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Lutz KLEVEMAN, (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003),


Lutz Kleveman was not the first person to refer to post Cold War Central Asian
geopolitics as “the New Great Game,” but since he did use the phrase as the title
for a book, and since, in that book, he uses the phrase as often as possible, he can,
I believe, be asked to answer for it. The original “Great Game,” as Kleveman notes,
referred to the late 19th Century struggle between the British and Russian for
control over the territory separating their two empires. For the British at least, this
struggle was “great” to the extent that it affected their control over India, which was
of far more importance than Central Asia itself would ever be. What made it a
game, however, was the setting. Unlike the ultimately more significant imperial
struggles taking place under fancy chandeliers in the conference halls of
continental Europe, this one was set against a backdrop of savage tribesmen,
impenetrable deserts, forbidden cities and fanatical Emirs. It is no coincidence that
the phrase was made famous by Rudyard Kipling in Kim, an adventure tale written
for young boys in an age where boys, still read adventure tales. Today, alas, the
romance which made the first “Great Game” such a great game is largely gone.
What remains is simply geopolitics – potentially fascinating for those interested in
geopolitics, less so for those interested in boy’s adventure stories.
Unfortunately, Kleveman tries to have it both ways, and as a result his book
offers neither serious political analysis nor gripping travel journalism. While
contemporary Central Asia is hardly exotic by 19th century standards, it remains
about as exotic as anywhere gets these days, and Kleveman gamely sets out to try
to discover some of this exoticism. What he finds instead are some amusing, if
clichéd, moments of local color (though in all fairness, post-soviet clichés were
presumably not as clichéd before Borat so successfully capitalized on them): We
meet the Foreign Minister of the completely unrecognized Republic of Abkazia,
whose office is decorated with “a life-size embroidered picture of a naked woman
with remarkable breasts.” On the same trip, Kleveman is flown by a Ukranian

Kitap ‹ncelemeleri / Book Reviews

who greets him with vodka on his breath and the words “Come in! Welcome! No
problem, don’t worry, no problem!”
But the present invariably pales in comparison past, and the reader suffers as a
result. Kleveman never had to be worried about being imprisoned in a vermin-ridden pit
by the Emir of Bukhara or captured by Turcoman slave traders. Still, one cannot
help but think there might have been a few more adventures worthy of retelling if
Kleveman had not exercised such sound judgement. At one point, for example,
when trying to cross overland into Chechnya, Kleveman meets a Russian soldier
who stops him and asks “If I let you carry on to Grozny, do you believe that you will
ever get there in one piece?” Kleveman thanks him and turns around. I do not fault
Kleveman for this. It was undoubtedly a smart choice, and certainly the one this
reader would have made. It is not, however, the choice that Alexander “Bokhara”
Burnes (torn apart by an Afghan mob, Kabul, 1841) or George Hayward (decapitated by the
orders of Chieftain Mir Wali, Dardistan, 1870) would have made.
In his political analysis, by contrast, Kleveman is too bold. His thesis,
supported by a mix of insinuation and argument, is that everything that happens,
and particularly everything bad that happens, in Central Asia is caused by oil. He
had argued that a lot of what happens in Central Asia is caused by oil his the-
sis would have been correct but unremarkable. He had tried to explain what exact-
ly is caused by oil and what is not, the result would have been subtle and thought-provoking,
but getting there would probably have required him to do some serious research.
Instead he wanders from country to country in search of people to interview,
and insists on treating everything he’s told as a scoop.
Kleveman’s methods and conclusions fit together nicely, however, when he
finds himself trying to prove that, say Chinese policy in Xinjiang or American policy
in Afghanistan is a product of oil politics. In Xinjiang, Kleveman attempts to tie the
Chinese government’s oppression of the native Uyghur population with the region’s
importance both as a source of oil and as a transit corridor for Kazakh oil. As
evidence of this connection, he points out that China needs oil and that Xinjiang
has (a little) oil. Then, to cinch his case, he gives us David, a Han Chinese Engine-
er from Shanghai who has come to Xinjiang with some friends to see the mounta-
ins. In a paragraph that is fairly representative of his method, Kleveman writes:
“Xinjiang has belonged to China for two thousand years now, and we will not let
it go, never,” David declares; he reasons that without Xinjiang China would
disintegrate and descend into civil war like the former Soviet Union. “And we also
need the oil and gas from here for our economy, David adds, but hardly as an
We readers will never know whether David really meant this as an afterthought
or not, though for the Chinese government it certainly could be. Consider Tibet. The
only oil the territory produces comes from melted yak butter (and is used to
flavor tea, not power cars) but Beijing has hardly been supportive of the local

Kitap ‹ncelemeleri / Book Reviews

In Afghanistan, Kleveman once again uses coincidence to prove causation. His
argument here is that America’s 2001 invasion was linked to its interest in building
a pipeline that would connect Turkmenistan to the world via Pakistan. The eviden-
ce: in the 1990’s, Unocal, an American company, negotiated with the Taliban about
building such a pipeline, but the deal was never finalized because of the region’s
instability. After the 2001 invasion, some people in the American government and
energy community remain interested in building such a pipeline. Moreover, the first
US ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalizad as well as President Karzai and his minister
of industry, were involved in the Unocal negotiations. But, the hopelessly naive
imperialist dupe is tempted to ask, if the US government was so committed to this
pipeline, wouldn’t it have been cheaper, if no less cynical, for them to just pay off
the Taliban to support the pipeline? And why, for that matter, did the US wait until
the Taliban had finally begun to consolidate its control to unleash a whole new
wave of pipeline-delaying instability? Kleveman never says, but he offers a hint:
“After vigorous protests by American feminist groups against the oppression of
women in Afghanistan, the US government sought to distance itself from the
Taliban regime and Unocal’s pipeline plans.” In short, the US government, unable
to stand up to the aggressive feminist lobby, had no choice but to send in the
Regrettably, Kleveman’s oil-is-everything approach undermines quite a bit of
good reporting he does on non-oil subjects. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, he spends
some time with the newly-arrived American troops, persuasively documenting the
many ways in which their behavior alienates the locals. The contrast between the
idealism of the troops and the clumsiness of their actions is troubling, whatever
you believe about the motives of the government that sent them.

Still, if this reviewer seems overly-critical, perhaps it is in part because he
cannot help thinking that this book was a lot more fun to write then it was to read
and he feels a little jealous as a result. Chapter by chapter, the Kleveman moves
from Azerbaijan to Georgia to Chechnya to Kazkakhstan to China to Iran, then on to
Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyztan Afghanistan and Pakistan. It must have been
a hell of a trip. If there are any other obscure late-Victorian political concepts that
need to be revived through some half-baked journalism and several months of
traveling to exotic, dangerous parts of the world, I see no reason why Kleveman
should have all the fun. While I suspect “The New Scramble for Africa” and “The New
Opium Wars” have already been written, “The New Eastern Question” or perhaps
“The New Bulgarian Horrors” remain open for anyone with a backpack and a

Yazar: Elşen Resulov | Əlavə edən: YARADICI (2009-01-08) | Müəllif: ELŞEN RESULOV
Baxış sayı: 373 | Reytinq: 5.0/2
Cəmi Şərh: 0

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