August 11, 2008
Everyone should read this opinion piece in today’s Washington Post. It’s written by Ronald D. Asmus, a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration and Richard Holbrooke, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton administration. If you want to have some sense about the bi-partisan commitment to U.S. policy in the Caucuses, you need to read this opinion piece very carefully. If you fail to come to terms with both the meaning and the implications of this piece, then you simply will not be able to understand or anticipate the U.S. reaction to Russia’s invasion of Georgia.
While the Left seems paralyzed with debate over who started this fight or how worthy Georgia is as a democracy and an ally, the rest of the foreign policy Establishment could not be less interested. For example, here is Asmus and Holbrooke’s treatment of the culpability issue:
Exactly what happened in South Ossetia last week is unclear. Each side will argue its own version. But we know, without doubt, that Georgia was responding to repeated provocative attacks by South Ossetian separatists controlled and funded by Moscow. This is a not a war Georgia wanted; it believed that it was slowly gaining ground in South Ossetia through a strategy of soft power.
Whatever mistakes Tbilisi has made, they cannot justify Russia’s actions. Moscow has invaded a neighbor, an illegal act of aggression that violates the U.N. Charter and fundamental principles of cooperation and security in Europe. Beginning a well-planned war (including cyber-warfare) as the Olympics were opening violates the ancient tradition of a truce to conflict during the Games. And Russia’s willingness to create a war zone 25 miles from the Black Sea city of Sochi, where it is to host the Winter Games in 2014, hardly demonstrates its commitment to Olympic ideals. In contrast, Moscow’s timing suggests that Putin seeks to overthrow Saakashvili well ahead of our elections, and thus avoid beginning relations with the next president on an overtly confrontational note.
Russia’s goal is not simply, as it claims, restoring the status quo in South Ossetia. It wants regime change in Georgia.
The West sees this move as a sign of a newly aggressive Russia, and a precursor to larger ambitions.
As Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt pointed out Saturday, Moscow’s rationale for invading has parallels to the darkest chapters of Europe’s history. Having issued passports to tens of thousands of Abkhazians and South Ossetians, Moscow now claims it must intervene to protect them — a tactic reminiscent of one used by Nazi Germany at the start of World War II.
Moscow seeks to roll back democratic breakthroughs on its borders, to destroy any chance of further NATO or E.U. enlargement and to reestablish a sphere of hegemony over its neighbors. By trying to destroy a democratic, pro-Western Georgia, Moscow is sending a message that, in its part of the world, being close to Washington and the West does not pay.
I hope you know your history because the United States will go to war to maintain its prestige and its credibility as an ally. Even more so, the West will go to war to protect our investments in the Caspian Basin, including the hard fought Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which was a decade in the making and was organized through groups like the United States-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce, headed by James Baker, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, Henry Kissinger, and John Sununu. None of these people are remotely interested in whether Russian-backed Ossetians provoked the Georgians or the Georgians provoked the Russians. All that matters is what the Russians do now. And there is an information war going on right now between Russia and Georgia. In a scenario such as this, there are not many reliable sources. Any Russian annexation of Georgia would threaten British Petroleum’s assets to such a degree that British sources are not reliable. American sources are suspect for the same reason. I would not trust Russian sources, either. Perhaps the East Asian press can be seen as an honest broker. In any case, the Associated Press is reporting that Russia has advanced south from the "province of Abkhazia while most Georgian forces are locked up in fighting around another breakaway region of South Ossetia" and seized a Georgian military base and police stations a full thirty miles inside Georgia proper. This is their weak confirmation:
In Moscow, a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give his name, confirmed the move into Senaki and said it was intended to prevent Georgian troops from concentrating.
While many on the Left are twiddling their thumbs wondering why the United States decided to involve themselves in the Caucuses in the first place (a decision initiated by Bush and Baker in the early 1990’s and enthusiastically endorsed by Clinton’s powerful Commerce Department), the National Security Council (including Democratic members) and the NSC-in-exile (people like ZBig and Holbrooke) are having none of it.
