A possible collapse of Saakashvili's government, which, combined with an emerging Georgian sense that the country was abandoned by America, could result in a less friendly regime in Tbilisi.An end to Georgia's chances of entering NATO—if Georgians continue to want it—because of considerably greater European resistance prompted by reluctance to confront Moscow.Disillusionment with the United States in much of the rest of the former Soviet Union, where Washington will be seen as failing to protect Georgia after Tbilisi provided 2,000 troops in Iraq. This could encourage some governments to pursue closer ties with Russia.Significant weakening of the United Nations Security Council due to lingering deep divisions over the conflict, with Washington unable to use the body to manage Iran, North Korea, or other important global challenges.Strengthening of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the country's security services at the expense of new President Dmitry Medvedev and the relative liberals among his key supporters.Serious damage to the U.S.-Russian relationship, threatening cooperation on arms control, securing Russian nuclear materials, Iran, North Korea, terrorism, energy, and a host of other issues. Moscow's nonreaction to White House statements that the conflict could damage bilateral relations reflects the degree to which Russian officials see little benefit to working with Washington and have moved beyond their previous focus on U.S.-Russian ties.A suggestion to some countries, such as Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and Cuba, that with Russian support they can resist American pressure. Hamas and Hezbollah could be similarly emboldened. Most problematic, if America's ties to China sour, Beijing's tactical cooperation with Moscow could grow.
South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and even Georgia itself may seem like small and distant lands to most Americans, but the war there—and the mistakes that led to it—may affect them directly in unexpected and powerful ways. Hopefully U.S. officials, as well as former officials and pundits in both parties who supported them in enabling Saakashvili's dangerous behavior, will learn a valuable lesson about unintended consequences. The United States remains the world's only superpower, but it cannot afford too many more blunders on this scale.
Paul J. Saunders is executive director of The Nixon Center and associate publisher of The National Interest. He was a State Department political appointee from 2003 to 2005.