During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in
2003 the soldier selected to lead the campaign, Gen. Tommy Franks, called Pentagon
number-three man Doug Feith "the stupidest f*cking guy on the face of the planet."
What Feith did to be dubbed the world's greatest fool is unknown, but it is
certain that Georgia's President Mikheil "Misha" Saakashvili's attack on Russian
peacekeepers in South Ossetia has earned him the global dunce's cap that heretofore
rested on Doug Feith's brow.
Saakashvili acted with such remarkable stupidity and miscalculation that a
38-inch yardstick is needed to measure his foolishness against other famously
bad decisions, like Nasser's 1967 closure of the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping.
Did Saakashvili really think the Russians would stand idly by and let him pound
their forces in South Ossetia? That the U.S., Israel, or the North Atlantic
Treaty Organization would come to his aid? Or that Georgia's army could hold
off the Russians?
Some members of the press got the war wrong, too. For example, Allan Mallinson,
a retired British army officer and "defense historian" for the UK's Telegraph
newspaper opined under the headline "Georgia: U.S. Training Gives Georgia Military
"The Georgians … in the shorter term have several advantages. They
are not badly equipped. The former Soviet T72 … is a reasonable match for the
Russians' T90. The army has been American-trained, and increasingly American-equipped,
for the past 10 years, and strongly focused on NATO admission: there will be
some capable commanders and staff officers…"
Meanwhile, Alex Chang, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute
in Philadelphia, yet another neocon think-tank, was somewhat closer to the
truth when he noted that by Aug. 9, two days after Georgia's army invaded South
Ossetia, "the Georgian political leadership decided not to resist and began
a military withdrawal." Decided not to resist? Began a military withdrawal?
Chang is trying to put several layers of lip gloss on a pig that's already
been though the sausage machine. By Aug. 9 Georgia's soldiers had abandoned
their vehicles, thrown away their arms, stripped off their uniforms, and legged
it. The road to the capital was wide open, except for abandoned tanks and fleeing
civilians. Had the Russians wanted to take Tbilisi they could have easily done
so. No wonder President Saakashvili was taped eating
Misha Saakashvili was born into a well-educated Georgian family and won several
international scholarships, eventually collecting a law degree from Columbia
University. While in New York Saakashvili must have observed American politicians
working assiduously to develop strong ties with the state of Israel and its
friends in the U.S. When Saakashvili came to power he did all he could to build
strong links with Israel and its American supporters.
On an official visit to Israel, Saakashvili proclaimed that the Georgians
were "the Jews of our time" and compared Russian President Putin's anti-Georgian
policies to the anti-Semitic decrees of the 18th-century Russian Empress Catherine
the Great. He also asserted that his model when refounding the Georgian state
was Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. And Saakashvili did not
hesitate to take his case directly to Conference of Presidents of Major American
Jewish Organizations in New York: "We need to establish relations with the
U.S. Jewish community because you understand better than many in this country
the international repercussions with the rest of the world.… I want your help
in having better relations with the United States…."
Relations between the U.S. and Georgia did grow, undoubtedly helped along
by Saakashvili's acute understanding of how to exploit the importance of Israel
in the American political calculus. By some estimates the United States has
been paying 40 percent of Georgia's defense budget for several years. Saakashvili's
Georgia became part of the Bush administration's program to enlarge NATO, spread
democracy, and surround Russia with American military bases. George Bush even
traveled to Tbilisi and promised "the American people will stand with you …
the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia must be respected by all
nations." Saakashvili's threats to use force against the Russians in South
Ossetia to alter the status quo were not taken seriously, probably because
they seemed absurd.
Israel's dealings with Georgia have been both politically much more circumspect
and a lot more profitable. Over the last few years Israel sold the Georgians
somewhere between $300 and $500 million in military equipment and combat training.
Georgia purchased ammunition, tactical and antiaircraft missiles, communications
equipment, and remotely piloted aircraft, and upgraded tank turrets and reactive
armor. Israeli Gen. Gal Hirsch, who led Israel's disastrous ground campaign
in Lebanon during the summer of 2006, owned one of the companies providing
military training. One of Hirsch's employees summed up what he saw in Georgia
"The training companies wanted to finish the projects as quickly as
possible in order to create more projects and make more money. We knew the
training had to be completed quickly because the soldiers would soon have to
get into real military activity. … By Israeli standards, the soldiers had almost
zero capability and the officers were mediocre."
Several months before Saakashvili's invasion of South Ossetia the Israelis
began to restrict the types of military gear sold to the Georgians to defensive
systems only. A number of factors contributed to this decision. The Israelis
began to think that Saakashvili might actually be foolish enough to act upon
his campaign promise to reintegrate South Ossetia into Georgia by force.
Clearly the Israelis were reluctant to upset the Russians. They need President
Putin's support at the UN to get stronger anti-nuclear sanctions on Iran, and,
on the whole, relations between Israel and Russia under Putin have been quite
good, undoubtedly reflecting the ethnic and cultural links the two countries
Why had the United States no inkling that Saakashvili was about to attack
the Russians in South Ossetia? Don't Americans ever talk to Israelis? In Georgia?
In Tel Aviv? Furthermore, the U.S. has a large embassy and a major military
mission in Tbilisi. Even if the American intelligence apparatus missed the
unmistakable signs of an army preparing for battle, couldn't somebody have
looked out the window and seen the Georgian army leaving its cantonments and
heading up the road toward South Ossetia? What were the State Department, the
Defense Department and the CIA doing? How many post 9/11 "intelligence failures"
does it take before Americans begin to insist upon at least minimal performance
standards from its representatives posted abroad?
After the U.S.' good friend Mikheil Saakashvili was soundly thrashed by the
Russians in a war that he himself had started, America responded in eminently
predictable and highly embarrassing ways. Sen. John McCain claimed that in
the 21st century one state does not invade another, conveniently overlooking
the little matter of Iraq. Condi Rice decried Russia's overreaction and brutality
in Georgia, perhaps forgetting that she had worked at the UN to buy Israel
time back in 2006 to bomb Lebanon from end to end for 35 days. The media tagged
Russia the aggressor, and neocon pundits and talking heads seemed keen to start
either Cold War II or World War III. And McCain asserted, "We are all Georgians
now." With all due respect, Senator, you may choose to identify yourself with
Mikheil Saakashvili, but I'm not that stupid.
Correction: This article originally referred to Georgia's interior minister as an Israeli national. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has called
Defense Minister David Kezerashvili and
State Minister for Territorial Integration Temur Yakobashvili Israelis, though Ha'aretz notes that Yakobashvili is not an Israeli citizen. We regret the error.