Politics & Policy

Georgia and the American Cowboy

A soft-power diplomatic abyss.

With Russia’s military blasting its way into neighboring Georgia, this sure seems like a moment when the world could use a democratic super-cop.

Good luck. Right now, we don’t have one.

America effectively resigned from the much-reviled role of lone superpower five years ago, after toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2002, and defying the Oil-for-Food devotees at the United Nations to overthrow the tyranny of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003. Since then, President Bush, to his credit, has stuck with the fight in Afghanistan and Iraq — a display of determination and firepower which goes far to explain why almost seven years have passed since September 11 without another major attack on U.S. shores.

But in dealing with other major threats to the free world, the White House has hung up its spurs, turned in its badge, and handed over the remaining items in the global-security portfolio to the soft-power ministrations of our globe-trotting diplomats. According to the State Department’s website, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice since opening up this diplomatic campaign full throttle in 2005 has made 76 trips to 79 countries, spending 2,017 hours on the road, in the air — whatever. Diplomacy has become a marathon end in itself. The resulting disconnects from reality were neatly summed up Monday on the State Department’s own website. While Russia’s military was smashing its way toward the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, the “Top Story” as tagged by State, was an interview with Rice, captioned “Iran: Staying on the Diplomatic Track.”

This is the soft-power mindset that seeks peace via a heap of Six-Party concessions to the grotesque thug-regime of North Korea; via fatuous U.N. resolutions ceding precious time to nuclear-wannabe Iran; via chit-chat with the terror-loving tyranny of Syria; via the feckless U.N. deal that officially brought a false end to Hezbollah’s 2006 war out of Lebanon against Israel (while allowing Hezbollah to re-arm, and without holding to account Hezbollah’s big backers in Damascus and Tehran). In this soft-power universe, peace is a process to be served by endless palaver over, de facto tolerance of, and European aid to a mini-state in Gaza run by the terrorists of Hamas.

In these misty realms, it’s diplomacy — not the overthrow of Saddam — that gets the credit for persuading Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi to hand over his nuclear kit to the U.S. For this, Gadhafi has been rewarded with a full diplomatic makeover. Not only is Libya out from under sanctions, but with U.S. assent Libya now holds a seat on the U.N. Security Council — presumably as an enticement for other despots to surrender their WMD factories. Never mind the many signs that Gadhafi surrendered his nuclear operations in late 2003 not as a diplomatic courtesy, but out of raw fear. Saddam’s overthrow was then still fresh in the news.

Since it became clear that the U.S., post-Saddam, has gone out of the regime-change business, no other nuclear-inclined terror-based government — North Korea or Iran, for instance — has even allowed inspectors an unfettered tour. In Syria, which but for an Israeli air strike last year would right now be firing up an illicit nuclear reactor built in cahoots with North Korea, the Baathist regime is currently refusing to allow U.N. inspectors so much as a second look at the site.

And, to bring this back to the current crisis over Russia’s invasion of Georgia, under the grand global tent of go-along get-along diplomacy, the U.S. and its long-winded European pals have for years politely issued one free pass after another to Moscow, despite the increasingly blatant KGB character of the modern Kremlin. Generously aided, bailed out and installed without justification in the 1990s as a member of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations, thus turning the G-7 into the G-8, Russia has crossed one forbidden line after another — with no real price paid.

The free world never plumbed suspicions of Russian involvement in the near-fatal poisoning of Ukraine’s Viktor Yushchenko as he campaigned in 2004 to become president. There has been no serious accounting for the fatal polonium-210 poisoning in London in 2006 of Russian agent-turned-dissident Alexander Litvinenko (the same year in which Russia chaired the G-8). There has been no great outcry over the bullying and murders of Russian democrats at home, including the jailing for five days last year of chess-champion turned democracy-advocate, Garry Kasparov. There has been not a single penalty paid for Russia’s flagrant, high-level, well-documented and highly profitable violations of UN sanctions on Saddam’s Iraq. There has been no serious resistance to Russian weapons deals, nuclear aid and broad support for Iran’s terrorist-sponsoring regime.

Vladimir Putin, first as Russia’s president, now as prime minister, has evidently observed all this soft power in action, and seen it as a series of green lights to start reclaiming the old Soviet dominions. He has drawn the logical inference that Russia may by now with impunity cross not only the lines of veiled misconduct, but the borders meant to separate it from neighboring sovereign states. Russian ructions in post-Soviet Georgia go back to the days just after the Soviet collapse, when even in the early 1990s the weak new Russia under the late President Boris Yeltsin scraped together the resources to stir up conflict in the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. For today’s Russia, with a far stronger central government, fueled by oil and gas income and emboldened by a world in which the American cowboy has holstered his guns, the same flashpoints have become pretexts for an all-out Russian invasion of Georgia.

