In their statements Wednesday on Russia's invasion of Georgia, both US President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice openly acknowledged that Russia is the aggressor in the war and that the US stands by Georgia.
This is all very nice and well. But what does the fact that it took the US a full five days to issue a clear statement against Russian aggression tell us about the US? What does it say about Georgia and, in a larger sense, about the nature of world affairs?
Russia's blitzkrieg in Georgia this week was not simply an act of aggression against a small, weak democracy. It was an assault on vital Western security interests. Since it achieved independence in 1990, Georgia has been the only obstacle in Russia's path to exerting full control over oil supplies from Central Asia to the West. And now, in the aftermath of Russia's conquest of Georgia, that obstacle has been set aside.
Georgia has several oil and gas pipelines that traverse its territory from Azerbaijan to Turkey, the main one being the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. Together they transport more than 1 percent of global oil supplies from east to west. In response to the Russian invasion, British Petroleum, which owns the pipelines, announced that it will close them.
This means that Russia has won. In the future that same oil and gas will either be shipped through Russia, or it will be shipped through Georgia under the benevolent control of Russian "peacekeeping" forces permanently stationed in Gori. The West now has no option other than appeasing Russia if it wishes to receive its oil from the Caucasus.
Russian control of these oil arteries represents as significant a threat to Western strategic interests as Saddam Hussein's conquest of Kuwait and his threat to invade Saudi Arabia in 1990. Like Saddam's aggression then, Russia's takeover of Georgia threatens the stability of the international economy.
While Russia's invasion of Georgia is substantively the same as Saddam's attempt to assert control over Persian Gulf oil producers 18 years ago, what is different is the world's response. Eighteen years ago, the US led a UN-mandated international coalition to defeat Iraq and roll back Saddam's aggression. Today, the West is encouraging Georgia to surrender.
Whether due to exhaustion over the domestic fights about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, dependence on Russian oil supplies, a residual and unjustified belief that Russia will side with the West in a confrontation with Iran over its nuclear weapons program, or the absence of an easy option for defending Georgia, it is manifestly clear that today the West is fully willing to accept complete Russian control of oil supplies from Central Asia.
Notwithstanding the strong statements issued Wednesday by Bush and Rice, the West has taken two steps to make its willingness to accept Russia's moves clear. First, there was French President Nicolas Sarkozy's photogenic mediation-tour to Moscow and Tbilisi on Tuesday. And second there was the US's response to Sarkozy's shuttle diplomacy on Wednesday.
Sarkozy's mediation efforts signaled nothing less than Europe's abandonment of Georgia. During his visit to Moscow, where he met with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and Putin's Charlie McCarthy doll, "President" Dmitry Medvedev, Sarkozy agreed to a six-point document setting out the terms of the cease-fire and the basis for "peace" talks to follow.
The document's six points included the following principles: The non-use of force; a cease-fire; a guarantee of access to humanitarian aid; the garrisoning of Georgian military forces; the continued deployment of Russian forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and anywhere else they wish to go; and an international discussion of the political status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
As a reporter for France's Liberation noted, by agreeing to the document France abandoned the basic premise that Georgia's territorial integrity should be respected by Russia. Moreover, by leaving Russian forces in the country and giving them the right to deploy wherever they deem necessary, Sarkozy accepted Russian control of Georgia. By grounding Georgian forces in their garrisons, (or what is left of them after most of Georgia's major military bases were either destroyed or occupied by Russian forces), Sarkozy's document denies Georgia the right to defend itself from future Russian aggression.
In their appearances on Wednesday, both Bush and Rice praised Sarkozy's efforts and Rice explained that the US wants France to continue its efforts to mediate between Russia and Georgia. Although both American leaders insisted that Georgia's territorial integrity must be respected, neither offered any sense of how that is to be accomplished. Neither explained how that aim aligns with the French-mediated cease-fire agreement that gives international backing to Russia's occupation of the country.
The West's response tells us three basic things about the nature of world affairs. First, it teaches us that "international legitimacy" is determined neither by a state's adherence to international law nor by a state's alliances with great powers. Rather, international legitimacy is determined by the number of divisions a state possesses.
After Russia illegally invaded Georgia, European and American officials as well as Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama hinted that Russia had a legitimate right to invade, when they wrongly referred to South Ossetia as "disputed territory."
