Georgia/Russia: On the West's rhetoric

” I have staked my country’s fate on the West’s rhetoric about democracy and liberty.”

— Mikheil Saakashvili, in this morning’s Washington Post

But that’s precisely the problem, isn’t it? What’s killing Georgia today — besides hordes of Russian soldiers and irregulars — is Western rhetoric about democracy and liberty, and the reluctance or inability of assorted peddlers of that rhetoric to check it, now and then, against reality.

I’d like to start there, as I continue my discussion with Andrew Coyne about the tragic events in Georgia over the past week. (My column is here. Andrew’s response is here. (It’s written as a rebuttal, but Andrew didn’t need to read me to know how he felt about this war. We just agreed earlier in the week to roll out our conversation this way.) Valuable background and reporting by our colleague Michael Petrou is here.)

I essentially think Georgia should be left, with great regret, to its fate. Expressions of outrage are entirely appropriate. Little else is. Andrew disagrees. He writes:

The notion that we should treat this as a one-off — that we should, as my Maclean’s colleague Paul Wells blithely suggests, cut Georgia adrift, or at any rate those parts of Georgia now occupied by Russia and its secessionist clients — is not one shared by, for example, the leaders of Ukraine, Poland, or the Baltic countries, all of whom hurried to Tbilisi to demonstrate their solidarity.

Really? Is that all it takes? Then I’ll be happy to hurry to Tbilisi to stand on a platform too, just as soon as I renew the passport I’ve stupidly let lapse since I was there in December. Because — and here we get into this business of checking rhetoric against reality — standing on a platform is all Saakashvili’s colleagues did. And yet in theory they could do so much more.

Cursory online research suggests Poland, Ukraine and the Baltics count 340,000 armed-forces personnel among them. All those countries participated in the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq, so they have a demonstrated belief in “coalitions of the willing” in those cases where longstanding multilateral organizations can’t get the lead out. So if my blithe suggestion that Georgia be cut adrift is really “not one shared by” those leaders, then one presumes they’ll send their soldiers, and not just their own sternly photogenic faces, to Tbilisi post-haste.

I mean, surely that’s what they’ll do — if words have any meaning.

Why don’t the countries that, in Andrew’s eyes, get this menace do what countries normally do in the face of an existential threat? Two reasons. The first, at the risk of being a dreary realist when principle is at stake, is that their armies are already stretched pretty thin. And not only theirs. I met three general officers from the U.S. in Afghanistan last autumn. Dan K. McNeill, then commander of ISAF, was one of them. All three cheerfully admitted that one reason they can’t do everything they want in Afghanistan is because their colleagues in Iraq have first call on the Pentagon’s resources. If the Americans are substantially tied down combating buddy from Kirkuk and Qalat with his homemade bombs, how are they likely to do against the remnants of the Red Army? If Canada is straining to carry its load in Afghanistan, if the former Warsaw Pact countries have been shocked at the burden they carry in Iraq and Aghanistan, isn’t it a bit glib to envisage taking a vacation from the long twilight battle against Islamism for a side trip to the Caucasus?

Of course, at some point armies do fight, whether they have the bodies and resources or not. That is the point of desperation: the point when a threat becomes existential, rather than being amenable to vague comparisons to existential threats of the late 1930s. This isn’t that, which explains why Saakashvili’s five colleagues left Tbilisi after they hurried there, departing with variations, in five different languages, on “Let us know how it works out.”

That’s my second point. An existential threat to a country is, generally, an invasion by a superior army. An existential threat to an alliance is an attack on one of its members that calls into question its logic and its members’ commitment. The latter test is way, way easier to meet than the former, which is why countries are — or should be — wary of recklessly forming alliances. That would be your lesson of 1914. Andrew asks: “Isn’t the point of collective defence to make it clear to any potential aggressor that force will be met with force — so clear as to prevent the initial use of force from ever arising?” That’s one point, sure. I’d suggest that another point is that collective-defence alliances shouldn’t wander around freelancing. Here’s a handy chart.


Georgia………….. No

Andrew wants to fix this chart by admitting Georgia and Ukraine into NATO forthwith. This is novel. I’m not sure what to make of it. It would help if somebody could produce the list of all the countries in the world that NATO is supposed to annex if somebody does something bad to them.

But let’s say we did extend NATO’s membership list into a live-fire war zone, an innovation which never occurred to the alliance’s founders. The Russians might well retreat. And if they didn’t? Stay and fight? Escalate all the way up to a nuclear exchange, if the Russians don’t stand down? That’s the kind of language Putin has used and so far he doesn’t often bluff. That’s why there is nothing blithe in my suggestion that NATO fight Putin if Russian tanks roll into Warsaw or Riga. It’s a terrifying prospect, and by the way it extends to Warsaw and Riga favours that NATO’s founders rightly calculated they couldn’t hazard.

But NATO will be no use to anyone, if that horrifying day ever comes, if by then it has already squandered its credibility by promising soldiers it can’t spare to countries that aren’t members.

Peter MacKay today cancelled joint naval exercises with Russia, and there is talk of booting Russia out of the G8. Sure. Fine. Expressions of outrage are entirely appropriate. They may even help, if Putin is less interested in pursuing this campaign than he seems to be. But Saakashvili cannot expect better than that. And it is desperately past time for somebody to tell him that, loud and clear.

That’s because Mikheil Saakashvili is the kind of guy who takes ‘maybe,’ and even ‘probably not,’ for ‘yes, absolutely.’ We know he was told by some (not all; sigh) in the Bush administration “not to engage Russia militarily,” but he did. We know that when John McCain said “We are all Georgians now,” Saakashvili promptly started urging McCain to move “from words to deeds.” We know he took U.S. humanitarian assistance as a decision to defend ports and bridges, which suggests a dangerous propensity to take wishes for reality.

This is the man who has staked his country’s fate on the West’s rhetoric about democracy and liberty — as he hears that rhetoric.

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