piece in Slate, "Russia, Oil, and Conspiracy
Theories," by London Telegraph writer Anne Applebaum,
floats the theory that what is going on here is not an attempted
seizure so much as an effort to shift the locus of world oil
production from the Arabian peninsula to the former Soviet
republics of the Caucasus – and Russia. The recent Bush-Putin
summit, in which the two leaders made kissy-face for the
cameras, was a display of public affection that seemed out
of all proportion to its actual results. While for much of
the time it seemed that Bush was whispering
sweet nothings in Putin's ear, the two leaders still agreed
to disagree about missile defense, and not much progress was
made on the ABM issue, either. So why were the two leaders
spooning like newlyweds?
A DEEP, DARK
Applebaum points to Russia's refusal to join
with OPEC in limiting oil production as key to understanding
the much-heralded Russo-American alliance. However, for every
dollar decrease in the price of oil, says Applebaum, Russia
loses a billion in revenue. So what's up with that? "Those
who prefer the deepest, darkest, most dramatic answers to
this question already suspect the existence of a plot," she
avers: "a Russian conspiracy to destroy OPEC in general and
to destabilize Saudi Arabia in particular, the better to increase
Russian market share."
THE BIG PAYOFF
is nothing particularly deep about this sort of purely economic
motivation: nations invariably act in their own self-interest,
and if Putin has calculated that the costs of the Russo-US
alliance will bust his budget for several years, he is also
counting on a payoff: in this case, a veritable jackpot. For
as Ted Rall points out in a perceptive piece, "The
New Great Game," this is all about control of the enormous
oil reserves recently discovered in the Caspian Sea region
– and how to pipe it out to Western consumers. Beneath the
soil of Kazakhstan, alone, is enough buried treasure – 50
billion barrels of oil – to surpass the legendary wealth of
the Arab sheiks. Saudi Arabia has only 30 billion barrels
THEORY (ADVANCED VERSION)
Taking this "conspiracy theory" one step farther,
advanced version of this conspiracy theory [that] has the
United States in on the plot to destroy the Saudis. Admittedly,
such an intrigue would have a certain historical symmetry
to it: There are those who believe that the United States,
in league with Saudi Arabia, also tried (successfully) to
destroy the Soviet Union in the 1980s by lowering oil prices.
And certainly it is true that in the wake of Sept. 11 America's
close relationship with the Saudis is under tough scrutiny.
OK, they're our allies-but who needs an ally whose
citizens fly airplanes into American buildings?"
LAND OF UGLY
The real deal on the chorus of anti-Saudi
rhetoric coming out of the War Party, in recent weeks, is
that the Americans may have indeed decided to throw their
Saudi puppets overboard: together with their newfound ally,
Russia, and the Oriental despotisms of Central Asian "republics,"
they hope to get in on the "Great
Game" – the pursuit of almost unimaginable wealth in the
legendary land of the Golden
Horde. As I pointed out in "A Saudi Connection?",
Crown Prince Abdullah, heir to the House of Saud, is not likely
to be as compliant as his predecessors, and the long-standing
deal between the Saudi princes and US oil interests shows
signs of unraveling. As Rall puts it: "Once the oil starts
flowing, it won't take long before Kazakhstan replaces Kuwait
as the land of Benzes and ugly gold jewelry."
The question of how to make this happen now
preoccupies the Big Oil-GOP-corporatist alliance. The radical
wing, energized by 9/11, advocates a preemptive American first
strike against Saudi Arabia, and, indeed, against the whole
Arab-Muslim world. For a war on Iraq – their cause of the
hour – would not only destabilize the House of Saud, but also
lead to a spike in oil prices, as supplies are interrupted,
further shifting the focus of oil extraction efforts to the
Caspian region and the construction of a pipeline.
Unable to take the shortest route, through
Iran – because "America's powerful Israel lobby has blocked
Washington's efforts" to deal with Teheran, as
Eric Margolis puts it – one plan is for the Russians to
build a pipeline to the Black Sea. But Islamic rebels are
on the rampage in the region, and the Turkmen government has
had a rocky relationship with the Russians, who tend to run
out on their bills. Rall points out that "the logical alternative,
then, is Unocal's plan, which is to extend Turkmenistan's
existing system west to the Kazakh field on the Caspian and
southeast to the Pakistani port of Karachi on the Arabian
Sea. That project runs through Afghanistan."
THE GREAT GAME
wire service story on how the Afghan war, while it may
have devastated a great deal of the country, has at least
fueled some local businesses: an exporter of rugs,
a maker of gloves and sweaters – and Big Oil. After the 1998
embassy bombings in Africa prompted US strikes against Al
Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, Unocal pulled out of the pipeline
deal. But plenty of others are eagerly pouncing on the opportunity
to play – and perhaps win – the Great Game.
to Rob Sobhani, president of Washington-based Caspian Energy
Consulting and a former consultant in Central Asia for Amoco
(now British Petroleum), "Other major energy companies could
see big opportunities in a deal crucial to restarting Afghanistan's
economy." Sobhani pointed out that a new pipeline plan could
bring in revenues totaling $100 million – "a fortune for a
country with no effective infrastructure that has been ravaged
by 22 years of war."
old UNOCAL route, south to Karachi, may be abandoned, in the
near future, in favor of a Eurasian route, as
Richard Norton-Taylor points out in the [UK] Guardian.
