"CENTRAL ASIA" No. 2 (8) 1997
AMERICAN MIDDLE EAST POLICY
THE NEED FOR NEW THINKING
Ây Paul B. Henze and S. Enders Wimbush
PAUL B. HENZE is
a Resident Consultant in the Washington office of RAND. He headed the Nationality
Working Group in the National Security Council, 1977-1980. He was one of
the first graduates of the Harvard University Soviet Studies Program in
1950, where he developed a lifelong interest in the Caucasus and Central
Asia. He spent 30 years in U.S. Government and government-related positions
including Radio Free Europe, and American embassies in Turkey and Ethiopia.
He has traveled extensively in the Central Asia and the Caucasus as well
as in China and Pakistan in recent years.
S. ENDERS WIMBUSH
specialized in Soviet nationalities at the University of Chicago, did research
on the Soviet Union at RAND in Santa Monica, and then established the Society
for Central Asian Studies in Oxford, founding the journal Central Asian
Survey. He became Director of Radio Liberty in 1987 and served in that
capacity until 1992. He is now a senior executive with Science Applications
International Corporation in McLean, Virginia.
No sector of American foreign policy is in greater need of redefinition than that toward the Middle East, and none is more essential for advancing basic American interests in the 21st century. In the second Clinton Administration our new Secretary of State has the opportunity to reorder the priorities that have dominated the American approach to this vital region for the
last several decades. Old preoccupations and priorities have run their
course and some have led us into dead ends. Nothing demonstrates this more
strikingly than Warren Christopher's more than two dozen trips to Damascus
during the past four years. All he accomplished was to bolster Hafez Assad's
delusions of grandeur. A clearer recognition of fundamental American interests
in the Middle East is essential for formulating American policy toward
Russia and China.
The U.S. Government and important segments of the American public have
a definition problem which is largely absent in Russia and China. Successive
U.S. administrations have developed the habit of looking at the Middle
East through spectacles which magnify Israel and its immediate neighbors
to a dozen times their true size, while the rest of the region is a thin
periphery. The eight new independent countries of the Caucasus and Central
Asia that emerged out of the Soviet Union are barely visible. Turkey falls
into Europe in State Department organization charts so its increasing relevance
to the Middle East is often ignored or resented. So are more distant regions
of Asia and Africa. Iran is simply a blank space. The U.S. Government seems
to think that if we embargo and ostracize it, Iran will disappear. No one
who lives in the Middle East thinks so. As we have seen during the past
year, Russian Foreign Minister Primakov does not think so either.
Iran is one of the oldest continually existing states in the world.
Persians competed with Greece and Rome for domination of the Levant. Farther
south they penetrated at times all the way to South Arabia and the Red
Sea. Persia was a rival of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires for influence
and domination in Central Asia, the Caucasus, Mesopotamia, and the Gulf.
For a century and a half after the time of Peter the Great, Turks and Persians
blocked Russia's drive southward. Eventually they weakened and Russia advanced
southward and absorbed the Caucasus. A hundred years ago Britain and Russia
divided Iran into northern and southern spheres of influence. After World
War I the Turks drew back into Anatolia and started to build a modern-nation
state. Iran's modernization was much more problematic and suffered a setback
when the Shah was overthrown by religious zealots in 1978.
Traumatic as this was, especially for millions of westernized Iranians,
it was not the end of Iran. Iranians have not forgotten their history.
The country has shown increasing signs of regaining its balance and its
bearings. It has wealth. It has talented people. It has problems. It cannot
be ignored. It must be dealt with seriously and with a sense of perspective.
Just about everyone seems to realize this but the U.S. Government. No
country in the region can afford to consign Iran to oblivion. None will.
Turkey needs Iran as a source of energy and Iran needs Turkey as a partner
in trade. No amount of American cajoling is going to dissuade any government
in Ankara from buying and selling in Iran. The same is true of most Europeans.
