anatomy of the situation in georgia

Anatomy of A(nother) Fiasco
by billmon
at the Daily Kos

Mon Aug 18, 2008 at 08:57:24 AM PDT

Georgia, Georgia
No peace can I find.
Just an old sweet song
Keeps Georgia on my mind.

Stuart Gorrell and Hoagy Carmichael

It’s not like I really wanted to spend the weekend thinking about last week’s small war between Russia and the Caucasian republic of Georgia – not when I could have been watching women’s beach volleyball at the Olympics instead.

But ever since the obscure dispute over the breakaway province of South Ossetia suddenly flared into a good old fashioned Cold War crisis (putting the US – or at least John McCain – toe-to-toe with the Russkies) I’ve been trying to figure out exactly how America found itself obligated to defend the security and territorial integrity of a place name most Americans probably associate with peach trees and Scarlett O’Hara.

billmon’s diary :: ::
I’m no foreign policy maven, but I’m also not completely oblivious to what our government has been up to in the Caucasus (unlike, say, about 99.99% of the rest of the American population). I knew the Cheney Administration had taken a shine to Michael Saakashvili, the purportedly democratic, allegedly peaceloving president of Georgia, and I knew the Cheneyites were also big supporters of his demands for a Russian withdrawal from those bits of territory that rejected Georgian authority when the old USSR broke up in 1991. I also knew the administration has been trying, both overtly and covertly, to break the Russian stranglehold on the export of oil and natural gas from the Caspian Sea basin (democratic freedom and access to petrocarbons being fairly synonymous terms in the American diplomatic dictionary).

But I have to admit, even I was startled when the semi-official media (Washington Post, NY Times, AP, etc.) began referring to Georgia as a staunch US “ally”. Since when, I wondered, had the United States bound itself in a collective defense pact with Stalin’s birthplace? Was I out of the country, sleeping – or watching too much beach volleyball – when that particularly treaty was ratified in the US Senate?

This really bothered me. Ever since I realized, sometime in the winter of 2002, that the Cheney Administration had made “preventative” war the first bullet point in its corporate mission statement, I’ve tried to keep closer track of where they might do it next. And yet, apparently, I had failed. How?

What I found, with a little digging, was pretty illustrative: not just of the need to watch this administration (and probably all administrations) the way a mongoose watches a cobra, but also of the fecklessness of our semi-official media – which not only don’t recognize a US foreign policy debacle when they see one, but instinctively misrepresent the results once they become to obvious to ignore.

It’s also a story of the traditional cluelessness, spinelessness and all-around malign neglect displayed by the members of both parties and both houses of Congress when it comes to said foreign policy disasters. There are times, it seems, when Joe Biden can be damned near as dangerous as Dick Cheney. But maybe you already knew that.

NATO’s Drive to the East

Our story begins at the end of the last Cold War, when the former Soviet satellites of the Warsaw Pact were freed from their bondage to Moscow and immediately began looking West for protection from a future resurgence of Russian power. They all clamored for admission to the NATO club, the sooner the better. Given their history, who can blame them?

But the realists of the first Bush Administration looked upon this idea with all the enthusiasm of an experienced hunter asked to take care of some lost bear cubs. Mama Bear might not be around now, but when she shows up, you know there’s going to be trouble. Indeed, the Russians later claimed that Bush and Baker had promised them, at the time of Germany’s reunification, that NATO would not be pushed any further east than the Oder River (Germany’s border with Poland). I don’t know if this is true, but the Russians seem to believe it.

Not for the last time, though, the incoming Clinton team showed itself more susceptible to interventionist impulses and began pushing for NATO expansion – with, it should be added, the enthusiastic support of most of our European allies, who saw expansion both as a safeguard against Russian revival and a way to keep the US engaged in European affairs. (It’s hard to remember now that the big worry back then was that the US would disengage from the world, instead of trying to dominate it.)

The main obstacle to the plan wasn’t so much Russia – given the alcoholic pliability of Boris Yeltsin – as US public opinion. There were those (not all of them dirty fucking hippies) who thought the collapse of the Soviet Union had robbed NATO of its reason for existing, and that in any case pushing a US security guarantee all the way to the borders of Belarus was both provocative and unnecessary. Polls showed ambivalence at best, clear opposition at worse, among the voters.

However, NATO expansion was passionately supported both by the neocons and the liberal internationalists (i.e. the old New Republic crowd) – and probably more importantly, by the Eastern European émigré lobbies that had clout both with the GOP and with the hawkish “Scoop Jackson” wing of the Democratic Party. And these passionate interest groups did what passionate interest groups usually do: They used their influence to make a legislative end run around an ambivalent but largely detached majority.

