Review of 'The New Great Game', Lutz Kleveman, Atlantic £16.99
Lutz Kleveman's book takes us on an epic journey through the latest imperial playground, the oil-rich Caspian Sea and its vast hinterland, which stretches westward across the Caucasus into Europe, south to the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, and east through Central Asia to China. A journalist, Kleveman writes with enough passion and simplicity to shed light on his complicated subject and from enough personal experience to bring it vividly to life. Here you will find the power plays between the US, Russia and China, the arrogance and racism of imperial peoples, whether Americans in Central Asia or Chinese in Xinjiang (East Turkmenistan), the cruelty, greed and megalomania of pro-US dictatorships and warlords, the sacrifice of all loyalties and principles to national and sectional interests, the disappointed expectations of poor populations to whom oil brings pollution and conflict instead of prosperity and peace, and much more.
The close relationship between bombing and big business goes back long before the presidency of George W Bush. Here's President Eisenhower in 1953, laying out part of the ground for subsidising the French in Indo-China and for the US's war in Vietnam which was to follow: 'Let us assume we lose Indo-China... The tin and tungsten we so greatly value from that area would cease coming... So when the United States votes $400 million to help that war, we are not voting a give-away programme.' No sirree! But the stakes of the new great game are much higher, the lands and peoples involved much bigger and more numerous, the risks to the entire planet far greater.
As the world's only superpower, the US has a strong motivation to control the price of the oil it increasingly has to import, hence also those who produce and export it. And those who transport it to the nearest deep-water port - a crucial question when it comes to Caspian oil. The US also wants unrestricted access to as many different sources of oil as possible. The more the oil-exporting countries compete among themselves, the less they are likely to unite against the US and the lower the price it will have to pay. Divide and rule - economically, politically, militarily - on a world scale.
The 'war against terrorism' could not have been more favourable to US oil interests. In postwar Afghanistan, for example, the lack of aid other than for military purposes was crucial in bringing about a deal between that country and the dictatorships of Turkmenistan and Pakistan, authorising a $3.2 billion pipeline from the Caspian to the Arabian Sea. However, the US drive to sideline Russia and surround China with bases is also bringing international tension to crisis point. No sooner had the US got a military base in Kyrgyzstan than the Russians had to have one too and the Chinese had to get an option on one. Even dictators who had effortlessly switched from being pro-Moscow Communists to US stooges tasted the fear which swept through Central Asia.
When the USSR collapsed, the US understandably had a lot of credibility in this part of the world. Little more than ten years later, Kleveman describes the change like this: 'The region's impoverished populaces, disgusted with the United States' alliances with their corrupt and despotic rulers, increasingly embrace militant Islam and virulent anti-Americanism.'
Four brief criticisms. First, Britain, which is doing pretty well out of all this in the shape of BP, for example, gets off rather lightly. Second, by concentrating so much on oil, Kleveman tends to give the impression that the name of the game is greed rather than imperialism. Third, there's hardly anything about resistance from below. And fourth, there are a few too many little inaccuracies of fact and of translation from the original German. These are minor criticisms which shouldn't put anyone off buying this book.