Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

New Errors in Georgia

While the wire services bounce back and forth between declaring that Russian forces are attempting to hold Gori or leaving Gori, President Bush has made a statement that promises to embed the United States more deeply in the conflict, and French President Sarkozy has brokered a cease-fire deal that gives the Russians much of what they want and will be hard to square with, for example, Senator McCain’s position.

First, the Sarko peace deal.  As described here, it offered six provisions:

  1. the sides in the conflict should abstain from using force;
  2. all military activities would be terminated;
  3. all persons in the region should have free access to humanitarian aid;
  4. Georgian forces would return to their positions of permanent location before the conflict started;
  5. Russian forces are to withdraw at their previous position but would be allowed to take additional security measures until an international peacekeeping mechanism was set in place;
  6. there was to be a start of the international discussion of the future status of Georgia’s breakaway provinces South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

However, Georgian President Saakashvili rejected the sixth provision, as discussions of “future status” implied ambiguity about the nature of the two provinces, and Russia accepted, removing reference to future status.

The interesting thing about this deal is that it gives Russia much of what it has been saying it wanted, and looks eerily similar to what happened in Kosovo.  In Kosovo, NATO won the war, established a deterrent military presence in Kosovo, and kicked the can of the hard questions down the road. 

What Russia will likely do now — again, this is subject to change as events on the ground are changing by the minute — is withdraw from territories outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia, appearing to make a “concession” by doing so, in order to press its case for leaving behind a much stronger “peacekeeping” force in the two provinces.

The Sarkozy plan doesn’t appear to offer much resistance to that model, which for obvious reasons the Georgians see as undesirable.  Recall that less than 10 years after the war in Kosovo, Kosovo had been pried from Serbia and its independence had been recognized by the United States and Western Europe.  Since before the Western powers recognized Kosovo, Russian officials warned that they saw a precedent for South Ossetia and other separatist regions in the former Soviet Union.

The Western powers, of course, did not deal with the objections from Russia, and recognized Kosovo as a newly independent country anyway earlier this year.  At that point, observers began claiming that “Russia’s bluff had been called” regarding outright recognition of the separatist provinces, but failed to address the prospect for catastrophic miscalculation by one of the relevant parties.  Which has obviously happened in Georgia.

Now, President Bush is dispatching Condoleezza Rice to Paris and then Tbilisi, and is promising a humanitarian mission will enter Georgia in the form of the U.S. military.  The relevant paragraphs from his statement:

I’ve also directed Secretary of Defense Bob Gates to begin a humanitarian mission to the people of Georgia, headed by the United States military. This mission will be vigorous and ongoing. A U.S. C-17 aircraft with humanitarian supplies is on its way. And in the days ahead we will use U.S. aircraft, as well as naval forces, to deliver humanitarian and medical supplies.

We expect Russia to honor its commitment to let in all forms of humanitarian assistance. We expect Russia to ensure that all lines of communication and transport, including seaports, airports, roads, and airspace, remain open for the delivery of humanitarian assistance and for civilian transit. We expect Russia to meet its commitment to cease all military activities in Georgia. And we expect all Russian forces that entered Georgia in recent days to withdraw from that country.

The italicized portions represent two parts of the statement that present big, dangerous issues.

Issue One: Where will U.S. troops be, what will they be doing, and how long will they be doing it?  Is the president saying that he expects the Russians to open lines of transport through South Ossetia to U.S. troops?  South Ossetia is recognized as part of Georgian territory.  But it seems awfully unlikely that the Russians are going to accept U.S. military personnel in South Ossetia alongside their peacekeepers, which, while they act in a lot of ways that have less to do with keeping peace and more to do with keeping Russian influence over the region, the Russians argue are there in accordance with the 1992 Sochi agreement.  Saakashvili, for his part, rushed to the telephone to tell the New York Times that he interpreted Bush’s statement as promising “definitely an American military presence.”  (Side question: What military assets are Western European powers or NATO powers contributing?)

Issue Two: the Bush statement seems to call for all additional Russian forces inserted into South Ossetia to be withdrawn.  But if the theory about the Kosovo model is right, the Russians will most likely want to leave behind some of those forces in South Ossetia to shore up its influence in the province as NATO left troops behind in Kosovo.  What happens if the Russians leave several thousand additional troops behind anyway?

