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Archive for the ‘Georgia’ Category

What are Russia’s Subs doing off America’s East Coast?

I have an hypothesis. It involves events of one year ago: Russia’s Counterattack Against Georgia and Liberation (or Annexation depending on your point of view) of South Ossetia.

As Russia’s Akula Class Subs cruise our East Coast, Georgia is complaining this week about Ossetia again, and there have been some very minor clashes between Russian and Georgian forces in recent weeks. It’s aparently very tense over there.

I wonder if this is Russia’s way of saying: if your ally decides to attack again and things get hot in Ossetia, don’t think it will costless for the United States to lend a hand. The weak Russia of Boris Yeltsin is a fading memory. While the U.S. may be able to send some naval vessels or logistical aid through the Bosporous into the Black Sea, let’s just say if you go into our “lake,” we’ll be keeping an eye on your comings and goings and can respond in kind to any military aid to the Georgians. In other words, two can play at the power projection game.

I hope nothing happens either over here or in Ossetia, but the one year anniversary of the war–8/8/08–is coming up, and Saakashvili is completely unpredictable in general and doubly desparate because he is about to lose power domestically. He’s just stupid enough to attack again in the hopes the West will view a Russian counterattack as “aggression.”

I hope he realizes his similarly choleric mentor, John McCain, did not win the election, and Obama’s only likely support for Georgia will be some bandaids, and a speech asking “cooler heads to prevail.” If Saakashvili is not killed by the Russians or his own people, Obama may even have them all over for a beer summit.

Incidentally, this show of military capability by Russia is all happening shortly after Obama’s charm offensive to Moscow. During the campaign, part of Obama’s schtick was that everyone was going to love us now and never cause problems because Obama will be so smooth compared to Bush. And while there may be a modicum of truth to this, it is worrisome that the very parties we are courting are responding in this fashion. Then again, between having a NATO exercise in Georgia earlier this year, various protocol flubs in Moscow, and Biden’s insults of Russia after Obama’s recent trip, it could simply be that actions and other administration officials’ unscripted words speak louder than Obama’s empty rhetoric overseas, just as they speak more loudly at home.

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In a more rational world, any alliances the US made with anyone would be reciprocal and balanced in nature. We’d get something in return for our commitments, and that something would equal or exceed our efforts. For that reason, we’d be wary of getting in bed with hot-headed and geographically isolated nations like Georgia or Armenia or, for that matter, Taiwan.

This idea of reciprocity was the model of the old NATO partnership. The Western European countries had a common interest in allying against the Soviets, and they knew that together (along with the US) they were substantially more powerful than they were otherwise. It made sense to sign up smaller Western European countries, because the NATO nations’ collective power increased by using standardized weapons systems and other protocols. Every NATO nation was at risk, continguous, and perceived as a common bloc by the Soviet Union. If Belgium or the Netherlands did not join, they’d simply be “free riders.”

By contrast, today the model of NATO expansion and US security guarantees in general seems to be all about racking up numbers and looking for missions without regard to the risks that commitments to places like Lithuania or Georgia might entail. We’ve forgotten that foreign policy is ruled first and last by the law of the jungle. In post-modern fashion, we’re embracing alliances and adding people to NATO like we’re racking up connections on Facebook.  The currency of international relations, however, is force.  Just as you don’t befriend the “punk” in prison, you don’t stick your neck out for weak nations destined to be ruled by their neighbors.

Unfortunately for our new allies, we won’t realistically defend places like Georgia, Lithuania, or Moldova. Emboldened by an empty guarantee, they may bite off more than they can chew in a fit of pique, just as Saakashvili did earlier this month. Such nations’ gestures of alliance–sending a few thousand troops (highly dependent on US logistics) to Iraq–are sweet, but do not count for much. We’ve forgotten that alliances are not fundamentally acts of charity but are instead expressions of enlightened self-interest.  Broken promises may do more to create enemies than anything else the United States does in the years ahead.

We have enough abuse of welfare at home; we don’t need to bring this dead-end to foreign policy, encouraging schemers and perrenial losers to suck dry the life blood of a great nation with entangling alliances.

Any security relationship is quite unlike networking, where the rule is “the more, the better.” Rather, because of our relative power, it is an instance of letting people into an exclusive and potentially expensive club: friends the US will go to war for. Without such parsimony, we’ll be misled by sycophants and needy hangers on.  We are already weighted down by serious responsibilities in South Korea and Israel, persistent foreign wars such as we are fighting in Iraq, and the designs of self-interested charlatans like Ahmed Chalabi.

