Thomas de Waal reviews Saakashvili’s presidency in Foreign Affairs. He recounts how his American cheerleaders enabled some of his most reckless behavior, including the August 2008 war:
American support served to insulate him from some of the domestic criticism — but eventually it proved to be his undoing. Although Americans and Georgians had adopted the habit of using the word “ally” to refer to each other, there was never a formal alliance between the two countries. Saakashvili allowed his judgment to be skewed by his glowing testimonials from the Bush White House.
Saakashvili’s miscalculations were tragically exposed in August 2008, when war broke out with Russia over Georgia’s breakaway province of South Ossetia. We now know that the war was triggered by Saakashvili’s decision to attack the South Ossetian town of Tskhinvali in a doomed attempt to reconquer the province by force, only to provoke a massive — and well-prepared — Russian assault on his country. Saakashvili probably believed that if he captured Tskhinvali, the United States would back him against Russia.
Saakashvili is responsible for his serious blunders, but the Bush administration’s role in encouraging him in his worst instincts needs to be remembered as an example of how not to manage relations with a would-be client. The first mistake that the Bush administration made in its handling of Georgia was the promotion of the new Georgian government as a model of both political and economic reform and the celebration of Saakashvili as a democrat. The economic reforms were real enough, but the rest was mostly nonsense. Saakashvili was given credit for being what he was not mainly because he was seen as fiercely anti-Russian and “pro-Western,” which are often mistaken as proof of adhering to liberal and democratic political principles. The semi-authoritarian nature of Saakashvili’s government by itself wouldn’t have been so remarkable, except that the primary and perhaps sole justification offered for the U.S.-Georgian relationship in the Bush years was the myth that Georgia was a success story of the so-called “freedom agenda.”
The degree to which the relationship was built around empty rhetoric and hollow promises was impressive. Saakashvili flattered Bush by borrowing from Bush’s own delusional rhetoric about global democratic revolution, which won Bush’s admiration. Bush in turn gushed about freedom under Saakashvili (who actually presided over a diminution of civil liberties and political rights in Georgia), thus helping to legitimize the heavy-handed and abusive rule of Saakashvili in Western eyes. Finally, Saakashvili took Bush’s empty promises of support as if they were practically formal security guarantees, and made the disastrous decision to fight a war that Georgia could not possibly win in the vain expectation that the U.S. would rescue him. The Bush administration’s enthusiasm for Georgian membership in NATO only made this worse, since it seemed to confirm that the U.S. really was willing to come to Georgia’s defense and aggravated tensions with Russia so that conflict became more likely. Both governments managed to deceive each other, and Georgia suffered terrible damage as a result.