Both these topics deserve more scrutiny from the press and the public.  The president appears to be looking at a much more direct involvement of U.S. troops and resources on Georgian territory.  His restraint heretofore has been prudent; this measure appears much more risky.

More on Georgia

1. Obama praises George Kennan and realism here. George Kenann calls NATO expansion a “strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions” here, a position most realists share. Obama calls for NATO expansion to Georgia here, despite the fact that an alliance with Georgia offers little benefit to Americans but is likely to the drag the US into conflict with a nuclear armed state. Obama, if it wasn’t clear already, is no realist. That is a perhaps a result of running for President of a country that wants idealist presidents, but the fact remains.

2. John McCain, various neocons, and George Will argue that had NATO membership been offered to Georgia last spring, Russia would have been deterred from attacking it. Will writes:

Georgia, whose desire for NATO membership had U.S. support, is not in NATO because some prospective members of McCain’s league of democracies, e.g., Germany, thought that starting membership talks with Georgia would complicate the project of propitiating Russia…If Georgia were in NATO, would NATO now be at war with Russia? More likely, Russia would not be in Georgia. Only once in NATO’s 59 years has the territory of a member been invaded – the British Falklands, by Argentina, in 1982.

Will is confused. Even if George Bush had his way at the NATO conference last spring, Georgia would be on a path to membership in NATO, not in it. What Germany blocked was a Membership Action Plan for Georgia, which takes years, not months. McCain argues that the mere prospect of NATO membership would have deterred Russia from invading Georgian territory. But it is more likely that a Membership Action Plan would have proved an accelerant for this war, both by heightening the moral hazard that seemed to encourage Georgian President Saakasvili’s move into South Ossetia, and by inducing Russia to fight before Georgia had an official defense commitment from NATO.

3. Commentators of all stripes seem to assume that Russia’s move into Georgia was driven by its increasingly autocratic nature. (This is reminiscent of Kennan’s argument back in the X article that Communism made the Soviet Union prone to aggression, which he later regretted.) It is worth considering whether this is a misperception. A powerful body of political science argues that states’ foreign policy actions are driven mostly by their circumstance and interests, not their regime type or the personality of the leaders. Regime type and personality affect how states interpret their circumstances, but maybe not as much as we tend to think. The United States is not particularly tolerant of seemingly hostile states in its near abroad either, whether they are democracies or not.

TSA Tracking ID-less Fliers

USA Today reports this morning that the TSA has been making a list of people who fly without ID.

Asked about the program, TSA chief Kip Hawley told USA TODAY in an interview Tuesday that the information helps track potential terrorists who may be “probing the system” by trying to get though checkpoints at various airports.

The report says that TSA changed its policy yesterday and will stop collecting these records, expunging the 16,000+ records collected to date.

The folks at TSA evidently believe fervently that watch-listing is an effective measure against terrorism. When someone behaves inconsistently with their watch-listing program, they take this to be potential terrorism. It’s a mistake.

Let’s say I fervently believed that terrorists were mounting a dengue fever attack on the Capitol Hill area of Washington, D.C., and I placed a perimeter of netting around my house to prevent mosquitoes from getting in. When the mailman or my neighbors opened the netting to come to the front door, I would logically infer (based on my erroneous belief) that they were in league with the terrorists because they were breaching my perimeter. This is the “logic” of the TSA and its suspicion of ID-less travel.

The TSA has set up a system that it wrongly believes to be a security against terrorism, and thinks that evasions or avoidance of its system indicate terrorism. In fact, it’s just people living their lives.

