War became unavoidable in the Caucasus when Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili sent the country's military to "liberate" the autonomous region of South Ossetia from its Moscow-backed local authorities. While Georgia and Russia bear principal responsibility for a conflict that both have been courting for years, the United States also shares the blame. And now America's interests will suffer, not only in Georgia and the former Soviet Union but around the world.
America contributed to the war in Georgia in two important ways. First, together with its European allies, Washington established two precedents: use of force without approval of the United Nations Security Council and the division of a sovereign nation without U.N. consent. Both precedents emerged out of Kosovo's quest for independence from Serbia, which led in 1999 to U.S.-directed NATO airstrikes against Serbia to drive Serbian military and police forces out of its Kosovo province. The Clinton administration and NATO conducted the strikes—both in Kosovo and in Serbia proper, where the attacks targeted not only security units but also civilian infrastructure, like power stations—over Russia's strong opposition in the Security Council. Russia today is repeating NATO's 1999 justification of its action in arguing that Georgia conducted ethnic cleansing and genocide in South Ossetia and that Moscow was obliged to respond because of its role as a peacekeeper.
More recently, in 2007 and 2008, the United States and some European governments endorsed Kosovo's desire for independence, despite the fact that it remained a part of Serbia, and recognized it earlier this year. Currently, about one quarter of U.N. members and about three quarters of European Union members recognize Kosovo. The Kremlin argued at the time that the move would create a precedent for other separatist regions, including South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia. Bush administration officials in turn stated that Kosovo was a unique case, apparently believing that they could define what Kosovo's independence meant to others.
Second, Bush administration officials, especially the vice president's office and some (but definitely not all) in the State Department, recklessly encouraged Saakashvili and other senior Georgian officials to believe that Tbilisi had a blank check from Washington. They do not appear to have done this deliberately; in fact, American officials have repeatedly told the Georgian government that the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia should be resolved peacefully. But the United States regularly undermined this important message by routinely siding with Georgia in its frequent spats with Moscow, providing hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid, and essentially ignoring Saakashvili's growing authoritarianism. More important, the United States provided extensive military aid and training for Georgian troops. Some have argued that this help increased Georgian leaders' confidence that military action in South Ossetia could succeed.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice added fuel to this fire on July 10 when appearing beside Saakashvili in Tbilisi, she said, "Mr. President, we always fight for our friends." Although it is clear from the State Department transcript that Secretary Rice was referring to U.S. willingness to fight European opposition to begin the process of bringing Georgia into NATO by offering a membership action plan at a scheduled December summit, most in the region viewed it as a thinly veiled expression of support for the Georgian regime at a time when tensions were already growing over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. As in the case of U.S. involvement in Kosovo, American officials seemed to miss the difference between what they think they are saying and what others think they are hearing.
What are the consequences? The war in Georgia is a major policy failure and, unfortunately, could ultimately have high costs for America. Among some possible results:
- A new reality on the ground, with Russia occupying and controlling both South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
- 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.