Georgian Forces Retreat, Wonder Where Friends Are
Tony Halpin for The Times of London:
As a Russian jet bombed fields around his village, Djimali Avago, a Georgian farmer, asked me: “Why won’t America and Nato help us? If they won’t help us now, why did we help them in Iraq?”
A similar sense of betrayal coursed through the conversations of many Georgians here yesterday as their troops retreated under shellfire and the Russian Army pressed forward to take full control of South Ossetia.
Andrew Kramer and Ellen Barry for the NYT:
“We killed as many of them as we could,” he said. “But where are our friends?”
It was the question of the day. As Russian forces massed Sunday on two fronts, Georgians were heading south with whatever they could carry. When they met Western journalists, they all said the same thing: Where is the United States? When is NATO coming?
Since the conflict began, Western leaders have worked frantically to broker a cease-fire. But for Georgians — so boisterously pro-American that Tbilisi, the capital, has a George W. Bush Street — diplomacy fell far short of what they expected.
Even in the hinterlands, at kebab stands and in farming villages, people fleeing South Ossetia saw themselves as trapped between great powers. Ossetian refugees heading north to Russia gushed their gratitude to Dmitri A. Medvedev and Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian leaders. Georgians around Gori spoke of America plaintively, uncertainly. They were beginning to feel betrayed.
“Tell your government,” said a man named Truber, fresh from the side of the Tbilisi hospital bed where his son was being treated for combat injuries. “If you had said something stronger, we would not be in this.”
He had not slept for three days, and he was angry — at himself, at Georgia, but mainly at the United States. “If you want to help, you have to help the end,” he said.
On the other side of the line of battle, Georgians had begun to question the strength of their alliance with the United States.
In recent years, Mr. Bush has lavished praise on Georgia — and the so-called Rose Revolution that brought Mikheil Saakashvili to power — as a model of democracy-building. The feeling was mutual: when Mr. Bush visited Tbilisi in 2005, the authorities estimated that 150,000 people showed up to see him. He famously climbed up on a platform and wiggled his hips to loud Georgian folk music.
Those exuberant days seemed very distant around Gori on Sunday, as people fled, leaving behind corn fields and apple orchards. A group of men tried mightily to push a truck with a blown-out tire, but it got stuck on the road, and they finally abandoned it.
Gato Tkviavi lingered in Tirzini, a village of one-story houses where cows were wandering through the streets. Asked where the border with South Ossetia was, he pointed at his feet. “The border is where the Russians say it is,” he said. “It could be here, or it could be Gori.”
The grimmest among the Georgians were the soldiers, haggard, unshaven and swinging their Kalashnikovs. A group of them had piled onto a flatbed truck, crowding on in such numbers that some were sitting on the roof, their feet dangling over the windshield.
One, who gave his name as Major Georgi, spoke with anger. “Write exactly what I say,” he said. “Over the past few years, I lived in a democratic society. I was happy. And now America and the European Union are spitting on us.”
As sad as the events of the past few days have been, I do not believe that the United States has sufficient interests in Georgia keeping sovereignty over South Ossetia to justify war with Russia. Strong words, and perhaps diplomatic sanctions — including ousting Russia from the G8 — are as much as we can reasonably do.
But here’s the rub: It is the position of the United States government that Georgia should be admitted to NATO. We begged, cajoled, and arm twisted our European allies to that end in Bucharest this past April, ultimately settling for a vague pledge that Georgia will be put on the path to membership soon.
While NATO has become many things since the end of the Cold War, it remains at its essence a military alliance in which an attack upon the territory of any one member is considered an attack on all members. Everything beyond that is a function of the fact that NATO feels itself safe from outside attack and therefore has the resources to do more, including having ambition as a collective security alternative to the United Nations.
If, however, we have no intention of defending Georgia from an attack by the only country on the planet that could conceivably pose it any threat, what the hell are we doing inviting them into NATO?
UPDATE: Matt Yglesias, now ensconced at his new digs at the Center for American Progress, agrees.
Photo credit: Dmitry Kostyukov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images via NYT
The views in this piece are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my employer.