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Dashed Expectations

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 [1])

Along with the Ossetian refugees [2] 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 [3] 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 [4] on disappointed Georgians.

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "Dashed Expectations"

#1 Comment By WRW On August 10, 2008 @ 8:32 pm

NATO expansion for Ukraine and Georgia is stupid. McCain’s public (and perhaps the Bush Admin’s private) statements of support to Saakashvili over South Ossetia and Abkhazia were reckless. (We did not go to war against Russia to reunify Germany, why would we do so over Georgia?) And Saakashvili has engaged in a reckiless military adventurism that certainly will end his presidency (unless he resorts to more undeomcratic methods as with last Fall.)

However, as much as we do not understand Russia, the Russians do not understand Americans. If the Russians make the mistake of invading undisputed Georgian teriritory they will very likely provoke a military conflict they cannot win. That Russia has a nuclear arsenal is irrelevant; they will not use it. Russia will be forced to withdraw because its military is significantly weaker than the US and NATO.

I had assumed Putin would simply secure South Ossetia and punish the Georgians by forcing a humiliating withdrawal. (And then rely on the ballot box to boot Saakashvili and his reckless cohorts from office.) But now the reports are Russian troops are advancing on Gori in undisputed Georgian territory. If they invade and occupy, that will prompt a response.

Pro-Slavic paleocons have a tendency to engage in romanticism and chauvanism masquerading as realism. At least in the matter of a confrontation with the US, they would do well to advise their Russian co-religionists that they are unrepresentative of Americans in their sympathies and that, while no one will go to war over South Ossetia, invasion of a sovereign, undisputed territory is another thing. (See Gulf War I.)

What “should happen” is irrelevant. What will happen is the issue. If the Russians invade Georgia, their is a high likelihood of an American and NATO military response against Russian forces.

#2 Comment By Daniel Larison On August 10, 2008 @ 9:27 pm

“Pro-Slavic paleocons have a tendency to engage in romanticism and chauvanism masquerading as realism.”

Evidence might be helpful to back up this point. I think I’ve been quite clear all along that I have no illusions or romantic attitudes about Russian power projection, and I have also been clear that I don’t approve of what Russia has done over the last day or two in moving out of S. Ossetia into the rest of Georgia. The romantics would seem to be those who think that the West will ride to Georgia’s rescue because it is the right thing to do. As you say, what should happen is, as a practical matter, irrelevant. FYI, most paleocons aren’t Orthodox, so most of us wouldn’t be talking to our co-religionists if we were to advise them of anything.

It’s also not at all clear that a continued Russian advance into Georgia (which I have condemned and will continue to condemn) will prompt a military response from anyone. I’d be interested to know what sort of response you think either the U.S. or NATO could mount given the limitations of most other NATO allies and our own stretched armed forces. How many of the Baltic states, where there are far more ethnic Russians living, do you suppose Russia could gobble up before that response could push them out of Georgia? Who is actually willing to risk the security of our NATO allies to prove a point?

Don’t take it from me–I’m just some Slavophile. What have any Western governments said or done that makes you think they will respond to a continued Russian advance with the use of force?

#3 Comment By Josh SN On August 10, 2008 @ 9:31 pm

Just because you are correct doesn’t mean it has anything to do with Conservatism. Personally I’ve never voted left of Democrat in my life.

Thanks for having a cool head.

#4 Comment By James Rogers On August 11, 2008 @ 3:59 am

Your coverage of this sorry episode has been first rate. I guess a good grounding in Byzantine history grants one an appreciation of things like irony, tragedy and hubris in affairs of State which is helpful at times like this (on the other hand, one could end up like Victor Davis Hanson). I wish our punditocracy read a little less Weekly Standard and a little more Gibbon.

I am amazed that there are still folks out there that believe that Nato will or should get involved in this fiasco. They will not get involved even if Putin holds a nude picnic on top of a field cannon amid the rubble of Tiblisi, and it is quite beyond the current power of the U.S. to act unilaterally. The Times story, though quite sad, illustrates perfectly the romantic fantasies and feckless irresponsibility of the Georgian leadership. This will, of course, not deter the usual supects from muttering darkly about the Prague Spring, the Anschluss and the invasion of Poland (betcha this will happen within the next 24 hours).

