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September 6, 2008

White House Still Cautious on Georgia

by Jim Lobe

As if the outgoing administration of U.S. President George W. Bush didn't already have enough on its plate, the question of whether and how to rearm Georgia in the aftermath of its thrashing last month by Russia is moving steadily up its increasingly crowded foreign policy agenda.

Moscow has already signaled any move to provide the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili with advanced weapons that he has long sought – including powerful handheld antitank rockets and Stinger surface-to-air missiles that contributed heavily to Russia's defeat in Afghanistan nearly 20 years ago – will significantly increase tensions with Washington, which soared to a post-Cold War high in the wake of the Russian intervention.

But, besides pledging to continue its push for Georgia's admission to NATO – something with which Washington's European allies would have to go along – the Bush administration has so far declined to make any promises in regard to military aid.

Indeed, even Vice President Dick Cheney, who had reportedly pushed hard within the administration for sending such advanced equipment to Georgia even before last month's war, refrained from making any promises Thursday during his high-profile visit to Georgia's capital.

"Over time, I'm sure, people will look at what happened with the military here and what the needs are," an official who accompanied Cheney on his four-hour stay in Tbilisi told U.S. reporters on the vice president's plane. "But I think the focus for the moment is on the humanitarian and long-term economic needs."

The issue is nonetheless likely to loom large in the coming months, particularly if foreign policy plays a key role in the ongoing presidential election campaign, which moved into high gear Friday with the end the Republican National Convention.

In his acceptance of the Republican presidential nomination Thursday night, Sen. John McCain called for "solidarity" with Georgia in a speech that was remarkably light on foreign policy issues. From the moment that hostilities between Georgia and Russia began, McCain, who considers Saakashvili a friend and spoke frequently by phone with him during the crisis – he once gave the Georgian leader a bulletproof vest – has consistently called for stronger action against Moscow, including expelling it from the Group of Eight (G-8) nations, than the administration has been willing to take.

While McCain has not explicitly endorsed filling Saakashvili's wish list, some of his key neoconservative advisers, such as Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), have pressed the administration to take such a course. Their appeal has been supported by two of McCain's closest Senate colleagues.

"Specifically, the Georgian military should be given the antiaircraft and antiarmor systems necessary to deter any renewed Russian aggression," wrote independent Democrat Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham, in the Wall Street Journal late last month. "We avoided giving the types of security aid that could have been used to blunt Russia's conventional onslaught. It is time for that to change," according to the two senators.

Their advice was published just as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev formally recognized the two breakaway Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states in defiance of a personal appeal for him not to do so by Bush himself.

While Bush and other top administration officials strongly denounced Medvedev's move – Cheney called it "an illegitimate, unilateral attempt to change (Georgia's) borders by force" Thursday – they have so far moved relatively cautiously, ignoring the appeals for stepped-up military aid to rebuild Georgia's battered forces and upgrade its weaponry. The emphasis instead has been on the delivery of humanitarian and economic assistance.

"The first order of business should not be some sort of punishment," Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Daniel Fried told the Washington Times this week. "Russia has to decide how much it wants to isolate itself from the world. We don't want to have a bad relationship with Russia. We've never wanted that."

So far, U.S. actions have been largely limited to its pledge to push Georgia's and Ukraine's membership in NATO, to effectively shelve the process by which Russia would be admitted to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and to suspend a bilateral strategic dialogue and review a number of other bilateral military cooperation agreements.

In the immediate aftermath of the five-day war, Washington also quickly sealed a long-pending bilateral accord that would permit it to build missile defense systems in Poland. That move drew particularly harsh criticism from Moscow, which has also reiterated its vow to strongly oppose any effort to admit Georgia and Ukraine to NATO, a military alliance which it sees as aimed at encircling and containing Russia.

Aside from those moves, however, the administration has focused on supplying humanitarian and economic assistance to Georgia – albeit via military transport aircraft and warships in the Black Sea. In conjunction with the European Union (EU) it has also helped arrange a 750-million-dollar line of credit to help Tbilisi finance the repair of the substantial infrastructure damages it incurred in the war.

In addition, Washington pledged one billion dollars in economic and reconstruction assistance, of which more than half will be sent over the next five months. That amount would make the Caucasian nation the fourth biggest U.S. aid recipient, after Israel, Iraq, and Egypt.

The administration's relative caution, particularly with respect to military aid, appears motivated by several factors.

Increasing tensions with Moscow further, according to senior officials and independent analysts, could seriously jeopardize other top foreign policy interests, including Washington's hopes for applying additional pressure, particularly through the U.N. Security Council, on Iran to halt its nuclear program. It could prompt Russia to suspend an agreement that permits NATO use Russian and Central Asian bases and air space to supply its troops in Afghanistan.

A more-aggressive stance could also harm relations with key European allies, such as Germany, France, and Italy, which are eager to tamp down tensions, in part due to their own heavy investments in Russia's economy and dependence on gas supplies.

U.S. officials are also reluctant to address the question of additional military aid in light of the Georgian armed forces' poor performance during the war – the army retreated in chaos at the first contact, while all of its warships were destroyed in port – and what some of them describe as the recklessness of Saakashvili himself in ordering the attack on Tskhinvali that triggered Russia's offensive.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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