What interests does the United States have at stake in the war between Russia and Georgia? Only one: that we remain out of it.
It almost passes belief to think that the Bush administration, bogged down in two wars and planning a third (with Iran), might move toward a confrontation with Russia. Yet that is what the White House appears to be doing. The August 11 Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that
President Bush called the violence unacceptable and Vice President Dick Cheney…said Russia’s actions in Georgia "must not go unanswered"…
Asked to explain Cheney’s comment, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said, "It means it must not stand."
That phrase should send cold chills down the back of every American. It precisely echoes President George H.W. Bush’s statement in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, a statement that led to war. The White House cannot be unaware of the parallel, which means it is threatening war with Russia.
Have these people gone utterly mad? It is doubtful we should risk nuclear war for Alabama, much less Georgia.
A few facts are in order here. First, the current conflict was started not by Russia but by Georgia, which foolishly attacked the Russian dependency of South Ossetia. Did Georgia make this suicidal move with prior assurance of American backing? If so, Washington provoked the conflict, which would be as great a crime as the Bush administration lying us into war with Iraq.
Second, Georgia clearly lies inside Russia’s sphere of influence and as far outside America’s as it is possible to get.
Third, there is nothing America can do to defend Georgia except threaten nuclear war. We could send in a small "tripwire" force of a battalion or two — God help us if we do — and dare the Russians to attack it. But if they called the bluff — and I think they would — what then? It is impossible for the United States to wage conventional war with Russia in her own backyard. We would have to go nuclear, or back down and accept defeat. It is all too easy to guess which alternative the Bush administration would select.
President Bush has used Georgia to taunt and humiliate Russia, even putting Georgia up for NATO membership, which the Europeans were wise enough to block. This folly was part of a larger strategic blunder, going back to the Clinton administration, of treating Russia as an opponent despite the fall of Communism.
That blunder is now blowing up in our face, as Russia in turn uses war with Georgia to teach America a lesson about the dangers of overextension and the price to be paid for humiliating a Great Power. Prudence suggests we swallow our medicine and profit by it, tempering our ambitions and our arrogance with a dose of reality.
But under the King of Misrule, folly remains the order of the day. The Bush White House tells itself American power knows no limits. All that is required is that they show sufficient "will," and the rest of the world will buckle.
Not this time. Russia has taken all it is going to take.
It beggars the imagination to think that America could find itself in a nuclear confrontation with a post-Soviet Russia. But if the White House acts in accordance with its rhetoric, the next few weeks or even days may witness just such a strategic catastrophe.
William Lind is an analyst based in Washington, DC.