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 Post David 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 or believed.
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 Ossetia.
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.