October 1, 2009 8:43AM

What to Do When Your Ally Is the Aggressor?

That's what Washington should ask itself after the new European Union report on the Russo-Georgian war last year.  The EU has affirmed what long seemed apparent to independent observers:  America's ally, the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili, started the conflict.  Which means in supporting Saakashvili the Bush administration backed the aggressor.

Russia comes in for abundant criticism -- after all, it took advantage of Saakashvili's irresponsible aggressiveness to retaliate destructively.  But on the essential point the EU blamed Tbilisi.  Reports the Wall Street Journal:

In a statement, Ms. Tagliavini was blunt. "In the Mission's view, it was Georgia which triggered off the war when it attacked Tskhinvali with heavy artillery on the night of 7 to 8 August 2008. ...In particular, there was no massive Russian military invasion under way," she said.

Washington's support for the Georgian government probably encouraged Saakashvili to attempt the military conquest of South Ossetia, which had seceded with Russia's assistance.  After all, you are likely to take far greater risks if you believe the U.S. has your back.  And if he was willing to start a war in expectation of U.S. military support against Moscow outside of NATO, imagine what he would do with his nation as a member of NATO.

Many Americans apparently believe that Russia is a paper tiger and would never challenge a U.S. security guarantee.  But both World Wars I and II began in spite of alliance commitments. Deterrence failed.  And it likely would have failed in the Caucasus even if Tbilisi had belonged to NATO.  Russia's border security is a vital interest to Moscow but largely irrelevant to America.  Thus, Russia still would have had strong cause to act, while it still would have been in Washington's interest to do nothing.  The result likely would have been the same:  a Georgian defeat, magnified by even greater humiliation of America and Europe, forced to stand by as their official ally was crushed.

The only worse result would have been the U.S. and "Old Europe" putting force behind their NATO commitment.  We survived the Cold War without conflict between the major nuclear-armed powers.  To risk a nuclear confrontation over a war started by an authoritarian nationalist contrary to American interests would be foolhardy beyond belief.

Georgia illustrates how carelessly collecting allies and passing out security guarantees is a prescription for insecurity and potential disaster.  Americans should sympathize with the Georgian people, who have been ill-served by their own government as well as mistreated by the Russian government.  But that's no reason to risk war on Tbilisi's behalf.   Instead of continuing to expand NATO, Washington should begin the process of turning Europe's security over to Europe.