Financial Times (“Scramble to Grab central Asia’s Gas,” May 5, 2006, p.3, third-party on-link here):

Lengthy negotiations of a scheme to pipe gas from Turkmenistan across the Caspian to Azerbaijan broke down in the 1990s mainly because Saparmurat Niyazov, the authoritarian Turkmen leader, kept changing the terms. US energy officials now regard Turkmenistan, the central Asian republic with the biggest gas reserves, as a lost cause“.

A Massive Fight For Power

Will the sudden death of Niyazov allow US officials to salvage this “lost cause”?

As Reuters reports, the Russians are understandably content with the status quo and the incumbent regime:

Russia said it hoped Turkmenistan would stick to Niyazov’s course. “We count on the new Turkmenistan leaders continuing their course and further developing bilateral ties,” top Kremlin aide Sergei Prikhodko told Itar-Tass news agency.

The onus for regime “change” is on the US. Another Reuters report suggests a likely scenario:

“I expect there will be a massive fight for power now in Turkmenistan and it’s likely to take place between pro-U.S. and pro-Russian forces,” said a Russian gas industry source, who declined to be named. “Gas will become the main coin of exchange and the key asset to get hold of.”

For starters, one might learn the name of a key “political prisoner” in Turkmenistan: former Boris Shikhmuradov (also Boris Sheikhmuradov).

Shikhmuradov, former Turkmeni Foreign Minister, was arrested in connection with an alleged 2002 assassination attempt on Niyazov.

Among other things, Shikhmuradov has had good relations with Israel, having visited at the invitation of Yosef A. Maiman to discuss the sale of Turkkmeni natural gas to Israel (“Shell to construct pipeline through Iran,” The Jerusalem Post, October 14, 1997, p. 10).

The Enemy of Cheney’s Enemy

Posted by Cutler on December 15, 2006
Iran, Russia / No Comments

Vice President Cheney talks tough on Iran.  Vice President Cheney talks tough on Russia.

How would Cheney talk if he were forced to choose between confrontation with Iran and confrontation between Russia?

The most obvious answer is that Cheney will do everything in his power to avoid having to make that choice.  Two recent news stories not show that Cheney is very effective at keeping both regimes in the crosshairs without capitulating to either.  But one might also hint at Cheney’s response if forced to choose: Cheney’s paramount target is Russia.

The first news story concerns US efforts to pass a UN resolution on Iranian sanctions.  Here is how the Right Zionist New York Sun reported the story:

Despite the departure of its ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, America is drawing fire at the U.N. Security Council. Several council members accused Washington’s U.N. representatives yesterday of provoking anger in an undiplomatic manner, possibly harming negotiations on a resolution that would impose sanctions on Iran.

The Security Council had just wrapped up a debate on Lebanon and the Ivory Coast last night and some members were planning a separate discussion on Iran when an American representative, William Brencick, raised the issue of recent human rights violations in Belarus, a Russian neighbor and ally.

His remarks prompted the Russian ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, to storm out of the meeting, saying he would not join the talks on Iran and that he needed “some time for reflection” and had “decided to relax a bit.” Asked why the consultations on Iran should not take place as scheduled, he said, “Because I said so.”

Brencick’s invocation of Belarus was part of a far larger Cheney-led initiative to pry former Soviet republics away from Russian influence.

The Financial Times helps put the Belarus story in the context of Great Power Rivalry, in which the US is trying to exploit tensions between Russia and Belarus.

Russia is set to deal a double blow to the economy of one of its closest allies – potentially making life much more difficult for the man the US has called “Europe’s last dictator”.

[Bu] pressing for Belarus to pay much more for its natural gas, Moscow… could sharply reduce or wipe out the $4bn-plus effective annual subsidy Russia provides to Belarus, which has helped Alexander Lukashenko, its authoritarian president, deliver higher wages and living standards to his 10m people.

