August 13, 2008
[From today's Wall Street Journal; commentary to follow.]
On June 13, 1948, the day after the Soviet Union took the first step in its blockade of Berlin, U.S. General Lucius Clay sent a cable to Washington making the case for standing up to the Soviets. "We are convinced that our remaining in Berlin is essential to our prestige in Germany and in Europe. Whether for good or bad, it has become a symbol of the American intent." The Berlin Airlift began 13 days later.
Sixty years on, U.S. credibility is again on the line as the Bush Administration stumbles to respond to the Russian invasion of Georgia. So far the Administration has been missing in action, to put it mildly. The strategic objective is twofold: to prevent Moscow from going further to topple Georgia's democratic government in the coming days, and to deter future Russian aggression.
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President Bush finally condemned Russia's actions on Monday after a weekend of Olympics tourism in Beijing while Georgia burned. Meanwhile, the State Department dispatched a mid-level official to Tbilisi, and unnamed Administration officials carped to the press that Washington had warned Georgia not to provoke Moscow. That's hardly a show of solidarity with a Eurasian democracy that has supported the U.S. in Iraq with 2,000 troops.
Compared to this August U.S. lethargy, the French look like Winston Churchill. In Moscow yesterday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, acting as president of the European Union, got Russia to agree to a provisional cease-fire that could return both parties' troops to their positions before the conflict started. His next stop was Tbilisi, on the heels of a visit from Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.
If both sides agree to a cease-fire, Mr. Sarkozy promises that Europe will consider sending peacekeepers to enforce it. We trust he will find volunteers from the former Soviet republics, which see the writing on the wall if Russian aggression in Georgia is left unchallenged. The leaders of Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia flew to Tbilisi this week in a show of solidarity.
NATO also met yesterday and denounced the invasion, while stopping short of promising military aid to Georgia. Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the allies "condemned and deplored [Russia's] excessive, disproportionate use of force," and demanded a return to the status quo ante.
The NATO leader also said Georgia's potential membership remains "very much alive" and that it would be a member of NATO one day. Georgia and Ukraine's applications come up again in December, and perhaps even Germany, which blocked their membership bids earlier this year, will now rethink its objections given that its refusal may have encouraged Russia to assume it could reassert control over its "near abroad."
Much as it respects and owes Georgia, the U.S. is not going to war with Russia over a non-NATO ally. But there are forceful diplomatic and economic responses at its disposal. Expelling Russia from the G-8 group of democracies, as John McCain has suggested, is one. Barring Russia's long desired entry into the World Trade Organization is another. Russian leaders should also be told that their financial assets held abroad aren't off limits to sanction. And Moscow should know that the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi on the Black Sea are in jeopardy. A country that starts a war on the weekend the Beijing Olympics began doesn't deserve such an honor.
The Georgian people also deserve U.S. support. One way to demonstrate that would be a "Tbilisi airlift," ferrying military and humanitarian supplies to the Georgian capital, which is currently cut off by Russian troops from its Black Sea port. Secretary of State Rice or Defense Secretary Robert Gates should be in one of the first planes. After the fighting ends, the U.S. can lead the recovery effort. And since the Russians are demanding his ouster, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili deserves U.S. support too. Moscow wants a puppet leader in Tbilisi, and U.S. officials are playing into Valdimir Putin's hands with their media whispers that this is all Mr. Saakashvili's fault.
Reshaping U.S. policy toward Russia will take longer than the months between now and January 20, when a new President takes office. But Mr. Bush can at least atone for his earlier misjudgments about Mr. Putin and steer policy in a new direction that his successor would have to deal with. If that successor is Barack Obama, this is an opportunity to shape a crucial foreign policy issue for a novice who could very well go in the wrong direction.
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The alternative is ending Mr. Bush's tenure on a Carter-esque note of weakness. To paraphrase General Clay: Whether for good or bad, how the U.S. responds to Russia's aggression in Georgia has become a symbol of American credibility. By trying to Finlandize if not destroy Georgia, Moscow is sending a message that, in its part of the world, being close to Washington can be fatal. If Mr. Bush doesn't revisit his Russian failures, the rout of Georgia will stand as the embarrassing coda to his Presidency.