Michael Dobbs reviews the current situation in Georgia, explaining how there is plenty of blame to go around. The Georgian president made a terrible mistake, and Putin engineered a disproportionate response.
The Bush administration has been sending mixed messages to its Georgian friends. U.S. officials insist that they did not give the green light to Saakashvili for his attack on South Ossetia. At the same time, however, the United States has championed NATO membership for Georgia, sent military advisers to bolster the Georgian army and demanded the restoration of Georgian territorial integrity. American support might well have emboldened Saakashvili as he was considering how to respond to the “provocations” from South Ossetia.
Now the United States has ended up in a situation in the Caucasus where the Georgian tail was wagging the NATO dog. We were unable to control Saakashvili or to lend him effective assistance when his country was invaded. One lesson is that we need to be very careful in extending NATO membership, or even the promise of membership, to countries that we have neither the will nor the ability to defend.
In the meantime, American leaders have paid little attention to Russian diplomatic concerns, both inside the former borders of the Soviet Union and farther abroad. The Bush administration unilaterally abrogated the 1972 anti-missile defense treaty and ignored Putin when he objected to Kosovo independence on the grounds that it would set a dangerous precedent. It is difficult to explain why Kosovo should have the right to unilaterally declare its independence from Serbia, while the same right should be denied to places such as South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The bottom line is that the United States is overextended militarily, diplomatically and economically. Even hawks such as Vice President Cheney, who have been vociferously denouncing Putin’s actions in Georgia, have no stomach for a military conflict with Moscow. The United States is bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and needs Russian support in the coming trial of strength with Iran over its nuclear ambitions.
Instead of speaking softly and wielding a big stick, as Teddy Roosevelt recommended, the American policeman has been loudly lecturing the rest of the world while waving an increasingly unimpressive baton. The events of the past few days serve as a reminder that our ideological ambitions have greatly exceeded our military reach, particularly in areas such as the Caucasus, which is of only peripheral importance to the United States but of vital interest to Russia.