The newly emerging “vital American interest,” where democracy and freedom are also alleged to be at stake, is the Caspian Sea Basin. If you happen to peruse almanacs, you might recognize the Caspian as the world’s largest inland body of water. You might also know that it has the world’s largest sturgeon stock (now in drastic decline). But how, you might ask, could this god-forsaken region halfway across the world from the United States be of any vital concern to our country?
Oil. The Caspian Basin has oil reserves, largely untapped, rivaling those of the Persian Gulf. Now, from the free-market, free-trade perspective, the nationality of the companies that develop those oil reserves is unimportant. But an unholy alliance has emerged, consisting of U.S.-based oil companies, American global hegemonists, and pro-Zionists. (Individuals often belong to more than one of those groups.) The alliance is successfully pushing an activist U.S. foreign policy aimed at preventing the exploitation of Caspian oil resources by Russia or Iran — countries that actually border the sea — and allowing American companies to dominate the oil development.
The motive for the American oil companies is simple — profit. Also simple to understand is the motive of the American hegemonists who continue the Cold War against Russia and see the advantage of further weakening Russia while she lacks the ability to retaliate. Intervention in the Caspian would make the United States the preeminent political and economic power even on Russia’s doorstep — tantamount, if roles were reversed, to Russian intervention in Canada or Mexico.
The motivation of pro-Zionists might appear a little more complex. Their central concerns are Turkey and Iran; they desire policies that strengthen the former and weaken the latter. Turkey is quickly becoming a close ally of Israel — a development that was furthered by the Turkish Army’s recent removal (by pressure, not military force) of the Islamic government. The projected American pipelines would transport oil to Turkish ports, providing her with considerable wealth and giving her considerable leverage over her smaller oil-producing neighbors. And routing pipelines to Turkey would mean that oil would not transit to Iranian ports.
The linchpin of the U.S. interventionist strategy is the small country of Azerbaijan, which has a Caspian coastline with extensive offshore oil reserves. Azerbaijan desperately wants private American economic investment and government foreign aid. A predominantly Muslim country, Azerbaijan has been struggling with her Christian neighbor Armenia over the ethnically Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan’s borders. Russian assistance has enabled the Armenians to prevail militarily in that conflict. As a result of lobbying by the Armenian-American community, Congress has prohibited American aid to Azerbaijan. (Armenians claim the moral high ground because of the genocidal Turkish action against them during World War I, although the Turks dispute that interpretation of events.)
However, the Clinton administration recently has been sounding a pro-Azeri policy. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott has called for an end to the aid ban and has warned Russia, Armenia’s protector, against infringing on the independence of her neighbor.Talbott’s new position is especially noteworthy because he had been for many years a staunch Russophile, especially when Russia was Communist. His shift to anti-Russianism is typical of the many former left-liberals who took a soft line on the Soviet Union and claimed that the Soviets deserved a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. When I was a graduate student in history in the 1970s, the left-liberal academic establishment railed against “American imperialism” and the “military-industrial complex,” but rarely criticized Soviet militancy. Those views, echoed in a softer form, abounded in the major media of that time. Now with the downfall of Soviet Communism, those concerns, which would seem to be more justified than ever, are virtually nonexistent in establishment sources. And the American oil companies have hired a virtual “Who’s Who” of luminaries from presidential administrations past and present — Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, John Sununu,Richard Cheney, James Baker, Lloyd Bentsen — to lobby Congress for a friendlier policy toward Azerbaijan.
In the last week of July, Azerbaijan’s President Heydar Aliyev came to the United States to present his country’s case and to sign contracts with American oil companies. He was welcomed with open arms by the Clinton administration and the American corporate and foreign-policy elite. The current PR for Aliyev portrays him as the George Washington of a brave little country trying to exercise her new independence against the bullying of imperialistic Russia; the fact that, during the final decade of the Soviet era, Aliyev was the KGB chief of Azerbaijan and a member of the ruling Soviet Politburo stirs little concern. For a parallel from recent history, recall the portrayal of the Emir of Kuwait as a democratic leader of a victimized little country when that propaganda line was necessary to prepare the American people for war against Iraq.
