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Secret Agent: Rumsfeld Sneaks Off to Baku

Unreported in U.S. press, he stalks oil and Iran in Azerbaijan

azerbaijan-map.jpg

State Dept. map

Crude crossroads: Azerbaijan is not only a major oil producer and port but also sits in a strategic and volatile place on the Caspian, bordered not only by its bitter enemy Armenia but also by Russia, Iran, and Georgia.

Hardly any country on the planet sits in a more crucial spot than the harsh dictatorship of Azerbaijan, so that's probably why Don Rumsfeld sneaked off to its rowdy capital, Baku, earlier this week.

Do you hear the neocons beating the oil drums of war?

Rumsfeld's visit this week to Iraq generated some smoke, especially his laughable warnings to the Iraqis about "government corruption."

But then, like the mysterious Mr. Arkadin, Rumsfeld left Iraq, flew to Baku for meetings, spent the night, and then sneaked out the next day—with no announcements from the Pentagon and (as a result) no notice from the U.S. press.

Plenty of Azeris, chafing under the Aliyev family's harsh rule and fearing war or other trouble from the oil-hungry U.S., freaked out, and there were stories in the Turkish and Russian press. But leave it to the excellent news service EurasiaNet to capture the not-meant-to-be-captured moment. In a story posted April 13, political analyst Alman Talyshli wrote from Baku:

    "Rumsfeld is interested in oil!" read a headline in the April 12 edition of the popular daily Echo. The April 12 visit of the Pentagon chief to Azerbaijan was a natural target for local media hungry for sensational news. But not only the press is looking for answers.

    Rumsfeld's visit took place under extreme secrecy, with limited public information, leaving many local analysts and pundits to speculate about the reasons for the U.S. secretary of defense's trip, the third such visit in the past 15 months.

Former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter has warned that the U.S. has been making plans to attack Iran—one of Azerbaijan's neighbors—this summer. That's not as farfetched as you may think. Seymour Hersh has said basically the same thing. In "The Coming Wars," a mid-January piece in The New Yorker that zeroed in on Rumsfeld's various plottings, Hersh wrote:

Here's an excerpt from the Hersh piece that could explain Rumsfeld's sudden fondness for grimy, violent Baku:

    According to a former high-level intelligence official, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff shortly after the election and told them, in essence, that the naysayers had been heard and the American people did not accept their message. Rumsfeld added that America was committed to staying in Iraq and that there would be no second-guessing.

    "This is a war against terrorism, and Iraq is just one campaign. The Bush Administration is looking at this as a huge war zone," the former high-level intelligence official told me. "Next, we're going to have the Iranian campaign. We've declared war and the bad guys, wherever they are, are the enemy. This is the last hurrah—we've got four years, and want to come out of this saying we won the war on terrorism."

More to the point about Rumsfeld's Wednesday trip to Baku, EurasiaNet's Talyshli wrote:

    The Pentagon and U.S. Azerbaijan embassy web sites contained no information on Rumsfeld's one-day visit to Baku, and Azerbaijani officials preferred to keep their explanations general.

    The purpose of the defense secretary's visit, Ali Hasanov, head of the presidential administration's political department, told the ANS television news station on April 10, "is to hold new discussions on the principles of cooperation between Azerbaijan and the USA in the sphere of security and [to] solve problems present in this sphere." Hasanov also emphasized Azerbaijan's role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's Partnership for Peace program, citing Rumsfeld's participation "in cooperation issues implemented within the framework of NATO."

Hey, this wasn't the first time Rumsfeld has visited Baku (see photo below).

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One of the dictators we like: Rumsfeld meets with Azeri ruler Ilham Aliyev last August in Baku (Defense Dept. photo)

So maybe that's all there was to it—just another visit to another one of our allies. Well, that's the way the declining New York Times might leave it. Talyshli, however, showed that he could write foreign news for the Washington Post, because he went beyond the official sources and provided this analysis:

    But, given the recent redeployment of U.S. military forces from Germany, some Azerbaijani observers take a different view. Independent military expert Uzeyir Jafarov, in an April 9 interview with Echo, stated that Rumsfeld was coming to Baku to get a final answer about establishment of a U.S. military base in Azerbaijan. Jafarov added that he believed the answer would be positive, and could come as early as mid-April.

    Pro-government political figures such as Jumshid Nuriyev, former head of Azerbaijan's customs service, however, disagree with Jafarov, and have argued that Azerbaijan would never agree to its territory being used for an attack on Iran, a country with which Azerbaijan shares close cultural and historical ties.

Whew. That means no war with Iran, right? Not exactly. Again from Talyshli:

    Analysts' views on the chances for a U.S. military presence in Azerbaijan coincide with shifts in Pentagon plans for deployment of U.S. forces. In a February 2004 visit to Uzbekistan, for example, Rumsfeld outlined the concept of "operating sites" in Asia that would allow the U.S. and its allies "to periodically and intermittently have access and support." In times of crisis, these "sites," usually manned by small groups of personnel, could be expanded to handle larger numbers of troops and supplies.

