Things are not going the US’s way


Nothing much is going right for the US these days.  Leaving aside the troubles with its financial system







It’s no fun being a declining superpower.  Read on …



After the hostilities in Georgia in August 2008, Turkey prevented the US, its NATO ally, from sending large naval ships into the Black Sea.


Ostensibly, the US wanted to use these ships to transport humanitarian aid to Georgia, even though it was more convenient, and quicker, to bring the aid in by air.  In reality, the US wished to make a show of support for Georgia, in circumstances in which coming to the aid of Georgia militarily had been ruled out.


Originally, the US wanted to send two large US Navy hospital ships to Georgia, but had eventually to settle for sending three small naval vessels.  These ended up delivering less than 10% of the humanitarian aid that was delivered to Georgia – more than 90% was delivered by air, and the rest could have been.


Turkey was within its rights under the 1936 Montreux Convention [1]  in restricting US naval access to the Black Sea.  The Convention makes Turkey the gatekeeper to the Black Sea and lays down the rules to be applied by Turkey in allowing the entry of ships from the Mediterranean.  These rules impose very severe restrictions on the entry of warships belonging to non-Black Sea states and on how long (only 21 days) they are allowed to remain in the Black Sea.  They also require that Turkey be notified in advance of a proposed entry into the Black Sea.


There is no doubt that the US would like NATO warships to have free access to the Black Sea and has pressed for a revision of the Montreux Convention to allow that to happen.  There is also no doubt that, despite being a NATO member, Turkey has resisted US pressure to revise the Convention and refused to ignore its terms in regulating NATO access to the Black Sea.


A few years ago, Turkey successfully resisted pressure to extend NATO’s Operation Active Endeavour from the Mediterranean into the Black Sea.  In this operation, which has been going on since March 2003, NATO ships patrol the Mediterranean, ostensibly to “help detect, deter and protect against terrorist activity” [2].


In the wake of the Georgian conflict, Turkey came under pressure to take sides between Russia and the West (and Georgia).  But it refused to condemn Russia’s actions in Georgia – it merely expressed concern about events there and proposed a Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Pact to resolve issues in the region.  Theoretically, this would bring together Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan with Russia and Turkey (pointedly leaving out Iran, the other major power bordering the Caucasus).


Prime Minister Recep Erdogan went to Moscow on 12 August 2008 with this proposal and was welcomed with open arms – because the proposal enshrines the principle that states in the region should sort out its problems, not states from the other side of the world.


On 18 August 2008, The Guardian published an account of an interview with Turkish President, Abdullah Gül, which must have sounded alarm bells in Washington.  He said


“The conflict in Georgia … showed that the United States could no longer shape global politics on its own, and should begin sharing power with other countries.  I don't think you can control all the world from one centre.   … So what we have to do is, instead of unilateral actions, act all together, make common decisions and have consultations with the world. A new world order, if I can say it, should emerge.’” [3]


Russia should be more than pleased with those opinions.


(For a fuller account of this, see Turkey restricts US access to the Black Sea [4].)



Azerbaijan has refused to condemn Russia for its actions in Georgia – and didn’t treat Vice President Cheney with due respect on his visit in early September.


Since the break up of the Soviet Union, when Azerbaijan came into being as a separate state, it has maintained good relations with Russia, while co-operating with the West’s drive to access oil from the Caspian basin, bypassing Russia and Iran by means of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline to the Turkish Mediterranean coast.


It is associated with NATO in the so-called Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (and has troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq), but there is no indication that it wants to become a full member of NATO.


For the last 15 years, it has been ruled by the Aliyev family.  Heydar Aliyev, who was the leader of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan from 1969 till 1982, was elected president in 1993 and re-elected in 1998.  He was succeeded by his son, Ilham, in 2003, who has recently (15 October 2008) been re-elected, for the second time by a landslide.


From time to time, doubt has been expressed about the legitimacy of the elections that have kept the Aliyev family in power, but since under their rule, oil from the Caspian was flowing to the West, there was never any question of a “democratic revolution” being staged in Baku like the ones in Kiev and Tbilisi.  The West has a flexible approach to democracy in other states – roughly speaking, the rule is that allies need not have democratic institutions, but enemies must have, otherwise they lay themselves open to criticism at least and invasion at worst.


