Monday, September 08, 2008

Fanning the Georgian flames

US shrinks from arming Georgia

By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - As if the outgoing administration of US President George W Bush didn't already have enough on its plate, the question of whether and how to re-arm Georgia in the aftermath of its thrashing last month by Russia is moving steadily up an increasingly crowded foreign policy agenda.

Moscow has already signaled that any move to supply the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili with the advanced weapons that he has long sought - including the powerful hand-held anti-tank rockets and Stinger surface-to-air missiles which contributed heavily to Russia's defeat in Afghanistan - will significantly increase tensions with Washington, which soared to a post-Cold War high in the wake of the Russian intervention.

But besides pledging to continue its push for Georgia's admission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)- something with which Washington's European allies would have to go along with - the Bush administration has so far declined to make any promises in regard to military aid.

Indeed, even Vice President Dick Cheney, who had reportedly pushed hard for sending such advanced equipment to Georgia even before last month's war, refrained from making any promises last Thursday during his high-profile visit to the Georgian capital.

"Over time, I'm sure, people will look at what happened with the military here and what the needs are," an official who accompanied Cheney on his four-hour stay in Tbilisi told US reporters on the vice president's plane. "But I think the focus for the moment is on the humanitarian and long-term economic needs."

The issue is nonetheless likely to loom large in the coming months, particularly if foreign policy plays a key role in the ongoing presidential election campaign, which moved into high gear on Friday with the end of the Republican National Convention.

In his acceptance of the Republican presidential nomination on Thursday night, Senator John McCain called for "solidarity" with Georgia in a speech that was remarkably light on foreign policy issues. From the moment that hostilities between Georgia and Russia began, McCain, who considers Saakashvili a friend and who he spoke with frequently by phone during the crisis, has consistently called for stronger action against Russia than the administration has been willing to take, including expelling it from the Group of Eight (G-8) nations.

While McCain has not explicitly endorsed filling Saakashvili's wish list, some of his key neo-conservative advisers, such as Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations and Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, have pressed the administration to take such a course. Their appeal has been supported by two of McCain's closest senate colleagues.

"Specifically, the Georgian military should be given the anti-aircraft and anti-armor systems necessary to deter any renewed Russian aggression," wrote independent Democrat Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham, in the Wall Street Journal late last month. "We avoided giving the types of security aid that could have been used to blunt Russia's conventional onslaught. It is time for that to change," according to the two senators.

Their advice was published just as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev formally recognized the two breakaway Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, in defiance of a personal appeal by Bush for him not to do so.

While Bush and other top administration officials strongly denounced Medvedev's move - Cheney on September 4 called it "an illegitimate, unilateral attempt to change [Georgia's] borders by force". The administration has so far moved relatively cautiously, ignoring appeals for stepped-up military aid to rebuild Georgia's battered forces and upgrade its weaponry. The emphasis instead has been on the delivery of humanitarian and economic assistance.

"The first order of business should not be some sort of punishment," Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Daniel Fried told the Washington Times. "Russia has to decide how much it wants to isolate itself from the world. We don't want to have a bad relationship with Russia. We've never wanted that."

So far, US actions have been largely limited to its pledge to push Georgia's and Ukraine's membership in NATO, effectively shelving Russia ascension to the World Trade Organization, and to suspend a bilateral strategic dialogue and review a number of other bilateral military cooperation agreements.

In the immediate aftermath of the five-day war, Washington also quickly sealed a long-pending bilateral accord that would permit it to build missile defense systems in Poland. That move drew particularly harsh criticism from Moscow, which has also reiterated a vow to strongly oppose any efforts to admit Georgia and Ukraine to NATO - a military alliance which it sees as aimed at encircling and containing Russia.

Aside from those moves the administration has focused on supplying humanitarian and economic assistance to Georgia - albeit via military transport aircraft and warships in the Black Sea. In conjunction with the European Union (EU) it has also helped arrange a US$750 million line of credit to help Tbilisi finance the repair of the substantial infrastructural damages it incurred in the war.

In addition, Washington has pledged $1 billion in economic and reconstruction assistance, more than half of which will be sent over the next five months. That amount would make the Caucasian nation the fourth biggest US aid recipient after Israel, Iraq, and Egypt.

The administration's relative caution, particularly with respect to military aid, appears motivated by several factors.

Increasing tensions with Moscow further could seriously jeopardize other top foreign policy interests, according to senior officials and independent analysts, including Washington's hopes for applying additional pressure, particularly through the UN Security Council, on Iran to halt its nuclear program. It could prompt Russia to suspend an agreement that lets NATO use Russian and Central Asian bases and air space to supply its troops in Afghanistan.

A more aggressive stance could also harm relations with key European allies, such as Germany, France, and Italy, which are eager to ramp down tensions, in part due to their own heavy investments in Russia's economy and dependence on gas supplies.

US officials are also reluctant to address the question of additional military aid in light of the Georgian armed forces' poor performance during the war - the army retreated in chaos at the first contact, while all of its warships were destroyed in port - and what some of them describe as the recklessness of Saakashvili himself in ordering the attack on Tskhinvali that triggered Russia's offensive.

Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy, and particularly the neo-conservative influence in the Bush administration, can be read at

Original article posted here.

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