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The Problems of Binary Thinking on Russia

The release of the OSCE report which disputes Georgia’s claims about the start of the August invasion by Russia has obviously caused quite a stir, and started a whole new series of arguments from some unwitting pro-war apologists among American liberal camps (case in point), seeking to push the new president-elect Barack Obama far clear of Russia’s reclaimed “sphere of influence.” Melik Kaylan has a good piece which clarifies some of the problematic thinking going on over the Russia-Georgia issue in light of the new reports, and reminds us not to overestimate either the influence of Mikheil Saakashvili in the Bush White House, nor underestimate the incompetence and disinterest of the Bushies in undertaking such Machiavellian fantasies abroad.

There is an additional misconception that underlies much of the programmatic left/right, Democrat/GOP, détente/Cold War binary thinking on the matter: that the Bush administration encouraged Saakashvili to confront the Russians or at least bolstered his sense of allied support. This is manifestly untrue. Tbilisi insiders told me that Georgia had been asking the Bushies for anti-aircraft missiles for some years. The Bushies consistently refused. Georgia had managed to acquire some from Israel, but the supply abruptly stopped in early summer this year–nobody knows why but it’s likely that the Russians had a conclusive word with Israel. The Russkies regularly overflew Georgian territory as constant provocation, dropping a stray bomb here and a missile there, by mistake, in open countryside.

Furthermore, the Bush administration had no practical measures in train for interceding Moscow’s invasion. It wasn’t until the scathing Wall Street Journal editorial of Aug. 12–“so far the administration has been missing in action”–that Washington was stung into taking practical measures. The White House even issued a press release specifically citing the Journal’s editorial claims as inaccurate. But it followed the Journal’s menu of suggestions precisely: send in Condi, supplies, boatlift and the like.We probably have the Journal’s editorial board to thank for Condi’s hurried departure to Tbilisi at a time when Russian warplanes were still flying overhead–and with her arrival, perhaps even the halting of Russkie tanks short of Tbilisi.The Georgians were always way down on the list of priorities for a fumble-prone White House. Saakashvili was never Washington’s irreplaceable ally, at any rate never enough to keep the Russians at bay. Putin knew it. It may be a brave new post-Bush world, but he still knows it.