One of the major causes of the recent war in Georgia has nothing to do with the historic tensions that make the Caucasus such a flashpoint between east and west. Certainly the long-stranding ethnic enmity between Ossetians and Georgians played a role, as did the almost visceral dislike between Moscow and Tbilisi. But the origins of the short, brutal war go back six years to a June afternoon at West Point.
Speaking to the cadets at the military academy, President George W. Bush laid out a blueprint for U.S foreign policy, a strategy lifted from a neocon think tank, the Project for a New American Century. In essence, the West Point Doctrine made it clear that Washington would not permit the development of a “peer competitor,” and that, if necessary, the U.S. would use military force to insure that it maintained the monopoly on world power it had inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The 21st Century was to be an American century.
Some of the building blocks of this strategy were already in place before the President’s address. Rather than dismantling the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) following the disintegration of the East bloc’s Warsaw Pact in 1991, the alliance was expanded to include former Pact members Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Bulgaria followed in 2004. On the eve of the latest Caucasus war, Washington was lobbying hard to recruit Georgia and the Ukraine.
It is important to keep in mind the deep paranoia—a state of mind well founded in historical experience—that the Russians have over their borders. Those borders have been violated by Napoleon, and by Germany in both WW I, and WW II. In the later conflict, the Russians lost 27 million people.
Besides expanding NATO from a regional military pact to a worldwide alliance—the organization is deeply engaged in Afghanistan and is currently moving into the Pacific Basin—the Bush Administration began dismantling East-West agreements, including the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM). The demise of the Treaty allowed the U.S. to deploy an ABM and to recruit nations to sign up for the system, including Japan, India and Australia. Lastly, NATO has just agreed to build an ABM system in Eastern Europe.
In spite of the way it is portrayed, an ABM is not a defensive system and is certainly not aimed at “rogue states,” since none of them have missiles than can threaten the U.S. or Europe. An ABM is designed to absorb a retaliatory attack following a first strike. U.S. nuclear doctrine is based on this first strike, or “counterforce,” strategy.
Russia and China—currently the only two nations that can seriously challenge the idea of an American century—find themselves surrounded by U.S. bases from northern Europe, through the Middle East and Central Asia, to the north Pacific. At least in theory, the U.S. ABM system pretty much cancels out China’s modest nuclear capability, and, fully deployed, a European system could neutralize much of Russia’s.
The Bush Administration says that its ABM system is not large enough to stop Russia’s thousands of nuclear warheads, but it fails to mention that a first strike would destroy all but about five percent of those weapons. All an ABM would have to do is handle the handful of warheads that survived a counterforce strike.
The Russians and the Chinese have made it quite clear that they consider the ABM system a threat to their nuclear deterrence ability.
The Russians are also deeply angry over the European Union and NATO’s support for dismembering Yugoslavia and the forcible removal of the province of Kosovo from Serbia
“I think we have underestimated the anger in Moscow over the increasing NATO involvement in Russia’s backyard,” says Christopher Langton of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
This is the context in which the recent fighting took place. While the western media has largely portrayed the war as the mighty Russian bear beating up on tiny Georgia, Moscow sees Tbilisi’s attack on South Ossetia as yet another move aimed at surrounding it with hostile powers.
U.S. non-governmental organizations, some, like the National Endowment for Democracy, close to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, played a key role in helping to bring Georgia’s current president Mikhail Saakashvilli to power. For all the Bush Administration touts him as a “democrat,” the Georgian president has exiled his political enemies, closed down opposition newspapers, and turned his police on peaceful demonstrators.
Following his election, the U.S. and Israel poured military aid and trainers into Georgia. Some 800 U.S. and 1,000 Israeli trainers are currently working with the Georgian military.
While the U.S. claims that it strongly advised the Georgians not to use force in Ossetia and Abakhzia, just a few weeks before the attack Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Tbilisi and made it clear that the Bush Administration fully supported Georgia claim over the two provinces.
The U.S. pledge was made despite the fact that Saakashvili broke a 2005 agreement not to use force in the two provinces. In 2006, the Georgian president sent troops into Abkhaza to occupy the Kodori Valley. Did it occur to the U.S. that backing Saakashvili’s adventurism in Abkhaza might encourage him to consider a similar move in South Ossetia?
