The Bush administration's feckless response to the Russian invasion.By Fred Kaplan
Posted Monday, Aug. 11, 2008, at 5:47 PM ET
It is impossible to think about the Russian assault on Georgia without feeling like a heartless bastard or a romantic fool. Should we just let Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev roll their tanks into Tbilisi in recognition of Moscow's sphere of influence—and let a fledgling democracy die? Or should we rally sanctions, send arms, and mobilize troops—none of which is likely to have any effect? Is there some third way, involving a level of diplomatic shrewdness that the Bush administration has rarely mustered and, in this case, might not have the legitimacy to pursue?
Regardless of what happens next, it is worth asking what the Bush people were thinking when they egged on Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia's young, Western-educated president, to apply for NATO membership, send 2,000 of his troops to Iraq as a full-fledged U.S. ally, and receive tactical training and weapons from our military. Did they really think Putin would sit by and see another border state (and former province of the Russian empire) slip away to the West? If they thought that Putin might not, what did they plan to do about it, and how firmly did they warn Saakashvili not to get too brash or provoke an outburst?
It's heartbreaking, but even more infuriating, to read so many Georgians quoted in the New York Times—officials, soldiers, and citizens—wondering when the United States is coming to their rescue. It's infuriating because it's clear that Bush did everything to encourage them to believe that he would. When Bush (properly) pushed for Kosovo's independence from Serbia, Putin warned that he would do the same for pro-Russian secessionists elsewhere, by which he could only have meant Georgia's separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Putin had taken drastic steps in earlier disputes over those regions—for instance, embargoing all trade with Georgia—with an implicit threat that he could inflict far greater punishment. Yet Bush continued to entice Saakashvili with weapons, training, and talk of entry into NATO. Of course the Georgians believed that if they got into a firefight with Russia, the Americans would bail them out.