To many in Washington, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili exemplifies the new, courageous—and very pro-American—generation of democratic leaders who have risen in now-independent lands once under Soviet domination.
Energetic, telegenic, and fluent in English, Saakashvili eagerly sought the role of star player in President Bush's global democracy push—a trademark aspect of his two-term presidency.
But even as tensions appear to be easing in the South Ossetia crisis, Saakashvili's bold—critics say reckless—handling of a crisis with Russia over the pro-Russian breakaway republic is raising plenty of questions. The doubts being raised challenge not only his judgment in ordering Georgian forces into South Ossetia (a move that triggered the Russian assault) but also about the Bush administration's approach to backing a young, nationalistic democrat whose actions have fed the deepest tensions between Washington and a resurgent Moscow since the end of the Cold War.
At 40 years of age, Saakashvili has at times seemed to embody the essence of idealistic democracies trying to sow roots in formerly forbidding terrain. He led what came to be known as the 2003 "Rose Revolution," a peaceful protest movement that toppled Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze, a Kremlin-allied former Soviet foreign minister, and ushered in economic and political reforms after genuine elections.
Bush has spoken openly of his admiration for Saakashvili. That tone was set right after the Georgian took office in 2004. Bush called him "a strong friend, a friend with whom we share values."
At a time when the Bush presidency was becoming embattled over fighting in Iraq, Saakashvili was ready to be a stand-up friend to the White House. It was a role for which his years in America prepared him well. He had won a State Department fellowship in the early 1990s that paved the way for legal studies at Columbia Law School and George Washington University. He worked briefly at a New York law firm.
As president, Saakashvili dispatched Georgian forces to Iraq and to Afghanistan. He touted the U.S.-led war on terrorism. He asked for and got Bush administration support for eventual NATO membership—only to run into European opposition this spring. And he adopted Bush-style language when it counted, telling Bush this March, "We've been [an] essential part of your freedom agenda. . . . And we are very proud to be part of that agenda."
Saakashvili and his aides also showed a zeal for playing the Washington game, forging ties with conservative think tanks and the news media and hiring lobbyists. One was Randy Scheunemann, currently the top foreign policy aide in the campaign of Sen. John McCain, a key Washington friend of Saakashvili. Until March, Scheunemann was also in the employ of Georgia.
Saakashvili's democratic program—and his testy relationship with Russia—made him a darling of neoconservative foreign policy circles. In any case, his Washington connections took on a decidedly conservative coloration. Last week, in a CNN interview, Saakashvili claimed that he had "been talking to Senator McCain several times a day" during the crisis.
Yet some worry that Saakashvili's tight connections with conservatives in Washington and the perspectives they promoted have contributed to his miscalculation over South Ossetia. "The Bush administration has been so chummy with him that he must have thought they would support him," says David Phillips, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who studies Georgian-Russian relations.
Saakashvili proved to be a close student of Bush's views and rhetoric. When they met soon after Bush's second inauguration, says Phillips, Saakashvili "spewed back to the president everything he'd read in that inaugural address."
Still, State Department officials were troubled last year by Saakashvili's willingness to send police against unarmed protesters and an opposition TV station and to rule, for a time, under a state of emergency. In recent months, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other officials are said to have warned Saakashvili against taking any military moves that could provoke Moscow, especially a thrust into South Ossetia.
It is unclear how firmly the message was delivered, but their advice seems to have been ignored.
The question is, did Saakashvili think those warnings would be trumped by an outpouring of U.S. support that would never materialize?