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Caucasus: U.S. Military Presence In Caspian Appears Inevitable

Boston, 4 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Azerbaijan's attempt to involve U.S. military forces in the Caspian Sea region is seen as a terrible idea whose time has unfortunately come.

The proposal advanced last month by Azerbaijan's presidential adviser Vafa Guluzade for an allied air base on the Apsheron Peninsula has already set off a wave of reactions and debates.

Russia has objected, particularly to the idea that another power is needed in the Caucasus to counter-balance its influence. Iran has also cited negative consequences of moving NATO operations from Turkey's Incirlik Air Base to Azerbaijan.

But interestingly, there have been no categorical rejections of the idea from the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton, NATO, Turkey or Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliyev. U.S. officials have said only that there are no plans for such a move under consideration now.

The drawbacks of a U.S. military presence in the region are almost too numerous to count. But there are just as many reasons why it appears inevitable, if policies continue on their current course.

On the negative side, another extension of allied power may only succeed in pushing Russia further into the uncooperative posture that it has already assumed. NATO expansion into Eastern Europe has certainly not improved U.S. relations with Moscow. Another eastward step into the Caspian would only confirm Russia's worst fears.

Russia would feel pressed to raise defense spending at a time when its economy demands that it be cut. Dim hopes for arms control treaties would disappear entirely. The old superpower race would be recreated in the Caucasus and Central Asia, but with one very unstable adversary this time.

There are obvious questions about how Caspian air space would be managed, considering that the littoral states have yet to agree on a legal division of the seabed. Like Russia, Iran would also feel encircled, given the presence of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf to the south.

An eastward extension risks an outcry in the United States that commitments to the Gulf, Bosnia and now Kosovo have already gone too far. As important as the Caspian region is, few Americans would be able to find it on a map. U.S. forces could soon be caught up in ethnic conflicts that even fewer Americans understand.

For the Caspian countries themselves, U.S. air cover is unlikely to provide all the protection they want or need, especially in an environment of heightened tension that a foreign presence could create. The result would be spending sprees by each country on new weapons systems, turning the Caspian into another Persian Gulf, where oil revenues are squandered on defense. An officially neutral country like Turkmenistan would be compelled to take sides.

But for all the pitfalls, there are temptations that may make U.S. military involvement only a matter of time.

Having said yes to Eastern Europe, the U.S. and NATO may not be able to close the door on a region that is seen as a strategic prize. Eastern Europe has had arguably more experience with free markets, independence and democracy. But it has no resources to compare with the Caspian's oil.

Security for the planned Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the trans-Caspian gas line may be impossible without some U.S. role or credible support. Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova have discussed a pipeline security force in the group known as GUAM. Guluzade has also proposed a formal military alliance with Turkey, which would try to make the region safe for pipelines.

A side-benefit for the U.S. is that it could still fly over northern Iraq from Azerbaijan, if Turkey's misgivings about patrols from Incirlik continue to increase.

Azerbaijan's motive in seeking outside help from both the U.S. and Turkey is to offset Russia's bases and weapons in Armenia. But ultimately, if there is a settlement on Nagorno-Karabakh and a withdrawal from Azerbaijani territory, the call is sure to go out again to U.S. peacekeepers, or at least monitors, whether under the auspices of NATO or the OSCE.

Because of Russia's role in the region, there may be no power other than the United States, or U.S.-backed organizations, that can serve as a guarantor of peace. For better or for worse, countries from Georgia to Uzbekistan hope for U.S. solutions to their security problems.

Officials have stepped carefully around questions about how deeply the United States would become involved. But most discussions have focused on the obstacles to a U.S. presence rather than denials that military access is a goal that would be desirable to achieve.

Washington has also worked tirelessly to promote its interests in the region, bending pipeline routes away from Russia and Iran, despite the high costs. Temptation to support that strategy militarily is bound to grow, just as debates over economic interest have gradually blossomed into arguments over U.S. national security.

Despite all the reasons to avoid it, the U.S. will probably be drawn into defending the interests which it has created in the region. The alternative is to step back and craft a new policy that gives all nations an economic interest in Caspian development. So far, there is no sign of that.

(Michael Lelyveld is chief correspondent at the Journal of Commerce. This analysis was written for RFE/RL)