WASHINGTON - As if the outgoing administration of US President George W Bush
didn't already have enough on its plate, the question of whether and how to
re-arm Georgia in the aftermath of its thrashing last month by Russia is moving
steadily up an increasingly crowded foreign policy agenda.
Moscow has already signaled that any move to supply the government of President
Mikheil Saakashvili with the advanced weapons that he has long sought -
including the powerful hand-held anti-tank rockets and Stinger surface-to-air
missiles which contributed heavily to Russia's defeat in Afghanistan - will
significantly increase tensions with Washington, which soared to
a post-Cold War high in the wake of the Russian intervention.
But besides pledging to continue its push for Georgia's admission to the North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)- something with which Washington's European
allies would have to go along with - the Bush administration has so far
declined to make any promises in regard to military aid.
Indeed, even Vice President Dick Cheney, who had reportedly pushed hard for
sending such advanced equipment to Georgia even before last month's war,
refrained from making any promises last Thursday during his high-profile visit
to the Georgian capital.
"Over time, I'm sure, people will look at what happened with the military here
and what the needs are," an official who accompanied Cheney on his four-hour
stay in Tbilisi told US reporters on the vice president's plane. "But I think
the focus for the moment is on the humanitarian and long-term economic needs."
The issue is nonetheless likely to loom large in the coming months,
particularly if foreign policy plays a key role in the ongoing presidential
election campaign, which moved into high gear on Friday with the end of the
Republican National Convention.
In his acceptance of the Republican presidential nomination on Thursday night,
Senator John McCain called for "solidarity" with Georgia in a speech that was
remarkably light on foreign policy issues. From the moment that hostilities
between Georgia and Russia began, McCain, who considers Saakashvili a friend
and who he spoke with frequently by phone during the crisis, has consistently
called for stronger action against Russia than the administration has been
willing to take, including expelling it from the Group of Eight (G-8) nations.
While McCain has not explicitly endorsed filling Saakashvili's wish list, some
of his key neo-conservative advisers, such as Max Boot of the Council on
Foreign Relations and Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute,
have pressed the administration to take such a course. Their appeal has been
supported by two of McCain's closest senate colleagues.
"Specifically, the Georgian military should be given the anti-aircraft and
anti-armor systems necessary to deter any renewed Russian aggression," wrote
independent Democrat Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham, in the Wall Street
Journal late last month. "We avoided giving the types of security aid that
could have been used to blunt Russia's conventional onslaught. It is time for
that to change," according to the two senators.
Their advice was published just as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev formally
recognized the two breakaway Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia
as independent states, in defiance of a personal appeal by Bush for him not to
While Bush and other top administration officials strongly denounced Medvedev's
move - Cheney on September 4 called it "an illegitimate, unilateral attempt to
change [Georgia's] borders by force". The administration has so far moved
relatively cautiously, ignoring appeals for stepped-up military aid to rebuild
Georgia's battered forces and upgrade its weaponry. The emphasis instead has
been on the delivery of humanitarian and economic assistance.
"The first order of business should not be some sort of punishment," Assistant
Secretary of State for European Affairs Daniel Fried told the Washington Times.
"Russia has to decide how much it wants to isolate itself from the world. We
don't want to have a bad relationship with Russia. We've never wanted that."
So far, US actions have been largely limited to its pledge to push Georgia's
and Ukraine's membership in NATO, effectively shelving Russia ascension to the
World Trade Organization, and to suspend a bilateral strategic dialogue and
review a number of other bilateral military cooperation agreements.
In the immediate aftermath of the five-day war, Washington also quickly sealed
a long-pending bilateral accord that would permit it to build missile defense
systems in Poland. That move drew particularly harsh criticism from Moscow,
which has also reiterated a vow to strongly oppose any efforts to admit Georgia
and Ukraine to NATO - a military alliance which it sees as aimed at encircling
and containing Russia.
Aside from those moves the administration has focused on supplying humanitarian
and economic assistance to Georgia - albeit via military transport aircraft and
warships in the Black Sea. In conjunction with the European Union (EU) it has
also helped arrange a US$750 million line of credit to help Tbilisi finance the
repair of the substantial infrastructural damages it incurred in the war.
In addition, Washington has pledged $1 billion in economic and reconstruction
assistance, more than half of which will be sent over the next five months.
That amount would make the Caucasian nation the fourth biggest US aid recipient
after Israel, Iraq, and Egypt.
The administration's relative caution, particularly with respect to military
aid, appears motivated by several factors.
Increasing tensions with Moscow further could seriously jeopardize other top
foreign policy interests, according to senior officials and independent
analysts, including Washington's hopes for applying additional pressure,
particularly through the UN Security Council, on Iran to halt its nuclear
program. It could prompt Russia to suspend an agreement that lets NATO use
Russian and Central Asian bases and air space to supply its troops in
A more aggressive stance could also harm relations with key European allies,
such as Germany, France, and Italy, which are eager to ramp down tensions, in
part due to their own heavy investments in Russia's economy and dependence on
US officials are also reluctant to address the question of additional military
aid in light of the Georgian armed forces' poor performance during the war -
the army retreated in chaos at the first contact, while all of its warships
were destroyed in port - and what some of them describe as the recklessness of
Saakashvili himself in ordering the attack on Tskhinvali that triggered
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy, and particularly the
neo-conservative influence in the Bush administration, can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.