It's still not certain what motivated the Georgian
government to launch its attack on South Ossetia in the face of ongoing Russian
hostility and recent military maneuvers which all-but guaranteed a swift and
devastating response. Georgia's Deputy Defense Minister Batu Kutelia said simply:
"We did not prepare for this kind of eventuality."
His government was extraordinarily foolish, if not demented. Acknowledging
that the Georgian military lacked sufficient anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons
to protect its ground forces, Kutelia said he "didn't think it likely that
a member of the UN Security Council and the [Organization for Security and Co-operation
in Europe] would react like this." Moreover, the government in Tbilisi
seemed to believe that being an informal American ally, with its military financed
and trained by Washington – even if Georgia was not formally part of NATO – would
deter any Russian attack. And that the U.S., with precisely zero interest in
promoting Georgia's territorial ambitions and even less in fighting Russia,
nevertheless would backstop Tbilisi's assault on the separatist enclave.
After giving Moscow the perfect excuse to intervene and suffering the horrid
consequences of doing so, Georgians automatically turned to America. Save us,
cried everyone from President Mikheil Saakashvili to combat soldiers to fleeing
refugees. Where is America, they screamed?
Shouting the loudest was Saakashvili, the author of Georgia's present distress.
Nationalist, mercurial, authoritarian, he desperately wanted his nation to join
NATO and he regularly criticized the Europeans for not doing more to aid his
distant country, nestled between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea amidst the Caucasus
Mountains. Having invested in Washington's war against Iraq (providing 2000
soldiers for the occupation) and in American politicians (paying the lobbying
firm of John McCain's foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, nearly $1 million),
Saakashvili expected a return on his country's investment.
Did he assume the pay-off would be automatic, or did he consult with his American
friends? If we take the administration at its word that it discouraged Georgian
adventurism, any encouragement would have had to come from others. On the Huffington
Bromwich observes: "if there was a single Western luminary [Saakashvili]
would have wanted to consult, it was surely his old lobbyist and personal adviser
Randy Scheunemann. The calculation by Scheunemann must have been that even if
things went badly at first, for Georgia, the result of Russian suppression would
be good for John McCain. Besides, McCain, as president, could eventually rescue
Saakashvili by another path."
Scheunemann isn't talking, but Saakashvili's expectations obviously were high.
In March he declared: "I have to thank you, Mr. President, for your unwavered
[sic] support for our freedom, for our democracy, for our territorial sovereignty
and for protecting Georgia's borders and for Georgia's NATO aspirations."
Although Saakashvili didn't say in what form he expected that protection, it
would be surprising if he did not hope for more than anguished facial expressions
and dramatic hand-wringing.
When the American legions didn't appear to battle the Russians, he launched
a charm offensive through interviews with the Western press, seeking U.S. intervention.
He affirmed that he holds "American values" and pleaded: "Please
wake up everybody. And please make your position and speak with one united voice."
He told CNN: "It's not about Georgia anymore. It's about America, its values.
We are a freedom-loving nation that is right now under attack." He told
a German newspaper that President Bush "understands that it's not really
about Georgia but in a certain sense it's also an aggression against America."
Saakashvili tried the same tactic with the Europeans, warning that "Unless
Russia is stopped … tomorrow Russian tanks might enter any European capital."
He quoted Sen. John McCain's "we are all Georgians" line to applauding
crowds in Tbilisi.
For a time the administration refused to rule out use of military force against
Russia's forces. Deputy National Security Adviser James F. Jeffrey said "Right
now our focus is on working with both sides, with the Europeans and with a whole
variety of international institutions and organizations, to get the fighting
to stop." But that option probably was never seriously considered. A top
State Department official told the New York Times: "There is no
possibility of drawing NATO or the international community into this."
Forget the fraternal expressions of friendship. It was realpolitik time.
But Saakashvili still didn't get the message. Once the fighting stopped and
Washington announced plans to send humanitarian aid, he said the step was "very
strong," even though "long overdue." "This is a turning
point," he declared to Western reporters. He exulted that "we will
see U.S. military ships entering Georgian ports despite Russian blocking [sic]
it." They "will be serious military ships," he added. He told
Georgians in a TV address that the U.S. military would be taking control of
his country's airports and ports, protecting them from the Russians. Secretary
of State Condoleezza Rice was forced to explain that "It's not the intention
of the U.S. to take control of facilities." Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff
Morrell added: "We are not looking to, nor do we need to, take control
of any air or sea ports to conduct this mission."