While South Ossetia and Abkhazia are separatist provinces, their sovereignty is not in dispute. They are part of Georgia. Georgia acted legally when it tried to protect its territory from separatist violence last Friday. Russia acted illegally when it invaded. Yet aside from the Georgian government itself, no one has noticed this basic distinction.
"We don't have time now to get into long discussions on blame," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on Tuesday.
"We shouldn't make any moral judgments on this war. Stopping the war, that's what we're interested in," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner explained, adding, "Don't ask us who's good and who's bad here."
Then there is the fact that Georgia has gone out of its way to liberalize and democratize its society and political system and to be a loyal ally to the US. It sent significant forces to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo. Far from returning the favor, in Georgia's hour of need, all the US agreed to do was give Georgian forces a free plane ride home from Iraq. That the administration has no intention of defending its loyal ally was made clear Wednesday afternoon when the Pentagon sharply denied Georgian claims that the US would defend Georgian airports and seaports from Russian aggression.
The Pentagon's blunt denial of any plan to restore Georgian sovereignty was one of the first truly credible statements issued by the US Defense Department on the conflict. It took the US four days to acknowledge Russian aggression beyond South Ossetia. Even as convoys of journalists were shelled, civilian homes were bombed, and Georgian military bases were destroyed by Russian forces in Gori, a Defense Department official said, "We don't see anything that supports [the Russians] are in Gori. I don't know why the Georgians are saying that."
The general lesson that emerges from Washington's claims of ignorance is that reality itself is of no concern to policy-makers bent on ignoring it. Through its obvious lies, Washington was able to justify taking no action of any sort against Russia and not speaking out in defense of Georgia until after Russia forced Georgia to surrender its sovereignty through the French mediators.
The US and European willingness to let Georgia fall despite its
strategic importance, despite the fact that it has operated strictly within the bounds of international law, and despite its obvious ideological affinity and loyalty to them will have enormous repercussions for the West's relations with Ukraine, the Baltic States, Poland and the Czech Republic. But its aftershocks will not be limited to Europe. They will reverberate in the Middle East as well. And Israel, for one, should take note of what has transpired.
In Israel's early years, with the memory of the Holocaust still fresh in its leaders' minds, Israel founded its strategic posture on an acceptance of the fact that the soft power of international legitimacy, peace treaties, alliances and common interests only matters in the presence of the hard power of military force. People such as David Ben-Gurion realized that what was unique about the Holocaust was not the Allies' willingness to sit by and watch an atrocity unfold but the magnitude of the atrocity they did nothing to stop. Doing nothing to prevent an innocent nation from being destroyed has always been the normal practice of nations.
Yet over time, and particularly after Israel's victory in the Six Day War, that fundamental acceptance of the world as it is was lost. It was first mitigated by Israel's own shock in discovering its power. And it was further obfuscated in the aftermath of the war when the Soviets and the Arabs began promulgating the myth of Israeli aggression. In recent years, the understanding that the only guarantor of Israel's survival is Israel's ability to defeat all of its enemies decisively has been forgotten altogether by most of the country's leaders and members of its intellectual classes.
Since 1979 and with increasing intensity since 1993, Israeli leaders bent on appeasing everyone from the Egyptians to the Palestinians to the Syrians to the Lebanese have called for Israel's inclusion in NATO, or the deployment of Western forces to its borders or lobbied Washington for a formal strategic alliance. They have claimed that such forces and such treaties will unburden the country of the need to protect itself in the event that our neighbors attack us after we give them the territories necessary to wage war against us.
It has never made any difference to any of these leaders that none of the myriad international forces deployed along our borders has ever protected us. The fact that instead of protecting Israel, they have served as shields behind which our enemies rebuild their forces and then attack us has made no impression. Instead, our leaders have argued that once we figure out the proper form of appeasement everyone will rise to defend us.
If nothing else comes of it, the West's response to the rape of Georgia should end that delusion. Georgia did almost everything right. And for its actions Georgia was celebrated in the West with platitudes of enduring friendship and empty promises of alliances that were discarded the moment Russia invaded.
Georgia only made one mistake, and for that mistake it will pay an enormous price. As it steadily built alliances, it forgot to build an army. Israel has an army. It has just forgotten why its survival depends on our willingness to use it.
If we are unwilling to use our military to defeat our enemies, we will lose everything. This is the basic, enduring truth of international affairs that we have ignored at our peril. No matter what we do, it will always be the case. For this is the nature of world affairs, and the nature of man.