Politics & Policy

High Stakes

Georgia and U.S. credibility.

As a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction and Negotiations, I’ve sometimes said that the U.S. might consider giving security guarantees to countries worried that not having nuclear-weapon capabilities would put them at risk from neighbors who have them or are seeking them. But my next sentence usually cautioned that U.S. security guarantees will be effective for U.S. intended purposes only if the U.S. has credibility derived both from the ability of its military to provide the guaranteed protection and the perception that the U.S. is politically willing to direct its military to do so.

U.S. credibility is very much at stake in the Georgia scenario. President Bush’s announcement Wednesday that humanitarian assistance is on it’s way to Georgia in a C-17 was a good first step; it would have been a better first step for President Bush to add that additional C-17s and other vessels would be following shortly, as it would have shown a measure of U.S. resolve that has to be suspect at this point in time. But subsequent news reports that more C-17s and ships are on the way is promising.

Russia now has to make a decision: Will it try to intercept the U.S. C-17? If it does not, and we send additional aid, will it then intercept the vessels? In making this decision, Russia certainly will take into account what the U.S. has done when its resolve has been challenged in recent years. The Bush administration’s two-year retreat from policy positions it had taken with regard to North Korea and Iran cannot be taken as U.S. resolve. Add to this the years (at least since 2004) it took the U.S. to finally acknowledge that Iran was directly and indirectly killing U.S. soldiers in Iraq (only acknowledged in 2008) and you increase Russia’s temptation to intercept our aid to Georgia.

If the 130 or so U.S. military personnel already in Georgia or those participating in humanitarian relief have been or are killed or injured by Russia’s military aggression in Georgia, the U.S. should reveal the fact immediately. If it does not protect its military personnel and keeps any Russian attacks on them secret, Russia may quite rationally conclude that there is little or nothing to fear from attacking U.S. assets or personnel in Georgia or carrying aid to Georgia. Although Russia would doubtless prefer to avoid being the target of international verbal opprobrium in that event, it may well conclude that the risk is worth taking and that it can dampen the international the opprobrium by saying that the U.S. assistance was military. As we know, Russia has a long record of disregarding the truth in making its claims and a long record of breaking its promises.

The Georgia tragedy will be a much greater tragedy if it further contributes to the erosion of U.S. credibility and raises further doubt that U.S. military power continues to be available as the force for world peace and good that it has been.

The Cold War was not won by words alone, and it surely was not won by U.S. diplomats dealing from a position of actual or perceived military weakness or lack of resolve to use the strong military we nurtured and developed. The military power we had and the credibility of our willingness to use it, ironically, were central to maintaining peace and winning the Cold War.

In my view, the U.S. should do whatever is necessary to draw the line at Georgia’s right to receive aid from others and the U.S. right to provide that aid without the threat of harm to U.S. airplanes, vessels or personnel. Providing humanitarian aid to Georgia and assuring the protection of that aid, with U.S. military assets if necessary, is a good start. If Russia intervenes militarily and we protect our train of aid, there will be costs. But the costs of the U.S. opposing Russia’s intervention with words alone undoubtedly will encourage further Russian aggression and result in greater costs to the U.S. and its allies.

One more thought: Russia went into Georgia on the pretext that its interest required it. The interest Russia cited was the welfare of the Russian Diaspora in Ossetia. It occurs to me that the U.S./Russia dispute about Czech Republic and Poland help with the U.S. missile defense system may be less about the missile defense system as such than about giving Russia a pretext for initiating military attacks on those countries similar to the Georgia attack. It would not be in the least surprising to learn that Russia is developing plans for such attacks just as it obviously planned and covertly advanced plans for the attack on Georgia for many months.

— Jack David, a member of the Committee on the Present Danger, served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for combating weapons of mass destruction and negotiations policy from 2004 to 2006.

Jack David, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, was deputy assistant secretary of defense for combating weapons of mass destruction and negotiations policy from 2004 to 2006.


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