That, say analysts, could make it harder to sustain the support that saw Mr Lukashenko re-elected last March to a third presidential term with 82 per cent of the vote – albeit in a poll international observers condemned as below international standards. It could also drive a wedge between countries with close cultural and historic links….

This is a sharp turnaround from nine months ago, when Russian president Vladimir Putin was criticised for being one of the few world leaders to congratulate Mr Lukashenko on his controversial election victory. It is the more surprising since Russia and Belarus signed agreements in the mid-1990s on creating a political and economic union, including a common currency and union constitution.

Analysts from both countries suggest Moscow is penalising Mr Lukashenko for not delivering on pledges of closer integration with Russia, including the currency union and selling half of Beltransgaz, the Belarusian gas distributor, to Gazprom, the Russian natural gas giant. Beltransgaz controls the gas export pipeline to western Europe…

The Belarus president now has a difficult choice. He is loath to cede a half-share to Russia in Beltransgaz, which one western diplomat calls Belarus’s “sacred cow”.
But even a limited gas price increase could render much of the country’s largely state-owned industry uncompetitive – and handing over the Beltransgaz stake would probably only delay Russia’s demands for a higher gas price.

In terms of the UN resolution on Iran, the “Belarus” affair implies that the effort to court Russian participation in the US-led UN effort to isolate Iran will not be allowed to interfere with ongoing battles US efforts to undermine Russian control of the former Soviet republics.

The second news story concerns a similar battle over the fate of the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

As the Financial Times reports, Russia is threatening to cut off natural gas supplies to Georgia.  Georgia has two possible alternative sources of natural gas that would help break the Russian hold on Georgia.

The first alternative source of natural gas, as the Financial Times reports, is a new 690km gas pipeline from Baku, Azerbaijan that will provide Georgia with gas that does not travel through Russian territory.

For Cheney, this is the key alternative.  However, it may not be sufficient to meet Georgian gas needs.

The other major Georgian alternative source of natural gas is Iran.

If the Baku gas proves insufficient, Cheney would have to choose between his quest to keep Georgia from Russia and his quest to keep Georgia from Iran.

Reports from Cheney’s recent meetings with the Georgian Prime Minister seem to indicate that if push comes to shove, Cheney may blink on Iran.

At present Georgia is in talks with Azerbaijan, Turkey and Iran on gas supplies to the republic. The United States is against long-term strategic partnership between Tbilisi and Teheran in the natural gas sphere, however, does not rule out possible supplies of Iranian gas to Georgia in the event of force majeure as it happened in late January due to an explosion on a gas pipeline in North Ossetia.

A Regnum News Agency report makes it clear, however, that the US would obviously rather not have to make this choice:

“We have been working on the question of receiving natural gas from alternative sources. First of all, we shall accomplish talks with Azerbaijan and Turkey. Only after that, if it is necessary, we shall continue our talks with Iran,” Zurab Nogaideli declared. “But the only thing is clear: Georgia will not be left without gas in winter,” the prime minister said.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza expressed his hope talking to reporters in Washington that Georgia would receive enough natural gas from the Azerbaijani Shah Deniz gas field, and it will not have to import gas from Iran. “We comprehend that Georgia can find itself in a difficult situation, and we are interested that the country will not be left without natural gas. We know, Georgia has been conducting talks with the neighboring countries, Azerbaijan and Turkey on the question of receiving additional amount of gas. I think, this amount of gas will be enough not to import gas from Iran,” Matthew Bryza said.

Keep an eye on this story.  It may say quite a bit about Cheney’s priorities.

2007: A Year of Living Dangerously

Posted by Cutler on December 14, 2006
Iran, Iraq, Russia / No Comments

News media coverage of the Bush administration’s Iraq Policy Review has focused on the possibility of a dramatic turn in US policy in Iraq that would feature a retreat from efforts to court the Sunni Arab insurgency and a full-throated support for a “Shiite Option.”  In many ways, this would actually mark a return to the original Right Zionist plan for post-invasion Iraq.