The new nations of the Caucasus and Central Asia do not tolerate Iranian
efforts to propagate religious extremism, but they trade with Iran because
they need to, and Iran needs to develop a good relationship with each of
them. The leaders of the Caucasus and Central Asia know that healthy relations
have the effect of dissuading Iran from disruptive interference in their
The U.S. quarantine of Iran and threats against those who refuse to
join in can never succeed. Iran supports terrorism, yes. But no more so
than Syria, a country which for much longer has harbored terrorists striking
against two of the pillars of Western strength in the region, Israel and
Turkey. Some Iranians still try to export religious fanaticism, yes. But
with less and less zeal and not much success. Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan--to
name only a few--have quite successfully protected themselves from Iranian
religious adventurism. Does America need to compromise its principles any
more to begin to open a few doors to Iran than it has done for decades
with Saudi Arabia--an even more religiously oppressive society?
The developed world's best hope for escape from energy dependence on
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf in the 21st century lies in exploiting the resources
of the Caspian Basin and the interior of Central Asia, all the way to the
Taklamakan desert of western China. The countries that possess this potential
wealth see it as the key to their future. Iran's geography places it athwart
some of the best routes for access to this entire region. Oil and gas are
not the only considerations. There is an immense potential for trade in
all directions and in a wide range of commodities and products. In fact,
trade is already expanding along a west-east corridor across the middle
of Asia from the Black Sea all the way to China and the Pacific. North-south
trade routes are also becoming a reality. For the United States to try
to cut Iran out of this picture is both futile and silly. America and Europe
need dependable access to the energy and markets for exports. Any plans
that fail to take Iran into consideration skew investments and arrangements
in costly and unproductive fashion.
Of course Americans should not blind themselves to Iran's misbehavior
or bribe her to make her way back into genuine international cooperation.
Iran shows increasing evidence of falling into economic and social crisis
which is bound to have political consequences. The country looks increasingly
amenable to acceptance of measures that will enable it to cope with its
own challenges. It has hundreds of thousands of skilled, Western-educated
professionals and technicians. These people do not want to be permanently
condemned to a system designed to take them back to the Middle Ages. The
United States has enough experience over a long period of time with other
rogue states--the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Cuba, North Korea, South
Africa--to be able to devise and implement a policy of graduated constructive
During the first Clinton Administration, at the very time when American
strategic thinking should have begun to have some long-range depth, American
foreign policy became focussed on narrow interests. There was diversion
into occasional bouts of interventionism in situations of marginal importance
to the U.S. national interest--Somalia, e.g.--and a long period of trying
to ignore possibilities for helping collapsing Yugoslavia adjust to the
new era. The lessons are clear. They do not justify isolationism. Instead,
they demand competent, strategic assessment and foresight. In the first
Clinton Administration little long-range strategy was discernible.
There has never been anything unreasonable in the widespread hope that
Russia can evolve into a normal nation-state. All rational people share
it. But hope is still far from reality. Russia is far from stabilized,
either politically or economically. American policy toward Russia must
entail continual reassessment of tactics and priorities, depending on what
is happening in Russia at any given time. There was too much wishful thinking
about Russia in the first Clinton Administration.
The age of imperialism is past. All the great empires that dominated
the world at the beginning of the 20th century--and all of the smaller
ones too--are gone. Britons, Frenchmen, Italians no longer dream of empire.
They assuage their imperialist guilt by helping their former colonies stabilize
and prosper. Austrians and Turks would consider countrymen deranged who
advocated recreating the Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman empires. Unfortunately
things are different among Russians. Politicians and military men call
for restoration of the Russian Empire. A recent poll reported more than
2/3 of all Russians longing for return of the Soviet Union! Even as the
demoralized Russian army in Chechnya was preparing to withdraw, a sign
at the entrance of the main Russian military base near Grozny proclaimed:
"The Caucasus was ours, is ours, and will remain ours!" Russia has to come
to terms with the end of empire.
Neo-imperialist sentiments are not universal in Russia. They are probably
held strongly by only a minority. Dreams of restoring the Soviet/Russian
Empire are far from being realizable, but Russia still has an almost unlimited
ability to disrupt and confuse situations both at home and in its "Near
Abroad". This works to the detriment of the Russian people. Russia is lagging
badly in devising realistic policies for dealing with troublesome areas
such as the North Caucasus. Soviet habits keep Russia from recognizing
the advantages of new thinking about the Middle East. Since Yeltsin elevated
old spy-master Primakov to the foreign ministry Russia has reverted on
many fronts. Many of her actions are now encouraging regional tensions.
