Areg Galstyan, political analyst and Americanist, analyst for U.S. at “Russia in Global Affairs” journal, the head of the American Studies.org project, speaks of the interests and policy of the United States in the South Caucasus and Middle East in an interview with EADaily . “U.S. is dramatically changing its Middle East policy today, as is evident from Washington’s dialogue with Iran and its refusal to return to the region at least a limited contingent to fight ISIS,” Galstyan says.
Mr. Galstyan, how would you describe the U.S. policy in the South Caucasus? What are its goals there?
The U.S. policy in Transcaucasia depends on several paradigms. First, these are the interests of American transnational corporations that once had tangible preferences in the Contract of the Century with Azerbaijan. Those corporations have serious lobbyists at the legislative and executive authorities to influence the political decision making and not to harm the American business elites. In this light, the geopolitical interests of the United States and those corporations coincide. One of the major tasks for U.S. is to diversify energy resources. U.S. prefers to see Europe not too dependent on the Russian gas and tries to lobby other routes of gas supply via the countries in the region.
Second, it is the political and humanitarian interests. Transcaucasia is part of the Greater Middle East where the interests of both regional and global powers are closely entwined. We can see the activity of Turkey, Iran, and Russia, and how China is gradually entering the region. Could U.S. sit idle? No, indeed. Let’s not forget that the United States is a permanent member of the OSCE Minsk Group on the settlement of the Karabakh conflict. U.S. is the key ally and lobbyist of Georgia’s interests at NATO. There are humanitarian aspects too. All the countries in the region are involved into U.S. Government programs, in conformity with the Freedom Support Act, U.S. non-profit organizations are active there. Overall, these reasons determine the interests of the United States in the region.
Does the United States see the South Caucasus region as a single whole or it has a differentiated approach to every country in the region?
The global power always takes into account both the mega and the micro specifics of any country. The United States cannot have the same approach to Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Georgia is a political ally, a kind of display of the successfully implemented democratic reforms in the region. Azerbaijan is energy resources, first of all. Meanwhile, the policy toward Armenia is quite different. On the one hand, the United States realizes Russia’s role in the security issues. One the other hand, there is a factor of the influential Armenian lobby that ensures the balance for Yerevan. U.S. does not neglect the factor of the blockade and shows understanding and political sympathies towards Armenia either. In other words, the United States can show quite harsh a reaction to political mistakes of Georgia and Azerbaijan, while Armenia’s mistakes are simply hushed up.
As Saakashvili came to power in Georgia, the policy of the United States in the region began to intensify. What did U.S. achieve in the region in the given period? What did operation “Saakashvili” lead to?
I don’t think the U.S. policy began to intensify in the region with Saakashvili’s coming to power. In addition, I am very skeptical about the operation “Saakashvili,” as the policy of the United States in Georgia is often idealized. In fact, under Saakashvili, the American-Georgian relations were not trouble-free. Saakashvili used to make steps that were angering America. I am not a specialist in the Caucasus and have not gone into details of the problems of that period. As an Americanist, I can say that the role of the United States in Saakashvili’s coming to power and in his further adventures is greatly exaggerated, sometimes even completely distorted.
How would you describe the U.S. policy in the Middle East? Does it pursue conciliation in the region?
President Obama has fulfilled his election pledges and withdrew the troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. To give an unbiased assessment of Obama’s administration, it is necessary to understand how complex “Middle East heritage” he received from Bush Jr. is. Today, the United States is dramatically changing its Middle East policy, as is evident from Washington’s dialogue with Iran and its refusal to return to the region at least a limited contingent to fight ISIS. Many local experts say U.S. allegedly created the Islamic State. It’s not true. First, Obama cannot pull back the troops and then bring them back. To realize the complicacy of the problem, one needs to learn at least the procedures required for approval of any local operation. Second, the United States turned to Asia and now the main resources will be used to restrain China. Look at the statistics. In the period from 2010 up to 2014, the United States curbed the total allocations to all the countries in the region, including Israel, for the first time since 1971. Financing under military programs will be cut too. This has already caused discontent of the Iraqi and Afghan leaderships.
Anyway, it is logical. U.S. spent billions to train the Iraqi and Afghan armies and now they must learn to protect themselves. Advisors will stay there for a while, but Baghdad and Kabul need to rely on their own forces. For Obama’s administration, it is very important to prevent de-jure collapse of Iraq and the establishment of Kurdistan. If it happens, hardly anybody will remember that neoconservative elites are behind the Iraqi tragedy. The collapse will inherently be on the conscience of democrats and Obama, personally. That is why the president and the secretary of state repeatedly speak of the need to consolidate Shias, Kurds, and moderate Sunnis in the fight for Iraq’s integrity. That is exactly why Washington did not support Al-Maliki and the funds for Erbil were provided to Baghdad.
The United States has recently started speaking about the need to launch talks with President Bashar Al-Assad over Syria. What do you think of it? Does it mean that Washington tries to correct its mistakes in the Middle East?
It is a pragmatic calculation. ISIS is a threat, it is necessary to fight it. How? One cannot call airstrikes a strategy. They are not efficient. There is only one way out of the situation – to destroy them on the ground. How to do it without troops? Support the ones that are fighting against ISIS. Iraq’s army is well armed, but it retreated under pressure of the Islamists. Kurds fight better, but their forces are insufficient. Meanwhile, the Syrian army has good experience and it repeatedly defeated the ISIS. This is what made U.S. forget about the past discrepancies and start a dialogue with Assad and other forces successfully fighting the terrorists, including Iran.
You think the Islamic State is not the result of the U.S. policy mistakes in the Middle East, don’t you?
Well, I would like to say that ISIS is the result of the establishment and development of political Islam in the region. Look at the economic growth of Qatar. Surplus wealth generates global-scale ambitions. Sponsoring ISIS is just an instrument in achieving those ambitions: first, in the fight with Saudi Arabia for the right to be the center of the Sunni world and with such status throw a challenge to Iran for the right to be the center of the Islamic world. U.S. can make some changes in these processes, but it is not able to stop or somehow influence them. The United States’ mistakes have just deteriorated the problems in the Middle East and speeded up some developments, but they were not the root cause.
The next presidential election in the United States is in 2016. How will the domestic policy changes in that country influence its foreign policy?
It depends on which elites will come to power. Every group has its political and ideological guidelines that influence political decisions. Nevertheless, there is a constant, the national interests, that does not depend on one person. Political decision making in the USA is a complex process that involves various groups of elites and little depends on one person.
Many think the leading candidate for U.S. president will be Jeb Bush, the brother of George W. Bush, though he has not announced his intention to run for president. Will the U.S. policy in the South Caucasus and Middle East change if Bush’s team comes to power?
Sure, Jeb is one of the potential candidates for presidency along with Scott Walker. I would not like to assess his possible policy in the region, as it will be shots in the air. Everything will depend on the geopolitical situation in the world, regional configuration of power, domestic political situation in the key countries in the region. The U.S. strategy will change depending on these very factors.
Interviewed by Arshaluys Mghdesyan