The United States once based alliances on national interest. No longer. Unable to convince its NATO partners to bring Georgia into the alliance, Washington plans to sign an agreement with Tbilisi establishing a “strategic partnership.” For what, one wonders?
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili called the accord “historic” and observed that “the United States has never before said that Georgia is its strategic partner.” Batu Kutelia, set to become Georgia’s ambassador to the United States, opined: “Cooperation with our strategic partner is almost the only assurance of our security.”
Whatever the meaning of “strategic partner,” Tbilisi is not one. Most important, Georgia has no strategic value for America.
The United states fought the entire Cold War with Georgia part of the Soviet Union. No one argued that liberating Tbilisi was necessary for the West’s survival. Indeed, long before the U.S.S.R., Georgia had been absorbed by the Russian Empire.
The fact that Georgia hosts energy pipelines matters little. The Caspian Basin’s energy resources are useful, not critical, and Russia would block the West’s access to oil and natural gas only in the sort of large-scale confrontation that is unlikely to occur - except in the case of Western meddling along Russia’s border. One need only peer at a map to determine to which country, the United States or Russia, Georgia is more important strategically.
The presumption that a new agreement will deter Moscow from undertaking military action in the future is both naive and foolish. Russia already has demonstrated its readiness to go to war regarding border issues.
Moscow isn’t likely to believe Washington is prepared for a military confrontation in a region of no serious strategic interests to the West. And with a large supply of tactical nuclear weapons as well as an adequate strategic nuclear deterrent, the Kremlin is well situated to tell the U.S. government to stay out.
Before the U.S. government decides to risk that kind of confrontation, it should consider the stakes. Georgia matters to Russia, not the U.S. Washington should not climb up a hill when retreat would be its only logical option if challenged.
Equally problematic is the irresponsible government in Tbilisi. During the August war, Georgia became a political cause celebre. At least U.S. officials could be excused for not knowing all of the facts then. But it has become increasingly apparent that Tbilisi was the aggressor.
As is typical for this region, the histories of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are complicated and there is no obvious right or wrong outcome. Moreover, though Mr. Saakashvili is American-educated, he is no friend of liberty.
Human Rights Watch reported his policies seemed “to fuel rather than reduce abuses.” Investigative journalist Nino Zuriashvili contended “there was more media freedom before the Rose Revolution” that brought Mr. Saakashvili to power.
Even worse was Mr. Saakashvili’s decision to go to war. Stipulate that Moscow’s position was dictated by cynicism rather than idealism. Nevertheless, Georgia lit “a match in a roomful of gas fumes,” as former Secretary of State Colin Powell put it.
Spiegel online reported that “One thing was already clear to the officers at NATO headquarters in Brussels: They thought that the Georgians had started the conflict and that their actions were more calculated than pure self-defense or a response to Russian provocation.”
Mr. Saakashvili said his military invaded after South Ossetians shelled Georgian villages, yet the evidence contradicts his claim. Explained one monitor for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe: “It was clear to me that the attack was completely indiscriminate and disproportionate to any, if indeed there had been any, provocation.” Erosi Kitsmarishvili, Georgia’s former ambassador to Moscow, explained to the Georgian parliament that “Saakashvili wanted that war; he has been bracing for that during the last four years.”
Alas, Mr. Saakashvili had convinced himself that he had Washington’s support, according to Mr. Kitsmarishvili. In perhaps the most striking, and strikingly stupid, admission to date, Batu Kutelia, then-deputy defense minister, acknowledged that Tbilisi didn’t expect the Russians to respond: “We did not prepare for this kind of eventuality.” Oops.
If Georgia’s leader irresponsibly starts a war in the belief that he can drag the United States into it based on Washington’s more general blandishments before August, imagine how is he likely to act after being rewarded with a new agreement creating a “strategic partnership.”
Americans should be sympathetic to the Georgian people, not the Georgian government. But such sympathy is no justification for an alliance, whether de facto or de jure. U.S. security is best served by staying out of any conflict in the Caucasus.
Doug Bandow is the Robert A. Taft Fellow at the American Conservative Defense Alliance. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of “Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire” (Xulon Press).