Is this really in Russia's interest? Washington needs to ask this question
Russian sale of nuclear technology to Iran encourages the worst features
of Iranian behavior. The same is true of submarine transfers. Russian sale
of anti-aircraft missiles to Greek Cyprus adds new fuel to an old fire
that the Soviets all too often stoked in the past. The excuse that Russia
needs to make money from its declining arms production capacity is limp,
especially when the United States and the Europeans have gone to great
lengths to encourage and financially support factory conversion and transfer
of scientists and technicians to new kinds of employment.
The indulgent U.S. response to the Russian assault on Chechnya was shameful.
Beijing's suppression in Tien An Mien entailed barely 1% of the casualties
and none of the destruction of property that the Russians were responsible
for in Chechnya (not only against Chechens, but equally against Russians).
If Beijing deserved to be ostracized, why not Moscow? Why go on tolerating
Russian bullying of other ex-Soviet states? Why give every appearance of
conceding a Russian entitlement to meddle in the affairs of the "Near Abroad"?
Throughout a half century of decolonization America recognized no such
entitlement by any other ex-imperial power. The U.S. condemned Britain
and France when they attacked Egypt in 1956. America wholeheartedly welcomed
independence for Algeria, India, and dozens of other ex-colonial countries.
America has a history of more than 200 years of opposing colonialism throughout
the world. It has always given assistance to new nations to consolidate
While the Clinton Administration gave no thought to imposing sanctions
against Russia for its genocidal assault on Chechnya, it has tolerated
a congressional embargo against Azerbaijan for defending itself against
Armenian aggression. A determined effort by a President and Secretary of
State could certainly persuade a majority of congressmen to terminate this
blatantly unjust action. Ethnic lobbies and sentiments are a natural feature
of a democratic society. It is the responsibility of leaders with strategic
vision to see that they do not seriously distort policies, entangle the
country in contradictory and hypocritical forms of behavior, and obscure
Far from bringing an "end of history", the collapse of the Soviet Union
has restored the Middle East to a condition that is much more historically
normal than what prevailed for the better part of the past century and
a half. History has come alive again. The whole northern third of the region
-- the Caucasus and Central Asia -- which was locked in the Russian and
Soviet empires, has again become part of a world that is primarily Islamic.
But there is little evidence of a "clash of civilizations" within it. Christian
Georgia already does most of its trade with Muslim Turkey and has a good
relationship with Muslim Iran. Christian Armenia trades with Iran. Israel
has constructive relations with all the new states of the Caucasus and
Central Asia, both Christian and Muslim. They all look to the United States
for support and leadership that will give them the strength to develop
a normal relationship with their former colonial Russian masters.
The United States has indeed made a good beginning toward recognizing
the changed circumstances of the region, but it has not been able to spring
free from preoccupations and predilections that dominated the past half
century. To serve American interests effectively, the second Clinton Administration
needs to formulate a set of new strategic priorities and approaches to
the whole Middle Eastern region. And it needs to understand it better.
Uzbekistan is the heart of Central Asia, the focal point of its long
history, and its cultural and religious center. If the region had experienced
a more natural evolution into the modern era, Uzbekistan would probably
not exist. In its place there would be a larger state called Turkestan,
as the southern part of the entire region continued to be known after the
Russian conquest in the 19th century. Or it might even be called Turan.
In the museum next to the purported tomb of the Caliph Ali at Shahimardon
in the Fergana Valley, a banner proclaims Yasha Turan!--"Long live Turan!"
There are similar sentiments all over Central Asia.
Before the Russians came, the heartland of Central Asia was predominantly
Turkic in population but with a strong Iranian cultural substratum of Persian
speakers (Tajiks) in cities and some rural areas. City dwellers were called
Sarts, whether they spoke Persian or Turkic. Language did not divide Central
Asians. 95% of both urban and rural inhabitants were Sunni Muslims and
ethnicity, in the sense we now understand it, was relatively unimportant
in determining an individual's identity or political orientation.
