Obama pulls the plug on America's empire in Central Asia.
Has the United States stopped playing the Great Game in Central Asia? In the wake of the destabilizing violence that occurred in Kyrgyzstan this summer, that seems to be the case. The Obama administration reacted slowly when at least 300 people were killed in inter-ethnic fighting in June and Kyrgyzstan seemed on the verge of spiraling out of control. American officials declined an informal request from the fragile Kyrgyz government for military assistance, deferred to Russia's lead in the crisis, and followed Moscow's example when the Kremlin proceeded to offer up little apart from humanitarian aid. Belatedly, the United States nudged the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to deploy 52 unarmed police advisers, but the tardy action allowed local politics to intervene, and now even this skeletal force appears unlikely actually to be sent. All of this was a sharp contrast to Washington’s activism during the prior two presidential administrations. In 2005, for instance, when a massacre occurred in Uzbekistan, America organized an airlift of victims out of the country and relocated some in the United States. On paper, the Obama administration continues to reject the idea of a Russian sphere of influence in Central Asia, but the events in Kyrgyzstan appear to mark a softening of this red line in practice. Central Asia is no longer a reason to put up one’s fists.
If this trend continues, Washington’s willingness to defer to Russia in the land of Kipling may mark the beginning of something larger: a new era in which the Great Powers attempt to tread more gingerly in each other's backyards. The implications of this shift are great, and potentially risky.
To understand what's happening, it's useful to look back at the way U.S. policy has evolved since 1991. At first, after the Soviet collapse, Washington had only the vaguest idea how to interact with the eight new republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus. What the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations did know, however, was their attitude toward Moscow: Both pledged to help to smooth the way for the country's natural evolution from a communist dictatorship to a free-market democracy. As far as the former Soviet Caucasus and Central Asia were concerned, they could be attended to with humanitarian and bureaucratic assistance, such as food aid and judicial training, but no policies that would interfere with the liberation of Russia from its autocratic past.
Then, the Russian Federation began to look less benign. Crushing civil wars erupted or worsened in now-forgotten places like Kulyab, Stepanakert, and Sukhumi, and officials in the struggling republics of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan began complaining to Washington about their inability to export their oil and natural gas for hard currency. Successive governments fell in Azerbaijan, threatening the country with disintegration, and oilmen from companies like Amoco, Pennzoil, and Unocal fretted that the daily tumult jeopardized their deals. When evidence accumulated of Russian connivance in the trouble, some in the Clinton foreign policy apparatus said the U.S. ought to be less conciliatory toward Moscow.
One of the leading voices advocating such a policy reorientation was Sheila Heslin, a deceptively librarian-like National Security Council staffer in her early thirties. Drawing on work she did previously for the World Bank, the tough-minded, bureaucratically wise Heslin argued that Washington’s blanket accommodation of Moscow encouraged just the policies that the United States sought to eradicate—Russia, Heslin argued, would start to shed its authoritarian edge when it was forced to respect its neighbors’ sovereignty, and one way to accomplish that was to strengthen the republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus. After several months, the Heslin view won the internal policy debate, causing Washington to throw itself behind the construction of huge oil and natural gas pipelines that would provide the Caucasus and Central Asia an independent link to Western markets, unimpeded by Russia. This was a major shift, though at first it went under the radar in the United States. Instead, it was best understood by Turkey, whose paternalistic politicians—many of the region’s states are ethnically Turkic—embraced the Washington initiative in the spirit of comrades-in-arms on a mission to link those states to the NATO bloc. The Clinton Pentagon also opened up military-to-military relations with the region, which became even more important after September 11, as U.S. forces established a presence in three of the five Central Asian republics, including the Transit Center at Manas in Kyrgyzstan. These deployments, designed to counter Al Qaeda but which in practice further encroached on Russian influence, angered President Vladimir Putin, who objected bitterly to the continued U.S. military presence along with the sale of U.S. weapons to Georgia. In 2008, Russia went to war with Georgia, shoring up its authority in the near-abroad and sending a message about how strongly the Kremlin rejected the American presence. Yet the Bush administration insisted that the United States was in the region to stay.