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Analysis & Opinion
19.08.08 Wagging The Dog
Comment by Vladimir Frolov

Saakashvili has successfully manipulated his cozy relationship with the senior Bush administration officials to put vital American interests at risk by pushing the United States to the brink of a military showdown with Russia over the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia—places that few Americans can locate on a map.

While the Bush administration on more than one occasion privately advised Tbilisi against resolving the conflict in its favor by resorting to militarily force, it publicly sent out messages of unquestionable and unlimited U.S. support for Saakashvili’s government, which could be construed as tacit encouragement to forceful action against Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In his turn, Saakashvili managed to goad Washington into a public context where it became almost impossible for a U.S. administration not to support Georgia in a military clash with Russia without paying a heavy political price.

President Bush and Secretary of State Condolezza Rice publicly supported Saakashvili’s regime as a “beacon of democracy in the region,” while in reality the latter was no less thuggish than other post-Soviet leaders, as evidenced by his crushing of the opposition media before the presidential election of 2008, as well as by using force to crush Georgian opposition rallies in November of 2007.

The United States encouraged Tbilisi’s aspirations for NATO membership despite warnings by other NATO members that this might embolden Saakashvili to try to resolve the conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia by force, and drag the alliance into a conflict with Russia.

On her visit to Tbilisi in early June, Rice struck a public tone of defiant support for Saakashvili’s regime, stating at a joint appearance with Georgia’s president that the United States “always stands by its friends.”

On multiple occasions Bush and Rice referred to Saakashvili as “America’s ally,” a status that confers implicit security guarantees, which in reality were not part of any agreements between the United States and Georgia. Bush and Rice encouraged Tbilisi to think that if push came to shove and Georgia faced a military defeat from the Russian forces, America would get involved militarily to push back the Russian army.

The Bush administration also made risky military steps to embolden Saakashvili, like sending Pentagon advisers to build up the Georgian military, including an exercise last month with more than 1,000 American troops. Russia warned as early as in 2003 that this might lead Saakashvili to use American-trained troops to launch an offensive against Abkhazia or South Ossetia, and even to clash with Russian forces. On August 6, Georgian units without prior notice failed to show up for the regular training exercise with American instructors, a clear signal that they were ordered to deploy to the combat zone. The United States failed to share with Russia this hard intelligence of an imminent Georgian assault on South Ossetia.

All of this created a political context in which Saakashvili was emboldened to feel that he could safely ignore private U.S. warnings as not intended seriously and calculated that, were he to quickly retake South Ossetia by force before Russia were able to intervene, he would be quickly forgiven by Washington, and even rescued by the United States if things turned sour. His entire plan was to draw Washington as much as possible into a direct confrontation with Russia that he was trying to provoke. The United States, for all intents and purposes, was being used by the Georgian leader. He set America up.

The Bush administration became hostage to its rhetoric in support of Saakashvili and was unwilling to timely shift gears to condemn the Georgian president for invading South Ossetia and provoking a Russian counterattack. In fact, for several days the Bush administration was in denial about who started the war.

Washington allowed itself to be fed lies provided by Saakashvili, while president Bush and other officials made fools of themselves parroting Tbilisi’s outrageous lies about Russian actions. One senior administration official in charge of diplomacy in the region claimed that Russian planes bombed Tskhinvali for three days, suggesting that this was the cause of the civilian death toll there.

Peter Finn wrote in the Washington Post about what happened in real life. At about midnight on August 8, Georgian forces opened fire, using multiple-launch rocket systems known as BM-21s. These are extremely inaccurate artillery systems used to destroy “area targets”-- simply exterminating every living thing in the range of several hectares after a full salvo of forty rockets by a single launcher. These were fired into the town of Tskhinvali – a very soft and unprotected target, with the local population being given no prior warning.

Saakshvili’s claims that he gave the order to open fire after getting reports of Russian forces moving into Georgia are laughable. Georgian forces managed to take Tskhinvali and pretty much all of South Ossetia by noon of August 8, before Russian forces rolled them back. An on the night before the assault on Tskhinvali, Georgian forces and heavy equipment were massed in staging areas, not dispersed, as would be required in a defensive posture to prevent massive casualties from air attacks. These guys had no intention to defend themselves; they were massing in for a purely offensive operation.

As a result, over 1,500 civilians died in Tskhinvali (a senior State Department official claimed there were no more than 40 deaths). Among those killed in the initial assault were Russian peacekeeping troops who were there as part of an agreement Tbilisi signed after the first war in the 1990s, recognized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

As the conflict unfolded, Washington chose to parrot Saakashvili’s propaganda about crimes and atrocities committed by Russian forces in Georgia, as well as Tbilisi’s disinformation about Russian forces’ march on Georgia’s capital. It is hard to believe that U.S. policymakers lacked hard intelligence exposing Saakashvili’s lies. The U.S. official rhetoric on the conflict was so detached from reality and so unbalanced that it led French Foreign Minister Bernar Kouchner (no particular fan of Russia) to say bluntly that the United States could not mediate the end of the hostilities, since it had become a side in the conflict.

It is true that the Bush administration was not any more united on Georgia than on other foreign policy issues. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a knowledgeable friend in Washington tells me, that he quickly began to urge caution about the Georgian accounts of the war at a time when the United States did not have its own eyes in place. He then was able to use Saakashvili’s exaggerations to contain the hawks’ arguments for some form of U.S. military support for Georgia, which would have been a true fool’s errand. “At the end of the day,” said my friend from Washington, “The U.S. dog barked but took no precipitous action.”

Bush and Rice, whose meager foreign policy legacy is dwindling daily, cannot bring themselves to reverse course and disengage from Saakashvili as a major embarrassment and a liability to U.S. interests. They chose to plough on by issuing daily statements in support of their man in Tbilisi. Rice was dispatched to Georgia to salvage what little remained of the U.S. influence on the ground, while Bush sent military cargo planes and combat ships to Georgia to deliver humanitarian aid. A senior U.S. official also promised that Washington would resupply the Georgian army that lost or abandoned almost all of its heavy weapons under the Russian offensive. What were they thinking?
The Bush administration obviously learned nothing about Saakashvili. He quickly jumped at another opportunity to embarrass his friends in Washington.

After Bush’s announcement of a U.S. humanitarian mission to Georgia, Saakashvili rushed to claim on television that the United States was readying to take over Georgian airports and sea ports, and place them under the protection of U.S. forces, a claim that shocked U.S. officials who immediately hurried to disavow, imagining the reaction this would get from Russia.

The tail continues to wag the dog.
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