Historic Turkestan was a far more cohesive geopolitical entity than
India, or even Iran. Had it not been gerrymandered into separate republics
to facilitate Soviet control and exploitation, the natural unity of the
area would have prevailed. Instead Uzbekistan has ended up being as an
oddly shaped country with sizable diaspora outside its borders. The Fergana
Valley, divided among Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, is divided
by boundaries that defy economic logic.
Without the ancient cities of Bukhara and Samarkand would an Uzbekistan
have made any sense at all? When the Soviets established Uzbekistan in
1924 they made Samarkand the capital and included Tajikistan, which had
previously formed the eastern region of the Emirate of Bukhara, in it.
Then, in 1929, they made Tajikistan a separate republic in keeping with
the traditional Russian practice of divide et impera--divide and rule.
Independent Uzbekistan and Tajikistan inherited many contradictions,
for Bukhara and Samarkand still have sizable numbers of Persian-speakers.
But to claim, as some Iranian nationalists have done, that Tajikistan was
robbed of these cities is stretching a point. An Uzbekistan consisting
of Khorezm, Tashkent and some territory along the Afghan border would have
been an even more illogical state than the present one. If history could
be undone, it would probably be better to create a Turkestan combining
Uzbeks and Tajiks. For the time being, however, the men who are responsible
for managing the affairs of the new states have to accept boundaries as
It is logical that current leaders of independent Uzbekistan should
have an interest in Uzbeks in neighboring areas, including northern Afghanistan,
where the Uzbek general, Abdul Rashid Dostum, maintains effective control.
It is also natural for them to take an interest in Tajikistan. To characterize
Tajikistan as a victim of Russian and Uzbek expansionism, as some commentators
have done, is not convincing. The country came into independence less well
consolidated and with less effective leadership than the other four. Uzbekistan's
leaders had good reason to be concerned that the political disorder in
Tajikistan did not infect their country. There seem to have been multiple
motivations for Russian military intervention. The Russian military appears
to have greatly underestimated the difficulty of bringing order to Tajikistan.
Russia now faces a dilemma--staying or withdrawing are equally unattractive,
but peace is elusive. As with so many other aspects of Russian policy,
Moscow's ultimate goals are unclear. Some Russians find it impossible to
shed neo-imperialist thinking, but the country lacks the resources and
the military might to restore control of even this corner of the old empire.
Some observers regard Kazakstan as potentially the most unstable Central
Asian state, primarily because of the large number of Russians in its population,
as well as other non-Kazak groups, such as Germans and Uigurs. Most students
of Central Asia are aware of the more than a million Kazaks in China's
Xinjiang province, but few realize that there is an only slightly smaller
concentration of Kazaks in the southern Urals, in Russian territory. President
Nazarbaev has wisely refrained from irredentist agitation on their behalf
and has been adroit and patient in dealing with his Russian citizens, taking
a stern stand only against Cossack agitation, but he has cards to play
against determined Russian efforts to undermine his authority or break
up his country. Talk aside, there have actually been no such initiatives
on Russia's part and none appear in the offing.
Germans in both Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan have displayed little inclination
to be politically active. Younger Germans have been rapidly departing,
finding the prospect of immediate citizenship and prosperous existence
in Germany irresistible. Russians have a much less attractive choice in
returning to Russia, but many younger ones with skills have left. Kazaks,
like all native Central Asians, continue to reproduce at a much higher
rate than Russians. Already the proportion of Russians in the population
of Kazakstan is believed to have fallen to about 35% and that of Kazaks
to have risen to 45%. In ten years Kazaks will be in a majority.
Uigurs in Central Asia, of whom there are sizable numbers in Kazakstan,
Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, are more of a problem for China than for the
Central Asian countries. The 8 million Uigurs of Xinjiang show increasing
evidence of assertiveness, though China's economic reforms have so far
largely contained rebelliousness. Like ethnic Chinese Muslims (Dungans
or Hui), they maintain close relations with their kinsmen in the independent
Central Asian countries and play a major role in trade in both directions.
They present both the Chinese and the Central Asians with complex problems.
China's trade with and through ex-Soviet Central Asia has grown by leaps
and bounds and continues to increase. The city of Ining (old Kulja) on
the Kazak border has doubled in size in the past few years because it is
a major avenue for this trade. China sends goods all the way to Europe
through this Eurasian corridor and imports from Europe and Russia as well.