Pissing off the Russians for preserving the borders of a Caucasian County the size of Los Angeles in a small nation the size of South Carolina is the exact opposite of any self-interested concept of foreign policy.  McCain’s ridiculous assertion that “We are all Georgians now,” only highlights his dangerousness and inability to make necessary distinctions in this arena.

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Mark Ames has a balanced account of the various issues and sources of conflict in Georgia and South Ossetia.  He notes that the Western Media have largely ignored the Ossetians, their beefs with the Georgians, their treatment in Georgia’s initial campaign of bombardment, and their mutually exclusive appeals to justice that are in direct conflict with those of the Georgians.  The following passage is particularly insightful:

At the root of this conflict is a clash of two twentieth-century guiding principles in international relations. Georgia, backed by the West, is claiming its right as a sovereign nation to control the territory within its borders, a guiding principle since World War II. The Ossetians are claiming their right to self-determination, a guiding principle since World War I.

These two guiding concepts for international relations–national sovereignty and the right to self-determination–are locked in a zero-sum battle in Georgia. Sometimes, the West takes the side of national sovereignty, as it is in the current war; other times, it sides with self-determination and redrawing of national borders, such as with Kosovo.

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These are just a few random observations about the current conflict in Georgia.

Americans are ill suited to being a global power. The great majority of Americans are mostly bored by conflicts involving strange, foreign lands. If we’re not bored, we’re easily misled by the media into assuming we know enough to have an opinion, which usually takes the form of a Wilsonian-idealist-interventionist set of principles that do not do much to clarify what are our legitimate interests. For the most part, foreign policy is the play thing of a smallish clique on the East Coast wedded to outdated ideas of the U.S. being the “sole superpower.” Most everyone else is basically nationalist and isolationist. Americans only take notice when things have gone very wrong long after the trend lines have been established.

Putin’s Russia is becoming Franco’s Spain for anti-modern traditionalist conservatives. His ethnonationalist concept of Russia, his subordination of business interests to the state, and his rejection of the liberal internationalist order all have a certain appeal. The mainstream media and mainstream conservative institutions diverge from a significant voice that sees in Iraq and crusades for democracy the seeds of disaster. This group, seeing in Russia a Christian nation undergoing a renaissance of power that is often in conflict with a common enemy in the form of militant Islam, strikes some of us at least as a natural ally with certain admirable qualities.

Along these lines, the Russia people today parallel the US view of ourselves and our applications of military force. Russia selectively rejects international institutions and international norms, including subordination to the UN, when such norms simply restrain its power without benefit. The average American’s view of its actions in Panama and Kosovo were much the same. Russia too has a rather romantic view of its soldiers and the beneficence of its power projection. It’s more than a little humorous to see Russia simply mimicking the western formulae of “stopping the genocide in Ossetia.”

Russia’s army itself, judging from photos, is a bit rough and ready, though apparently quite capable of taking on the poorly equipped and outnumbered Georgian forces. In various photos, we see a hodge podge of uniforms, old T-62 tanks, and irregular Ossetian and Chechen forces on display. Together, they show that the modern fores on display in the recent Victory Day Parade conceal the uneven pace of military modernization and the persistent ill discipline that still plagues the Russian army.

Finally, the geography of the Cauceses matter quite a bit for US power projection and shows how things that cannot be easily changed–like mountain ranges and the Asia Minor peninsula–limit our power. The Black Sea can be easily closed off by Turkey. None of the countries in the Caucuses can be reached without some cooperation from Ukraine, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, or some other neighboring land. Almost all of the significant US actions since WWII–Korea, Lebanon, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, Kosovo, Iraq–occurred in lands close to a large body of water, where supplies can be easily brought on shore and where power can be projected directly without the consent of countries bordering land-locked battlefields. Afghanistan was and is the exception and could not have occurred without Pakistani, Uzbek, and other nations’ cooperation. Even now, the indifferent state of that cooperation hinders operations.

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Stratfor has a very persuasive analysis of the entire situation in Georgia, in particular how it is not the beginning of a new balance of power but rather the manifestation of an already-changed one.  It shows that the predictable US response is likely to do little to help Georgia, while hurting US credibility:

By invading Georgia as Russia did (competently if not brilliantly), Putin re-established the credibility of the Russian army. But far more importantly, by doing this Putin revealed an open secret: While the United States is tied down in the Middle East, American guarantees have no value. This lesson is not for American consumption. It is something that, from the Russian point of view, the Ukrainians, the Balts and the Central Asians need to digest. Indeed, it is a lesson Putin wants to transmit to Poland and the Czech Republic as well. The United States wants to place ballistic missile defense installations in those countries, and the Russians want them to understand that allowing this to happen increases their risk, not their security.

