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The Cost of Saakashvili's Folly

The overwhelming reaction in American and European comment on the Russian riposte to Georgia’s attack on Russian “peacekeeping” forces in South Ossetia has been that Russia showed too much of its claws. It should now be ostracized or penalized for “overreaction” to an attack on its soldiers.

This response evades acknowledgement that the real damage Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili has done has been to the United States and NATO, and to Georgia itself, which for the foreseeable future will now be a nation of limited sovereignty, and an awkward embarrassment to its Western allies.

It will have Russian troops indefinitely stationed on its territory to protect South Ossetia and Abkhazia, henceforth self-declared independent entities under Russian protection (or eventually annexed to Russia at their own petition). The Russians, at this point, prefer the first solution because, as they like to emphasize, it follows the precedent of Kosovo’s self-proclamation of independence from Serbia in February of this year, under American sponsorship.

The crisis has been a turning point in current international relations because it demonstrated that the United States could not or would not defend Georgia, despite the widespread international impression that Washington, after having trained Georgia’s troops and showily displayed the Saakashvili government as its protege, was in some way implicated in the Georgian attack on South Ossetia, and on the Russian soldiers legally there as “peacekeepers.”

Those Russian soldiers had been there for 16 years under an international agreement following a first Georgian attempt to “recover” the linguistically and historically distinct South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of them autonomous Russian — and subsequently Soviet — protectorates or regions since 1810.

Now U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney says he is going to visit Georgia next week, after visits to Azerbaijan and Ukraine — which no doubt are in need of some bucking up after this display of Russian fury and of American “diplomatic restraint” (meaning lack of rational alternative). American naval vessels are in the Black Sea, and one of them, a destroyer, has delivered some humanitarian supplies to a southern Georgian port.

Another U.S. vessel, an unarmed Coast Guard cutter, is scheduled to make another delivery Wednesday to the port of Poti, patrolled by Russian forces and with nearby Russian checkpoints.

The Russians have darkly declared their suspicion that American vessels have been delivering arms to Georgia at other places along the coast. Even though the Russians destroyed all that was left of the new American military equipment and installations recently given to Georgia, even Saakashvili is unlikely to want to start up the war again — at least just now, unless Cheney is going to bring with him the 82nd Airborne Division and the 6th Fleet. That, of course, is what Saakashvili seemed to expect the night when his invasion turned into a debacle. “Where is America?” he said, “Where is the Free World?” He has since received reassurances from presidential candidate John McCain and vice presidential candidate Joe Biden, both fans of the unsuccessful Georgian liberator.

This has been an inane and stupid affair, except for the unfortunates who got killed or maimed, or lost their homes, or have been ethnically cleansed by one side or another during the past days and are now grieving refugees. The United States left Saakashvili and the Georgians twisting in the wind, after telling them they were going to belong to NATO and help spread freedom in the Caucasus.

Ukraine and the Baltic states have been given the lesson that great powers do not go to war against other heavily armed great powers just to settle ancient sectarian quarrels or linguistic rivalries in client countries, even if those are prospective NATO members.

Poland and the Czech Republic had thought it prudent to humor the obsession of Washington and its arms manufacturers with building a missile-defense system against Iran’s committing suicide. Now they find that Russia is furious about something they had taken on faith from the U.S., but turns out to have been, to Washington politicians, a voter-pleasing and money-making boondoggle.

Israel now finds Syria talking with Moscow arms suppliers. Russian cooperation with the U.S. on various matters — Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah; counterterrorism, nuclear nonproliferation, and oil and gas supplies to Europe — is now expected to cease.

Why? As far as one can make out, because a certain number of policy types in the Clinton and Bush II administrations, and in the Pentagon, decided that it could be a cost-free demonstration of American power of intimidation to build NATO right up to Russia’s front door. Why, they could even take over some of Russia’s historical dependencies and protectorates — just to show who’s No. 1.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at www.williampfaff.com.

© 2008 Tribune Media Services Inc.

William Pfaff
Columnist
William Pfaff is known as a globally respected political commentator and author on international relations, contemporary history and U.S. policy. He has been published in five countries and his column was…
William Pfaff

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