Central Asian markets are full of Chinese goods. China has recently persuaded
the Central Asian countries to restrain Uigurs from politicking in behalf
of their kinsmen in Xinjiang. But Central Asian leaders cannot afford to
single out their economically active Uigur citizens for severe restrictions
without repercussions. A delicate balance has to be struck. Both sides
need the trade.
America needs to get the whole Middle East in focus. In addition to
learning more about it, Americans need to start looking at the region in
a historically grounded way: it extends all the way from the eastern Mediterranean
to China, and from Siberia to the Indian Ocean. Historically, the Caucasus
and Central Asia played a major role in Middle Eastern political dynamics.
As independent states, these countries are beginning to do so again. It
is important to take a new look at the axes along which the political,
economic, and cultural currents of the region flow. Turkey and Iran are
old states, never colonialized, whose people have a natural sense of history.
At the far end of the region is the great Indian Subcontinent. Pakistan
is at least as important for America's future as Palestine, and India as
If current immigration trends continue the South Asian component of
the U.S. population will outnumber Jews by the third decade of the 21st
century. New Americans of South Asian origin display the kind of energy
and talent that have always characterized Jews. Articles in American medical
and scientific journals now frequently bear Indian and Pakistani names.
The South Asian contribution to American research is already out of all
proportion to their numbers. South Asians are also becoming active in business.
Jews were slow to enter the American political process. So are South Asians,
but when they do, they will be effective.
Pakistan is in crisis. It needs help. So does India. America should
strive to move these two populous countries away from confrontation and
toward pragmatic collaboration. Central Asians look to South Asia for assistance
of many kinds. They need Pakistan and India to balance the influence of
China, which has moved swiftly into the new Central Asian states. There
is vastly more Chinese goods than Russian in Central Asia's markets and
almost nothing from America at all. Expansion of trade is a priority American
policy goal. America should be building access through both the Black Sea-Caucasus
corridor and from South Asia.
In competition India and Pakistan contribute to the turmoil in Afghanistan.
The two, with Iran, can help Afghanistan settle down and start building
roads, railways and pipelines to Indian Ocean ports. America invested moral
energy as well as arms in Afghanistan when it was invaded by the Soviet
Army. Since the Russians withdrew, America has ignored it. Like Iraq, Afghanistan
is an inherently unstable, artificial country. But it is better for it
to continue to exist and begin prosper than fester and collapse. Stabilization
of Afghanistan is essential for Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Development of democracy and respect for human rights and cultural freedom
are important, but many American efforts have been naive and at times counterproductive.
Turkey, after Israel the politically and socially most modernized nation
in the Middle East, has made steady progress during the past 70 years.
Turkish experience should be used as a yardstick to measure progress in
other countries of the region, including Russia itself. The resources America
devotes to spreading democracy and respect for human rights--both governmental
and private--will be better used if concentrated on civic education and
institution building rather than on exhortation and criticism.
To summarize the key points of the discussion above, the following should
be kept in mind as the most important aspects of the American approach
to the region:
- Look at the whole Middle East in the context of the world around it.
- Put access to energy and expansion of trade at the top of the list
of America's strategic goals. Count Iran into the energy picture.
- Give sustained attention to the big "old" countries of the area: Turkey,
Iran, India, Pakistan.
- Help all the new states of Central Asia consolidate their political
systems and their economies with particular attention to the two growing
powers of the region, Uzbekistan and Kazakstan.
- Promote the east-west economic integration of the region from the
Black Sea to China. Include Russia, but as an equal, not a privileged neo-imperial
power. Russia has much to gain from developing a new kind of relations
with the area.
- Recognize the role of the Caucasus in provision of energy in 21st
century. Help Azerbaijan exploit its oil and gas and support Georgia as
a major route for moving both Azerbaijan's and Central Asia's oil and gas
- Adjust American relations with Armenia to fit into America's strategic
goals and real national interests.
- Keep encouraging Arab-Israeli reconciliation, but in the framework
of broader and fundamental interests in the entire region. Encourage Turkish-Israeli
- Be persistent but patient and realistic instead of preachy about the
development of democracy and advancement of human rights.