Just when we thought it was a good time to buy one of those magnificent, Soviet-era dachas in Georgia, this happens.
We’re getting the updates on the most spectacular round of this event, but the fact is this has been brewing since the break up of the Soviet Union. Georgia couldn’t wait to get out from under Russia’s thumb, where it had been for two centuries at least. That they could not understand the desire on the part of the Ossetians and Abkhazzians to get out from under their thumb is proof that willful blindness, when politically inspired, is alive in all parts of the world. Georgia has been conducting low-level warfare in these two regions since 1993 at least. What has prompted this present crisis is Georgia’s president decision—due to a promise he made in his election campaign—to settle the issue once and for all and bloody well take the two provinces in question. In anyone’s lexicon of who to blame, Georgia is here the equivalent of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in its decision to annex Kuwait (or China in its decision to annex Tibet—but for diplomatic reasons we don’t wish to draw such comparisons).
By that calculus, Russia has acted the part of the United States by invading Georgia and beating it about the head and shoulders until leaves Ossetia and Abkhazzia alone.
So why are we condemning Russia?
Because Georgia is the poster-child for America’s post-Soviet ambitions to see democracies spring up and flourish all over the former superpower. Saakhashvilli won a more or less open election with a staggering landslide (something the Republicans claim often but never achieve for themselves) and Georgia has every appearance of becoming a successful democracy.
We’ve made commitments, at least verbally. We told Georgia we’d back them. Doesn’t that sound familiar?
Just what does that mean, though? Back them how? Cheer? Send money? Troops?
We are organizing humanitarian aid. We want to use our military to deliver it. This would put U.S. troops on the ground in Georgia, sort of a glove on the ground in front of Russia, a school yard dare. If Bush plays this right, we may be in a shooting conflict with Russia before he leaves office. McCain’s rhetoric seems to support the idea that we should push Russia out. Diplomatically, of course (if possible).
But the fact remains that Georgia was the bad guy first. We should have told Saakhashvilli to leave those two little breakaway states alone. Democracy being our religion, our missionary zeal should have inspired us to take the side of the underdog. Or in this case the under-underdog.
I am not so naive as to believe that the reasons for saying this and not saying that in a political situation are not complex. But the consequences of policy can often surprise and embarrass us. Damnit, why can’t the allies we back just behave?
Saakhashvilli and Vladimir Putin have also had a running cut fight going on since they got in each others’ faces. There is no love lost between these two. At times it has been juvenile, with references to height or brains. Doubtless Putin welcomed an opportunity to humiliate Saakhashvilli and that, too, is bad public policy. As I say, juvenile.
Doesn’t this all remind us of someone else, though?
The real tragedy is that here we have a president who has squandered whatever moral authority he had by essentially behaving in more or less the same way—naked aggression, overt regime change, nation building, using any excuse to send in troops, etc etc—trying to shake his finger, school-principle-wise, in Russia’s face, scolding them in a classic “Do what I say, not what I do” moment.
Now, for their part, Russia has a problem it will need to get over. What Putin really doesn’t want is for Georgia to become a member of NATO. Bad enough to have all the former Eastern Bloc countries signing up in what Russia can only perceive as a competitor organization—not necessarily the enemy, but surely we can understand their sentiment in feeling that Europe, not to mention the United States, may still feel a bit of concern over Russia’s ambitions and the bases of her fears? So it is reasonable to see Russia’s attack on Georgia as—also—a warning. Russia is saying, “Look, we can overrun this pissant democracy whenever we want, so have a care what kind of deals you make with them.” This is a form of gunboat diplomacy. Russia is probably saying more to us than to Georgia, which they consider a nuissance more than a threat. But they would like to keep it a nuissance. By joining NATO and allying itself with the West in such an overt way, Georgia does become a threat.
So what? If Georgia wants to join NATO and we want them, so be it. But we really ought to be more careful what kind of commitments we make to what kind of leaders and we ought to be willing publicly to chastise such leaders when they become antithetical to the stated goals of American policy.
In point of fact, the state department told Saakhashvilli not to go into Osettia. We knew he was about to do it. We suggested in very strong terms that this would not be a very good idea. He ignored it. We’re downplaying that now. Maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we should let some of these sorts hang out to dry when they go against what we not only believe but in fact told them about.
It all goes back to what kind of promises got made. And man we need to be more careful with those.
I’ve heard mention of Teddy Roosevelt with regards to Bush’s ideas on foreign policy. Bush seems to like the Big Stick approach. But take note—Teddy said “Speak softly” first. He rarely used the Stick. It was a warning as much as a prescription. For all his bombast, Teddy Roosevelt was a cautious diplomatist. He had a grasp, as they say.
This guy doesn’t.
Apparently neither do many of his allies.