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After Georgia, A Day of Reckoning For Washington

Steve LeVine, The Oil and the Glory
Russia says it will start withdrawing its troops from Georgia tomorrow. If that truly happens — and there are contrary signs — a new, probably far more important stage of the Georgian crisis will begin. That’s the assessment of the affair by the arc of countries — from Europe, swinging south and east to the edge of western China — that are directly affected by what Russia does.

How these countries perceive the U.S. response to the war in Georgia will determine whether Russia has effectively crippled a hard-fought, 15-year-old American effort to inject itself as a power in Russia’s backyard.

So far, much ink has been spilled over whether the U.S. and Russia are in a new Cold War. In Washington, we hear that the era of a post-Soviet U.S.-Russia alliance is over. The Kremlin counters that the West is intent on provoking it, and thwarting its natural rights as a great power.

The truth is that Moscow’s presumptions are essentially correct — the U.S. has conducted a definitively anti-Moscow policy on Russia’s western and southern rims, one dressed up as reformist- and energy-minded, but nonetheless centrally designed to contain Russia within its borders.

But this policy well-suits American security aims, and those of the West as a whole.

Steve LeVine covers foreign affairs for BusinessWeek. He previously was correspondent for Central Asia and the Caucasus for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times for 11 years. His first book, “The Oil and the Glory,” a history of the former Soviet Union through the lens of oil, was published in October 2007. “Putin’s Labyrinth,” his new book, profiles Russia through the lives and deaths of six Russians. It was released this week.
(16 August 2008)
An excerpt from Steve’s new book, “Putin’s Labyrinth,” has just been posted at Business Week. -BA

Why is the “West” so bad at strategy?

Jerome a Paris, European Tribune
… Mahbubani’s main theme [in an article in the Financial Times] is that of the emergence of competing powers outside the West (in particular in Asia) that cannot be simply dominated by the West as they used to be. While he suggests that there is actually room for a lot of cooperation between new and existing powers, he acknowledges that the situation creates rivalries and that those might be seen – and deserve to be treated – as strategic enmities. His point is then to note that, in that perspective, it is stupid, and counterproductive, to treal all other powers as hostile and dangerous at the same time. His realpolitik suggestion is therefore simple: pick an enemy, and stick to it, and try to bring others on your side. Try to neutralise them or, at the very least, not to antagonize them.

The West, led by Bush & Cheney’s White House, but idiotically, complacently, undoubtedly supported by European leaders, has indeed taken a belligerant approach to the world, treating all as enemies or potential dangers. Iraq and Afghanistan have been invaded, Islam as a whole is crusade-worthy, Russia is being encircled and demonised, and China is still seen as a threat both in the short term (for jobs) and in the long term (for political and economic influence around the world). When facts on the gorund prevent actual action, bluster and aggressive rhetoric fills the columns of a manifestly compliant and/or uncritical media (this FT Op-Ed and a few others notwithstanding).

Is it simply hubris? Or is something else at play?

One thing that our long list of enemies have in common is energy. They are either significant providers of energy for us (a good chunk of the Islamic world, Russia, Venezuela) or rival importers of the stuff (China). A sane strategy, rather than focusing on countries or geopolitical groupings, would simply look at energy policies. Given that we have a US administration largely coming from the energy sector, we are faced, once again, by the same quandary – manifest incompetence, or something else at play?

Now, a simple “something” would simply be to say that they don’t come form the energy world, but from the oil world, and from the perspective of oil companies, things are going well, thank you. But this is not really the case. Despite their huge profits, oil companies are actually dying animals, without a clear future. Their production has been going down over the past several years, their reserve base is shrinking, and their prospects are rather dismal. Oh sure, they will make a bundle from their remaining assets as prices keep on increasing, but they are increasingly irrelevant on the global stage – they are not needed for most of the world’s production to happen, and their political influence, other than in their increasingly dysfunctional home polities/markets, is becoming rather feeble. Sure, some will say that their “home polities” (the US and the UK) are all that matter, but I don’t think they need a bellicose foreign policy to dominate that – well paid lobbyists will do just fine.