In early October 1994, as Congress hurried to adjourn for the mid-term elections, something called the “NATO Participation Act” was introduced – in the House by Democrat Sam Gejdenson of Connecticut and Ben Gilman of New York; in the Senate by Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Hank Brown of Colorado (a liberal Democrat, a moderate Republican and two conservative Republicans. In the warped context of our political duopoly, you can’t get much more bipartisan that that.) The measure was quickly attached to a bill authorizing international aid for the war on drugs, unanimously passed by both houses on voice votes, and quickly signed into law by President Clinton. There was no floor debate and, as far as I can tell, virtually no press coverage.

This completely non-controversial (and indeed, barely noticed) law authorized the US government to immediately begin treating “countries emerging from communist domination” – and, in particular, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – as de facto allies, even though no formal decision had been made on their applications to the NATO club. This meant the Pentagon could provide them with “surplus” stores and equipment, help upgrade their old Soviet-era military bases, and finance weapons sales under the same lenient terms extended to other US allies. It also authorized the stationing of US “trainers” (read: military advisors) on their home soil. The only thread left hanging was how the US would respond in the unlikely eventuality that our new unofficial allies were attacked.

Three years later, that thread was also tied down: Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were formally admitted to NATO – obliging the United States to treat an attack on their territories as an attack upon our own – in other words, an ironclad guarantee that the United States would instantly, automatically, go to war to defend them from any external aggression.

Simon Says: Take Another Step Forward

Now it can be argued that things worked out well in the end: The Russians didn’t like it a bit but were far too weak (and, in Yeltsin’s case, far too pickled) to retaliate. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic all settled down to become respectable citizens of Donald Rumsfeld’s “New Europe,” applied and were soon admitted to the European Union, and, not least, became a welcome market for US weapons manufacturers in that lean period for Death Inc.

Which may be why neocons and neoliberals alike (supported, as before, by the various Eastern European lobbies) saw no reason to stop the process. Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Slovakia were quickly tapped as candidates for the next NATO expansion draft. So were the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – an even more provocative gesture in Russian eyes, given that all three were former, if highly unwilling, Soviet republics and the last two in particular sported significant Russian ethnic minorities who were not happy about being separated from the Motherland.

Immediately tossing aside his promise of a “humble” foreign policy, the newly selected George W. Bush quickly endorsed their bids. “I believe in NATO membership for
all of Europe’s democracies that seek it,” he said in a June 2001 speech in Warsaw. “We will not trade away the fate of free European peoples. . . no more Munichs . . . no more Yaltas.” Even then, Shrub had a taste for the pseudo-Churchillian gestures.

In an rational world, in which leaders balance competing priorities against limited resources, the 9/11 attacks might have led to a rethink of NATO’s expansion plans. But amid the weird euphoria (or at least, delusions of omnipotence) that seems to have grabbed the Cheney Administration and the entire US foreign policy establishment by the brain stem after 9/11, the campaign to add a baker’s half dozen weak, ethnically divided states to the NATO club actually picked up steam.

By now, though, there was a different, considerably more sober, Russian leader on the other side of the chessboard. And yet, once again, the Russians conceded the game. Putin reportedly later claimed he traded NATO membership for the Baltic trio (plus a ticket to Moscow’s old stomping grounds in Central Asia during the invasion of Afghanistan) for a free hand in the Ukraine and the Caucasus. Maybe so – although if so it was a bad deal, based on the flawed assumption that the USA, waist deep in its war against Islamic terrorism, wanted to be Russia’s strategic partner, or at least was no longer a strategic rival. Even Henry Kissinger now seems to realize this was never really in the cards.

In any case, the MO followed in the first NATO expansion round was redeployed in Congress. Another bill (the Gerald B. H. Solomon Freedom Consolidation Act) authorizing the president to treat the expansion candidates as if they were already NATO allies, was introduced and quickly waved past the usual Democratic niceties. And in November of 2002, this fait accompli was duly ratified by NATO, which gained another seven members – in the process moving the US defense umbrella to within 150 miles of downtown St. Petersburg. Ronald Reagan used to raise alarms about the threat of a Sovietized Nicaragua just a day’s drive – a long day’s drive – south of the Rio Grande. And here was NATO, in theory at least, asserting a right to park its tanks within commuting distance of Russia’s second-largest city.

You would think that with NATO’s right foot planted firmly on the Black Sea, and its left foot at the gates of St. Petersburg, the new containment doctrine would have reached its natural limits. But the Cheney Administration, again with the full support of the bipartisan enlargement lobby, immediately began to agitate for yet another NATO expansion, to bring such democratic powerhouses as Croatia – recently emerged from its ethnic grudge match with Serbia – and Albania – into the fold. After the “Orange” and “Rose” revolutions put pro-Western leaders in power in the Ukraine and Georgia, those two countries not only were added to the list, but pushed straight to the top of it.