#5 Comment By WRW On August 11, 2008 @ 7:04 am

I hope you are right that there will be no military response. But I think if Putin takes his winnings from routing Georgia from South Ossetia, there will not be a conflict. Read today’s Washington Post editorial page. Both Kagan (predictable) and Holbrooke (also predictable but a Democrat cipher) make ominous statements to the effect that a rubicon has been passed with rubbish about a reconstituted Russian empire. Holbrooke asserts that an acceptable solution must include Western peacekeepers (something Russia will not accept so if it is put forward as a necessity that will make conflict hard to avoid.) There is bipartisan hostility to Russia in the two parties, if anything, stronger among Democrats. That no one is currently talking armed response simply means they are waiting for further Russian action so they can appear compelled to it.

And the commitment of our armed forces is no necessary obstacle. An initial response would be by air power, which is not currently over committed. Russia’s military is at least one generation behind ours in both technology and tactics. It is a conscript army as well. While armed conflict would be foolish for both parties, those who claim we won’t intercede whatever happens are deluding themselves. We are a belligerent people (we paleocons aspirations for noninterventionism aside) who like the appearance of being forced to war.

I hope you are right that our gov’t will defuse the situation without conflict. It would be ruinous for all concerned. And I can’t believe Putin would want to press the matter into a direct confrontation with the US when he has already won his point. But it will take Putin satisfying himself with what’s been accomplished to defuse that. (Since Russia has apparently denied any presence in undisputed Georgia or blockading Georgia, Putin may have shrewdly laid the groundwork for ceasing hostilities. Perhaps we can benefit from at least one President’s shrewdness.)

#6 Comment By James Rogers On August 11, 2008 @ 7:52 am

After 72 hours National Review seems to finally be taking a position. And, in the wake of the fleeing Georgian military they recommend, um, expediting Georgian admission to NATO. As they said In Dr. Strangelove, “we’re still trying to translate that last part, Mr. President.”

#7 Comment By nathansmith On August 11, 2008 @ 8:00 am

The most likely outcome would seem to be that Russia will end up like Armenia, holding a lot of territory to which it has no legal title. Hindsight is 20-20, and there’s plenty of blame to go around in bringing things to where they are. But ultimately the details fall away, and one fact remains: Russia has invaded a sovereign country. Historical “spheres of influence” are not the sort of datum the international order can afford to acknowledge. Every country in Europe has a “Greater _____” to remember; peace requires putting that behinid us. Russia has already very nearly forfeited the hope of not being remembered as the aggressor, and aggressors are pretty scarce on the world stage today now that Saddam’s gone. It’s a very small and odious club to be in. It will be interesting to see what international pariah status in the 21st century entails.

If Russia had the political, legal and constitutional infrastructure to behave rationally, it would have stopped already– or, better yet, never gotten involved at all. But Putin has smashed the free press, assaulted private property, and trampled on the Constitution by decreeing the central appointment of governors. Without a free press, the populace’s ability to form public opinion with a sensible center of gravity is crippled. Now they’re ruining Russia’s reputation by playing to the worst of their image in the eyes of the world. These are sad, sad, sad days for lovers of Russia.

#8 Comment By WRW On August 11, 2008 @ 8:31 am

Mr. Smith,
I believe Mr. Larison’s point re: spheres of influence, is that it is not a concept, but a reality created by geography, economic interest, security interest, culture and history. You can dispense with that reality unless you adopt essentially an unlimited sphere of influence for the US (i.e., intervention in all places.) That is not to say you cannot use diplomatic efforts, but the notion you can require a country to abandon such spheres of inluence isn’t realistic.

