After tagging along with Daily Telegraph correspondent Kleveman on this vivid, well-narrated spin through the oil-rich Caspian region, anyone who believed that the recent American invasion of Iraq was about countering terrorism might want to reconsider.
That trumped-up war, Kleveman writes, was just one episode in the developing “New Great Game”—the old one being the 19th-century race between Russia and Great Britain for control of Central Asia—that is now playing out between East and West, and more pointedly among the three poles of a fundamentalist Islam, a protective Russia, and an energy-hungry US. (China figures in there, too, as does Iran, which Kleveman believes is a more serious contender.) Wherever the author travels, he turns up convincing evidence of the international race to secure the mineral wealth of the Caspian Sea basin, “the world’s biggest untapped fossil fuel resources,” at least three times larger than stores within the US, potentially representing some five percent of the world market. All of which explains, he thinks, why American interests began working in the 1990s to build a pipeline from the bizarre dictatorship of Turkmenistan—“Stalin’s Disneyland,” in Kleveman’s memorable phrase—through Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and on to the Indian Ocean, much to the annoyance of Russia’s Yeltsin and Putin administrations. The author provides plenty of whip-smart asides to entertain and enlighten the armchair traveler: “Turkmenistan is probably the only country in the world where a taxi to the airport is more expensive than the ensuing flight”; “The cockpit door opens, and one of the two Ukrainian pilots greets me with a heavy accent and a strong whiff of vodka, ‘Come in! Welcome! No problem, don’t worry, no problem!’ ” They do not detract from the solid case he builds for thinking that American adventurism in the region is less about national security than about lining the pockets of oil industry executives.
A well-argued, well-observed journey into a little-known area likely to be of much importance in days to come.