Open an Investigation
President George Bush, flanked by Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, and Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense, announced that he is sending Rice to Georgia and directed Gates to start humanitarian missions. Later on Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he sees no need to invoke American military force in the war between Russia and Georgia. (EPA/Times Online/AP)
The precipitating event in the war in South Ossetia and Georgia was the Georgian shelling of Tskhinvali. That either provided an "excuse" for the Russians to invade or a justifiable "reason". Either way, without that shelling the outbreak of war was unlikely.
How did it happen? Why were the Georgians so reckless? Some Russians say it was part of a plan to annex South Ossetia by force. Georgians say it was in response to provocations (the Russians supposedly set the Georgians up).
There also are different views of what America's role was at that time. Some Russians suppose that the United States knew and approved of the attack.
That seems highly unlikely, because our government has denied it and because our government is not so foolish.
In fact, had they known, American leaders surely would have done all they could to stop the Georgians from moving against Ossetia, especially by shelling a city. Americans on the ground did not do so because they apparently didn't see it coming. President Bush, attending the Olympics in Beijing, once again was caught off guard.
Why didn't our political leaders know what was about to happen? Where was our reformed CIA?
One suspects that the White House is conducting its own investigation of the intelligence failure in the Caucasus, but Congress's intelligence committees certainly should be interested, also.
Meanwhile, the Associated Press has a news story that shows how elusive is information is in Ossetia/Georgia. It should serve as a cautionary warning for those in America inclined to saber-rattling.
As another perspective, is it possible that the Russians were caught by surprise, too? They certainly knew something like this could happen, because they obviously had planned for the military possibility. According to Russian-language news accounts in Moscow, the Russians are congratulating themselves for the performance of their military, but there some discordant questions being asked about why their own intelligence services initially were slow in seeing what was happening in Ossetia.
Major powers don't like surprises.
Surprises are almost always the enemy of peace.
Even in the bad old days of the Cold War we usually did better than this.
Bruce Chapman served as United States Ambassador to the United Nations Organizations in Vienna, Austria from 1985 through 1988.
The referenced story by the AP:
U.S.-backed Georgian president's exaggerated claims fuel tensions with rival Russia
Aug 13, 2008 19:12 EST
It was a claim that could have provoked a dangerous Kremlin response: The United States is readying to take over airports and ports in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
The claim, by U.S.-backed Georgia President Mikhail Saakashvili on Wednesday was swiftly shot down by officials in Washington, who denied any such designs on Georgian soil.
Yet, it was the latest in a string of overstated pronouncements by the American-educated Georgian leader that are further fueling tensions with Moscow.
His comments -- along with a stream of biased, conflicting and often false information coming from both Russian and Georgian officials -- have made it hard to figure out what is really happening in the world's latest hotspot.
Fighting between the Russian and Georgian armies raged for days, leaving hundreds dead and some 100,000 forced from their homes. The U.S. government and world diplomats are scrambling for a way to cool the tensions.
Warfare erupted when Georgia sought to retake control over the breakaway province of South Ossetia last Thursday and Russia responded with overwhelming military force.
Saakashvili has been conducting daily interviews in his fluent English on international television networks and making frequent televised speeches at home.
On Wednesday, he said in an interview on CNN that Russian troops were "closing on the capital, circling," and planning to install their own government in Tbilisi.
Associated Press reporters in the area saw no sign of an impending coup. An AP reporter saw dozens of Russian trucks and armored vehicles heading south from the central city of Gori in the direction of Tbilisi, but they later turned away.
Saakashvili said Russian troops moving deeper into Georgia "even steal toilet seats."
He later said on Georgian national television that the U.S. arrival of a military cargo plane with humanitarian aid "means that Georgia's ports and airports will be taken under the control of the U.S. Defense Department."
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell responded, "We have no need, nor do we intend to take over any Georgian air or seaport to deliver humanitarian aid. ... We have no designs on taking control of any Georgian facility."
Saakashvili has repeatedly compared the Russian incursions to Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939, to the Soviet crackdown in Prague in 1968 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
In his Wednesday TV address, he said, "Russia has lost more airplanes than in any conflict of this scale since 1939." While such figures are not publicly available, the calculation seemed unlikely given how brief the fighting has been and how uneven the two countries' forces are.
He also cited rumors that Russia was planning to bomb a rally in Tbilisi on Tuesday. The rally ended peacefully.
Saakashvili insists he's not overstating anything, and lamented Wednesday that the West ignored his warnings that Russia was planning a military operation in Georgia as "exaggerations."
"Now look what they're doing. This has already exceeded my worst expectations."
Saakashvili, who graduated from Columbia University Law School, has always been blunt, and his bold language and flamboyant manner helped drive the Rose Revolution that brought him to power after disputed elections in 2003.
He has long been derided in Russia, where he is seen as a vassal of the United States as it seeks to expand its influence in Moscow's backyard. The conflict has made that worse. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev indirectly referred to his Georgian counterpart as a "lunatic" on Tuesday.
Russia's leadership has been fierce -- and often wrong -- in its claims about the conflict, too.
Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said in a BBC interview Wednesday, "There were many reports that Russian tanks are inside Georgia which later proved out to be totally untrue."
AP reporters saw a Russian convoy in the area of Gori on Wednesday, including support vehicles, ambulances, heavy cannons and about 100 combat troops.
Associated Press writer Angela Charlton in Moscow contributed to this report.