National Security Network

NSN Daily Update: Conflict in Georgia Demonstrates Harmful Effects of Iraq on U.S. Foreign Policy

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Report 12 August 2008

Russia Russia bush Georgia

News this morning that Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has announced a halt to Russian military operations in Georgia is a welcome development. But for Washington the hard questions are just beginning. . Russia’s invasion of Georgia has rightly been condemned by the international community, President Bush, and Sens. Obama and McCain. Now there must be follow up. Yet Russia holds most of the cards – too many handed to it by Bush administration inattention and poor choices.

For the last five years, the Bush administration has had such a myopic focus on Iraq that it has virtually ignored other important national security issues – such as the “frozen conflicts” between Russia and its pro-western neighbors. It has been clear, as Sen. Obama noted in April, as well as just weeks ago, that “Only a political settlement can resolve the conflicts over Abkhazia and South Ossetia…The international community must become more active in trying to defuse this confrontation.” Diplomatic action was needed months ago – and it is needed now to create long term stability and to ensure the viability of democratic governance in the region.

Instead, the Administration drew back from diplomacy, allowed the war in Iraq to debase our international standing, and let the strength of our alliances decline. All were signals to Russia that it could safely flex its muscles at the expense of its smaller neighbors – yet at the same time, Washington seems to have been signaling Georgia that it could count on US support.

A major lesson of this conflict is the need to stay diplomatically engaged – a lesson that the administration must now act on in a hurry.

While Russia has ended its military operations in Georgia, its negotiating demands demonstrate that resolution of this conflict is a long ways off.
The BBC explains that “Any formal negotiation is still a way off. And, given the clear level of mistrust between the Russian and Georgian governments, it is always possible that fighting may break out again. But even before agreeing to take part in any talks, Russia has, in effect, imposed conditions: no negotiations with Mr Saakashvili, and no Georgian troops in South Ossetia. Moscow feels it can dictate terms. It feels strong. It hopes it has left Mr Saakashvili, the man with whom the Kremlin had quarrelled so bitterly even before this conflict, feeling weaker.” The report adds that Russia’s “unspoken political objective is the weakening, or perhaps removal, of Mikhail Saakashvili. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has denied that Russia had any intention to depose the Georgian president, while adding: ‘It would be better if he went.’” [BBC, 8/12/08]

With U.S. bogged down in Iraq, Russia’s push into Georgia highlights the waning diplomatic power of the U.S. in the world.
The Wall Street Journal writes, “From the Caucasus Mountains to the Middle East and South Asia, U.S. diplomats and strategists say historical U.S. adversaries, such as Moscow and Tehran, appear to be exploiting Washington's impending political transition, and the White House's fixation on Iraq, to pursue international actions that might otherwise spark a more robust response from Washington and its allies.” According to Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former director for European affairs at the National Security Council, “To some extent, regional actors are simply getting on with their own business… There's a sense that Washington is distracted, and its political capital is expended." [Wall Street Journal, 8/11/08]

The administration has consistently failed to address Russian aggression – and Russia has taken full advantage.
“The United States and Europe also need to take a hard look at their relationship with Russia going forward. Neither has protested loudly or persuasively enough as Mr. Putin has used Russia’s oil and gas wealth to blackmail its neighbors, throttled Russia’s free press and harassed and imprisoned opponents.” Russia has also continuously used its oil and gas pipelines to put pressure on pro-Western governments. As Russia expert Sarah Mendelson puts it, “If the United States and Europe don’t stop Russia, I think this is the end of what we thought of as the post-Soviet era.” [NY Times, 8/11/08]

Strong diplomacy with Russia is needed.
The Washington Post notes, “Weak Western diplomacy and lack of transatlantic unity failed to prevent an avoidable war. Only strong transatlantic unity can stop this war and begin to repair the immense damage done. Otherwise, we can add one more issue to the growing list of this administration's foreign policy failures.” The New York Times continues, “The Bush administration has made Mr. Putin’s job even easier, feeding nationalist resentments with its relentless drive for missile defense. The Europeans, who are far too dependent on Russian gas supplies, have deluded themselves into believing that they alone will be safe from Moscow’s bullying. The West wants and needs Russia as a full responsible partner. For that, Russia needs to behave responsibly. And the United States and Europe must make clear that anything less is unacceptable.” [Washington Post 8/11/08; NY Times, 8/11/08]

Quick Hits

A Congressional Budget Office report to be released today shows that this year, the total of the Iraq war will reach $100 billion, with one out of every five dollars going to contractors, whose employees in Iraq outnumber U.S. military forces.

Security forces in the Indian area of Kashmir fired on rock-hurling Muslim protestors, killing at least 10, as violence spreads in the disputed territory.

A roadside bomb hit a Pakistani air force truck
on the outskirts of Peshawar, killing up to14, mostly air force personnel. The Taliban has claimed responsibility, declaring “open war.”

A provincial assembly voted to demand that embattled Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf face a confidence vote; other provincial assemblies are scheduled to hold similar votes shortly, increasing the pressure on President Musharraf to resign or face impeachment.

A UN-African Union peacekeeping helicopter was fired upon in Darfur.
No casualties were reported, but the event continues a pattern of escalating violence after seven peacekeepers were killed in July.

Senator John McCain’s speech on the Georgia crisis appears to have been plagiarized from Wikipedia.