Friday, August 15, 2008

Common Sense About Georgia

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, Andrew Bacevich offers an even-handed analysis of the Russian intervention in Georgia that puts the action squarely in the context of the last sixteen years of US-Russia relations. Since the end of the Cold War, Bacevich notes, the US has pushed its advantage against a weakened Russia to drive the NATO alliance straight to Russia's western border. Last week, Russia announced, quite dramatically, that the game had changed.

Today Russia is no longer weak. In the age of Vladimir Putin – still the prime mover as prime minister under President Dmitri Medvedev – it is no longer willing to play the patsy. Through its incursion into Georgia, a US friend that has eagerly sought to become NATO's newest member, the Kremlin sends a signal to the West: This far and no further. Russia will not tolerate any more Western intrusions into what it considers its rightful sphere of influence.

After a long run of losing hands, Russia will likely take this trick. The West, especially Europe, needs Russian oil and gas and is no position to impose sanctions that have any bite. Furthermore, even if NATO were inclined to ride to Georgia's rescue, it lacks the ability to do so. Paradoxically, as the alliance expanded geographically and went out of area, it also shed military capacity. NATO forces already have their hands full, fighting Taliban guerrillas in faraway Afghanistan. The once-formidable alliance is tapped out: there's nothing left to divert to the Caucasus, or anywhere else for that matter.

As the old saying goes: The sky grows dark with chickens coming home to roost. Russia's brutal treatment of Georgia is payback for the West's disdainful treatment of Russia back when it was prostrate. Western weakness in responding to this challenge reflects the folly of allowing NATO to lose sight of its core mission, which is to protect Europe, not pacify Central Asia. Meanwhile, the Bush administration, despite America's vaunted military power, can do little more than protest, remonstrate, and offer Georgia symbolic assistance. Still trying to extricate itself from the quagmire of Iraq, the US already has more than enough military commitments to keep itself busy.

Bacevich's point about NATO should not go unnoticed. NATO is, fundamentally, a much weaker organization than it was during the Cold War. The European nations that comprise NATO have slowly eviscerated the militaries to such a point that few if any of them are capable of even self defense. Even Britain and France have so shrunk their ground and naval forces as to be barely able to project any power at all. Europe has been able to adopt this lax defense posture because of American military guarantees, which have allowed European governments to pass off their defense costs to the US taxpayer. There is no NATO alliance as such, there is only US military guarantees spread across a growing number of defenseless nations. Given that US military forces have also contracted in number, and are currently deployed elsewhere, the truth is that the US would be unable to properly defend most of NATO in the face of a substantial conventional attack. Only the promise of nuclear retaliation gives the "alliance" any credibility.

This is a perilous situation, both for the US, which is entangled by an unwieldy alliance to nations otherwise incapable of assisting the US in any meaningful way, and to Europe, which like a trust-fund child that doesn't have to work for its survival is free to engage in all sorts of unproductive nonsense at home. NATO places the US in grave danger of getting sucked into a way that isn't in its interest, while helping to further weaken European nations through the poison of dependency. This is why Europe has some of the shrillest anti-American voices; dependency breeds resentment.

President Bush has unfortunately responded to the Georgia "crisis" by intervening, rhetorically and otherwise into a situation that holds no interest for the US. More provocatively, he has signed a completely unnecessary anti-missile deal with Poland that puts US missile defense technology directly no Russia's borders, something the Russians view as a profoundly hostile act (as we would if they did the same in, say, Cuba).

Bacevich concludes his article with a dose of common sense sadly missing from the facile pronouncements of President Bush, Condi Rice and John McCain.

Russia is not our friend, but it need not be our enemy. The Kremlin's ambitions are not ideological but imperial. Putin is not a totalitarian; he is a nationalist, intent on ensuring that Russia be treated with respect and, within the area defining its "near abroad," even deference. Yet beyond its immediate neighborhood the danger posed by a resurgent Russia is a limited one, in no way comparable to the threat once posed by the Soviet Union. When it comes to projecting power, today's Russian Army is a shadow of yesterday's Red Army.

The chief lesson of the Georgian crisis is this: The post-cold war holiday from history during which Europe took its security for granted has now ended. NATO's eastward march at Russia's expense has reached its limits. Enlarging the alliance further by incorporating Georgia or even Ukraine as member states will entail costs likely to be prohibitive.

The priority facing the West – and especially the major European powers – is to get serious about repairing its defenses. That means reorienting and rebuilding NATO. An alliance able to defend its frontiers and manifestly intent on doing so will have little to fear from Putin's Russia. The West's response to a Russia that has flexed its muscles in Georgia needs to be unambiguous: This far and no further.

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.