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?
First, security commitments are serious things; don't make them unless you have the support, desire, and means to follow through.
Second, Russia is ruled by some nasty people these days, but they are not Hitler or Stalin, and they can't be expected to tolerate direct challenges from their border any more than an American president could from, say, Cuba. (This is not to draw any moral equations, only to point out basic facts.)
Third, the sad truth is that—in part because the Cold War is over, in part because skyrocketing oil prices have engorged the Russians' coffers—we have very little leverage over what the Russians do, at least in what they see as their own security sphere. And our top officials only announce this fact loud and clear when they issue ultimatums that go ignored without consequences.
In the short term, if an independent Georgia is worth saving, the Russians need some assurances—for instance, a pledge that Georgia won't be admitted into NATO or the European Union—in exchange for keeping the country and its elected government intact. (Those who consider this "appeasement" are invited to submit other ideas that don't lead either to Georgia's utter dismantlement or to a major war.)
If a newly expansive Russia is worth worrying about (and maybe it is), then it's time to bring back Washington-Moscow summitry. Relations have soured so intensely in recent years and over such peripheral issues (such as basing a useless missile-defense system in the Czech Republic) that a new president—not just his secretary of state, but the president himself—could do worse than sit down with Medvedev and/or Putin, if just to lay out issues of agreement and disagreement and then go from there. It's staggering that no such talks have taken place so far this century.
In the long term, the best way to take Russia down a notch (along with Iran, Venezuela, and other hostile powers overflowing with oil money) is to pursue policies and fund technologies that slash the demand for oil. The Georgia crisis should make clear, if it isn't already, that this is a matter of hard-headed national security.