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
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
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
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
(Inter Press Service)