As I think I made clear, my disagreement with Mr. Larison is his apparent confidence that armed conflict between Russia and the US/NATO will not happen even if Russia invade Georgia (and by that I mean more than an armed intrusion to the periphery of Georgia’s undisputed territory.) I think that simply isn’t true based on prior US conduct and the opinion of Russia held by our establishment. Conflict will only be avoided if Russia pursues steps to permit a disengagement and withdrawal to the disputed territories. (Which its posturing appears to indicate it has allowed itself to do.)

#9 Comment By nathansmith On August 11, 2008 @ 9:33 am

“Spheres of influence, is that it is not a concept, but a reality created by geography, economic interest, security interest, culture and history.”

This is a good example of paleocon pseudo-realism. One could, I suppose, note that the US in the Caribbean and Latin America, or western European countries in their former empires, or any country in its immediate neighbors, takes a special interest that leads to a higher-than-normal degree of influence, and call this a “sphere of influence.” As long as this involves the consent of the governments concerned this is compatible with sovereignty.

But since the Suez crisis of 1956, it has been atypical if not unheard-of for western European countries to use anything like a “sphere-of-influence” concept to justify armed intervention against the will of sovereign governments and without some kind of broader international legitimation. Since 1991 it has also been rare for the US to do so. Russia’s strange, vague claims over its former territories are not an instance of any universal and inevitable pattern. They are decidedly exceptional. This is simply proven by the lived experience of the rest of the world.

#10 Comment By WRW On August 11, 2008 @ 9:52 am

Mr. Smith,
This is the first Russian intervention outside its territory since the fall of the USSR. I simply don’t see your basis for asserting Russia’s experience is “exceptional.”
I also don’t understand how states would be induced to abandon their interests or pursue them in some approved manner other than by compulsion (which would itself seem to be as assertion of a sphere of influence by another actor.
If you point is that interests can be pursued in legitimate and illegitimate ways, of course. But if you think states can be induced to abandon their interests or pursue them only in ways of which the US approves, then you aren’t even dealing in pseudo-realism.

#11 Comment By James Rogers On August 11, 2008 @ 10:40 am

With all due respect to Mr. Smith, I don’t think that “paleocon pseudo-realism” adequately describes this left-of-center Obama democrat. I prefer to think of it as a becoming humility.

I am likewise unsure why you hark back to the Suez incidents to demonstrate a sphere of influence situation. Perhaps we could explain that to Tibet, to Lebanon, or to Ireland, to say nothing of Chechnya. The bottom line is that a “sphere of influence” exists when a given country has the power and proximity to exert it’s will cheaply, quickly, and with comparative impunity. Though I think WRW disagrees with Mr. Larison and myself respecting the impunity part, it is all too clear to all of us that Russia has eliminated Georgia’s army fast and on the cheap. Frankly, I’m thrilled that Georgia performed as well as it did.

Discussing “legitimate v illegitimate” use of power sounds swell, but I can’t see that it has any bearing on the “pseudo-realistic” interpretation of the problem on the ground.

#12 Comment By VA_Paleocon On August 11, 2008 @ 2:58 pm

Theres a way out of this mess, I think.

Tell Putin he has two options–he can do whatever he wants with Georgia, even annex it, but Ukraine will join NATO in exchange if he does that. Or, he can withdraw from Georgia and get a promise of a neutral, slightly Russian friendly Ukraine (similar to the arrangement with Finland) and a freeze on NATO expansion.

Sound reasonable? Ukraine is more important anyway since its on the road to western Europe and Georgia isn’t.

#13 Comment By Roach On August 11, 2008 @ 3:22 pm

I don’t think Operation Just Cause was that long ago.

#14 Comment By nathansmith On August 11, 2008 @ 5:25 pm

Re: spheres of influence. The point is that spheres of influence are neither a normal nor a legitimate justification for intervention. And Russia has intervened outside its borders since 1991– it was occupying two regions of Georgia, for example, and it has troops in Armenia, Tajikistan, and elsewhere, and it has taken sides in elections in Georgia and Ukraine, has cut off gas supplies in deliberate attempts to manipulate the internal politics of neighbors, and has probably committed or attempted assassinations in Georgia and Ukraine.