If Washington’s diplomacy with Russia should have had one thing going for it, it is that Bush has an expert on the job. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is a Soviet (a.k.a. Russia) specialist from way back. But so busy has Rice been with global diplomacy that she appears to have dropped the ball entirely on Georgia. Or so one might infer from the past few days in which President Bush appeared caught by surprise, tied up watching Olympic basketball and swimming in Beijing, while Russia got down to the business of bombing and shooting its way into Georgia — a U.S. ally which not so long ago Bush was praising for its Rose Revolution, thanking for its troop contributions in Iraq, and trying to usher into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

For the democratic world, there will be no easy recovery from the chilling spectacle of Georgia’s 2,000 or so troops pulling out of Iraq to go join their own country’s desperate defense. The message so far is that America will ferry them home, but while Georgia rallied to the defense of freedom in Iraq, none of Georgia’s erstwhile allies will risk taking up arms to help the Georgians against a Russian onslaught.

The damage in many dimensions is already enormous. As historian and former State Department official Robert Kagan wrote in an incisive article in Monday’s Washington Post, “Historians will come to view August 8, 2008, as a turning point no less significant than Nov. 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell” — though for far less promising reasons. Kagan notes, correctly, that the issue is not how, exactly, this war in Georgia began, but that the true mistake of Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili, “was to be president of a small, mostly democratic and adamantly pro-Western nation on the border of Putin’s Russia.”

China’s Communist rulers, while basking in the glow of their Olympics bash, are surely checking the tea leaves for what this might presage about U.S. support for another U.S. ally: the democratic Republic of China on Taiwan. If the U.S. will not stand up to North Korea, will not stand up to Iran, will not stand up to Russia, then where will the U.S. stand up? What are the real rules of this New World Order?

Apart from Afghanistan and Iraq, the main rule right now seems to be that while anti-democratic bullies do the shooting, everyone else does a lot of talking and resolving. The UN Security Council meets, repeatedly. The European parliament ponders. Presumptive Republic nominee John McCain at least has the gumption and insight to point out that Russia’s actions threaten not only Georgia, but some of Russia’s other neighbors, such as Ukraine, “for choosing to associate with the West and adhering to Western political and economic values.” Presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama calls for more diplomacy, aid, and not just a U.N. resolution but also a U.N. mediator — despite the massive evidence that U.N. mediators can’t even protect the dissident monks of Burma or the opposition in Zimbabwe, let alone a small country trying to fight off single-handed an invasion by the Russian army.

President Bush, lapsed cowboy and former global top cop, dispatches his envoys to talk, and talk — and talk about talking some more. America’s ambassador to the U.N., Zalmay Khalilzad told the U.N. Security Council on Sunday that Russia’s Ambassador Vitaly Churkin had told Secretary of State Rice that Georgia’s elected President Mikhail Saakasvhivili “must go.” Khalilzad informed the Security Council that this is “unacceptable” and “this Council must act decisively to reaffirm the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia.” This is a phrase that satisfies the U.N. brand of etiquette, but it stops no bombs or bullets.

Bush, upon his return from Beijing to Washington, having failed to stop the Russian invasion of Georgia by declaring himself “deeply concerned,” issued a tougher statement in the Rose Garden: That by invading a neighboring state and threatening to overthrow its elected government, Russia has committed an action that is “unacceptable in the 21st century.”

Oh really? While declaring this invasion “unacceptable,” the global community of the 21st century seems prepared to accept it in spades. While Russian guns close in on Tbilisi, even the basic diplomatic penalties are not yet fully on the table, for whatever they might be worth. By all means, let’s see the G-8 expel Russia, if the will can be found to do even that much. By all means, let the U.N. Security Council engage in the farce of discussing reprimands and maybe even sanctions for Russia — which happens to be both a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council, and one of the world’s most adept and experienced sanctions violators.

Diplomacy and soft power have their place. The U.S. cannot and should not go to war with every nasty regime on the planet. But when too many thugs cross too many lines and get away with it, the rules of the entire global game start to shift. The diplomacy that has been billed by the administration as such a prudent and successful means these past few years to deal with threats from North Korea, from Syria, from Palestinian terrorists, from Iran, as well as ugly moves from Russia itself, has paved the way for this Russian invasion of Georgia. If, with the exceptions of Afghanistan and Iraq, America no longer dares to unholster its guns to face down real threats, expect to see a lot more shooting, and a lot more casualties on our side.

– Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.


The Latest