Saakashvili's attempt to ensnare America did not stop at the war's end. With
Russian troops continuing to occupy Georgian territory outside of Abkhazia and
South Ossetia, Saakashvili pointed to Washington and the European Union, proclaiming:
"They must make Russia leave Georgian territory." He went on to say:
"We must ensure that the Russians do not get away with it just like that,"
meaning, of course, that the U.S. must punish Moscow, since Tbilisi had no power
to do so.
And, of course, he insisted that it is America's job to rearm Georgia. Saakashvili,
never at a loss for words, explained: "We need to rebuild the military.
We will work very closely with the U.S. to get all of this [equipment]."
With the war over, he is even more anxious to get into NATO. He says that Moscow
would never have dared attack if only Tbilisi was on the alliance roster.
Many Georgians appeared to share their president's extravagant expectations
of Washington. Parliamentarian Gia Tortladze acknowledged that "The Americans
never promised to send troops to Georgia," but he admitted, "I hope
the Americans will do more." Foreign policy analyst Archil Gegeshidze complained:
"The West's reaction was slow and inadequate," though he thought allied
protests might have caused the Russians to halt their advance.
The New York Times quoted one soldier: "We killed as many of them
as we could. But where are our friends?" Complained another one, "If
Americans could do something, why didn't they help us?" He told the reporter:
"Don't ask us questions. Go ask your president." Another soldier complained
that "America and the European Union are spitting on us."
A refugee told McClatchy Newspapers: "The only way out is the help of
America." Another one affirmed: "The only things we can rely on are
God and the Americans." Similarly, a man who fled with his family to Tbilisi
opined that "America is the only light left for Georgia." But frustration
with Washington appeared to be widespread. One refugee asked a reporter for
the Los Angeles Times: "Will the Americans help us out?" Another
one argued "If you had said something stronger, we would not be in this.
He admitted being angry with the U.S.: "If you want to help, you have to
help the end." A farmer asked: "Why won't America and NATO help us?
If they won't help us, why did we help them in Iraq?" Some refugees, however,
believed that the U.S. had at least saved Tbilisi from Russian occupation: "Bush
and McCain have been very good for us," said one.
The incessant Georgian demands for assistance were made particularly striking
by the fact that Tbilisi paid not the slightest attention to Washington's advice
to avoid a conflict in the Caucasus. The State Department's Matt Bryza, a professed
friend of Georgia who was sent to Tbilisi after Saakashvili triggered the war,
explained: "Our message was consistent to our Georgian colleagues … ‘Avoid
a direct military confrontation with Russia at all costs. You cannot prevail.
It simply is not possible.'" But that message apparently wasn't received
It may be that, as suggested by Minister Kutelia, the government simply didn't
believe Russia would react, especially given Georgia's close relationship to
the U.S. Or Saakashvili might have figured America would bail his government
out of any difficulties that resulted from his aggressive military move. Never
mind what the U.S. said. Presented with a Georgian fait accompli, and the potential
for a humiliating geopolitical defeat if Moscow triumphed, the Bush administration
would have no choice but to embrace Tbilisi's attempt at territorial aggrandizement.
Indeed, there was ample reason for Saakashvili to expect support. U.S. behavior
provided an almost perfect example of a mixed message. The Bush administration
counseled caution, yes, but also meddled in Georgian affairs to promote Saakashvili's
rise to power through the Rose Revolution, helped arm and train his military,
provided abundant economic and military aid, championed his nation's candidacy
for NATO, lavished praise on him for being a wonderful democrat and friend of
America, and sent President Bush to Tbilisi. Says Charles Kupchan of the Council
on Foreign Relations, "Through private channels [the U.S.] was saying:
‘You have to behave' but publicly it was portraying him as a knight in shining
armor, a beacon of freedom." The result, notes Jon Sawyer of the Pulitzer
Center for Crisis Reporting, was "that Mikheil Saakashvili approached this
thinking that he could be an extension of the West, a partner of the United
States." In July Secretary Rice visited Tbilisi and declared, with Saakashvili
next to her: "Mr. President, we always fight for our friends." During
the war Vice President Richard Cheney told Saakashvili that "Russian aggression
must not go unanswered."
None of these actions or statements formally committed the U.S. to go to war,
but they could easily have been interpreted that way by an authoritarian populist
used to getting his own way and a man desperate to fulfill his campaign promise
to reconquer lost territory. Certainly he wanted to believe Washington's expansive
professions of comradeship. Observes Kupchan, U.S. policy made Saakashvili "overreach,
it made him feel at the end of the day that the West would come to his assistance
if he got into trouble." Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage
observed that Saakashvili "for some reason seems to think he has a hall
pass from this administration."
