The war between Russia and Georgia is a tragedy on its own terms. But it also has broad implications for U.S. foreign policy. Both President Bush and Sen. John McCain have demonstrated their shared predisposition to involve America's armed services in foreign conflicts with no link - or at best a tenuous connection - to America's vital security interests. It is time that we put defense back into America's defense policy.
The conflict in the Caucasus is like many other wars around the world. It is complicated, ugly and tragic. The disputes between Georgia and Russia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia have roots going back centuries. There is no correct position on whether Abkhazia and South Ossetia should be part of Georgia (bearing in mind also it was the United States that went to war to separate Kosovo from Serbia's control).
In fact, we have paid a high price for a similar failure to understand the deep, long-standing and historic animosities between ethnic and religious groups elsewhere - Iraq, for instance. The results there were flawed plans and costly miscalculations in the invasion and occupation of that country. We should never forget that history continues to weigh heavily on the present in many places around the world.
Of course we should deplore Moscow's heavy-handed tactics in Georgia, including its failure so far to honor the cease-fire agreement by pulling back its forces. However, bad and over blown historical analogies won't help resolve the conflict. If this war was like Adolf Hitler's attack on Poland, as some have suggested, Georgia would be occupied, its government would be ousted, and its residents would be on their way to concentration camps. No one would be traveling to Tbilisi and we wouldn't be talking to Moscow.
While we rightly sympathize with the Georgian people in light of Russia's disproportionate military response, the government in Tbilisi is not without blame. Neither side has clean hands.
Yet President Bush is sending U.S. soldiers to Georgia under the banner of providing humanitarian assistance, placing American forces in an unsettled war zone that clearly risks involving the U.S. in a confrontation with Russia. He also continues to press for Georgia's membership in NATO, which carries with it a promise to protect Georgia from attack; and clearly is waiving a red flag in Moscow's face.
Sen. McCain is even more extreme. When pressed, he refused to rule out military intervention in the conflict. He wants to bring Georgia into NATO even more quickly.
Whether Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain have taken these provocative positions based on their personal relationship with Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili, on a view that U.S. national interests are somehow seriously threatened by this conflict in the Caucuses, or because of some other assessment is unclear. But both Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain appear to base their foreign-policy decisions on personal factors. Mr. Bush famously looked into Vladimir Putin's eyes and liked what he saw. Mr. McCain talks warmly of his friendship with "Misha," the Georgian President's nickname. Neither approach is a sound basis on which to decide policy towards Russia, or any other country.
To the contrary, U.S. foreign policy should be based on a hard-headed assessment of U.S. interests, not warm and fuzzy feelings about a particular foreign leader.
The most important American interest is defending America; and intervening on behalf of Georgia against Russia has nothing to do with defending America.
The sort of simplistic, bombastic approach to foreign policy represented by Mr. McCain is always dangerous, but never more so than when dealing with a major nuclear power. Thankfully, while the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, the Iraqi government had little means to resist and none to retaliate against the American homeland. Conflict with Russia would be very different, and would immediately return us to the horrible world of Mutual Assured Destruction, in which cities in both countries were held hostage to nuclear holocaust.
It clearly is time to expect Europe to do more on behalf of its own defense. Many Europeans are calling for action, but most expect the U.S. to provide the military muscle, not the Europeans themselves. The European Union has a larger collective economy and population than does the United States, and should begin taking responsibility for its own security.
The United States must always be prepared to use military force to defend itself. But doing so should be the last rather than first resort. And while Washington should work with the Europeans to pressure Moscow to stand down - and there are significant economic pressure points we can employ - it should not risk or invite involvement in a tragic and unnecessary war; and one with so little direct or immediate relevance to America's own security.
Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman from Georgia, is the official candidate for president of the Libertarian Party.