Georgia war rooted in US 'self-deceit'
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - The United States policy of absorbing Georgia and Ukraine into the
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which was enthusiastically embraced
by Senator Barack Obama and his Democratic running mate Joseph Biden, has
undoubtedly been given a major boost by the Russian military operation in
In the new narrative of the Russia-Georgia war emerging from op-eds and cable
news commentaries, Georgia is portrayed as the innocent victim of Russian
aggression fighting for its independence.
However, the political background to that war raises the troubling question of
why the George W Bush administration failed to heed
warning signs that its policy of NATO expansion right up to Russia's ethnically
troubled border with Georgia was both provocative to Russia and encouraging a
Georgian regime known to be bent on using force to recapture the secessionist
There were plenty of signals that Russia would not acquiesce in the alignment
of a militarily aggressive Georgia with a US-dominated military alliance.
Former Russian president Vladimir Putin (now premier)made no secret of his view
that this represented a move by the United States to infringe on Russia's
security in the South Caucasus region. In February 2007 he asked rhetorically,
"Against whom is this expansion intended?"
Contrary to the portrayal of Russian policy as aimed at absorbing South Ossetia
and Abkhazia into Russia and regime change in Georgia, Moscow had signaled
right up to the eve of the NATO summit its readiness to reach a compromise
along the lines of Taiwan's status in US-China relations: formal recognition of
the sovereignty over the secessionist territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia
in return for freedom to develop extensive economic and political relations.
But it was conditioned on Georgia staying out of NATO.
That compromise was disdained by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. After
a March 19 speech at the Atlantic Council in Washington, Saakashvili was asked
whether Russia had offered a "Taiwan model" solution in return for Georgia stay
out of NATO. "We have heard many, many suggestions of this sort," he said, but
he insisted, "You cannot compromise on these issues ... "
Russia, meanwhile, had made it clear that it would respond to a move toward
NATO membership for Georgia by moving toward official relations with the
US policymakers had decided long before those developments that the NATO
expansion policy would include Georgia and Ukraine. They convinced themselves
that they weren't threatening Russia but only contributing to a new European
security order that was divorced from the old politics of spheres of interest.
But their view of NATO expansion appears to be marked by self-deception and
naivete. The Bill Clinton administration had abandoned its original notion that
Russia would be a "partner" in post-Cold War European security, and the NATO
expansion policy had evolved into a de facto containment strategy.
Robert Hunter, former US ambassador to NATO in the Clinton administration and
head of a three-year project for the State Department on reform of the Georgian
National Security Council, says the US project of Georgia's membership in NATO
"had to be seen by any serious observer as trying to substitute a Western
sphere of influence for Russian" in that violence-prone border region of the
Some officials "wanted to shore up democracy," said Hunter in an interview,
imagining that NATO was "a kind of glorified Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe" - a negotiating and conflict prevention body to which
the Russian Federation belongs.
But there were also some in the administration who "genuinely wanted to contain
the Russians by surrounding them", he added.
James J Townsend, director of the International Security Program at the
Atlantic Council and formerly the Pentagon official in charge of European
relations, said there was enthusiastic support in both the Defense Department
and the State Department soon after Saakashvili took power in 2003 for
integration of Georgia into NATO "as quickly as possible".
Townsend believes the project to integrate Georgia and Ukraine into NATO gained
momentum in part because Washington "was underestimating just how sensitive
this is to Putin". US policymakers, he said, had observed that in previous
rounds of enlargement, despite "a lot of bluff and bluster by the Russians",
there was no Russian troop movement.
Furthermore, policymakers believed they were proving to the Russians that NATO
expansion is not a threat to Russian interests, according to Townsend. They did
become aware of Russia's growing assertiveness on the issue, Townsend concedes,
but policymakers thought they were simply "making trouble on everything in
order to have some leverage".
In the end, the bureaucracies pushing for NATO expansion were determined to
push it through despite Russian opposition. "I think it was a case of wanting
to get Georgia engaged before the window of opportunity closed," said Townsend.
To do so they had to ignore the risk that the promise of membership in NATO
would only encourage Saakashvili, who had already vowed to "liberate" the South
Ossetia and Abkhazia regions, to become even more sanguine about the use of
In the same March 19 speech in Washington, Saakashvili minimized the problem of
Russian military power in the region. He declared that the Russians "are not
capable of enforcing the Taiwan model in Georgia. Their army in the Caucasus is
not strong enough ... to calm down the situation in their own territory. I
don't think they are ready for any kind of an adventure in somebody else's
territory. And hopefully they know it."
It was a clear hint that Saakashvili, newly encouraged by Bush's strong support
for NATO membership, believed he could face down the Russians.
At the NATO summit, Bush met resistance from Germany and other European allies,
who insisted it was "not the right time" to even begin putting Georgia and
Ukraine on the road to membership. But in order to spare embarrassment to Bush,
they offered a pledge that Georgia and Ukraine "will become NATO members".
Hunter believes that NATO commitment was an even-more-provocative signal to
Putin and Saakashvili than NATO approval of a "Membership Action Plan" for
Georgia would have been.
The Russians responded exactly as they said they would, taking steps toward
legal recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And Saakashvili soon began
making moves to prepare for a military assault on one or both regions. (On
Monday, The Upper House of parliament, or Federation Council, voted 130-0 to
call on President Dmitry Medvedev to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as
In early July, Rice traveled to Tbilisi with the explicit intention of trying
to rein him in. In her July 10 press conference, she made it clear that
Washington was alarmed by his military moves.
"The violence needs to stop," said Rice. "And whoever is perpetrating it - and
I've mentioned this to the president - there should not be violence."
David L Phillips, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told the Los Angeles
Times last week he believes that, despite State Department efforts to restrain
the Georgian president, "Saakashvili's buddies in the White House and the
Office of the Vice President kept egging him on."
But whether more specific encouragement took place or not, the deeper roots of
the crisis lay in bureaucratic self-deceit about the objective of expanding
NATO up to the border of a highly suspicious and proud Russia in the context of
an old and volatile ethnic conflict.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.