Moreover, even some Americans believed Washington owed Georgia a defense. Bill
Kristol, who advocates U.S. military action almost everywhere against almost
everyone, wrote: "But Georgia, a nation of about 4.6 million, has had the
third-largest military presence – about 2,000 troops – fighting along with U.S.
soldiers and marines in Iraq. For this reason alone, we owe Georgia a serious
effort to defend its sovereignty."
It's a truly extraordinary argument. First, President Saakashvili joined the
U.S. in Iraq not to fight the scourge of Islamo-fascism, spread democracy, or
do whatever else Kristol believes America to have achieved by invading Iraq,
but to win American support for his own plans, including forcibly regaining
control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. At least Georgia put in a real troop
contingent, in contrast to, say, Estonia, which nevertheless preened for the
cameras and seemed to believe that it deserved similar solicitude from Washington.
Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet claimed that his country's 40-man
contingent in Iraq was part of Estonia's "important partnership" with America.
The Estonians naturally scurried to Washington for support in the midst of a
dispute with Moscow over moving a World War II monument last year.
Second, even had Georgia sent far more soldiers to Iraq there would have been
no warrant for a commitment to confront a nuclear armed power over the dubious
territorial ambitions of its smaller neighbor. It's a bit like Moscow promising
to defend Mexico in a dispute with the U.S. over the efforts of American-born
secessionists in Baja California. The policy would be insane, whether or not
Mexico had contributed troops to a Russian peacekeeping mission in, oh, South
Yet for the Georgians hope consistently triumphed experience. "Bush knows
what to do," declared one refugee. But President Bush didn't know what
to do. He offered valiant rhetoric: "The people of Georgia have cast their
lot with the free world, and we will not cast them aside." But all they
got was more rhetoric.
Sadly, Georgians failed to learn from history. James J. Townsend, Jr. of the
Atlantic Council argues that what happened to Georgia is essentially "what
happened to Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968." Americans and
Europeans enthusiastically welcomed upheaval in the Soviet bloc, but none of
them seriously contemplated igniting a likely world war against a nuclear-armed
superpower, no matter how strong their sympathies with genuine freedom fighters.
Who to blame for such misunderstandings, even today? Both sides are at fault.
Washington policymakers tend to overplay their hand, providing lavish public
expressions of support without intending to do anything serious in return. The
Bush administration is no different. Leslie H. Gelb, former president of the
Council on Foreign Relations, complains that Washington should not "jeopardize
these nascent democracies by letting them think that they can put themselves
in this kind of situation and survive. You are not just putting democracy on
the line in Georgia, you are putting all of these places in that neighborhood
on the line." Alas, it is likely to get worse if Sen. John McCain wins
the presidency. He still believes in the neoconservative fantasy of U.S. omnipotence,
able to direct world events with the flick of a finger. But he, too, would soon
find out very painfully that it doesn't work that way.
Moreover, smaller countries tend to look at an American expression of fraternity
and friendship and imagine military intervention and security guarantees. Notes
Townsend, "I have seen it over and over again be misconstrued by nations
not used to dealing with us. I think they misunderstand our eagerness and enthusiasm
and think we are going to be behind them for anything." Certainly the Georgian
president believed in the Bush administration's pretensions, and his people
are paying a high price as a result.
Ironically, the one person who truly understands Mikheil Saakashvili appears
to be Vladimir Putin. Nasty autocrat he might be, but he recognized that "Georgia's
aspiration to join NATO … is driven by its attempt to drag other nations and
peoples into its bloody adventures." Saakashvili is many things, but friend
of the U.S. he is not. His overriding objective is to make Washington the military
guarantor of his nation and its territorial ambitions, even if that requires
the U.S. to risk war with nuclear-armed Russia in the latter's backyard. With
friends like that, America really doesn't need any enemies.
The Georgian fiasco provides the U.S. government with an opportunity to reverse
its tendency to mislead friendly nations into taking outrageous geopolitical
risks in the expectation of receiving American military support. The first step
is to say no to Georgia – no U.S. forces stationed in Georgia, no rebuilding of
Georgia's military, no membership in NATO. And no, Globocop America won't be
coming if Tbilisi makes another grab for Abkhazia or South Ossetia and gets
in another war with Russia.
More broadly, Washington needs to put defense back into its defense policy.
The U.S. should announce that it will be conducting no more crusades for democracy
and no more preventive wars against theoretical threats. It will no longer spend
American resources and risk American lives to protect populous and prosperous
states or rebuild failed societies. And it certainly won't use military force
to sort out messy ethnic squabbles in distant lands which are of much greater
concern to other powers, including ones with nuclear weapons.