A Few Points on Georgia

  • Read Fred Kaplan on whether the prospect of NATO membership and other forms of Western support for Georgia helped cause this war. If Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili thought the US would rush to the trenches for him, he was badly mistaken, but one can see how wishful thinking and US behavior might have created a powerful cocktail. It is also possible that the prospect of Georgia entering NATO created a window of opportunity that Russia jumped through.
  • As Justin Logan mentioned, we owe the Germans and French thanks for preventing NATO expansion and potentially getting us mixed up in this war. Like all wars, this one is tragic, but it would be far more tragic if it provoked a wider war or nuclear crisis between the US and Russia.
  • Ignore Robert Kagan, Bill Kristol and Richard Holbrooke. Even if Russia takes all of Georgia (and it may do so as a bargaining chip), Cold War II is not nigh — although we can bring it closer by further encircling Russia with security guarantees that encourage its neighbors to avoid getting along with it. The Cold War happened because post-World War II Western Europe lacked the capacity to defend itself from Soviet attack and, we feared, from Communist subversion. We sent our troops and funds to Europe to restore the balance of power. Today Russia has an economy about the size of a medium-sized European country. At $70-80 billion a year, it spends about 1/4 of what Europe does on defense, and less than we spend on researching and developing new weapons alone. Its military spending depends on high energy prices, and it has a declining population. It is a threat to its weak neighbors, not Europe, and not us (unless we consider inadvertent nuclear war.)
  • That neocons like Kristol are attacking the Bush’s administration’s reaction to this crisis, which shows how far the administration has moved toward pragmatism. John McCain, on the other hand, continues to reveal a preference for military confrontation over safety.
  • This is not a simple struggle between freedom and its enemies. We sympathize with Georgia because it is a young democracy and mistrust Russia because it is autocratic. But there is ethnic chauvinism and blame on both sides. Russia cares whether its neighbors are anti-Russian, not whether they are democratic per se.
  • The idea that the credibility of our commitments to defend our allies will be undermined by failing to stand up for Georgia is wrong. We do not lose credibility by not defending states where we have few interests and no defense commitment. On this matter, read Daryl Press.
  • Unless we want a war with Russia, there is very little the United States can do to defend Georgia, and we should stop pretending otherwise.
  • That 2,000 Georgian troops were sent to Iraq does not mean we owe Georgia participation in their conflict with Russia, or even a ride home on US aircraft. Russia is unlikely to take a shot at these planes for fear of provoking us, but accidents happen, and it’s not clear why we ought to take such risks.

Putin: “War Has Started” with Georgia

Some unfortunate “he said/he said” violence in the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia looks likely to escalate into full-blown war. Unsurprisingly, Eduard Kokoity, the leader of the province, and the Russian prime minister and president are blaming the Georgians for starting it. The Georgians are blaming the Russians for starting it. Washington is several thousand miles away, so it’s hard to tell from here.

What’s not hard to tell, however, is how dangerous the situation is. Recall that President Bush made a full-court press to get Georgia (and Ukraine) onto Membership Action Plans at the recent NATO summit in Bucharest. In a heroic move, the Germans spiked the deal, saving us from ourselves. But both Barack Obama and John McCain favor Georgian accession into NATO — and with it, a full-on security commitments as Article V of the NATO charter makes clear. 

Here’s Barack Obama’s absurd statement on the question from last month:

As I stated in April this year, I am committed to upholding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia. This commitment has long been a fundamental building block of U.S. policy, and it will not change under the Obama administration. I also affirm Georgia’s right to pursue NATO membership. This aspiration in no way threatens the legitimate defense interests of Georgia’s neighbors.

I’m sure the Russians are interested to learn that Obama considers himself an expert on “the legitimate defense interests” of their country. I wonder what the Kremlin thinks are the legitimate defense interests of the United States. 

Unfortunately, of course, McCain is hardly a paragon of good sense on the question. He has been fairly pawing at the ground for years to get a run at Russia, and this opportunity seems as good as any.

Also of note is the fact that McCain’s chief foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, was a paid lobbyist for Georgia until March of this year — even acting simultaneously as McCain’s chief adviser on foreign policy while he was being paid by the Georgians.  A man of many hats, Scheunemann apparently could separate out (a) being paid by the Georgians to lobby for them, (b) advising McCain on foreign policy (including, presumably, U.S.-Georgia relations), while (c) lobbying McCain’s Senate staff on behalf of Tbilisi.

The other point is how robust U.S. support for Georgian NATO membership may have created a moral hazard situation where the Georgians may have convinced themselves — any official urgings from the U.S. administration aside — that they would have U.S. backing should any conflict break out.

For any U.S. president, current or future, to give so much as a second’s thought of committing American blood and treasure to the defense of a tiny Caucasian country that few Americans could so much as point to on a map is ridiculous and unforgivably reckless. It would raise the prospect of restarting the Cold War, and completely poisoning our relations with a country that happens to possess both a large quantity of nuclear weapons and a permanent spot on the UN Security Council.

We sometimes joke that the worst ideas in Washington are bipartisan. Here’s another data point to support that thesis.

Update: Commentary magazine’s Gordon G. Chang is now calling for President Bush to make clear, publicly, to Prime Minister Putin that the United States “is prepared to cut off diplomatic relations, end trade, and use military force to protect this young democracy.”