The Azeri writer is not just out there on his own. A story in the April 11 Wall Street Journal, "Search for Crude Comes With New Dangers," focused on how the hunt for oil is likely to get more and more dangerous, and naturally Azerbaijan came up. (Sorry, you probably have to subscribe to get the story. But you should subscribe. Just skip the foolish editorial pages.)

Specifically, reporter John Fialka mentioned U.S. and European plans for a "Caspian Guard" to protect pipelines and shipping points in Baku and other places. Here's an excerpt from Fialka's excellent piece:

    Twenty years ago, new oil was coming to the U.S. from Alaska or offshore platforms near Norway and the United Kingdom—all places with reliable security forces and stable governments. The oil supplies expected over the next two decades are coming from or moving through some of the least stable and most corrupt areas in the world.

    As a result, long-neglected regions such as West Africa are rising in importance to U.S. policy makers. Emerging countries around the Caspian Sea are attracting new attention, too, as is the tense U.S. relationship with Venezuela's leftist government.

Now do you see why Paul Wolfowitz is already talking about "helping" Africa even before he gets over to the World Bank?

But what about Iran? Fialka covers all the geopolitical bases, noting:

    Further complicating matters is the struggle emerging between the U.S. and a dollar-rich, oil-hungry China seeking influence and presence in such regions. China's efforts to secure supplies of oil in Africa and Asia could reduce amounts available to the global market, according to Robert Hormats, a former senior State Department aide who is now vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International. He spoke before a House committee on the subject last week.

    U.S. officials are particularly worried that China's oil companies are pumping up the economies of countries like Iran and Sudan, despite trade sanctions for alleged state-sponsored terrorism that make them off-limits for some Western companies.

And Fialka, writing the day before Rumsfeld's undercover trip to Baku, basically gives a reason for such a trip that you might want to think about when you're filling up your SUV's gas tank (I know I will):

    The military is paying more attention to emerging oil regions as the country plans for possible disruptions in supply. Over the next decade, the U.S. plans to spend $100 million on the Caspian Guard, a network of police forces and special-operations units in the Caspian Sea region that can respond to various emergencies, including attacks on oil facilities.

    The Defense Department's European Command, based in Stuttgart, Germany, is coordinating the multi-agency effort and helping to train forces to protect a new pipeline that will bring oil from rigs in the Caspian Sea through the Caucasus to Ceyhan, a Turkish port on the Mediterranean, starting later this year.

    The Caspian Guard, launched in the fall of 2003, will include a radar-equipped command center in Baku, Azerbaijan. That center will give the Azeri government the capability, for the first time, of monitoring shipping activity near the many oil rigs in the Caspian. The Caspian Guard also will be useful in coping with drug and arms smugglers, says Col. Mike Anderson, chief policy planner for the European Command.

    Most of the oil from this area will be absorbed by markets in Europe, not the U.S. But any blockage in flows likely would generate a surge in oil prices that would register on gas pumps in the U.S., the world's largest oil consumer.

So, all you families out there, get ready to send your kids to Iran to fight for "democracy"—and to keep China from getting all that oil so that our oil companies can continue to prosper.


OUR ALLIES IN BAKU

It's nice to think that American soldiers are already helping the government of Azerbaijan. And what is that government like?

The State Department's recently released human-rights report on Azerbaijan paints a glorious picture of our pal Ilham Aliyev's regime. Just go to the Web site of the U.S. Embassy in Baku and click on it. You'll find this stuff and more:

¶ "Ilham Aliyev, the son of former president Heydar Aliyev, was elected President in October 2003 in a ballot that did not meet international standards for a democratic election due to numerous, serious irregularities."

¶ "Members of the security forces committed numerous human rights abuses."

¶ "The Government's human rights record remained poor, and it continued to commit numerous abuses. The Government continued to restrict the right of citizens to peacefully change their government. There were four deaths that occurred in custody allegedly due to beatings. Police tortured and beat persons in custody, and used excessive force to extract confessions."

¶ "The Government continued to restrict freedom of speech and of the press. Defamation lawsuits brought by officials against independent journalists and newspapers and high court fines for libel remained significant problems for the media."

¶ "The Government restricted freedom of assembly and did not sanction any demonstrations by opposition political parties during the year. The Government continued to restrict freedom of association by harassing domestic human rights activists and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)."

¶ "There were some restrictions and abuses of religious freedom, and low-level and local government officials continued to harass minority religious groups."

¶ "Violence against women, societal discrimination against women and certain ethnic minorities, trafficking in persons, and limitations of some worker rights remained problems."

Editorial Notes: Ward Harkavy informs us that he is a senior editor at the Village Voice. He grew up in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, in the 1950s. Bartlesville was at the time the international headquarters of both Phillips Petroleum (now ConocoPhillips) and of Cities Service (later CITGO and now owned by Venezuela's oil company). "Well, maybe that's irrelevant. What the heck." The Bush Beat, Ward's hyperlinked daily collumn full of insights into US geopolitics can be read daily at the Village Voice website: www.villagevoice.com/blogs/bushbeat/ -AF

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