Why the U.S. isn’t being taken seriously in Georgia conflict

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice addresses a meeting of NATO foreign ministers earlier this week.
REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice addresses a meeting of NATO foreign ministers earlier this week.

It’s pretty darn shocking that one nation would attack another without being attacked first, which goes a long way toward explaining why the United States appears to have so little credibility in dealing with the Russia-Georgia conflict.

Having attacked and occupied Iraq, the Bush administration looks silly in the eyes of most of the world when it demands that Russian troops leave Georgian soil immediately and when it breaks out the frosty rhetoric as if a new Cold War has arrived.

With a cleaner slate, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would have sounded eloquent when she told CBS recently: “President Medvedev at one point, just a few weeks ago, laid out a very hopeful vision for Russia’s interaction with the rest of the world, one in which Russia would be respected and accepted for its commerce and its technology and its scientific prowess and its culture. And to instead have activities that hearken back to another time, when all that the Soviet Union had was its military power, it’s really a sad state of affairs for Russia.”

But, as it stands, her fine words ring a bit hollow. It fell to France to negotiate a withdrawal agreement — the same France that warned against the U.S. plunge into Iraq, a warning so vilified at the time that some Americans took to renaming a certain potato dish “freedom fries.”

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, did call President Bush after his trip to Moscow with a firsthand interpretation of who is running the Kremlin, and — surprise, surprise — it’s the No. 2 man with the KGB resume who’s pulling No. 1’s strings. Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev seem to have a good cop-bad cop thing going on, with the bad cop running the show.

Dealing with two-headed rule in Russia
The French report led the Americans to wonder if Medvedev’s signing of the withdrawal agreement, as protocol requires, wasn’t later vetoed by Putin — which explains why Russian troops show no signs of departure. According to the French report, Medvedev was calm and sanguine about a possible solution while Putin flew into a rage over Georgia’s supposed provocations, making the invasion seem like a personal vendetta against Georgia’ s U.S.-educated president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

Indeed, Russia announced Thursday that today it would establish eight military posts with 500 troops inside the undisputed territory of Georgia and well outside the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Any move against those troops would likely bring a return of Russian tanks, perhaps to the Georgian capital itself.

“Of course, the conflict in Georgia is primarily rooted in borders and ethnicity, wounded Russian pride and global power politics. But the challenges of dealing with Russia’s two-headed rule have certainly added an odd new element to the crisis,” wrote New York Times diplomatic correspondents Steven Lee Myers and Thom Shanker. 

Another Times reporter, Steven Erlanger, said many Europeans, unlike Americans, feel a degree of sympathy with Russia. The belief, he wrote, is that Saakashvili “acted rashly when he sent troops to take over the autonomous ethnic enclave of South Ossetia, bringing down much of the destruction upon his own head.”

Who has credibility issues?

This week’s signing of a U.S.-Poland missile treaty was another irritant in the U.S.-Russia cool-down. Rice, again ignoring America’s own credibility problems, including its inability to defend its friend Georgia, said in Warsaw: “The Russians are losing their credibility.”

In a pointed analysis, the Moscow Times suggested that, under George W. Bush, the U.S. has badly overplayed its hand as the world’s lone superpower.

“A period when Washington could act without taking the interests of others into account is over,” the paper said, adding that the Bush administration’s foreign policy failures — Iraq among them — has led to “a new level of global fragmentation” and has “demonstrated the limitations of the United States’ ability to influence global affairs unilaterally.”

The main reason for worsening U.S.-Russia relations is America’s unwillingness to loosen its ambitions anywhere in the world, even in places where it has no strategic interest — and especially in former Soviet-dominated countries.

The U.S. fell into a dangerous trap in Georgia, the paper continued, because it couldn’t keep implied promises that it had made. The U.S. has supported pro-U.S. regimes all along Russia’s borders, hoping to export its influence. But, as the paper noted, the U.S. “did not seriously consider the consequences of defending these new allies.”

At a crucial moment, the U.S. could neither defend Georgia nor prevent it from making fatal mistakes. Singular global leadership is dangerous, the article concluded, because it won’t allow for even minor defeats. Losing face in Georgia isn’t a catastrophe for U.S. foreign policy, but emerging democracies on the Russian border will now be skeptical about the dependability and credibility of U.S. promises of support.

A new ‘Age of Authoritarianism’?
Perhaps the best big-picture look at America’s shakier hold on world affairs came when Chrystia Freeland, writing in the Financial Times, proclaimed “An Age of Authoritarianism.”

Bill Keller followed in last Sunday’s New York Times, offering a piece with a more poetic title: “Cold Friends, Wrapped in Mink and Medals: Moscow and Beijing forgot to close the history books.”

Contrary to Francis Fukuyama’s famous 1989 assertion on “The End of History,” Keller paints a new and troubling picture. Perhaps liberal democracy has not triumphed once and for all against the Soviet Evil Empire and Red China. Perhaps authoritarian governments in Beijing and Moscow have discovered how to use market economies in ways that build middle-class prosperity while stoking nationalist ambitions.

The Chinese, Keller wrote, “have made their Olympics an exultant display of athletic prowess and global prestige without having to temper their impulse to suppress and control.”

He continued, “The striking thing about Russia’s subjugation of uppity Georgia was not the ease or audacity but the swagger of it. This was not just about a couple of obscure border enclaves, nor even, really, about Georgia. This was existential payback.”

The fall of the Soviet empire “gave birth to a bitter resentment in the humiliated soul of Russia,” Keller wrote, “and no one nursed the grudge so fiercely as Vladimir V. Putin. He watched the empire he had spied for disbanded. He endured the belittling lectures of a rich and self-righteous West. He watched the U.S. charm away his neighbors, invade his allies in Iraq and, in his view, play God with the political map of Europe.”

Steve Berg reports on a variety of topics for MinnPost including urban design, transportation, national politics and world affairs. He can be reached at sberg [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 08/22/2008 - 02:33 pm.

    You seem to have missed the articles that address President Saakashvili’s night-time invasion (with his greatly increased and fully armed military courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer)of South Ossetia’s capital, Tskhinvali, the damage done to that city, and the deaths of between 1200 and 2000 unarmed civilians.

    The latest one is a piece by Mikhael Gorbachev in the August 20 NY times entitled, “Russia Never Wanted a War.” Mr. Gorbachev says, in part:

    “The planners of this campaign clearly wanted to make sure that, whatever the outcome, Russia would be blamed for worsening the situation. The West then mounted a propaganda attack against Russia, with the American news media leading the way.

    “The news coverage has been far from fair and balanced, especially during the first days of the crisis. Tskhinvali was in smoking ruins and thousands of people were fleeing — before any Russian troops arrived. Yet Russia was already being accused of aggression; news reports were often an embarrassing recitation of the Georgian leader’s deceptive statements.”

    And, I might add, those of Rice, Bush and McCain, all faithfully parroted by our media (who should know better by now).

    Please read the Gorbachev piece and the readers’ comments from around the world, most of them in support of his thesis. The U.S. (now joined by NATO) is demonizing Russia, insulting it, and threatening it with sanctions and next-door missiles. And when Russians get upset, we say they are over-reacting!!

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