US Vice President, Dick Cheney, visited Baku on 3 September 2008, as part of a mission to the region to bolster opposition to Russia’s actions in Georgia.  He encountered a few surprises (see Russia and Turkey tango in the Black Sea by M K Bhadrakumar, Asia Times, 12 September 2008 [5] and Moscow’s Big Victory on Pipelines by Paul A Goble, New York Times, 5 September 2008 [6]).


First, Cheney was not met at the airport by the President (a personal friend from his Halliburton days, when the President was head of the state oil company), nor by Prime Minister Rasizade, but by the first vice premier and the foreign minister.  And he had to wait several hours before the President had a meeting with him.


The President’s message wasn’t to his taste either.  He refused to condemn Russia’s actions in Georgia.  He also refused to endorse the Nabucco gas pipeline project backed by the US and the EU, which is designed to bring large quantities of gas from Azerbaijan through Georgia and Turkey to Central Europe [7].  He told Cheney that he wasn’t willing to discuss this project until negotiations with Russia were complete about its alternative, South Stream, pipeline project for bringing gas to Central Europe from the Caspian Basin.


The President made it clear that he wasn’t going to be drawn into a row with Russia.  Cheney was greatly upset and made his displeasure known by refusing to attend the state banquet in his honour.  Soon after the conversation with Cheney, the President spoke to Russian President Medvedev by phone.


For years, Azerbaijan has maintained a balanced foreign policy that seeks to maintain good relations with the West and Russia and avoids offending either.  It looks as if the US thought that Russia’s actions in Georgia could be used to shift the balance in the West’s favour.  It seems that the balance has moved in Russia’s favour instead.



Cheney went to Ukraine on 5 September 2008.  He arrived at an unfortunate moment.  Two days earlier, while he was been mistreated in Baku, the Ukrainian government collapsed after serious political disagreement between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who were victorious allies in the so-called Orange Revolution in November 2004, and up to recently both firm friends of the West [8].


Their parties had been in an uneasy coalition government for nine months, but with a wafer thin majority in parliament over the opposition Party of the Regions, led by former President Viktor Yanukovich, whose re-election was overturned by the Orange revolution.


There were two immediate causes for the collapse: firstly, Tymoshenko’s party blocked a motion condemning Russia’s recent actions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia (as she has consistently refused to do) and, secondly, her party sided with the opposition in a vote to decrease the powers of the president and increase her own as prime minister.  At that point, the President’s Our Ukraine party quit the coalition.  The President has now called parliamentary elections, which are due to be held on 7 December 2008.


The collapse of the coalition may mark the beginning of Ukraine seeking a modus vivendi with Russia, instead of acting as a poodle of the West, thereby undoing the great victory the West thought it had achieved by the Orange Revolution.  Popular opinion in Ukraine is opposed to it joining NATO, by a ratio of around 2 to 1, according to a poll taken in February 2008 [9].  So, a more balanced approach towards Russia would likely find favour with the electorate, nearly 20% of whom are ethnic Russians.


Tymoshenko is probably positioning herself to stand for president in 2010 and reckons she can’t win on an anti-Russian ticket.  President Yushchenko is very unpopular, an opinion poll in July 2008 suggesting that he would now get a mere 7.3% of the vote in a presidential election, compared with 23.7% for Tymoshenko and 20.5% for former president Yanukovych [10].


Most likely, Ukraine will not join NATO, even if NATO opens the door to it, since all parties have promised a referendum on the issue.


Will NATO open the door to Ukraine (and Georgia), despite the events in Georgia in August?  In a speech delivered at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire on 19 September 2008, US Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, gave the first indication I have come across that the US may be having second thoughts.  He said:


“To manage diverse challenges in the years ahead, we – America and Europe together – will need strength and solidarity as we have demonstrated in the past.  Our policies and responses must show a mixture of resolve and restraint … .  To be firm but not fall into a pattern of rhetoric or actions that create self-fulfilling prophecies … .  We need to be careful about the commitments we make, but we must be willing to keep the commitments once made.  In the case of NATO, Article Five must mean what it says.” [11]


That portion of his speech came after a discussion of Russia’s actions in Georgia.  It seems to me that he was warning against allowing states like Georgia to join NATO, and thereby entering into to an Article 5 commitment to rush to their aid if they are attacked, a commitment that couldn’t be honoured in circumstances like those that occurred in Georgia in early August.


