What Is the White House Smoking?

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Crisis in the Caucasus. What Were They Smoking in the White House?

by Eric Margolis by Eric Margolis

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The Bush administration appears to have pulled off its latest military fiasco in the Caucasus. What was supposed to have been a swift and painless takeover of rebellious South Ossetia by America’s favorite new ally, Georgia, has turned into a disaster that left Georgia battered, Russia enraged, and NATO badly demoralized. Not bad for two days work.

Equally important, Russia’s Vladimir Putin swiftly and decisively checkmated the Bush administration’s clumsy attempt last week to expand US influence into the Caucasus, and made the Americans and their Georgian satraps look like fools.

We are not facing a return to the Cold War — yet. But the current US-Russian crisis over Georgia, a tiny nation of only 4.6 million, and its linkage to a US anti-ballistic missile system in Eastern Europe, is deeply worrying and increasingly dangerous.

On 7 August, Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, ordered his US and Israeli-advised and equipped army to invade the breakaway region of South Ossetia, which has been struggling for independence from Georgia since 1992. Most of its people were Russian citizens who wanted union with Russian North Ossetia.

If not directly behind Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetia, Washington had to have been at least fully aware of Saakashvili’s plans. The Georgian Army was trained and equipped by US and Israeli military advisors stationed with its troops down to battalion level. CIA and Israel’s Mossad operated important intelligence stations in Tbilisi and coordinated plans with Saakashvili, whose political opponents have long accused him of being very close to CIA and the Pentagon.

Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia was launched while the world was absorbed by the Beijing Olympics, and Prime Minister Putin was in the Chinese capital. The attack was clearly planned to be a lightening strike that would occupy all of South Ossetia and then Abkhazia before Moscow could react, presenting the Kremlin with a fait accompli.

Who in Bush’s or Cheney’s office approved this stupid adventure? Why did the very smart Israelis get sucked into this imbroglio?

Saakashvili’s stealth "coup de main" quickly turned into a disaster. Russia’s 58th Army responded by routing Georgian forces and delivering a humiliating strategic and psychological blow to the Bush administration. Saakashvili fell right into Moscow’s trap.

Georgia and Russia have been feuding since 1992 over two Georgian ethnic enclaves, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, whose people differ in ethnicity and language from Georgians and who wanted to rejoin Russia.

The young, US-educated Saakashvili became Georgia’s president in 2003 after an uprising, believed organized by CIA and financed by US money, overthrew the former leader, Eduard Shevardnadze. I came to know and respect Shevardnadze in Moscow when he was Mikhail Gorbachev’s principal ally and architect of Soviet reform.

Had the able, clever Shevardnadze still been in power, this misadventure would never have happened.

Saakashvili quickly became the golden boy of US rightwing neoconservatives and their Israeli allies, who held him a model of how to turn former Russian-dominated states into "democratic" US allies. Georgian critics claim Saakashvili kept power by intimidation, bribery, and vote rigging. The youthful Georgian leader, his head swelled by promises of US support and NATO membership, launched a war of words against Moscow.

Amazingly, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a supposed Russian expert, even publicly assured Saakashvili that the US would "fight" for Georgia. Washington’s latest fiasco falls squarely into her lap.

US money, military trainers, advisers, and intelligence agents poured into the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Israeli arms dealers, businessmen and intelligence agents quickly followed, reportedly selling some $200 million or more of military equipment to the Georgian government.

By expanding its influence into Georgia, the Bush administration brazenly flouted agreements with Moscow made by president George H.W. Bush not to expand NATO into the former USSR. President Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both violated this pact. Under the feeble Yeltsin regime, bankrupt Russia could do nothing. But under Putin, newly wealthy Russia finally pushed back after a long series of provocations fromWashington.

Russia’s tough deputy prime minister, Sergei Ivanov, sneeringly observed that Georgia had become a "US satellite." He was absolutely right. And Ivanov, a former KGB colleague of Vlad Putin, knows a satellite when he sees one. Georgia provided the US oil and gas pipeline routes from Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan that bypassed Russian territory. Russia was furious its Caspian Basin energy export monopoly had been broken, vowing revenge.

Now that the Russians have checkmated the US and client Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia will likely move into Russia’s orbit. The west rightly backed independence of Kosovo from Serbia. The peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, who are ethnically and linguistically different from Georgians, should have as much right to secede from Georgia.

Besides thwarting Bush’s clumsy attempt to further advance US influence into Russia’s Caucasian underbelly, Putin delivered a stark warning to Ukraine and the Central Asian states: don’t get too close to Washington. Putin put the US on the strategic defensive and showed that NATO’s new eastern reaches — the Baltic, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Caucasus — are largely indefensible.

It’s a good thing Georgia was not admitted to NATO, as the White House had reportedly promised Saakashvili. Had Georgia been admitted before this crisis, the US and its NATO allies would have been in a state of war with Russia. Disturbingly, Germany’s conservative prime minister, Angelika Merkel, rushed to Tbilisi to assure Saakashvili that her nation still backed NATO membership for Georgia.

Is the west really ready to be dragged into a potential nuclear war for the sake of South Ossetia? Are American and German troops ready to fight in the Caucasus? Georgia is a bridge too far for NATO.

President George Bush, VP Dick Cheney and Sen. John McCain all resorted to table pounding and Cold War rhetoric against Russia. McCain, whose senior foreign policy advisor is a neoconservative and was a registered lobbyist for Georgia, demanded that the US and NATO "punish" Russia and put it into diplomatic isolation.

Unfortunately, the indignant John McCain’s could not even properly pronounce "Abkhazia."

America’s neocon amen chorus demanded a confrontation with Russia, chanting their usual mantras about Munich, appeasement and the myths of World War II. One certainly wondered if the Caucasian fracas was not staged by the Republicans to provide Sen. McCain with the "three a.m. phone call" he has been longing for and a chance to sound tough. This he did, even though his rhetoric was empty and his solutions vapid. Barack Obama ducked the issue or issued a few tepid bromides about halting "Russian aggression."

Meanwhile, hypocrisy flew thicker than shellfire. Bush, who ordered the invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, and is threatening war against Iran, accused Russia of "bullying" and "aggression." Putin, who crushed the life out of Chechnya’s independence movement, piously claimed his army was saving Ossetians from Georgian ethnic cleansing and protecting their quest for independence.

Bush and McCain demand Russia be punished and isolated. The humiliated Bush is sending some US troops to Georgia to deliver "humanitarian" aid. Equally worrisome, the US rushed to sign a pact with Warsaw to station anti-missile missiles and anti-aircraft batteries, manned by US troops, in Poland. This response is dangerous, highly provocative, and immature. The next president will have to deal with the Bush administrations reckless and foolish acts in the Mideast, Eastern Europe, Afghanistan and now, the Caucasus

The west must accept Russia has vital national interests in the Caucasus and the former USSR. Russia is a great power and must be afforded respect. The days of treating Russia like a banana republic are over. Have we learned nothing from World War I or II, both of which began with flare-ups in obscure Sarajevo and the Danzig Corridor?

The US’s most important foreign policy concern is keeping correct relations with Russia, which has thousands of nuclear warheads pointed at North America. Georgia is a petty sideshow. US missiles in Poland and radars in the Czech Republic are a dangerous, unnecessary provocation that is sowing dragon’s teeth for future confrontation.

Eric Margolis [send him mail], contributing foreign editor for Sun National Media Canada, is the author of War at the Top of the World. See his website.

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