A dramatic move of this kind would be explosive in the Middle East and this probably explains some of careful focus on the timing of any dramatic announcement.  According to the White House, the “new strategy”–like the old “new strategies”–will arrive in 2007, an odd-numbered year when political insulation in the US is at its peak.

The delay from a pre-Christmas release is also likely a result of some ongoing factional resistance to such a bold move.  Condoleezza Rice is reportedly ringing alarm bells about the Shiite Option:

Some members of the administration, including some in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, have argued that the administration needs to provide clear support to a strong Shiite majority government, but the State Department, led by Condoleezza Rice, views that as a recipe for perpetual civil war.

An anti-Shiite coup might still win out against the Shiite Option, although reports suggest otherwise.  It is more than a little difficult to predict.

While we wait, I have been trying to suggest that there is a Russian angle in the new factionalism and it turns on relations between Russia and Iran.

The Baker crowd favors engagement with Iran.  Neither an alliance between Iran and Russia nor animosity between Iran and Israel is a bar for the Baker faction.  The clearest recent statement of support for this position arrives courtesy of Brent Scowcroft and his December 12, 2006 interview with the state-run Russian News Agency:

DMITRY BOBKOV: General Scowcroft, I remember when we met last year you mentioned there was no appropriate dialog between the U.S. and Russia. Since that time U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney has made a famous speech in Vilnius, Lithuania where he criticized Russia’s domestic policy and the lack of freedom. Do you think that Russia is currently moving in the right direction?

SCOWCROFT: I think that the situation with U.S. – Russia relations has not gotten better since we talked last year; indeed, it’s probably gotten worse. I think we still suffer badly from the lack of regular dialog. In analyzing the Russian policy, the Russian government tends not to explain its actions very well. It simply comes out and does things, and then leaves people to figure out what they have in mind. That’s not useful in developing understanding. How long it will last, I don’t know. As we said last time, bureaucracy exists on both sides; neither the U.S. bureaucracy nor Russian bureaucracy has developed any affinity for the other. It’s still a suspicious relationship. For a time under the George W. Bush administration our bilateral relationship worked OK because the two leaders had a good personal relationship. Now that’s not so good anymore. But potentially there is something to hold this relationship together. There are many big issues around the world and our policies are not opposed to each other. Actually, they are congruous. And therefore there is potential for cooperation on areas like North Korea, Iran and many other areas. I think there are two serious problems in our partnership. One is the situation of democracy in Russia and the other concerns the southern border region of Russia. In both we are deeply suspicious of each other’s motives. When we see Russia intervening in Georgia or Ukraine or other places we tend to say that Putin is trying to recreate the Soviet Union. When we intervene and praise democracy development in Georgia, Ukraine and so on, the Russians say we use democracy as an excuse to penetrate and drive them off.

This is a swipe at Cheney, who has always led the campaign to intervene to grab power in Russia’s old imperial sphere of influence.

DMITRY BOBKOV: Should Russia also start to participate in solving the Iraq problem?

SCOWCROFT: I would say yes. Because here again we have a common interest in the region. We’d like stability there. Instability doesn’t serve either one of our interests.

Apart from the Baker-Scowcroft faction, there is also a faction that fears the Russian alliance with Iran much more than Iranian-Israeli animosity and so favors engagement with Iran as a way to pry the incumbent Iranian regime away from Russia.

Cheney, on the other hand, represents a factional alliance between Right Zionists (like his key Middle East aide, David Wurmser) and Russia hawks.  For this coalition, the US can neither engage the incumbent Iranian regime nor leave it to Russia.  The only solution is to win Iran for the US and Israel and keep it from Russia.

This points to the old Right Zionist notion that Iraqi Shiites will actually be allied with the US in a Shiite-led movement to overthrow the Iranian regime.

And already–right on cue–there are the first signs of Right Zionist excitement over the prospect of undermining the incumbent Iranian regime from within.