Although he is a part of an administration that is on its last legs, Gates is a highly respected figure in his own right, who may continue to serve as Defense Secretary no matter who wins the presidential election.  So what he says is worth listening to, not least because he is probably expressing the views of the US military establishment.



The UN Security Council mandate for the US occupation of Iraq, most recently provided in resolution 1790 [12], expires on 31 December 2008.  When this resolution was passed in December 2007, the Iraqi Government stated that it didn’t want the UN mandate to be renewed again.  Instead, the operations of US and other foreign forces in Iraq were to be governed by a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the US and Iraq.  This was due to be finalised by the end of July 2008 and submitted to the Iraqi Parliament for approval.


At the outset, the US expected that, under the new agreement, US and other foreign forces would continue to operate in Iraq as they do now – conducting military operations and detaining Iraqi civilians when and where they please, for as long as they please; having exclusive control over Iraqi airspace; and, crucially, having blanket immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law, no matter what crimes they commit.  Furthermore, the US expected that private contractors working for the US authorities in Iraq would continue to have immunity from prosecution.  Crucially, the US expected the Agreement to be of unlimited duration.


At the time of writing (17 October 2008), an Agreement still hasn’t been reached between the US and Iraqi Governments, let alone approved by the Iraqi Parliament.  The stumbling block seems to be immunity for foreign forces (military and civilian), which the Iraqi Government is reluctant to concede.


On 11 October 2008, the Daily Star reported Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki saying that “Washington has made huge concessions, but some points about immunity for troops and civil Americans are still pending” [13].  Other issues delaying a final deal were said to include “the detention of Iraqi nationals and who will lead military operations from next year”.   Maliki was quoted as saying that “the most important issue dealt with is the fixed timeline for withdrawal of US troops from Iraq” – the draft proposal “envisages US troops pulling back from Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009 and withdrawing completely from the country by December 31, 2011”.


Optimism is being expressed on both sides that agreement is close, but similar optimism was expressed months ago.  And even if the two governments come to an agreement, it is by no means certain that the Iraqi Parliament will endorse it.


US Africa Command

On 6 February 2007, US Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, announced the creation of a unified US military command for Africa, called AFRICOM.  However, its headquarters is not in Africa, because the US hasn’t succeeded in persuading any African state to host it, despite the considerable economic advantages in doing so.  Instead, its headquarters is in Stuttgart, close to the US European command headquarters.


AFRICOM is one of six US regional commands in the world, each directing US military forces and interests in its region, including military co-operation with, and assistance to, states in its region.  Previously, Africa had been “looked after” by three US commands [14]:


(1)     Central Command (CENTCOM), with responsibility for Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia and Kenya (plus a vast swathe of territory from there to the borders of China - CENTCOM is in charge of the US military occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq).

(2)     European Command (EUCOM), with responsibility for the rest of the countries on the African mainland

(3)     Pacific Command (PACOM), with responsibility for Madagascar, the Seychelles and the Indian Ocean area.


AFRICOM took charge of US military forces and interests in Africa (bar Egypt, which is still covered by CENTCOM) on 1 October 2008.  The only US military base under its command is Camp Lemonier in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, where about 1,800 US troops are stationed.


Why has the US set up this unified command for Africa?  Journalistic accounts regularly cite three reasons:


(1)     to counter al-Qaeda, the main area of concern presently being Somalia, where in the recent past the US has launched air attacks against al-Qaeda personnel

(2)     to secure oil supplies – the US currently gets 20% of its oil from West Africa and expects to increase this in future, as part of its plan to reduce its dependence on Middle East oil

(3)     to counter Chinese influence on the continent.


None of these specific objectives appear on AFRICOM’s official website, where its mission statement is expressed as follows:


“United States Africa Command, in concert with other U.S. government agencies and international partners, conducts sustained security engagement through military-to-military programs, military-sponsored activities, and other military operations as directed to promote a stable and secure African environment in support of U.S. foreign policy.” [15]



David Morrison

18 October 2008