The Seattle Times - October 26, 2003
By Eli Sanders
Saudi Arabia is a problem.
It sits atop a quarter of the world's proven oil reserves and
has the largest excess oil production capacity on the planet,
which effectively gives the Persian Gulf state control over global
oil prices. The United States consumes more oil than any other
nation, and thus Saudi Arabia has become a necessary U.S. ally.
But Saudi Arabia is also a repressive, corrupt monarchy that funds
terrorism and was home to 15 of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers.
This would seem to make it a natural target in the war on terrorism.
What to do? The Bush administration has dealt with this conundrum
mainly by insisting that Saudi Arabia is an ally, period.
Two recent books suggest the United States is up to something
else: Sucking as much oil as possible out of "our friends"
the Saudis before their wells run dry or their monarchy is overthrown
by internal Islamic militant enemies, whichever comes first. And
in the meantime, using the war on terror to position America for
control of the world's next big gas station. This mammoth source
sits due northeast of the Saudi kingdom in the Persian Gulf: the
vast untapped oil reserves beneath the Caspian Sea region of Central
Asia, the largest untapped oil resource on the planet.
Former CIA agent Robert Baer, author of the best-selling "See
No Evil," shows the importance of moving beyond our dependence
on Saudi oil in "Sleeping With the Devil," his indictment
of the Saudi regime and its American enablers. In this blunt work,
Baer draws on his years of experience stationed in the Middle
East as he explores the ties that bind the United States and Saudi
Arabia (oil, money and arms) and the adverse consequence of this
longstanding relationship (corruption, both in Washington and
This is not a conspiracy-theory book, though it does touch on
topics sure to thrill conspiracy theorists: the mysterious Carlyle
Group, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, $1 million allegedly
left in a briefcase for former President Nixon by a shady Saudi
arms dealer. But in addition to touching on these murky things,
"Sleeping With the Devil" gathers known data into an
important argument — inelegantly written and meandering
at times, but nevertheless powerful — for ending America's
dependence on the Saudis.
In "The New Great Game," veteran war correspondent
Lutz Kleveman finds America already planning to do just that.
Beneath the Caspian Sea lies an estimated 110 billion barrels
of oil, enough to make a lot of people very rich while decreasing
the West's dependence on Persian Gulf oil and perhaps breaking
the control that the Saudis and the OPEC cartel exercise over
world oil prices. If you are a leader of the world's largest oil-consuming
country, or an oilman, or both, this is a very attractive prospect.
Kleveman points out that the U.S. government has known about,
and expressed interest in, the vast Caspian oil reserves for many
years. He quotes a Clinton administration official saying as much
in 1997, and Vice President Dick Cheney saying, in 1998, when
he was head of the oil-supply company Halliburton: "I cannot
think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to
become as strategically significant as the Caspian."
The problem with Caspian oil is this: Because the Caspian region
is landlocked, vast pipelines must be built to get the black gold
out. The question is: through which countries? The countries that
end up controlling the pipelines stand to gain tremendous influence
and lucrative transit fees, and thus the countries surrounding
the Caspian Sea have become the chessboard for the "new Great
The old Great Game was the 19th-century competition between Russia
and the British Empire for control of Central Asia, and thus access
to the riches of India. The new Great Game involves the U.S.,
Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan all jockeying for control
of the same area, but this time with oil as the prize.
There are four major options for getting Caspian oil out via
pipeline: south through Iran to the Persian Gulf; north through
Russia to Moscow or Russian ports; west through Azerbaijan, Georgia
and then Turkey to the Mediterranean; or east, through some combination
of the "-stans" (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan),
and then south across Afghanistan to Pakistani ports on the Arabian
The U.S. favors only two of these possibilities: one that involves
American ally Turkey or one that involves American-controlled
Afghanistan and brand-new American ally Pakistan. The last thing
the U.S. wants is "axis of evil" member Iran or longtime
adversary Russia gaining control over the pipeline to Caspian
oil. The war on terror has resulted in U.S. troops being stationed
in former Soviet Central Asian republics and in U.S.-controlled
Afghanistan. Their stated aim is preventing another Sept. 11 and
spreading democracy. Without calling into question the truth or
urgency of these aims, Kleveman notes the neat convergence of
America's actions in the war on terror and its desire to benefit
from Caspian oil.
"While the Caspian Energy resources may not be the casus
belli," he writes, "they certainly could be the big
price in the War on Terror, which the Bush administration now
uses to dramatically extend American influence in Central Asia."
And he sees the U.S. occupation of Iraq (a country that sits on
112 billion barrels of oil, the world's second-largest oil reserves)
as just another new Great Game power play.
"By spilling over the Central Asia borders into Iraq, the
new Great Game over oil has entered its crucial stage," Kleveman
writes. "However vehement the denials by the Bush administration,
its true intention in Iraq clearly is to turn the country into
a strategic oil supplier for the U.S. economy and America's new
ally in the Middle East, as an alternative to Saudi Arabia."
Kleveman's book faces the same challenge as Baer's — making
the complicated, under-covered topic of oil geopolitics readable.
He is slightly more successful, though he also falls victim to
meandering tangents. Both authors can take credit for books that
are essential for those seeking as many views as possible on this
complicated moment in history.