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.”