With the Europeans clamoring for their fair share of the oil
bonanza, an EU delegation visited the Caucasus recently, whereupon
after the EU visit, Georgia's president, Eduard Shevardnadze,
welcomed European and US support for the 'Great Silk Road
idea.' The plan, backed by Washington and American oil companies,
including Chevron, is for a pipeline taking Turkmenistan and
Kazakh oil to Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, through Tbilisi,
the Georgian capital, and through eastern Turkey to the Mediterranean
port of Ceyhan."
only the Europeans, but the Russians and the Chinese are "desperate"
to get in on the act. The various factions, then, are roughly
defined by which pipeline plan they favor. The relatively
moderate wing of the Bush administration, centered around
Colin Powell's State Department, seems to be sticking with
the original UNOCAL route, south to Karachi: this is reflected
in Powell's concern to keep Pakistan intact and within the
American sphere of influence. On the other hand, the neoconservative-warhawk
faction, led by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, seems
to be going for the Eurasian route – in which case placating
the Pakistanis is irrelevant and unnecessary. Another factor,
however, aside from oil, is involved in this equation.
the Arab world entirely from US geopolitical considerations
– invading Iraq, destabilizing the Saudis, and plunging the
entire region into chaos and war – the "Eurasianists" will
have eliminated Israel's enemies in a single stroke. This
is a major consideration, if not the only motivating factor,
in the neoconservative jihad against Iraq.
Of course, the ideologues of the War Party
claim that an economic analysis of the "war on terrorism"
is morally insensitive. After all, what about the 3,500 or
so victims of the 9/11 atrocity? This war, they claim, is
about making sure that never happens again. But is it? Such
an effort, seriously undertaken, would necessitate a wholesale
review of the American policy initiatives that made Taliban
rule over the Afghans possible – an effort, we are told (predictably,
by these same people) that cannot be undertaken because
to do so would have to mean that the innocent victims of 9/11
somehow deserve it. That is "blaming America." The blame must
be pinned on the American government, not ordinary Americans,
and if that is what they mean by "blaming America," well,
tough because it's true.
A DOLLAR A
Asian expert Ahmed Rashid points out in his book, Taliban,
published last year, we created the Taliban, with the
cooperation of the Pakistani intelligence service and Saudi
assistance. Citing Rashid's book, Tall points out that "as
recently as 1999, U.S. taxpayers paid the entire annual salary
of every single Taliban government official, all in the hopes
of returning to the days of dollar-a-gallon gas. Pakistan,
naturally, would pick up revenues from a Karachi oil port
facility." When the Taliban turned against their sponsors,
however, the Great Game took a different turn.
OSAMA ON THE
It is interesting
to note that the Taliban, the Pakistanis, the Saudis, and
even the original cadre of Al Qaeda all were previous allies
of the US in the cold war era. Without the Afghan war of "liberation"
against the Soviet occupiers, which Zbigniew
Brzezinski boasted brought down the Kremlin, perhaps Osama
bin Laden would have been just another rich Saudi wastrel,
whoring and gambling his way through the Riviera. Without
the milieu provided by the Afghan war, Al Qaeda, at any rate,
would never have developed into a effectively murderous cult
with an international following. The Afghan war against the
Soviet occupation may, in the short term, have helped bring
down the Evil Empire – but, in the long run, it also brought
down the twin towers, and threatened to erect yet another
evil empire in its stead.
IT'S NOT THAT
Left, then, sees the oil factor in overly simplistic terms.
In their anti-corporate, anti-capitalist demonology, all oil
companies are evil, by definition, and in collusion with the
US government to profit through war. In this case, however,
as we have seen, there are competing factions within the corporate
elite, each contending for the prize, and bidding for support
from the US government.
the Clinton era, a whole sub-department was created to facilitate
the extraction of oil profits from the Caspian Sea region,
and this has certainly not been abolished by the Bushies.
The point is that some companies will win out, and others
will lose, in the battle to gain Washington's favor. If the
Powell faction wins out, the route through Pakistan will not
destabilize the region and we will be spared the extension
of the war throughout the Middle East. If the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz
group triumphs – and there
are some disturbing indications that this is indeed the case
– the entire Middle East will be plunged into war, with US
soldiers in the thick of it.
dogma that it doesn't matter which wing of the "ruling class,"
the capitalists, wins out in the end is refuted by this reality.
Capitalism, per se, doesn't breed war: indeed, laissez-faire
requires quite the opposite. And don't think the ordinary
capitalist profits from war: this privilege is reserved for
those with the right government connections.
real economic harm done by war – the cost in wasted wealth,
as well as wasted lives – could pull the US, already mired
in a sharp recession, into a full-fledged depression. The
stock market is not going to like World War III – and neither
will most Americans once they realize that all this talk about
nothing ever being the same again means economic catastrophe.
The Vietnam War drained the life out of the US economy during
the late sixties and early seventies, and the financial shock
of a prolonged Mideast conflict could well be far worse. In
the end, the markets are vehemently antiwar – a phenomenon
that must mystify Noam Chomsky to no end.
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