By Patrick Basham
“The New American Realism” is the title of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent article in Foreign Affairs, the influential policy journal. But there is little that is realistic about the American response to the conflict in the Caucasus.
Both President Bush and Republican presidential candidate John McCain are unambiguous in their condemnation of Russia’s military aggression and in their support of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. In domestic political terms, the crisis played into McCain’s hands because he does “tough” so well. Unfortunately, “tough” is not the best move in this particular diplomatic chess match because it ignores two realities.
First and foremost, the U.S. is in neither a political nor a logistical position to expend blood and treasure in Russia’s backyard. Tuesday’s emergency meeting of NATO ministers begs the question, what can NATO actually do about the Georgia conflict? Beyond bold rhetoric and diplomatic gesturing that won’t bother Moscow, there is really very little than NATO can do.
If we could do something, there is an obvious, tangible downside to Western action against Russia. If relations between Russia and the West are disrupted, the West would suffer, for example, on the security side of the equation. Russian participation is integral to a number of security measures, including counterterrorism policy and assistance in dealing with the Iranian regime.
Second, any American action, be it diplomatic or military, reeks of hypocrisy. The U.S. repeatedly rallied to the cause of self-determination in circumstances where separatism and independence constituted a political blow to Moscow. In stark contrast, the U.S. clearly does not bestow upon South Ossetians and Abkhazians the same right to self-determination as it does Kosovars and Chechens.
A cynic might suggest that the U.S. reaction reflects no more than a longstanding (and questionable) desire for Georgian membership in NATO, a desire reinforced by the Georgian military’s noteworthy service in Iraq. At least that reasoning possesses the advantage of consistency.
The Georgian government’s ill conceived attempt to restore control over South Ossetia provided Russia with a ready-made excuse both to defend its natural supporters in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and to stress the larger point that Russia is the preeminent power in this region.
Russia 's unwillingness to back off is unquestionably distasteful and, from a strategic vantage point, arguably unnecessary. However, it is entirely predictable given Moscow's worldview.
The American reaction to Russia’s intervention in Georgia was intended to persuade Russia to step away from the conflict. The sad irony is that US ignorance of the nature of its Russian adversary, combined with a crude rhetorical delivery, contributed to Moscow's decision to take further steps in the direction of Tbilisi.
At this point, could any U.S. action really prove productive—either for mitigating the violence in Georgia or for repairing relations with Russia? First, the Bush Administration could swallow hard and recognize, at least implicitly, the inherent inconsistency in its position regarding South Ossetia and Abkhazia’s respective futures. That, of course, is not altogether likely.
Second, Dr. Rice could then offer the Russians some of what they really want: a commitment to pursue an international agreement on the preconditions for self-determination that would bind both the U.S. and Russia to a common metric for resolving these kinds of disputes.
The Russians may find such an offer irresistible on public relations grounds alone. Consequently, such an apparently constructive American offer may actually incentivize Russia to pull her troops back within the borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, at least temporarily.
However, the potential for an acceptable diplomatic conclusion to events in Georgia will diminish exponentially if, out of this crisis, the Bush administration seeks a larger diplomatic victory over Russia. A deeply unsatisfactory draw is the best anyone in the West can realistically hope for.
Russia is clearly a very irritating—but, in truth, a very manageable—foreign policy challenge. In her article, Dr. Rice insightfully writes, “It is useful to remember that Russia is not the Soviet Union. It is neither a permanent enemy nor a strategic threat.”
If President Bush had read Dr. Rice’s article en route to the Olympics, perhaps his ill-advised response to the crisis in Georgia may have been avoided. Such restraint in U.S. foreign policymaking would be both new and realistic.
Patrick Basham is director of the Washington-based Democracy Institute