Larison got this wrong and McCain got it right. By now it should be obvious to everyone that this is no more and no less than Russian aggression. And why is Russia behaving aggressively? Because it’s an authoritarian state that has destroyed independent media, fomented nationalism at home, crushed constitutional legality, crippled civil society, and attacked private property. Such nations cannot be trusted to pursue moral or rational courses of action. This is what history teaches. It’s the real realism.

No doubt McCain learned something about communist thugs while he was their prisoner in Hanoi.

#15 Comment By nathansmith On August 11, 2008 @ 5:26 pm

VA_Paleocon’s suggestion is highly reminiscent of Chamberlain’s approach to Hitler, no? Make deals over the dead bodies of small countries?

That’s immoral, of course. History shows that it also doesn’t work.

#16 Comment By James Rogers On August 11, 2008 @ 5:29 pm

Check this site out. It’s by an American lady in
Tblisi right now.

#17 Comment By TGGP On August 11, 2008 @ 6:42 pm

I would like to know what Daniel thinks of the discussion going on at Volokh Conspiracy. An example is [6], which compares and contrasts the secession of Kosovo and South Ossetia.

#18 Comment By VA_Paleocon On August 11, 2008 @ 7:14 pm

Nathan Smith-

Not every year is 1938. Not every foreign leader is Hitler.

BTW, Chamberlain didn’t get anything from Hitler except a vague promise. I’m talking about a real trade backed up by force. Its more similar to what Kennedy did with trading missiles in Turkey for missiles in Cuba. If a moron like you had been in charge in October 1962 I would have never been born, or had I been, it would have been in a Mad Max radioactive wasteland.

#19 Comment By VA_Paleocon On August 11, 2008 @ 7:14 pm

BTW, if you say “history shows it doesn’t work” then you’re historically illiterate. Read a book. Save the appeaser-baiting for moronic talk radio.

#20 Comment By WRW On August 12, 2008 @ 6:50 am

VA_Paleocon, it is always 1938, didn’t you know that? George Will is the latest pundit to lose sense of reason and conjure up WWII. Smith doesn’t understand what Chamberlin was doing any more than he understands this confrontation. Conflict between UK and Germany was inevitable, but there is no evidence to support the idea that Chamberlin’s compromise in any way either provoked war or undermined Britain’s position. (Indeed, it likely enhanced by giving her time to prepare for war.)

Back to the current, a foolish and destructive gambit by Saakashvili, perhaps encouraged by irresponsible rhetoric from US politicians. Civilians in South Ossetia suffered the initial consequences of this reckless act, and then Georgians suffered the consequences of Russia’s disproportionate response. An Americans (after foolishly and irresponsibly inflating Georgian expectations and nationalistic impulses) clucks on the sidelines recognizing that intervention would only escalate matters to a more destructive level. (A bout of realism of which I didn’t think they were capable.)

It appears Russia has restrained itself after capturing Gori and will take her “winnings” and withdraw. Meanwhile, Mr. Saakashvili deserves to join our President in retirement as both have mastered provoking an unjustified, unnecessary and destructive war.

Let me conclude by saying I’m happy Mr. Larison was right and I was wrong about US/NATO intervention. I’d hoped he was and glad he was. Our governing elites for once restrained themselves from war, seeing that (regardless of the capability to do so) it would only have made matters much worse; escalating into a much broader conflict with severe consequences for all parties. And I also apologize from my ill-tempered remark which were the product of frustration with an article on Putin from John Laughland in TAC some time ago. (Mr. Larison being the innocent brunt of that frustration.)

Of course, given that the conflict seems to have resolved by diplomacy and Western restraint on armed response, I am curious by Will’s denunciation today of Obama’s diplomatic approach. Perhaps I’m missing something.

#21 Comment By antrastan On August 12, 2008 @ 9:01 am

Mr Larison, what would you say to Leon Wieseltier’s post over at TNR? [7]