Besides the trainers, 1,000 U.S. troops recently carried out joint exercises with the Georgian military. How would Americans feel about Russians troops training in Mexico, particularly if the latter government was demanding back the lands seized by the U.S. in the Mexican-American War? And what were those troops training for? An invasion of South Ossetia? Defense against a Russian counterattack?
U.S. trainers say they had no inkling that the Georgians were going to attack Ossetia, a denial that is hard to swallow given the buildup of ammunition, armored vehicles, and supplies that the Georgians must have made in preparation for the invasion. It strains credibility to think that U.S. advisors did not know what was up, but if they did not, it bespeaks a sobering level of incompetence on the American military side.
The Israelis are not so coy.
According to the DEBKA File, a publication close to the Israeli military and intelligence agencies, Israeli advisors “were undoubtedly deeply involved in the Georgian Army’s preparations to conquer the South Ossetian capital.”
The Israeli interest in Georgia is over the two oil and gas pipelines that transit the country, bypassing Russian pipelines to the north. Israel takes on oil at the Turkish port of Ceyhan and ships it to a refinery at Ashkelon.
So who knew what, and when did they know it? This is not an abstract exercise. Had Georgia been admitted to NATO, the war would have triggered Article 5 requiring alliance members to use “collective force” against Russia. Such a scenario could well have led to a worldwide thermonuclear war.
Did the Georgians think they could attack Ossetia, kill civilians and Russian peacekeepers, and get away with it? Unless President Saakashvili and the people around him are snorting something that turns reality upside down, they must have known that Georgia’s army was no match for Russia’s.
Could the Georgians have been working under the illusion they had the full backing of the U.S? What Rice told Saakashvili during her July 10 trip becomes critical. Did she really tell the Georgians in private not to attack as she claims? Or did Tbilisi take Rice’s public rhetoric supporting Georgia’s claim of sovereignty at face value?
Shortly before Georgia attacked, the Russians tried to get a resolution through the UN Security Council calling on Ossetia and Georgia to renounce the use of force. The U.S., Britain, and Saakashvili torpedoed it. Why?
Might the U.S. have snookered the Georgians into making an attack Washington knew would end in disaster? Political commentator Robert Scheer suggests the war was a neocon election ploy aimed at getting John McCain elected president. On one level the charge seems far-fetched, but as Scheer points out, the McCain campaign is filled with neocons and Georgia boosters, and some of McCain’s recent statements seem as if they were lifted from the depths of the Cold War.
Is the Georgia War the “October surprise” for the fall elections as Scheer suggests? The Republicans need a crisis so they can argue that only McCain has the experience to handle it. The Iran bugaboo is wearing thin, and the polls show overwhelming opposition to a war with Teheran. China is playing nice, and, in any case, it is not a good idea to pick a fight with someone who can call in its loans and bankrupt you.
But there is always the big, bad Russian bear.
This is an inordinately dangerous situation. The Bush Administration has sent U.S. troops into Georgia, and it is not inconceivable that Russians and Americans might end up shooting at one another. Wars have a tendency to get out of hand, which is one reason why it is good to avoid them.
But avoiding war means avoiding the kind of policies that make war a possibility. If you have a strategy that says you have the right to determine what happens in the world, and then go about surrounding your potential competitors with military bases and destabilizing weapons systems, sooner or later someone is going to push back. A hundred years ago that would lead to tragedy. In today’s nuclear-armed world, it is an existential issue.
In the short run the solution is a ceasefire, withdrawal of troops, and a pledge not to use force in the future.
But the problem that brought about the recent war is the result of policies that the U.S. and its allies have followed since the end of the Cold War. A real solution would be:
Dissolve NATO; Revive the ABM Treaty; Enforce the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, which means dismantling the world’s supply of nuclear weapons and embarking on a course of general disarmament.
To do less it to hold the world hostage to the actions of a few who might at any moment hurl us all into a war that none would survive.
CONN HALLINAN is an analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus.