Why won’t America and Nato help us? If they won’t help us now, why did we help them in Iraq? ~Djimali Avago (quoted in article)

Along with the Ossetian refugees who have fled into North Ossetia, the Georgian people are already suffering the consequences of their government’s criminal irresponsibility, and they are understandably bitter towards the West on account of the belief that the West would reward Georgia for charting a “pro-Western” course.  Earlier today I was remarking to someone that I would still like to go to Georgia, but after this week I supposed that Georgians might not care for American visitors.  Perhaps attitudes towards Americans as such will not change that much, but it seems impossible that pro-U.S. government sentiment is going to be very strong in the future.  Probably rather like Turkish public opinion, which had once been very keen on EU membership and soured after German and French opposition postponed entry indefinitely, Georgian public opinion may well turn against the political path that Saakashvili has represented.  It would not be the first time that disaster in the field has caused a dramatic shift in domestic politics, and it is probably more likely to happen since Saakashvili wagered his presidency on the success of this attack. 

I second Greg Djerejian’s remarks from the update to his post on the war:

It’s precisely because I care about innocent Georgian lives being needlessly spilled that I’m so dismayed by Saakashvili’s recklessness, including notably his naive belief in Western support should Putin get nasty (by the by, and to stress again, the notion that Georgia would become a full-fledged member of NATO was always absurd fare, and shame on Brussels and Washington for playing pretend).  

This might be an appropriate time to reflect on the exploitation of U.S. allies during 2002-03 and during the war in Iraq.  New and aspiring NATO members were particularly susceptible to the combination of arm-twisting and enticements that Washington used to get the heads of government from so-called “New Europe” to declare their support for an invasion of Iraq, but perhaps most tragic and inexcusable of all of these cases is Georgia.  While a boon to contractors, Georgia’s significant increases in military spending diverted resources in a poor country to building up the armed forces, an investment as misguided as it is now wasted.  To make itself an attractive candidate, the Georgian government had to demonstrate its eagerness to be out of Russia’s shadow, which inevitably involved confrontational posturing and actions that riled Moscow into increasingly punitive and often excessive responses.  In the twisted establishment view, to be pro-Western in the former Soviet states is first and foremost to be impeccably anti-Russian, which would be ridiculed as counterproductive nationalist bluster anywhere else but serves as a useful barometer of how willing a population is to be used as a pawn against the Russians.  The gradual realization by those who live in the country being used as a pawn that their country is being used this way naturally inspires resentment. 

Having been excited by the prospect of membership, which Western governments led Georgia to believe was only a matter of time, many Georgians unfortunately took Western assurances at face value.  And, after all, why not?  Yes, Georgia is just about as far from the Atlantic as you can get and still have any claim to being part of Europe and America has no vital interests at stake here, but there were so many other candidates admitted in previous rounds that made no more sense than admitting Georgia.  For goodness’ sake, even the Albanians have now been allowed to join, and no one would confuse their country with one that is either strategically important or militarily ready to merit inclusion.  You might say that if Albania is good enough for NATO, Georgia would be, too, except that neither belongs in the Alliance.  

That doesn’t change the expectation of being able to get in without much trouble.  Every time NATO expansion had happened in the past, the Russians issued grave warnings and denounced the U.S. but ultimately were not in a position to stop it from happening.  Relations between Moscow and the West kept getting worse, but the Georgian government must have taken Russian inaction over the entry of the Baltic states as the final proof they needed that Russia would do nothing.  From there it was a few short steps to launching the raid on the same assumption: Russia will protest and retaliate in certain ways as it had done in the past (e.g., economic sanctions, harrassing ethnic Georgians in Russia) but will ultimately yield. 

Clearly, Saakashvili guessed wrong and has endangered his country’s future in the process, but it is not entirely unfair for Saakashvili and his countrymen to protest at what they understandably feel to be abandonment.  Imagine how much more cruel the disappointment would have been had Georgia been put on the course to membership and the same hard political realities kept NATO from lending support.  Our government should never make promises that it cannot or will not keep, and while strategic ambiguity is useful in public it is vital that clients and would-be clients understand exactly how much support the U.S. government is willing to provide.  Saakashvili’s blustery rhetoric about how the war is a defense of American ”values” and how the future of the world is at stake sounds ridiculous because it is, but he is simply acting as if what President Bush said in his Second Inaugural were the working policy of the United States of America.  While it does not excuse him, Saakashvili has above all made the mistake of believing President Bush when he said that American liberty depends on the liberty of the rest of the world.  Since he fancies himself the champion of Georgian liberty, regardless of how hard that it is to take, he may have thought that the “freedom agenda” would save him.  Instead, he has pretty much ensured that the “freedom agenda” will lose whatever credibility it had.       

Update: The NYT has a similar article on disappointed Georgians.