Some robust rhetoric has been used to condemn Russia’s brutally effective invasion of Georgia. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice compared the act to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Senator John McCain said that the war was an attempt to “establish the Russian Empire,” while influential columnist Charles Krauthammer suggested that President Bush send Vladimir Putin a DVD of Charlie Wilson’s War. Max Boot, author of the excellent book War Made New, counseled that we immediately send the Georgians Stinger and Javelin missiles. Strong stuff.
In the earnest desire to help a beleaguered ally and perhaps longing for the good old days of Reagan Doctrine moral clarity, conservatives may be losing sight of something important — namely America’s strategic interests. Moreover, their silence in regard to grave failures by our national security establishment in this crisis is bewildering. The results of the Russo-Georgian war are a debacle. Either our State Department, CIA, and the Pentagon failed to accurately assess a likely Russian reaction to an attempt by Georgia to retake South Ossetia by force — an act that provided Moscow with a pretext to attack Georgia — or the war caught us completely by surprise. The former possibility is worrisome; the latter is inexcusable.
President Bush should be commended for his very firm but restrained moves to try and end this crisis and in the process salvage Georgia’s sovereignty and Mikheil Saakhashvili’s position as president of Georgia, both of which were close to being lost, mainly through Saakashvili’s own incompetence. Unfortunately, the president does not have much leverage to work with, having been maneuvered into a dispute with Russia at a time and place of Putin’s choosing rather than ours — a game where Putin and Medvedev hold all the good cards and can deal from the bottom of the deck.
Understandably, conservatives are feeling frustrated but the underlying reason for our poor position today is not Putin’s malevolent brilliance or even Saakashvili’s deficits as a statesman — which are considerable — but America’s longstanding lack of a strategic policy toward Russia. We have been without sure direction in our relations toward Russia since the critical years of 1991-1993 when we failed to heed the advice of former president Richard Nixon to seize the moment and irrevocably make post-Soviet Russia part of the West.
In our relations with Russia, America has alternated support with neglect. We verbally encouraged Russian democrats but winked at massive corruption and creeping authoritarianism when it suited us to do so. We have even ignored our own interests where Russia has been cooperative, in too slowly decommissioning and safeguarding the aging Soviet nuclear stockpile to prevent “loose nukes” from someday falling into the hands of Islamist terrorists. From administration to administration, we zigzag with the needs of the moment in our dealings with Russia without a clear vision of what America’s vital interests in the former Soviet states actually are.
Georgia is a textbook case. While America has a legitimate concern in encouraging former Soviet states to develop into market democracies, there is no intrinsic economic or strategic American vital interest in Georgia per se and even less in South Ossetia. Georgia is our ally for only two reasons: Tblisi was enthusiastic to send troops to help in Iraq in return for military aid and it occupies a strategic location for oil and gas pipelines that will meet future European energy needs. In other words, Georgia’s role is of a primary strategic interest to the EU, not the United States. Which is why European and British companies have such a large shareholder stake in the BTC pipeline and why European FDI in Georgia exceeds ours. Yet it will be American troops in Georgia handing out bottled water and MREs, not the Bundeswehr or the French Foreign Legion. Something does not compute here.
Let us have no illusions. Putin and Medvedev are running an autocratic, nationalist, and sometimes cruel Russia that would like to become an arbiter of global energy markets, particularly in natural gas, and seeks to reassert Russian hegemony over weak neighbors. Russia, however, is not the totalitarian Soviet Union, either internally or as a military threat. We are not seeing the mighty Red Army that once threatened to storm the Fulda Gap; that the competent movement of a few armored brigades into tiny Georgia is cause for Western amazement shows how far Russia has fallen as a great power, not how high it is rising.
Calls for a new Cold War with Russia because we have been embarrassed by the inept performance of a client state are wrongheaded, at times venal but certainly detrimental to American national security. We have potential national interests and a few vital ones that span all the states of the former Soviet Union, including Russia. Not to mention a real shooting war with al-Qaeda and other forces of Islamist terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We need, at the highest levels of government, to sit down and take the long view of what America’s strategic policy toward Russia should be, in a process free of the input of registered foreign agents and special interest K Street lobbyists.
On some issues the United States will need to lead in opposing Russia and on others we will seek her cooperation. But to declare Russia our enemy, out of misplaced Cold War nostalgia or on behalf of allies who will continue to do business as usual with Moscow while we bear all of the costs, is to play the fool.