“This is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia where Russia can threaten a neighbor, occupy a capital, overthrow a government, and get away with it.”
– Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Aug. 14, 2008
Condi Rice seems to think the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Georgia are quite comparable, except that this time the invaders are “not going to get away with it.” But much has happened in the world since 1968, and Rice, the quintessential intellectual lightweight, has failed to recognize another important way in which the invasions differ: The Soviet Union, not Russia, invaded Czechoslovakia. Back in 1968 the USSR was an ideologically driven empire convinced that its system of government and social organization, communism, was fated to defeat capitalism and rule the planet. The Russia that emerged from the breakup of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism is a nation geographically, militarily, and economically much smaller and weaker than the USSR.
While Russia has adopted the more traditional and pragmatic international strategy of trying to ensure neighboring states are either weak or friendly and has given up trying to convert the world to communism, the United States has now become a slave to ideology. The U.S. seeks to spread and sustain democracy around the globe, by force if necessary, and has military bases in many nations to facilitate this goal. Ironically enough, while using violence to effect radical social and political change may be new to U.S. foreign policy, it was an idea warmly embraced by Leon Trotsky, one of the creators of the Soviet state, back in 1917.
It would not be far wrong to date the birth of the U.S.’ new democracy policy to 2003. By late 2003 the Bush administration’s rationale for the invasion of Iraq, that Saddam Hussein had extensive biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons programs and an active relationship with al-Qaeda, had proven to be entirely bogus. But with Baghdad captured and the Iraqi government overthrown the very actions Rice now tells us Russia ought not “to get away with” in Georgia the Bush administration could hardly announce, “Oh, sorry, it was a mistake to invade Iraq.” So the aggressive promotion of democracy became the new keystone of American foreign policy, vigorously advocated by the same pundits and talking heads who helped convince the U.S. that attacking Iraq would be a “cakewalk.”
How well has the new policy served the United States? It certainly has provided retroactive justification for the invasion of Iraq, but actually turning Iraqis into good little Democrats and Republicans has taken longer and has been rather more expensive than anticipated. Using the democracy stick to bash countries like Syria and Iran has suited the administration well, although it might be said that Iran has a proto-democratic system, unlike traditional U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which have been somewhat discomforted by the administration’s emphasis on the value of democracy. Elsewhere in the Middle East, the U.S. has rejected the outcome of elections when the results ran counter to other important policy considerations, such as unswerving devotion to Israeli goals in the West Bank and Lebanon.
In the Balkans, the U.S. readily accepted the results of a plebiscite in the Serbian province of Kosovo in which the population voted nine to one for independence. With American support, Kosovo became a sovereign state in February 2008. At the same time, the U.S. seemed to say that some separatist movements are more equal than others. American support for the will of the people as registered on ballots did not extend to the breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions, which had largely been beyond the control of the Georgian government since the fall of the Soviet Union. Both regions had voted overwhelmingly for separation from Georgia and had welcomed Russia troops as protectors from the Georgian military.
Thus when Kosovo achieved statehood, the U.S. embassy in Tbilisi felt compelled to issue a press release to mollify its Georgian friends: “The United States has long held that each separatist conflict anywhere in the world is unique. Indeed, the situation in Kosovo is a special case and does not serve as a precedent for other regions, including the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions of Georgia.” One might conclude that supporting the will of the people made sense to the Bush administration in the Balkans, but not in the Caucasus. A cynic might suggest that the U.S. government supported statehood for Kosovo because Serbia is an ally of Russia and opposed it for South Ossetia because the president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, cast himself as America’s friend and Russia’s enemy.
Those who would automatically embrace any elected leader ought to beware. An election does not guarantee that a country’s leadership will act wisely or honestly. After learning this hard lesson from the Bush administration’s disastrous choice to invade Iraq and other policy failures at home and abroad, it is remarkable that no American politician of national standing has been willing to take a hard look at the situation in Georgia and publicly acknowledge that Saakashvili’s decision to attack Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia is an error so egregious as to be almost without precedent in political and military history. Custer’s decision to attack 5,000 Sioux warriors at Little Big Horn leaps to mind, but Custer was only risking his life and his command, not a whole country.
What convinced Saakashvili that attacking South Ossetia made sense? That the United States had just completed joint maneuvers with the Georgian army and was paying 40 percent of Georgia’s military budget? That Georgia had strong links to Israel, which had contractors in the country training Georgia’s ground forces and upgrading its air force? That George Bush had come to Tbilisi in May of 2005 and said, “And as you build a free and democratic Georgia, the American people will stand with you the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia must be respected by all nations”? That Georgia had Sen. John McCain’s principal foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann on its payroll?
Before any American president goes abroad and promises grandly that “the American people will stand with you,” he ought to consider what military and political consequences might proceed from his pledge. He ought to ask himself whether he is implicitly committing the United States to come to the aid of a nutjob like Saakashvili, whose attack on Russian forces will undoubtedly establish itself as the new gold standard of recklessness.