By John C. Wohlstetter (special to Russia Blog)
Georgian soldiers helping an injured comrade. Georgian troops are wearing U.S. Marine camouflage uniforms; the only difference - the Georgian flag badges.
Ethnic separatism once again has further destabilized world geopolitics, with the outbreak of military conflict between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia & Abkhazia; Russia also attacked Georgian targets in Abkhazia--and as of midday Monday has invaded Georgia and occupied Gori (Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's birthplace), just 55 miles from the Georgian capital of Tblisi.
While President Bush, out to lunch in China, watches swimming, basketball & baseball in Beijing, here is what one Georgian farmer told a British reporter: "Why won't America and NATO help us? If they won't help us now, why did we help them in Iraq?"
Four lessons come immediately to mind:
(1) the risk minor powers pose to major-power relations;
(2) the risk of excessive compartmentalization in policy;
(3) the risk from grossly misplaced strategic focus;
(4) the risk of making a fetish of democracy promotion--especially in the form of volatile multi-ethnic states.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili meeting with President George W. Bush at the White House in June 2006 (Photo by: U.S. State Department)
Minor-Power Risk: The August 1914 Factor. Major powers who do not carefully attend to their relations with minor-power allies may find themselves drawn into an unnecessary conflict with a rival major power.
Every State Department employee should be required to utter the following password each time upon entering Foggy Bottom HQ or any embassy or legation abroad: "August 1914". America understandably supports Georgia's desire to join NATO, given that 77% of Georgians express friendship for America, and our support for Georgia's democratic Rose Revolution was justified, but the last thing we need is a war with Russia. Minor powers have been hazardous to great powers not infrequently: think Vietnam for the U.S. and Afghanistan for the late Soviet Union.
Compartmentalization Risk: The Law of Unintended Consequences. Approaching strategic issues with tunnel vision invites unpleasant surprises from secondary and tertiary effects.
Foreseeable secondary and tertiary effects of policies should be kept firmly in mind. Publicly pushing for and supporting independence for Kosovo infuriated Russia, whose Balkan little brother, Serbia, was humiliated. Serbia richly deserved the humiliation, but angering Russia was not worth any schadenfreude we may have felt due to Serbia's frustration. We should have kept a far more restrained public diplomatic posture when the Kosovars did what we could not prevent them from doing, by declaring independence. Russia's brutal re-annexation of Chechnya and suppression of Dagestan show how vital Mother Russia regards the Caucasus region, which is its warm water gateway to the south.
Focus Risk: The Perils of Inattention. Obsessive focus on intractable problems that there is little chance of solving and of marginal strategic value diverts attention from addressing more important, more soluble problems. Every minute that senior leaders spend on Problem A is time not available for Problems B through Z.
Wasting vast efforts and time on marginal problems leaves less space--much-needed--to work on central issues. Every nanosecond Secretary of State Rice has spent from the late 2006 Annapolis conference to date, on trying to broker a Palestinian accord has been a waste of time. Palestinian rockets after Israel withdrew from Gaza three years ago, and the Hamas electoral win in early 2006 gave America a perfect pretext for leaving the Palestinians to fend for themselves vis-a-vis Israel, and telling our European allies that the Palestinians forfeited any right to special attention. We could have confined our efforts to mid-level diplomacy at most, plus the occasional obligatory public pieties about "a just and lasting peace" that are required by Mideast politics, and otherwise not committed so much time and prestige to an accord not only chimerical in prospect, but of far less significance that the situations with Russia arising out of Ukraine and Georgia. Our gracious and charming Secretary of State, a Russia specialist, should have known this and focused her attention accordingly. Instead we risk all sorts of conflict with Russia. Suppose Georgia pushes too far, and Russia occupies Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, and annexes Georgia by force? Will we go to war? Not if we can avoid it. But if Russia forcibly annexes Georgia, America would suffer a huge loss of prestige.
Had we actively, at the highest level, devoted as much energy to Ukraine, Georgia and Russia as we wasted on the Palestinians, it is not likely that the current violent flare-up would have come to pass. Now, a formal settlement between Russia and Georgia, ceding South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a pair of nuisances Georgia might better be rid of in order to join the European Union someday, is out of reach. Russian aggression cannot seem to be rewarded, lest Russia decide to pursue a more aggressive policy against Ukraine, its main target in its attempts to recover what Russia calls the "Near Abroad."
Fetish Risk: Mindless vs. Measured Promotion. Policies otherwise sound when pursued in moderation can easily become unsound when pursued to extremes.
Promoting democracy and a fixation on multi-ethnic states can undermine more pressing priorities, such as avoiding unnecessary wars. If ethnic groups wish to secede, as much as possible we should let them. Forcing them to live together is not worth American blood and treasure. There are literally dozens of potential conflicts like Abkhazia and South Ossetia around the world. As for democracy, we should promote it cautiously, stressing that liberal democracy is the goal, not a terrorist "democracy" under the likes of Hamas. The qualifying phrase in President Bush's 2005 inaugural address--that promoting democracy is "the concentrated work of generations"--seems to have been tossed aside by the Administration. This is a recipe for trouble, lots of it. There are 68 other breakaway statelets waiting in the wings.
America has enough on its military and diplomatic plate, without allowing a situation like the Georgia mess to spin out of control, due to a combination of sloppy thinking, inattention, lack of focus and mindless preoccupations. We must restrain our minor ally, Georgia, and press them to temper their aspirations to those reasonably achievable; we must devote considerable high-level diplomatic energy to extinguishing the Caucasian flash-point.
Earth to Bush administration: Our fundamental strategic interest here is clear: Avoid an unnecessary war with a revanchist Russia, on terms that don't appear to reward Russian aggression. Not one nanosecond more should be wasted on the Palestinians; devote all that time to addressing Russia's threat. Georgia must now be incorporated into NATO, as must Ukraine. NATO should convene immediately and incorporate Georgia and Ukraine as members. As a further sign of our seriousness we should send troops to Georgia, rather than pulling those now there out, drawing from troops now in Germany. Sending troops there would make war less likely, as the stakes would be made clear to Russia.
As of midday Monday America may be just hours from a foreign policy catastrophe that only instant injection of American troops into Tblisi can prevent a fait accompli: Russia's re-occupation of Georgia, and the instantaneous Finlandization of Europe.
John C. Wohlstetter, a senior fellow at Discovery Institute, spent more than 22 years in the telephone industry. His work included communications law and national security. He is the author of "The Long War Ahead and the Short War Upon Us," and of the issues blog, "Letter From The Capitol."