It is impossible to think about the Russian assault on Georgia without feeling like a heartless bastard or a romantic fool. Should we just let Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev roll their tanks into Tbilisi in recognition of Moscow's sphere of influence—and let a fledgling democracy die? Or should we rally sanctions, send arms, and mobilize troops—none of which is likely to have any effect? Is there some third way, involving a level of diplomatic shrewdness that the Bush administration has rarely mustered and, in this case, might not have the legitimacy to pursue?
Regardless of what happens next, it is worth asking what the Bush people were thinking when they egged on Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia's young, Western-educated president, to apply for NATO membership, send 2,000 of his troops to Iraq as a full-fledged U.S. ally, and receive tactical training and weapons from our military. Did they really think Putin would sit by and see another border state (and former province of the Russian empire) slip away to the West? If they thought that Putin might not, what did they plan to do about it, and how firmly did they warn Saakashvili not to get too brash or provoke an outburst?
It's heartbreaking, but even more infuriating, to read so many Georgians quoted in the New York Times—officials, soldiers, and citizens—wondering when the United States is coming to their rescue. It's infuriating because it's clear that Bush did everything to encourage them to believe that he would. When Bush (properly) pushed for Kosovo's independence from Serbia, Putin warned that he would do the same for pro-Russian secessionists elsewhere, by which he could only have meant Georgia's separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Putin had taken drastic steps in earlier disputes over those regions—for instance, embargoing all trade with Georgia—with an implicit threat that he could inflict far greater punishment. Yet Bush continued to entice Saakashvili with weapons, training, and talk of entry into NATO. Of course the Georgians believed that if they got into a firefight with Russia, the Americans would bail them out.
Bush pressed the other NATO powers to place Georgia's application for membership on the fast track. The Europeans rejected the idea, understanding the geo-strategic implications of pushing NATO's boundaries right up to Russia's border. If the Europeans had let Bush have his way, we would now be obligated by treaty to send troops in Georgia's defense. That is to say, we would now be in a shooting war with the Russians. Those who might oppose entering such a war would be accused of "weakening our credibility" and "destroying the unity of the Western alliance."
This is where the heartless bastard part of the argument comes in: Is Georgia's continued control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia really worth war with Russia? Is its continued independence from Moscow's domination, if it comes to that, worth our going to war?
At this point, the neocons would enter the debate—in fact some, like Robert Kagan, already have—by invoking the West's appeasement of Hitler's annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938. ("A quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing," is how Neville Chamberlain famously, and catastrophically, brushed away the aggression.)
A few counterquestions for those who rise to compare every nasty leader to Hitler and every act of aggression to the onset of World War III: Do you really believe that Russia's move against Georgia is not an assertion of control over "the near abroad" (as the Russians call their border regions), but rather the first step of a campaign to restore the Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe and, from there, bring back the Cold War's Continental standoff? If so—if this really is the start of a new war of civilizations—why aren't you devoting every waking hour to pressing for the revival of military conscription, for a war surtax to triple the military budget, and—here's a twist—for getting out of Iraq in order to send a few divisions right away to fight in the larger battle? If not, what exactly are you proposing?
The same question can be asked of the Bush administration. Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly called Saakashvili on Sunday to assure him that "Russian aggression must not go unanswered." We should all be interested to know what answer he is preparing or whether he was just dangling the Georgians on another few inches of string. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, told the Security Council, "This is completely unacceptable and crosses a line." Talk like that demands action. What's the plan, and how does he hope to get the Security Council—on which Russia has veto power—to approve it?
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