No, the harsh secret is that this energy-savvy administration is persuaded – and, to be honest, I see very little to convince me that they are wrong – that a sane energy policy is a political loser, and thus that they must continue with the increasingly chaotic international policies of the past to ensure that plentiful spice keeps on flowing. That policy has, for them, the additional advantage of helping on the domestic political front by creating plentiful external enemies that just beg for a party STRONG ON NATIONAL SECURITY, and by indulging the pro-military exceptionalism inherent in a large chunk of the US population – but I don’t think that’s the main goal.

No, the fact is, it’s easier to convince voters to support a “war on terror” than it is to tell them that we need to start using energy differently because energy is not, in fact, cheap as it has long appeared to be in purely monetary terms.

Call our politicians cowards, call them pragmatists, but that’s the reality. We won’t have an energy policy until we are forced by reality to have one, and by then it will be a lot more painful to deal with that reality, but at least we’ll have plenty of enemies to deflect the blame. …
(21 August 2008)
Also at Daily Kos.

Reality Bites Again

James Howard Kunstler, blog
The feeble American response to Russia’s assertion of power in the Caucasus of Central Asia was appropriate, since our claims of influence in that part of the world are laughable. The US had taken advantage of temporary confusion in Russia, during the ten-year-long post-Soviet-collapse interval, and set up a client government in Georgia, complete with military advisors, sales of weapons, and even the promise of club membership in the western alliance known as NATO. These blandishments were all in the service of the Baku-to-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which was designed specifically to drain the oil region around the Caspian Basin with an outlet on the Mediterranean, avoiding unfriendly nations all along the way.

At the time this gambit was first set up, in the early 1990s, there was some notion (or wish, really) among the so-called western powers that the Caspian would provide an end-run around OPEC and the Arabs, as well as the Persians, and deliver all the oil that the US and Europe would ever need — a foolish wish and a dumb gambit, as things have turned out.

… Meanwhile, Russia got its house in order under the non-senile, non-alcoholic Vladimir Putin, and woke up along about 2007 to find itself the leading oil and natural gas producer in the world. Among the various consequences of this was Russia’s reemergence as a new kind of world power — an energy resource power, with the energy destiny of Europe pretty much in its hands. Also, meanwhile, the USA had set up other client states in the ring of former Soviet republics along Russia’s southern underbelly, complete with US military bases, while fighting active engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, if this wasn’t the dumbest, vainest move in modern geopolitical history!

It’s one thing that US foreign policy wonks imagined that Russia would remain in a coma forever, but the idea that we could encircle Russia strategically with defensible bases in landlocked mountainous countries halfway around the world…? You have to ask what were they smoking over at the Pentagon and the CIA and the NSC?

So, this asinine policy has now come to grief.
(18 August 2008)

Who Started Cold War II?

Patrick Buchanan, Real Clear Politics
The American people should be eternally grateful to Old Europe for having spiked the Bush-McCain plan to bring Georgia into NATO.

Had Georgia been in NATO when Mikheil Saakashvili invaded South Ossetia, we would be eyeball to eyeball with Russia, facing war in the Caucasus, where Moscow’s superiority is as great as U.S. superiority in the Caribbean during the Cuban missile crisis.

If the Russia-Georgia war proves nothing else, it is the insanity of giving erratic hotheads in volatile nations the power to drag the United States into war.

From Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, U.S. presidents have sought to avoid shooting wars with Russia, even when the Bear was at its most beastly.

… As of 1991, the oil of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan belonged to Moscow. Can we not understand why Putin would smolder as avaricious Yankees built pipelines to siphon the oil and gas of the Caspian Basin through breakaway Georgia to the West?

Copyright 2008, Creators Syndicate Inc.
(19 August 2008)
Patrick Buchanan is a mainstay of the “other” conservatives, who champion traditional values and are leery of foreign interventions. He is associated with The American Conservative magazine which recently published an article about peak oil: Mayberry, not Mad Max (“Future Perfect: Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Expensive Oil”).