Thursday, August 14, 2008

Protecting Democracy


The Washington Post offers a curious, unsigned editorial that is in my estimation unduly credulous of Mikheil Saakashvili. Although not entirely endorsing his claims, the Post conveniently drops from mention the dubious claim that Russia tried to bomb a BP pipeline. They don't share his discredited claim that the U.S. military was going to take control of Georgia's ports and airports - the type of overstatement that casts a shadow across anything he says and perhaps illuminates the type of self-delusion that could have caused him to believe that the U.S. military would back his venture even if everybody told him otherwise.
Part of the blame-the-victim argument is tactical - the notion that the elected president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, foolishly allowed the Russians to goad him into a military operation to recover a small separatist region of Georgia. Mr. Saakashvili says, in an article we publish on the opposite page today, that the facts are otherwise, that he ordered his troops into action only after a Russian armored column was on the move. If that's not true - if he moved first - he was indeed foolish, and if Georgian shelling targeted civilians, it should be condemned.
Now, normally I would be fully prepared to accept that Russia "moved first" or did something exceptionally provocative. And it's clear that Russia was prepared for Georgia's military action. But I am to believe that all of this occurred beneath the notice of the U.S. intelligence community and the U.S. military (including advisors posted in Georgia), and Saakashvili didn't feel obligated to inform them of his detection of Russian troop movements or even of his own intentions before initiating his military action. The Post is correct that the alternate version of events - the one consistent with the story given by the U.S. government, U.S. military, and U.S. intelligence - would make Saakashvili look foolish. And if Saakashvili's story is true, it makes the U.S. government, U.S. military, and U.S. intelligence look foolish.

So why not take a step back and give us an analysis of which side - which of the two allies - is most likely lying? And provocations or not, can we truly believe that either the U.S. or Georgia (so capable of detecting Russian troop movements) overlooked Russia's build-up? It seems far more likely that Saakashvili believed G.W.'s hype - and that either Russia would be cowed by the idea that the U.S. military would rush to Georgia's aid in the event that his incursion was repelled, or that the U.S. military would quickly force a Russian retreat. Which brings us to the rest of the editorial:
But if the charge is that the Bush administration encouraged Georgia's yearnings for true independence, the verdict surely is "guilty" - just as when the Clinton administration encouraged Georgia under Eduard Shevardnadze and as the first President Bush welcomed the freedom of Warsaw Pact nations when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Now we are told that Russia's invasion last weekend proves the improvidence of this policy: The United States should have helped Georgia to understand that it lies in Russia's "sphere of influence," beyond the reach of American help.
No. What it shows is that the United States should not be suggesting to small, weak countries that it will help them militarily when it does not intend to do so. It also shows that you can meet every standard the U.S. wants - build up a military you can't afford, send a huge percentage of your armed forces to support a U.S military action, create a "flat tax" structure consistent with various U.S. right-wing ideologies, etc. - and still not be important enough to merit military intervention. (And democracy's all about voting and economics, right? So we should overlook little transgressions that don't appear to much matter to the Bush Administration.)

But today, Fred Hiatt and friends don't like realpolitik:
At first blush, that may sound like common sense. What is Georgia to us, after all, far away and without natural resources? And yet, where would the logic carry us? Poland, too, used to be in Moscow's "sphere" -- and Hungary, Estonia, Lithuania, and on and on. Should they, too, bow to Vladimir Putin? Why not Finland, while we're at it? You can quickly begin to see the reemergence of a world that would be neither in America's interest nor much to Americans' liking.
With all due respect to the "slippery slope", failing to draw a line in the sand on the northern border of Georgia doesn't mean we won't draw a line in the sand somewhere - just not there. More to the point, where's the cry for democracy and freedom in Taiwan, where the U.S. constantly tiptoes around China's sensitivities? What about non-democracies gripped by humanitarian disaster - the Darfur region, for example. Now, I think it's obvious that Russia wanted this demonstration of force to serve as a warning to other nations on its border, but it's simply not the case that the United States can or should intervene militarily whenever a democracy is engaged in a political battle with... whatever classification we are giving to Russia's government this week. (If Venezuela's democracy is threatened, will the Bush Administration intervene to support it? Or celebrate.)
If a democratically elected Ukraine chooses not to join NATO -- and Ukrainians are divided on the question - NATO will not force itself on Ukraine. But if Ukrainians -- or Georgians, Armenians or anyone else - recoil at Russia's authoritarian model and choose to associate with the West, should the United States refrain from "egging them on"?
No, by all means, invite them to join the West, associate with the West, emulate the West.... Just don't suggest to them that their admiration for and emulation of the West is going to result in their falling under Western military protection in the event of an armed conflict with a neighbor - even one that doesn't have a large military force and nuclear weapons.
How, and how effectively, the United States can support those aspirations inevitably will vary from case to case and from time to time, and supporting those aspirations certainly won't always involve military force. But for the United States to counsel a "realistic" acceptance of vassal status to any nation would mark a radical departure from past principles and practices.
Except for Taiwan? No, really, we can support the aspirations of small democracies while making it clear to them that they can neither excessively provoke military powers on their borders, nor (as appears to be more apt here) see a large, juicy worm dangled by a military power, just across the border of a contested region, and expect us to get them off the hook if they have the poor sense to take the bait. The Post reports that the U.S. government instructed Saakashvilii to demonstrate restraint, and seems to accept that had Saakashvili listened this wouldn't have happened.

What the West should do is keep its promises to the young, weak democracies it wishes to foster. If the Post believes the Bush Administration misled Saakashvili into believing that the U.S. Armed Forces would rescue him in this sort of confrontation, that's where they should direct their scorn.

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