Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Georgian Trap

One cannot turn on the TV but to catch a glimpse of John McCain bleating in almost child-like rage over Russia's military intervention in Georgia, which, like everything else, has caught the US intelligence services and the Pentagon off guard. One wonders exactly what the Pentagon and the sundry American intelligence services use all those billion-dollar spy satellites to watch.

One adamantly hopes that McCain is merely using the Georgian "crisis" (read: tempest in a Slavic teapot) as a talking point to get himself into the press and doesn't actually mean what he says. Mouthing off bellicosely will probably boost his poll numbers since a) harsh talk makes him look as if he knows what he is talking about and, b) most Americans don't know what's going on over there anyway, but are reassured by a strident tone. Barack Obama will have to butch up his statements on the issue (which being only press statement sat this point look lame anyway - his vacation turns out to have been poorly timed) or risk looking like a true foreign policy neophyte. In this respect, Putin has given McCain quite a gift. But if McCain actually believes his increasingly confrontational rhetoric, then he is demonstrating a dangerously skewed understanding of American geopolitical interests and is unfit for office.

Let us be clear, the events in Georgia are of no particular interest to the US. Georgia is a tiny country on Russia's border. It has no strategic value to the US whatsoever. Russia has spent a thousand years playing bully to its nearest neighbors, and is now simply returning to form after a brief respite. No amount diplomatic tantrums by Western capitals is going to change Moscow's belief that it has the right to slap around little nations on its borders. This incident - Russia snapping back at Western pressure on its borders - has been building for more than a decade. Both Bill Clinton George W. Bush and have encouraged a foolish expansion of NATO (itself, a dangerously hollow alliance) right up to Russia's western border (a move that ever-paranoid Moscow surely views as provocation) and then compounded that by bombing Serbia (Russia's ally) in order to hand Kosovo over to the Albanian Muslims - who now use it as a base to run drugs and weapons throughout Europe and the Caucuses. The Kosovo incident was particularly infuriating to Russia, and helped cause a huge rise in anti-Western opinion among the Russian public, which aided Putin's political ascent in Moscow. Neither Georgia nor Ukraine should be considered for NATO membership - both because NATO is already hopelessly over-stretched, and because of the signal their memberships send to the Russians: Western military encirclement. Consider how the US would react if Russia tried to form a military alliance with Mexico. The Russians have been signaling their displeasure for years, but no one in Washington gave a damn.

As usual, the predictable chorus at National Review, Commentary and the Weekly Standard are chiming in to the declare this 1938 all over again. But when isn't it 1938 with these people?

The neocon thrust is that because Georgia is a democracy, and Russia is an authoritarian state, we MUST defend Georgia, even to the point of risking a major war with Russia. This is sheer lunacy. But it is the logical outcome of the neocons' uber egalitarian, global democracy crusade, in which the US exists only as a means of bringing forth a worldwide democratic utopia. In neocon eyes, that is the only foreign policy goal, and the only real interest the US has. Everything, including US sovereignty, wealth and blood, is to be sacrificed toward that unobtainable dream.

Unfortunately, Bush, ever eager to please the neocon chorus, and frightened that he might not appear as Churchill-like as he likes to fancy himself, has now outdone McCain and committed US military forces to provide "humanitarian aid." The danger here is that US-backed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili may again overestimate the strength of his perilous position and exacerbate the conflict with US personnel in the theater. That could make a bad situation a lot worse, for everyone.

American should not risk any blood or treasure to save the birthplace of Joseph Stalin.

If they really wanted to restrain Russian ambitions, the administration could work seriously to shore up the dollar, which would lower the price of oil. That would quickly cool Moscow's taste for adventure, since Russia is paying for its minor military buildup with a lot of surplus cash amassed over the past three years almost entirely because of oil revenue (just as the Soviets did in the 1970's). Unfortunately, fiscal responsibility isn't as sexy as chest thumping.

Russia remains an incredibly weak country, even with pockets temporarily overflowing with oil dollars. Putin's bluster aside, this is no second coming of the Cold War (contrary to what some pundits are asserting). After four decades of Cold War machinations, there is an almost reflexive tendency to view any Russia military action as inherently evil and threatening, and to sympathize with whoever is on the receiving end. But the Caucuses are a seething caldron of ancient and recent ethnic and religious hatreds, territorial disputes and endless blood feuds. Untangling the facts on the ground is a tedious and complicated business, and none of the players wears a snow-white hat. America has no strategic interest at risk in the Georgia, save for potentially ruining relations with Moscow, which would harm US global interests (by further pushing Russia toward China). Plainly put, Russian cooperation with the US in many areas abroad is more valuable to the US than whether the president of Georgia can thumb his nose at Moscow with impunity. Unfortunately, this is lost on President Bush, who has demonstrated a total lack of understanding of America's actual national interests and who prefers utopian visions to reality.


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