This strategy will put Saudi Arabia in an extremely awkward position.  On the one hand, there are surely signs of Saudi-Iranian hostility over a host of issue, including Lebanon.  A US-backed Israeli-Saudi alliance against Iran is hardly out of the question, at least in the short term.

On the other hand, the Saudis also surely know that any Right Zionist quest for reconstructing the “Eternal Iran” is, in the last instance, only a prelude to the formation of a pro-US Shia Crescent that would ultimately transform the Arab Gulf into a Persian Gulf and devour the Saudi dynasty itself.

Cheney, Gates, and the Great Game

Posted by Cutler on December 12, 2006
Iran, Russia / No Comments

The signs of Bush administration resistance to the Baker Iraq Study Group plan grow ever more obvious.

I have been arguing that this represents a battle between two figures–Cheney and Baker–neither of whom are accurately described as Right Zionists or Neocons and both of whom are usually thought of as close to the Saudis.

So what gives?

I have proposed (here and here) that the split is over Iran and, in a larger sense, differences about Russia.

Baker favors diplomatic “engagement” with Iran and Russia. Cheney, I propose, looks at Iran through the lens of Great Power Rivalry for influence and sees the Iranian-Russian alliance as a threat to US efforts to grab influence in the regions around the former Soviet Union.

One small piece of a larger puzzle in this regard:

The administration of Bush Sr. is usually considered to have avoided or controlled much of the factional conflicts that have ravaged the current Bush administration. One exception concerns US responses to the breakup of the Soviet Union.

On this issue, a factional split developed featuring Cheney and Robert Gates on one side and Bush Sr, Scowcroft, and Baker on the other.

Here is one way way Bush Sr. and Scowcroft describe the split in their memoir A World Transformed (page 541):

The next day there was a long NSC meeting over future strategy toward the Soviet Union, focusing on whether we should support a breakup…

Cheney called for a more ‘aggressive’ approach. He argued that we had more leverage than we thought and if we simply reacted we could miss opportunities… He suggested we pick up one of Bob Gates’ ideas to establish consulates in all the republics… ‘We ought to lead and shape the events.’ This, of course, would have been a thinly disguised effort to encourage the breakup of the USSR. Scowcroft countered that our aid program was premised on a strong center… ‘That’s an example of old thinking,’ protested Cheney. Baker urged we continue to try to prop up the center…

‘But what should we be doing now to engage Ukraine?’ asked Cheney. ‘We are reacting.’ Scowcroft observed that Cheney’s premise was that we would be dealing with fifteen or sixteen independent countries. ‘The voluntary breakup of the Soviet Union is in our interest,’ argued Cheney.

For figures like Cheney, the problem with the Soviet Union was not merely “Communism.” It was Russian Empire. The axiomatic premise is not Cold War ideology but the “Great Game” of Great Power Rivalry.

Cheney has been playing it that way. Not so Baker.

The Fog of Factional War

Posted by Cutler on December 11, 2006
Iran, Iraq, Israel, Right Arabists, Right Zionists, Russia / No Comments

The New York Times is scrambling to make sense of the failed Realist coup that was supposed to accompany the publication of James Baker’s Iraq Study Group report.

One early Times effort pitted Condoleezza Rice as the leader of the anti-Baker faction.

More recently, the Times tries out a few other approaches in an article entitled, “Report on Iraq Exposes a Divide within the G.O.P.

One approach emphasizes the role of domestic Republican politics and cites a Wesleyan colleague, Douglas Foyle:

No matter what positions they take today, all Republicans would prefer that the 2008 elections not be fought on the battleground of Iraq, said Douglas Foyle, professor of government at Wesleyan University.

“They don’t want the 2008 presidential and Congressional campaign to be about staying the course,” Professor Foyle said. “That’s where the calculus of Bush and the Republicans diverge very quickly. Everyone is thinking about the next election, and Bush doesn’t have one.”

