Did U.S. Provoke Geogia-Russia Conflict?
Josh Marshall argues that Georgia’s move to re-establish control over South Ossetia and Russia’s subsequent invasion are the fault of the United States, because “we pumped the Georgians up as our big Iraq allies, got them revved up about coming into NATO, playing all this pipeline politics, all of which led them to have a much more aggressive posture toward the Russians than we were willing, in the final analysis, to back up.”
Kevin Drum, rightly, says this is nonsense, noting that Mikheil Saakashvili and Vladimir Putin had longstanding agendas that had little to do with George W. Bush.
Look: Saakashvili came to power on a Georgian nationalist platform of recovering Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He’s been jonesing for an excuse to send troops in for years, regardless of anything the U.S. did or didn’t do. Likewise, Putin has been eagerly waiting for an excuse to pound the crap out of him in return — again, regardless of anything the U.S. did or didn’t do. (You don’t think Russia was able to mount a highly precise counterattack within 24 hours just by coincidence, do you?)
Now sure, in general, Kosovo + missile shield + NATO enlargement + resurgent Russian nationalism formed the background for this war, and maybe the U.S. has played a bad hand on this score. But Bush administration officials have said for months (i.e., before the war started, meaning this isn’t just post hoc ass covering) that they’ve urged Saakashvili to stay cool. And I believe them. What else would they do, after all? There was never any chance that we were going to provide Georgia with military help in case of a Russian invasion, and it’s improbable in the extreme that anyone on our side said anything to suggest otherwise.
Quite so. Now, like Marshall (and Drum), I think the Bush administration made a huge strategic blunder in cheerleading for Georgian NATO membership without thinking through the implications. But, as Kevin observes, if Saakashvili interpreted that as a sign that Bush was prepared to go to war with Russia over South Ossetia, he was “delusional.” After all, making bold declarations without having any intention of backing them up with military force is a Bush family tradition.
More generally, while the United States remains the most important actor in world affairs, it’s ridiculous hubris to think that everything that happens in the world is a reaction to American policy. Other countries and other political leaders have interests that they’re prepared to act upon. In the vast majority of cases, what the U.S. thinks is a minor factor, indeed, in deciding how to pursue those interests.