Georgia On My Mind

For 16 days I had hoped the world would stand still so I could watch the spectacle and history of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, on my widescreen HDTV. Although there is certainly an element of national pride (both for the host country and all the athletes representing their countries), the Olympics is ultimately about athletic competition unfettered by politics (or at least it’s supposed to be). So I didn’t want anything to intrude on watching Michael Phelps win an unprecedented eight gold medals (setting seven world records in the process) and Usain Bolt shatter the 100-meter dash world record seemingly without trying.

Unfortunately, events in Georgia were impossible to ignore. And it’s hard to know exactly where to begin reflecting on those events – so hopefully readers will forgive me if this column has a somewhat random, stream of consciousness aspect.

Inevitably, everyone wants to lay blame for the Russian incursion into Georgia. And since the Russians clearly entered Georgian territory, most of the fingers point at Russia. But in a classic case of “Who shot John?”, exactly who is at fault is less clear. According to former Washington Post Moscow bureau chief Michael Dobbs:

“When it comes to apportioning blame for the latest flare-up in the Caucasus, there’s plenty to go around. The Russians were clearly itching for a fight, but the behavior of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili has been erratic and provocative. The United States may have stoked the conflict by encouraging Saakashvili to believe that he enjoyed American protection, when the West’s ability to impose its will in this part of the world is actually quite limited.”

But whatever precipitated Russia’s rush into Georgia, this much is certain: South Ossetia has been a source of contention between Russia and Georgia for over a decade.

Predictably, Hitler analogies were quick to be made. According to Robert Kagan, “The details of who did what to precipitate Russia’s war against Georgia are not very important. Do you recall the precise details of the Sudeten Crisis that led to Nazi Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia? Of course not, because that morally ambiguous dispute is rightly remembered as a minor part of a much bigger drama.” And former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski claimed that Russia was “following a course that is horrifyingly similar to that taken by Stalin and Hitler in the 1930s.” But the comparisons to Hitler and Nazi Germany are a broken record. Saddam was Hitler in 1991 and again in 2003. In between, Milosevic was Hitler. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been compared to Hitler. And, not surprisingly, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been called a “second Hitler.” But while Russia may not be benign, it’s hard to imagine the circa 1970s T-72 tanks that rolled into Georgia being a threat to continue westward and conquer Europe.

According to presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), “In the 21st century nations don’t invade other nations.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but McCain seems to have forgotten that March 2003 was in the 21st century. McCain has also declared that “we are all Georgians,” warning us of the “the price of allowing aggression against free nations to go unchecked,” and that “we now must stand in united purpose.” But we are talking about Tskhinvali, not Atlanta. The fate of the former is not a threat to the national security of the United States. Certainly, the territorial integrity of Georgia (if one is to believe that Russian military action is about support for separatist movements in Georgia and not military conquest of Georgia) is not worth risking a direct confrontation between two nuclear powers (something we managed to avoid during the 50-plus years of the Cold War).

Moreover, the “we are all Georgians” attitude highlights the dangers of the continued eastward expansion of NATO. Although the Warsaw Pact is no longer a threat to pour through the Fulda Gap and conquer Western Europe, NATO expansion unnecessarily agitates the Russian bear. Yet Georgia was pledged membership to NATO last April – as if it were like joining a college fraternity, not a military alliance with significant implications such as Article 5, which decrees “that an armed attack against one or more of them [NATO members] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” But if there is any truth to the notion that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili engaged in reckless or provocative behavior gambling on protection from the West, that is certainly not a reason to invoke Article 5. (Of course, one could also argue that Russia never would have come to South Ossetia’s rescue if Georgia was a member of NATO. But the larger point is that an ethnic/territorial dispute that has no strategic significance does not warrant a war between NATO and Russia.)

And let’s not overlook the “Kosovo is not a precedent for any other situation” problem that the situation in Georgia presents. The Serbian government considered Kosovo part of Serbia. Kosovo – with a large ethnic Albanian population – sought independence from Serbia. And despite the fact that the current Serbian government is democratically elected, the United States recognizes Kosovo’s independence (declared in February 2008). So substitute South Ossetia for Kosovo and ethnic Russians for Albanians and explain how Georgia is so different. And poking a finger in America’s eye, Russia has recognized the independence of Georgia’s two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. (To be fair, the Russians are also contradicting themselves, because although they are supporting independence for South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, they are unrelenting in denying Chechen independence from Mother Russia.)

Finally, someone please riddle me this. Why is it verboten for Russia to be able to exert influence at its own doorstep, but perfectly reasonable for the United States to exert its influence halfway around the globe? Especially when the former is more likely to have everything to do with Russian security, but the latter more likely to have next to nothing to do with U.S. security?

So to come back to where I started: The Olympics are now over (instead we have the Democratic and Republican conventions to entertain and amuse us), but how and when the crisis in Georgia will be resolved is still unknown. However, this much should be clear: Georgia should be a wake-up call for the United States – not to the potential threat of a resurgent Russia, but to the folly of U.S. foreign policy.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.