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 Advantage”:
“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 his tie.
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 this way:
“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 share.
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.