Other voices in the article also alleged that the Baker Report is supposed to function as cover for “cut and run” Republicans:

Bill Kristol, the neoconservative editor of The Weekly Standard and a leading advocate of the decision to invade Iraq, said: “In the real world, the Baker report is now the vehicle for those Republicans who want to extricate themselves from Iraq…”

But Kristol knows that the conflict is not simply about the audacity of a lame duck and the cautiousness of those “thinking about the next election.”  As Kristol suggests, the emphasis on domestic politics only goes so far in explaining the split within the Republican party.  After all, says Kristol, one of the most prominent “rejectionists” is also the leading Republican presidential candidate for 2008, John McCain:

“McCain is articulating the strategy for victory in Iraq. Bush will have to choose, and the Republican Party will have to choose, in the very near future between Baker and McCain.”

The Times authors also seem to discard the electoral politics explanation that pits lame duck hawks against pandering doves:

Senator John McCain of Arizona, a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, rejected the major recommendations of the group because they did not present a formula for victory. Mr. McCain, hoping to claim the Republican mantle on national security issues, has staked out a muscular position on Iraq, calling for an immediate increase in American forces to try to bring order to Baghdad and crush the insurgency.

This leads to the second approach adopted by the New York Times article, one that emphasizes the role of ideological factionalism:

A document that many in Washington had hoped would pave the way for a bipartisan compromise on Iraq instead drew sharp condemnation from the right, with hawks saying it was a wasted effort that advocated a shameful American retreat.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page described the report as a “strategic muddle,” Richard Perle called it “absurd,” Rush Limbaugh labeled it “stupid,” and The New York Post portrayed the leaders of the group, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic member of Congress, as “surrender monkeys”…

The choice Mr. Kristol is describing reflects a longstanding Republican schism over policy and culture between ideological neoconservatives and so-called realists. Through most of the Bush administration, the neoconservatives’ idea of using American military power to advance democracy around the world prevailed, pushed along by Vice President Dick Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld.

Of course, it is true that the so-called Neoconservatives–aka Right Zionists–have been howling about the Baker Report.

The problem with this explanation of the new factionalism, however, is that most of the actual so-called “ideological neoconservatives”–including Richard Perle–were long ago purged from the administration (if not Congress) and Right Arabists occupy key posts in the White House, the State Department, the CIA, and the military brass.

So, if the Right Zionists are pleased to observe some White House “push back” against Baker, they are cheering from the side-lines, largely in absentia.

Perhaps the only meaningful exceptions–now that Bolton is gone–are Elliottt Abrams and a Right Zionist named David Wurmser.  The key to Wurmser’s protected status, if there is any, is that he works in the Office of the Vice President.

But Cheney himself doesn’t exactly fit the profile of an “ideological neoconservative”–least of all on the basis of the skewed definition offered up by the Times (“using military power to advance democracy around the world”).  Just check out Cheney in Kazakhstan to appreciate the gap.  Cheney is hardly a promoter of democracy for its own sake; not quite a “true believer.”  And, historically at least, not a particularly reliable Right Zionist.

Cheney is the leader of the rejectionist faction.  But to what end?

The new factionalism is only indirectly about the Gulf, although it is about energy politics.  The key split increasingly looks like a battle between competing approaches to Russia, with Iran, Iraq, and Israel hanging in the balance.

Russian Rice

Posted by Cutler on December 08, 2006
Iran, Iraq, Russia / No Comments

Someone powerful in Washington is pushing back against the Baker plan and there is a bit of a scramble to figure out who is leading the rejectionist faction. In a previous post, I pointed to Cheney as a key factor. William Kristol told Newsweek he thinks that Bush himself is the last Neocon.

David Sanger of the New York Times tries out a new theory today: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is the quiet leader of the rejectionist faction.

According to Sanger, the issues at the heart of Rice’s rebuke the Iraq Study Group recommendations regarding diplomatic engagement with Iran and Syria.

I’m not sure Sanger has the goods to make this idea stick, although it is certainly interesting to reflect on Rice’s role.

