Steppes to Empire. (Bases of Debate: America in Central Asia)

By Bacevich, Andrew J. | The National Interest, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview
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Steppes to Empire. (Bases of Debate: America in Central Asia)


Bacevich, Andrew J., The National Interest


SINCE SEPTEMBER 11, Americans have handed George W. Bush the equivalent of a blank check on matters pertaining to foreign policy. Prosecuting the war trumps all other considerations. Yet as operations move beyond the so-called first phase, it becomes increasingly clear that the Bush Administration has more in mind than simply eradicating terror. As phase two beckons (not to mention phases three and four), automatic deference to the administration's wishes should no longer be viewed as the ultimate badge of patriotism. A healthy, respectful skepticism should be the order of the day. Evolving U.S. policy toward Central Asia offers a case in point.

In truth, the enterprise that the White House has chosen to style as a war on terror has never been simply that. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, senior officials in the Bush Administration were quick to grasp that if Al-Qaeda's attack was an outrage that demanded retribution, it also constituted a significant strategic opportunity. To seize that opportunity, the administration has from the outset waged its war with one eye fixed on rooting out terrorists, and the other set on gauging the prospects for advancing a variety of other U.S. interests. Thus, through its conduct of the present conflict, the administration aims to reduce or eliminate security threats that the Clinton Administration allowed to fester--the notorious "axis of evil." It seeks to bolster regional stability and ratchet up efforts to reduce international drug trafficking. Its expansive Bush Doctrine proposes to legitimize "anticipatory self-defense" and "offensive deterrence" as the basis for using force. For its part, in additio n to securing a big boost in defense spending, the Pentagon is using the war on terror as a pretext for deepening its relationship with various armies abroad, both to garner influence and to facilitate the future projection of U.S. military power. To state the matter baldly, through its conduct of the war against terror, the United States seeks to shore up and perhaps expand the Pax Americana.

Initiatives already launched in support of this ambitious project have entailed the deployment of U.S. military assets to places ranging from Latin America to the Horn of Africa and from the Caucasus to Southeast Asia. Inasmuch as the ongoing campaign is very much a work in progress, we can expect that such commitments will continue to proliferate. One region that appears likely to attract significant continuing U.S. attention is Central Asia, a vast, forbidding tract that most considered before September 11 to be a strategic backwater, but that since has become the subject of intense interest.

Thus far, the Bush Administration has refrained from spelling out its plans for Central Asia with any precision. But with Secretary of State Colin Powell hinting at a "continuing interest and presence in the region "of a kind that we could not dream of before", it appears that the administration is thinking big. (1) The available evidence suggests that the U.S. military will figure prominently in whatever strategy emerges; indeed, the Pentagon is already laying the groundwork for long-term U.S. involvement in the region.

Particularly noteworthy in that regard is the increasingly prominent U.S. military footprint visible in Pakistan, Afghanistan and two of the five Central Asian republics (Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan). Although initially justified as needed to support combat operations against the Taliban and A1-Qaeda, the establishment of bases by American forces has the effect of creating new facts on the ground, facts that have a way of becoming permanent. When U.S. troops arrive, they tend to stay. That axiom remains as true today as it was in 1945 or 1950 or in the 1990s, as the continuing presence of U.S. forces in Europe, Japan, Korea, the Persian Gulf and the Balkans amply attests. In Central Asia, that pattern may be repeating itself as U.

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