I was glad to be not blogging when the John Edwards story broke, but sorry not to have had the chance to comment on the outbreak of war between Russia and Georgia. To me, the beginning of wisdom here is with Porfirio Diaz‘s lament — “poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States of America.” Diaz’s insight is perfectly general: A small and poor country located close to one great power and far away from other great powers is in a bad situation (of course ask Poland about being located between two great powers …) and that’s the situation Georgia is in. Perhaps a closer analogy in the present-day context would be to Cuba, like Georgia a former favorite vacation destination for the great power’s elite, a country we’ve been horribly mistreating for decades for no real reason. And when you think about Cuba, you see that the vast majority of the world’s countries basically support the Cuban position vis-à-vis the American one. And yet absolutely none of them are prepared to do anything about it.
In a broader sense Steve Clemons raises the good point that the government of Russia made it pretty clear that if the United States recognized Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia over Russian objections that Russia would retaliate by stepping up support for separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This doesn’t seem to have given any of Georgia’s outspoken friends in the United States any pause. Indeed, strong pro-Georgian views in the U.S. media and foreign policy community correlate heavily with strong pro-Kosovo views. This highlights the fact that the underlying issue here is simply a disposition to take a dim view of Moscow and to favor aggressive policies to roll back Russian influence rather than some kind of deep and sincerely felt desire to help Georgia.
Except Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, perhaps seems to have been confused by the fact that he gets great press in the U.S. and Vladimir Putin gets terrible press. Thus, he made the puzzling decision last week to escalate the “frozen conflict” by launching an attack aimed at retaking South Ossetia. Russia, predictably, is now retaliating with results that look set to be disastrous for Georgia. I thought James Traub’s backgrounder on the Georgia-Russia conflict had a few problems, but this was a great summary of the basic irrealism of the Georgian outlook on the problem:
When I asked Temuri Yacobashvili, a cultivated man who is one of the country’s leading art patrons, why Georgia couldn’t focus on the threat from Russia and let the Abkhaz have their de facto state, he said, “These are not two different things, because it’s not amputating hand, it’s amputating head, or heart. No Georgian president could survive if he gave up on Abkhazia.” And, he added, “if the international community by its inaction will not leave any other option for Georgia, then we have to make decision.”
If the West, that is, won’t induce Russia to stop using the border region as a pawn, Georgia will be left with no choice save war. And how will the West do that? Mr. Saakashvili suggests sanctions, like travel bans, on individual Russian leaders. When I posed the same question to Giga Bokeria, another confidante who is deputy minister for foreign affairs, he said, “If Russia ceases to be an empire.” These are not serious answers.
By the same token, Washington Post columns and editorials fulminating against Russia’s counterattack are not serious. I think that if Russia were to recognize its enlightened self-interest it would realize that it should abandon its imperial posture in the “near abroad.” But if Russian officials don’t see things that way, there’s nothing we can really do to make them see it that way.
Meanwhile, Americans would do well to abandon some of the moralism that infuses commentary on this. Fundamentally, Russia is supporting the claims of Ossetians and Abkhazians for reasons of cynical power politics. But the American perspective on this is also mostly driven by reasons of cynical power politics. And there’s nothing really wrong with that. Georgia wants to cultivate American friendship so it makes sense to reciprocate. In the current moment of crisis, we should try to back our ally up. But we should also remember that in the scheme of things, Georgian territorial integrity is not the most important item on the US-Russian docket — getting Russia to do what we want vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear program is way more important than getting Russia to do what we want vis-à-vis Georgia. Is that fair to the Georgians? Of course not. But they have the misfortune of being far from God and close to Russia.