However, at this point (finally!) our European allies began to have serious doubts about the American relish for bearbaiting. Bringing the Baltic republics into NATO was one thing – after all, they had been victims of Stalin’s aggression, had resisted (as much as anyone could) the tender mercies of the KGB and the Red Army, and had bolted not just the USSR but its nominal successor, the Commonwealth of Independent States, at the first opportunity.

The Ukraine was a different kettle of sturgeon: It had been a part of the Russian state for more than 300 years, it also contained a large Russian minority, and it was and still is a CIS member in good standing. Its complete deference on security issues was clearly considered a core, non-negotiable issue by the Kremlin – Orange Revolution or no Orange Revolution. It didn’t help that the original revolutionary movement quickly fragmented, with democrats excluded from power accusing democrats in power of showing some very old-fashioned authoritarian tendencies. (Likewise, Georgia’s “democratic” president has also shown a willingness to crack opposition skulls, and has also taken to pandering to the extreme nationalists in his coalition – promising to retake the lost provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia by whatever means necessary.)

It is (or at least used to be) an established principle that countries with unresolved border disputes make bad candidates for NATO membership – since it creates a risk the alliance will be dragged into grubby territorial disputes under the guise of collective security. It doesn’t exactly help that in Georgia’s case one of the disputed borders was actually drawn by home boy Josef Stalin, who arbitrarily incorporated Abkhazia into the Georgian Soviet Republic in 1931. (In a similar fit of socialist fraternal generosity, Nikita Khrushchev transferred the Crimea – Russian territory since the 18th century – to the Ukraine in 1956.)

In any case, French and German securocrats dug in their heels, and even Bush-friendly political leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel decided that planting NATO’s flag on the crest of the Caucasian mountains and the banks of the Dneper River was an expansion too far – at least for the moment.

Same Verse, Third Refrain

Once again, the US enlargement lobby sprang into action. In February of last year, with the newly born Democratic Congress still waiving its little arms and spitting up mucus, Dick Lugar (the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) and Joe Biden (the committee’s nominally Democratic chairman) introduced the “NATO Freedom Consolidation Act”. Like its predecessors, the bill authorized the President to immediately begin treating the Ukraine and Georgia as full-fledged NATO allies in all but name – with weapons sales, military advisors, etc. Senate cosponsors included Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Gordon Smith of Oregon, and, naturally, John McCain (R-POW).

Also like its predecessors, the bill was whisked through both houses of Congress with about as much deliberation as a resolution praising the Future Farmers of Benton County for their fine showing at the Iowa State Fair – with no hearings, no debate, no roll call votes. President Bush signed it into law on April 9, 2007. The White House put out an official statement marking the occasion. It was one sentence long.

And so, with an absolute minimum of democratic process, the United States of America committed its full prestige and power (if not, just yet, a legally binding guarantee) to the defense of the two former Soviet republics, even though the Russians have repeatedly stated that they regard NATO membership by either country as a direct threat to their own vital security interests. As others have already noted, this is as if China had unilaterally announced a military alliance with Mexico and Cuba. Actually it’s worse: Imagine the US reaction if China announced a military alliance with Mexico, after which the president of Mexico started dropping public hints about taking New Mexico back – by whatever means necessary. (And if that comparison seems unnecessarily paranoid, consider the history of Russia in the 20th century. Even paranoids have real enemies.)

A careful search of Nexus and Google reveals that the number of stories appearing in the pages of major US newspapers and magazines, or on the wires of major American news services, taking note of this fateful decision, equals exactly one: a brief item out of UPI’s Moscow bureau, warning of the Russian reaction. The Georgian and Ukranian press, on the other hand, gave the new law saturation coverage – encouraged by their respective governments, both of which issued official statements describing their future NATO admissions as, in effect, done deals.

The Russians also reacted. Just a few days after the NATO Freedom Consolidation Act was introduced in the Senate, President Putin gave a speech in Munich that was widely reported as his harshest attack to date on America for its allegedly aggressive and hegemonic designs. The New York Times and US government officials (which is a somewhat redundant expression) both professed shock over Putin’s language – without once mentioning the congressional provocation that triggered it.

But there was just one problem: NATO admission for the Ukraine and Georgia was most emphatically not a done deal. Despite all the pressure from the Cheney Administration (which, we now know, was being played hard by pro-Georgian lobbyists, including John McCain’s current campaign manager) the French and Germans stuck to their position in the run up to last April’s NATO summit in Bucharest.