Of course, the Clinton administration has only just begun to move toward intervention in the Caspian. The policy is best encapsulated by the neoconservative exponent of American world hegemony Frank Gaffney, head of the Washington-based Center for Security Policy and a columnist for the Washington Times, who constantly berates the Clinton administration for being insufficiently hawkish. In the Washington Times, Gaffney writes:
The United States needs to bend every effort to finding the means to bring the oil and gas resources of the Caspian Sea Basin to market through routes that will not enrich the Iranians, or, for that matter, the Russians or Chinese, and that are not subject to possible coercive manipulation by such powers. The obvious place to start is by forging a strong strategic partnership with Azerbaijan — the best hope that an independent, pro-Western state will survive the current, deadly iteration of the Great Game — and nurturing regional arrangements that will permit its hydrocarbon assets to transit safely to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast via Georgia. (July 30, 1997, p. A-19)
As is quite apparent, the “vital interest” in the Caspian has nothing to do with America’s survival — the most reasonable definition of a vital interest. Russian domination of the area would be no more threatening to the United States than it was when the Caspian Basin was largely within the boundaries of the Soviet Union or Tsarist Russia. The United States was certainly able to survive under those circumstances. At one time, “isolationist” statesmen such as George Washington warned the American people about involvement in Europe; our current imperialist elite places Europe and much of Asia under the American umbrella. One wonders what will be the next “vital American interest” to be proclaimed — the high Himalayas? Outer Mongolia?
The expansion of the American empire to the Caspian is fraught with danger. There is, of course, a possibility that our imperial rulers can get away with that gambit, profiting themselves while the American people are burdened only by the financial costs of imperial expansion — foreign and military aid to the small “democracies” on Russia’s periphery, and likely government subsidies for the oil companies. But the Caspian is a hornets’ nest of overlapping conflicts — the efforts of the former Soviet republics to exercise their independence against Russia’s interest in resubordinating her “near abroad”; age-old animosity between Christians and Muslims; competition between Turkey and Iran for leadership of the Islamic peoples; historical rivalry between Russia and Turkey for regional supremacy. Even the legality of Azerbaijan’s control of the offshore oil is disputed — the legal issue revolves around whether the Caspian Sea can be divided territorially or whether the wealth should be to some degree shared among the littoral countries.
In such a volatile atmosphere, war is always a definite possibility. Undoubtedly, once the pipelines are laid, the United States will guarantee the security of Azerbaijan and the security of the countries through which the pipelines pass; and such “security,” of course, will ineluctably entail the maintenance of governments friendly to the United States. We can’t let Azerbaijan fall to the Islamic fundamentalists, can we? But on the other hand we can’t allow her to be dominated by the puppets of Moscow, either. In order to avoid those negative consequences, American interventionist foreign policy in the Caspian will require extensive fine-tuning — but fine-tuning foreign policy has always proved to be about as successful as fine-tuning the economy.
If the American national interest were really the objective, the proper response with respect to this far-distant place would be nonintervention, allowing the regional powers to battle each other, with America on the sidelines. But as we moved through the dog days of summer 1997, such a realistic option seemed like a vanishing dream.
 Talbott’s new position is especially noteworthy because he had been for many years a staunch Russophile, especially when Russia was Communist. His shift to anti-Russianism is typical of the many former left-liberals who took a soft line on the Soviet Union and claimed that the Soviets deserved a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. When I was a graduate student in history in the 1970s, the left-liberal academic establishment railed against “American imperialism” and the “military-industrial complex,” but rarely criticized Soviet militancy. Those views, echoed in a softer form, abounded in the major media of that time. Now with the downfall of Soviet Communism, those concerns, which would seem to be more justified than ever, are virtually nonexistent in establishment sources.