The Russians knew the United States would denounce their attack. This actually plays into Russian hands. The more vocal senior leaders are, the greater the contrast with their inaction, and the Russians wanted to drive home the idea that American guarantees are empty talk.

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Tom Piatak makes an important observation about the historical context forgotten by those who see in today’s Russia the same kind of threat that existed in the former Soviet Union:

The border dispute between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia has inspired much breathless commentary, including Andrew McCarthy at NRO proclaiming this the “Soviets’ rebirth.”

Before hyperventilating, McCarthy would be well advised to read some back issues of National Review. As that magazine long argued, what made the Soviet Union such a dangerous threat was the Communist ideology the Soviet Union embodied, an ideology that gave the Soviets many Western admirers and allies and also propelled the Soviets toward confrontation with the West. Soviet Communism is dead, and what is going on in South Ossetia is an old-fashioned border squabble of the type that the United States has wisely stayed out of for most of our history.

This is exactly right. No one ever expected Russia before or after the Soviet Era to be indifferent to the safety of its own people, the actions of nearby enemies, and the behavior of neighboring nations in general. The problem for the United States and the West during the Cold War was not so much that the Soviet Union concerned itself with the Caucuses or the Baltics, but rather that it also concerned itself with Vietnam, Nicaragua, Angola, Libya, Syria, and everywhere else on the globe.  Its unifying Communist ideology was an uncompromising and aggressive set of principles that did not acknowledge any geographical or other limits. A nationalist and powerful Russia, by contrast, can always be expected to have a certain influence over its neighbors. This is not a problem for the United States, and those neighbors ultimately must reach a modus vivendi with Russia that the U.S. can do little to fashion.

The natural power of Russia over its near-abroad–particularly the Caucuses–is why the expansion of NATO to Russia’s front door and NATO’s embrace new of missions such as the Kosovo Campaign are so foolish. These detours turn a defensive alliance, once necessary to contain an aggressive and ideological regime, into an offensive conspiracy that would foment the very aggresion that it ostensibly exists to deter.

Any useful concept of post-Cold-War relations must be founded on some realistic consideration of spheres of influence. The Caucuses are a legitimate concern for Russia, not least because they include parts of Russia and, in the case of Georgia, a nation that borders Russia. Just as Europe should respect American influence over the Western Hemisphere, it is natural and predictable that nations like Russia will be substantially more touchy in affairs taking place in their own backyard.

Even if some strategic relationship with nations like Armenia and Georgia makes sense to the U.S., it is particularly unwise that cooperation extends the NATO defensive military alliance. Far from “avoiding another Munich,” such commitments would instead hurt the intended beneficiaries, and likely hurt the U.S. as well.  Such commitments could hurt both parties directly by dragging us into wars based on the actions of our uncontrolable treaty partners or indirectly by creating commitment that the U.S. would ultimately abjure and thereby devalue our national honor. It is especially a bad idea to get into bed with a provocative and irresponsible–if fawningly pro-American–leader like Saakashvili. After 1989, and especially now after witnessing the indifferent assistance of our NATO allies in Afghanistan, the U.S. should scale back our NATO commitments to informal relationships with the handful of NATO nations that can actually do something useful for us like Italy, Great Britain, and Turkey.

Our continued cultivation of NATO is an extension of a self-defeating U.S. strategy undertaken during the 1990s: the impossible goal of maintaining “unipolarity.” In foreign affairs, this quest to remain the “sole superpower” makes everything everywhere our business, sets us up for manipulation by cynical power brokers like Hasim Thaci and Saakashvili, and is in the end a recipe for high cost and little reward, as our power will become resented and opposed by inevitable regional powers like Indian, Russia, and China. Just as anti-war conservatives should acknowledge that the strong defense posture of the Cold War was addressed to a singularly dangerous threat, pro-war conservatives today should remember the same in reverse. Very few threats match those of Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia. It is time to restore some sense of proportion in foreign policy, based on the sturdy foundations of preserving our own safety and our own national independence in a world where the reality of power politics is the most important factor.

Of course, such a world would not always be a perfectly just one. I don’t mean to imply the evils suffered in this war, particularly by the civilians of Georgia, are not real and unfortunate. But politics, above all, requires some translation of abstract justice into the human realm, refracted as it is by memory, power, history, and geography. A foreign policy that aimed to rid the world of all evil, all competition, all war, and all strife in the name of “commitment to doing the right thing” would destroy the country that pursued it, no matter how sincerely. If the Soviet Union’s doomed history teaches us anything, it should be this.

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