This led to another flurry of activity by the congressional expansion lobby. In January of this year, another resolution was introduced, again demanding that NATO open its doors to the Ukraine and Georgia. This time the list of cosponsors included Biden, McCain and Joe Lieberman – as well as both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It was passed by unanimous consent. And when the NATO summit nonetheless elected to pass on the Ukrainian and Georgian applications (promising, vaguely, to revisit the issue at a later date) the Demopublicans quickly came back with yet another resolution blasting the Russians for a long list of alleged violations of Georgian sovereignty and praising the NATO summit for “stat[ing] that the Republic of Georgia will become a member of NATO” – when, in fact, the summit had made no such promise just declined to admit them. Up is down. Black is white.

Update 8/18: A commenter poins out that the NATO summit did in fact issue a communique “stating that the Republic of Georgia will become a member” (as well as Ukraine) – as a sop to the two republics and their American backers. Not a binding promise, but also not an Orwellian parallel universe. I regret the error.

Blank Checks and Bounced Ones

Looking at this dreary legislative record (which reads like something out of the old Supreme Soviet) is it any surprise Georgia’s president felt he had a virtual carte blanche from America to challenge the Russians – up to and including the use of military force in a disastrous bid to reconquer South Ossetia? Why would he think otherwise – right up until the moment he discovered America had written him a check it had no real intention of honoring?

There’s not much more to say – except that it’s a pretty strange world where the sworn goal of US diplomacy is to put the country in a situation where it may have to go to war with another nuclear power (or back down ignominiously) to defend the sanctity of borders drawn by Josef Stalin and Nikita Krushchev. Leaving aside the raving hypocrisy (Kosovo, Iraq) it’s an alarming sign that the national security and foreign policy elites of this country – in both parties; and not just among the lunatic neocon fringe – are totally out of control. British analyst Anatol Levin (one of the more perceptive of the realists) describes it a case of “profound infantilism”:

In the United States, the infantile illusion of omnipotence, whereby it doesn’t matter how many commitments the United States has made elsewhere—in the last resort, the United States can always do what it likes.

Personally, I see it more as a case of the bureaucratic imperative run amok: The national security state is doing exactly what it was designed to do, but without any of the external checks and counterbalances that existed during the Cold War – the war it was originally created to fight. The domestic political system, meanwhile, has atrophied to the point where it’s simply an afterthought – a legislative rubber stamp needed to keep the dollars flowing. With no effective opposition, the machine can run on autopilot, until it finally topples off a cliff (as in Iraq) or slams into an object (like the Russian Army) that refuses to get out of the way.

And that, ultimately, is the most depressing thing about this story: Even after the fiasco in Iraq, the bloody failure in Lebanon, the downward spiral in Afghanistan and, now, the futile posturing in Georgia, there’s absolutely no evidence the US foreign policy elite is inclined to moderate its ambition to re-organize the world along American lines. Nor is there any sign the political class (including, unfortunately, Barack Obama) is rethinking its lockstep support for that agenda. The voters, meanwhile, don’t seem to care much one way or another – as long as gas doesn’t get too expensive and the military casualties aren’t too high (or can be kept off the TV). If anything, it looks like bashing the Russians is still good politics, if only for the nostalgia value.

If you caught Andrew Bacevich on Bill Moyer’s show the other night, you may have noticed that his biggest complaint was not that US foreign policy is misguided and destructive (although he clearly thinks it’s both) but that it is being conducted in a democratic vacuum — despite all the florid rhetoric about promoting democracy. We may still go through the motions of a republican form of government, Bacevich says, but the fabric has gotten pretty thin: or, in the case of our national revival of the Great Game in the Caucasus, damned near invisible.

How long before it tears completely?

Update 8/17: A point I forgot to mention, but brought back to mind by this excellent Asia Times story, is that it’s not at all clear that Ukraine will remain a Western-leaning, would-be US client state. The current president and NATO booster, Viktor Yushchenko, is in a weak – and increasingly unpopular – political position. His former Orange Revolution comrade turned parliamentary rival, Yulia Timoshenko, takes a more realistic view of Kiev’s need to stay on reasonable terms with Moscow. It’s even possible that Viktor Yanukovich, the pro-Russian apparatchik whose bid to steal the 2004 presidential election was foiled by the Orange Revolution, could make a come back.

This raises an interesting possibility: What if Ukraine were admitted to NATO, but a pro-Russian leader then came to power in Kiev by democratic means – giving Moscow a loyal voice (and ear) inside NATO’s internal deliberations? What would the US and friends do then? Kick Ukraine out?

Maybe somebody should ask Joe Biden.

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