At the gathering with displaced Georgian children from South Ossetia, Mr. Biden saved his harshest words for Russia.
He said he believed that Moscow “used a pretext to invade your country,” [bold mine-DL] weighing in confidently on the question of whether Mr. Saakashvili should be blamed for ordering the Aug. 7 shelling of Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital. He said Russia had paid dearly for invading Georgia, arguing that “all the countries that surround them are now saying very harsh things to Russia.” [bold mine-DL] He promised the children that the United States would press Russia to comply with the French-brokered cease-fire agreement, and that if they continued to defy it, “it is a problem for them.”
He noted the largess of Americans — “they said, ‘It’s O.K., take my money, raise my taxes’ ”[bold mine-DL] — in pledging $1 billion in aid to Georgia after the war.
“You should understand, America cares about you, cares about you personally [bold mine-DL],” Mr. Biden said. “We care about all of you, and we’re not going to leave you. It’s a hard journey, but we’re not going away.”
Well, there’s no “preemptive declinism” to be found here, that’s for sure! We knew that Biden was a hawk and was embarrassingly pro-Georgian during the August war, going so far as to visit Saakashvili that same month, and it was already clear how meaningless all of this “reset” talk was. Even so, I don’t know of any American politician other than McCain who has been so reckless and ideological in his statements about last summer’s war in Georgia. This can’t be written off simply as Biden’s normal idiocy. He was representing the administration on a major trip overseas, and this trip seems to have been calculated to serve as an insult and warning to Moscow based on Biden’s itinerary and his public remarks.
To take Biden’s claims in order, his claim about the Russian invasion is true only if by “pretext” he meant the Georgian government’s decision to escalate some small border disputes into full-scale war. It is worth noting that the ethnic Georgians who were unfortunately expelled from South Ossetia have not lived under Tbilisi’s authority for almost twenty years. There were probably not any children in the audience old enough to remember a time when South Ossetia was meaningfully part of Georgia. That doesn’t mean that they and their parents don’t think of it as part of Georgia, but it does draw our attention to an important distinction between the claims of the Georgian governmen and the political realities of the region.
It also serves as a useful reminder that South Ossetia’s inclusion as part of Georgia is something relatively very recent and artificial. It has less history as part of Georgia than South Tyrol does as part of Italy. Correction: These statements were inaccurate. What is now South Ossetia does have a pre-tsarist history of inclusion as part of the kingdom of Georgia. I apologize for the error.
Russia’s neighbors are all saying “very harsh” things, Biden told the audience, but it is Georgia whose economy lies in ruins and whose people have been displaced by the tens of thousands. I don’t know what the political leanings of the refugees are, but you would think the victims of a crisis created by Saakashvili would be very hostile to the government that plunged them into their present predicament. Americans probably think $1 billion dollars spent on Georgia is $1 billion we don’t have for our own needs and under present circumstances even $1 billion, which is nothing in the grand scheme of the federal budget, is more than we can afford to waste as a show of goodwill. I would be fascinated to see the poll that shows how Americans are excited to have their taxes raised to subsidize an economic basketcase country ruled by a bellicose, authoritarian demagogue. Luckily for the Georgians, most Americans have already forgotten that Georgia exists and so will not be concerned that any of their money is being wasted there, but that drives home the final point, which is that Americans don’t care about Georgia. If the “hard journey” ahead was explained to them, they would probably be even less interested in aiding Georgia.
As Chotiner mentions at the end of his post, this is the sort of reckless rhetoric of support that could encourage Georgians to expect U.S. backing in a future confrontation, which would set them up for another deeply disillusioning fall. It is the kind of rhetoric from which the administration correctly refrained in Iran. It is also exactly the kind of reckless rhetoric of support that encouraged Saakashvili to make his disastrous blunders last year. If our officials continue to use this rhetoric even after everything Saakashvili has done, what would it take for our government to learn that unflagging solidarity with a state of marginal importance on Russia’s doorstep is very dangerous and contributes to a heightening of tensions between Russia and Georgia?
I sometimes think that the so-called “pro-Georgian” politicians and pundits won’t be satisfied until Georgia has been occupied and annexed by Russia, because their sympathy for Georgia mostly has nothing to do with the well-being or independence of Georgia and has everything to do with providing an example of Russian “revisionism” that they can use to justify an anti-Russian stance. How else can we explain the continued support for the Georgian government’s most self-destructive behavior? How else can we explain the continued provocations that are making tensions in the region worse rather than defusing them? Real concern for Georgia and the welfare of its people would dictate that we stop using the country as bait to lure Russia into another international incident, but the “freedom agenda” and support for Saakashvili never had much to do with what was best for Georgia.