On Syria, Sanger offers up a key Baker quote that currently appears only in the Times:

At a midday meeting with reporters on Thursday, Mr. Baker insisted… [the US] should try to “flip the Syrians”…

If you can flip the Syrians you will cure Israel’s Hezbollah problem,” Mr. Baker said Thursday, noting that Syria is the transit point for arms shipments to Hezbollah. He said Syrian officials told him “that they do have the ability to convince Hamas to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist,” and added, “If we accomplish that, that would give the Ehud Olmert a negotiating partner.”

The idea–also popular with some Israeli politicians–is to pry Syria away from its regional alliance with Iran and return Damascus to the Arab fold.

Sanger doesn’t exactly have Rice taking shots at this idea, but he does report some muttering from Rice aides:

Ms. Rice remained publicly silent, sitting across town in the office that Mr. Baker gave up 14 years ago. She has yet to say anything about the public tutorial being… delivered in a tone that drips with isn’t-this-obvious…

Aides to the 52-year-old Ms. Rice say she is acutely aware that there is little percentage in getting into a public argument with Mr. Baker, the 76-year-old architect of the first Bush administration’s Middle East policy. But Thursday, as President Bush gently pushed back against some of Mr. Baker’s recommendations, Ms. Rice’s aides and allies were offering a private defense, saying that she already has a coherent, effective strategy for the region.

She has advocated “deepening the isolation of Syria,” because she believes much of the rest of the Arab world condemns its efforts to topple Lebanon’s government, they said…

The Rice quote about the isolation of Syria is from October 2005 (“Despite Warnings, U.S. Leans on Syria,” Los Angeles Times, October 31, 2005; no on-line link available).  Plenty has happened since then, not all of which points toward the isolation of Syria.  Nevertheless, the recent assassination of Pierre Gemayal certainly might have revived tensions between Washington and Syria, to the detriment of Baker’s diplomatic track.

On Iran, Sanger’s attempt to discern a split between Rice and Baker seems even weaker.

[I]n seeking to isolate Iran, [Rice aides] said, she hopes to capitalize on the fears of nations like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan that Iran seeks to dominate the region, with the option of wielding a nuclear weapon.

How different is this from Baker’s own approach toward Iran?  Is Baker above capitalizing on Arab fears?  Aren’t these fears a primary motivation for Baker’s diplomatic initiative regarding Iran?

And, how far is Rice from Baker on Iran?  Sanger doesn’t mention that Rice led the way what was billed as a major “opening” toward dialogue with Iran.

Nevertheless, I think Sanger might be on to something.

Baker and Rice are hardly carbon copies.  Perhaps the best way to trace the difference is to recall that the key figure who recruited Rice into the Bush administration was not Baker or even Brent Scowcroft, but George Shultz who worked with Rice at his Stanford University “Hoover Institution.”

Leading figures at the Hoover Institution and Baker’s public policy shop at Rice University differ on many issues, including Israel and Iran.  In terms of Condoleezza Rice, however, perhaps the most important differences between Baker and Shultz concern Russia–Condoleezza’s area of expertise.

Shultz’s Hoover Institution is quite hawkish about Russia.  And, as I noted in a previous post, this may have considerable importance when teasing out differences between Rice and Baker, not to mention Cheney and Baker.

Russia, Iran, and Israel

Posted by Cutler on December 01, 2006
Iran, Right Zionists, Russia / 1 Comment

When Great Powers compete, you win.

Rivalry between Russia and the United States, according to this scenario, should lead both Great Powers to actively court states like Iran, offering various incentives, including cakes and Bibles. The constraints imposed by inter-imperialist rivalry, then, would make it very difficult for the US to adopt harsh, punishing policies toward Iran as these efforts would only benefit Russian influence in Iran.

Countries like Iran–the “targets” of such competition–presumably delight in the enhanced leverage afforded in a multi-polar world. The more fierce the rivalry, the greater the charm offensive.

And, in fact, there are some very intense Russia hawks within the US who adopt precisely this approach toward US-Iranian relations.