This moment could well mark the end of an era in Europe during which realpolitik and spheres of influence were supposed to be replaced by new cooperative norms and a country’s right to choose its own path. Hopes for a more liberal Russia under President Dmitry Medvedev will need to be reexamined. His justification for this invasion reads more like Brezhnev than Gorbachev. While no one wants a return to Cold War-style confrontation, Moscow’s behavior poses a direct challenge to European and international order.
When Big Boys like this get their knickers in a twist, things can come to a head very quickly. Remember Cuba, the Bay of Pigs, and the Missile Crisis? Remember the Domino Theory and the Korean and Vietnam Wars? Only this time we’re talking about former Soviet territory and major oil and gas revenues. This is not some faux-conflict that was ginned up by John McCain and the neoconservatives as some kind of electoral season strategy. And, even if it was (and it’s not) it’s gone far beyond that now.
What does the Democratic Foreign Policy Establishment recommend that we do? In addition to threatening to take the 2014 Winter Olympics away from Russia, they give the following three-point strategy:
What can we do? First, Georgia deserves our solidarity and support. (Georgia has supported us; its more than 2,000 troops are the third-largest contingent in Iraq — understandably those troops are being recalled.) We must get the fighting stopped and preserve Georgia’s territorial integrity within its current international border. As soon as hostilities cease, there should be a major, coordinated transatlantic effort to help Tbilisi rebuild and recover.
Second, we should not pretend that Russia is a neutral peacekeeper in conflicts on its borders. Russia is part of the problem, not the solution. For too long, Moscow has used existing international mandates to pursue neo-imperial policies. We must disavow these mandates and insist on truly neutral international forces, under the United Nations, to monitor a future cease-fire and to mediate.
Third, we need to counter Russian pressure on its neighbors, especially Ukraine — most likely the next target in Moscow’s efforts to create a new sphere of hegemony. The United States and the European Union must be clear that Ukraine and Georgia will not be condemned to some kind of gray zone.
I can hear the Left now laughing at Asmus and Holbrooke’s audacity in accusing Russia of neo-imperial policies. Isn’t this conflict taking place in Russia’s sphere of influence? Hasn’t the West been relentlessly provocative? Didn’t Russia warn us about the eastward expansion of NATO, anti-missile defenses in the Czech Republic, and the independence of Kosovo?
Yes, yes they did. And it doesn’t matter an iota to our bi-partisan foreign policy Establishment. This is power geopolitics at its rawest and it has major consequences for our strategic position in Central Asia and the Middle East. Did Dick Cheney say something alarmingly bellicose? Sure. But Cheney differs from Holbrooke only in tone. Russia is threatening more than the Bush/Cheney policy vis-a-vis Georgia. They are threatening eight years of Clinton foreign policy.
In the many years I have been writing this blog I have been a consistent critic of Clinton’s foreign policy, especially in the Caucuses and as relates to NATO expansion. I made these points many times during the primaries. But there are two things you need to keep in mind. Just because there are legitimate criticisms of U.S. foreign policy does not mean that Russia is on the right side of history. But, more importantly, the foreign policy Establishment is united behind these policies and has invested in them over the course now of almost 20 years. There isn’t a whole lot of room for debate over what should have been. We’re here now. Like an aircraft carrier, you cannot turn around bipartisan U.S. foreign policy on a dime. This is not some uniquely neoconservative policy. This is U.S. policy.
Working to change that policy demands that we understand the policy as it is and as it has been. We need to understand the military justification of that policy (access to energy supplies to fuel our Naval Fleets and Air Force) as well as the economic justifications. And we should not kid ourselves that we will find Democratic allies in Congress or the Obama campaign that are going to argue that our policy has been all wrong all along. That will never happen. If this conflict becomes a matter of debate in the presidential campaign, it will not be over the wisdom of the overall policy. Obama would be abandoned by the foreign policy Establishment in a New York Minute.
That’s the sad fact. So, the U.S. is not going to back down willingly. If it backs down it will be for the same reason that the USSR ultimately backed down during the Cuban Missile Crisis. If we back down it will be because this is ultimately in the Russian sphere of influence and we have no better options given the risk of nuclear conflict.