- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 25, 2001

With differences too large to be resolved by the deadline, the five-nation Caspian Sea Summit of chiefs of state fell apart last week. Russia, the dominant power, was uncertain of the outcome, while the surrounding countries of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and, especially, Iran had their own agendas. But this delay until fall could help the United States because it presents an exceptional opportunity to build an American alliance structure for the 21st century, and the summit hardly had appeared on the U.S. radar beforehand.
The Caspian matters because it has perhaps the largest pool of oil on the planet. Kazakhstan alone will become second only to Saudi Arabia. Iran is key. Because Iraq has been such a fixation of U.S. foreign policy, one forgets (except in Israel) that Iran is 4 times more powerful and the real threat in the region. It is cited as the most likely to have deliverable nuclear weapons and is one of only four countries listed as a threat to U.S. strategic communications. The problem is that Iran wants to make nuclear Russia into its ally against the "Great Satan." At their March summit, Irans Mohammed Khatami and Vladimir Putin inked a new long-term cooperation pact, arms deal, trade agreement and an Iranian nuclear reactor plan.
A newly aggressive China and India, the second-largest country, are also wooing Russia to create a worldwide coalition against an American "hegemony." A sustained Russian arms trade with Iran, China and Iraq, to say nothing about a strategic partnership, would be a disaster for U.S. interests. The good news is Russia unlike China wants to be allied to the West, as a "senior European defense minister" confided to Arnaud de Borchgrave, editor at large of The Washington Times. When Mr. Putin made his proposal for a Europewide missile defense shield, Duma Defense Committee Vice Chairman Andrei Arbatov gushed that this meant Russia had opted for an alliance with "the West" and "not with China." The Washington Times Andrew Borowiec reported that the Russian Foreign Ministry was careful to deny the Iran pact was a "strategic relationship." While supporting the arms sales as necessary for economic survival, Moscows Nezavisimaya Gazeta and Izvestia both warned against Iran as a rival over Caspian resources. And, because NATO-Europe is shrinking so severely in population, the United States badly needs additional allies.
The bad news is that there is no policy to wean Russia from Americas potential foes. The Bush administration is frustrated by what the New York Times called "public ideological cleavages" between its senior officials. A group of self-proclaimed (neo- and religious) conservatives dispatched a public letter urging a policy of "idealism without illusion" against what they saw as a Bush policy of "Realpolitik." One leader even labeled Mr. Putin an "enemy," one of many autocratic "targets" that should be undermined by U.S. power. If there is one worthy goal for a Bush administration, it is to end this mindless Wilsonian idealism.
President George W. Bush clearly leans against it, as the criticism of the public letter implied. Even Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the "hardest-line" Cabinet official, was correctly characterized by Thomas E. Ricks as "comfortable advocating the use of military power, especially airpower, but also dead-set against using ground troops in open-ended peacekeeping missions." As for Mr. Putin, independent Russian journalist Masha Lipman correctly concluded he "has not displayed a taste for dictators bloody methods, nor does he have the clarity of purpose or will to implement them. In todays Russia, the danger of disorder and government inefficiency is more imminent than the threat of authoritarianism."
What can the U.S. do? It was not helpful for State to announce last month that it would upgrade its relations with Russias Chechen rebel forces. "Absolutely unacceptable," came the response from Putin top associate, Sergei Yastrzhembsky. This in turn resulted in a later "clarification" from State spokesman, Richard Boucher, that the meeting was not "anything unusual." Positively, there are common interests that could be exploited. Mr. Putins list of rogue states includes Iran and, according to Mr. de Borchgrave, he is "convinced" that American foe No. 1 Osama bin Laden, is stirring trouble in the Balkans, the Caucasus and even Chechnya. Mr. Putin is a potential ally on missile defense, counterterror operations, nuclear clean-up, and stabilizing the Caucasus and the once-again volatile Balkans. The U.S. could solve the whole arms sales problem by making Russia a major American arms supplier. It could win very big points with Russia by backing off its support for a rival Caspian pipeline when American interests could be served by either route.
Time is getting short for the Bush administration. Rather than just react to China, for once go on the offensive and build a permanent alliance structure strong enough to freeze them cold for the future. Preparing for a Fall Caspian Sea Summit would be a good time to begin, before a hostile alliance emerges from neglect.

Donald Devine, former director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, is a columnist and a Washington-based policy consultant.

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