If you want to see an amazing list of Russia hawks, check out bi-partisan list of signatories to the “Open Letter” published in the Moscow Times in September 2004. The letter warns:

President Putin’s foreign policy is increasingly marked by a threatening attitude towards Russia’s neighbors and Europe’s energy security, the return of rhetoric of militarism and empire, and by a refusal to comply with Russia’s international treaty obligations.

If Russia hawks are united against the threat of Russian empire, they are quite divided on what this might mean for US relations with Iran.

Some Russia hawks explicitly endorse the strategy of courting Iran in an effort to pry it away from Russia.

Within the United States, the split among Russia hawks is most clearly evident within the halls of the conservative Hudson Institute. The Hudson Institute is united in its hawkish analysis of Russian imperial ambitions.

So intense is the anti-Putin sentiment over at the Hudson Institute that some of the think tank’s scholars approach Putin’s role in Beslan the same way conspiratorial thinkers in the US think about Bush’s role in 9/11. An uncanny resemblance, really: “The Russian authorities may have deliberately allowed the terrorists to take over the school in order to have an excuse to destroy them.”

Hudson Institute Splits on Iran

On the side of wooing Iran stands Hudson Senior Fellow, Lieutenant General William E. Odom, U.S. Army (Ret.).

Odom has made big news in anti-war circles for announcing, in no uncertain terms, that the US shouldcut and run” in Iraq.

In Hudson Institute articles, he has also emphasized a very “dovish” approach toward Iran:

[T]he U.S. must informally cooperate with Iran in areas of shared interests. Nothing else could so improve our position in the Middle East. The price for success will include dropping U.S. resistance to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. This will be as distasteful for U.S. leaders as cutting and running, but it is no less essential. That’s because we do share vital common interests with Iran. We both want to defeat Al Qaeda and the Taliban (Iran hates both). We both want stability in Iraq (Iran will have influence over the Shiite Iraqi south regardless of what we do, but neither Washington nor Tehran want chaos). And we can help each other when it comes to oil: Iran needs our technology to produce more oil, and we simply need more oil.

Accepting Iran’s nuclear weapons is a small price to pay for the likely benefits. Moreover, its nuclear program will proceed whether we like it or not. Accepting it might well soften Iran’s support for Hezbollah, and it will definitely undercut Russia’s pernicious influence with Tehran.

One of the distinguishing characteristics about Odom’s approach to Great Power rivalry is that his charm offensive toward Iran also includes some tough love for Israel:

Most people are dealing with the symptoms, but we’re not dealing with the fundamental problems. I suggest that if we’re going to deal with Israel, they have to listen to us and follow what we say. They need to stop using the Old Testament as though it’s a property deed. The Mohawk Indians have a better claim on Manhattan than they do on the West Bank.

My hunch is that this kind of talk doesn’t go down so well with other Hudson Institute fellows, especially Senior Fellow, Meyrav Wurmser, the Director of the Institute’s Center for Middle East Policy.

Meyrav Wurmser is one of the most hawkish Likudnik Zionist voices on the US scene. She is also married to another Right Zionist, David Wurmser. David Wurmser once held the comparable “Middle East Policy” position at another conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute. Today, he is the chief Middle East Policy aide to Vice President Cheney.

For Right Zionists, wooing Iran is not an option.

If you want to know why some Russia hawks are unwilling to court Iran, the best explanation may be found in their relation to the Israel Lobby.

Cheney may once have wanted to court Iran with carrots rather than punish with sticks. But that strategy has been consistently blocked by the Israel lobby and its demand for sanctions.

Shorn of the opportunity to woo the incumbent Iranian regime away from Russia, Cheney will turn to the only remaining strategy, short of handing Iran to the Russians: regime change in Iran.

He will run into resistance from all those who favor engagement with Russia and Russia hawks who want to court Iran.

Cheney may be pretty isolated in his approach. Trouble is, he is also untouchable.