WASHINGTON — President Bush Wednesday promised that U.S. naval forces would deliver humanitarian aid to war-torn Georgia before his administration had received approval from Turkey, which controls naval access to the Black Sea, or the Pentagon had planned a seaborne operation, U.S. officials said Thursday.
As of late Thursday, Ankara, a NATO ally, hadn't cleared any U.S. naval vessels to steam to Georgia through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, the narrow straits that connect the Mediterranean and the Black Seas, the officials said. Under the 1936 Montreaux Convention, countries must notify Turkey before sending warships through the straits.
Pentagon officials told McClatchy that they were increasingly dubious that any U.S. Navy vessels would join the aid operation, in large part because the U.S.-based hospital ships likely to go, the USNS Comfort and the USNS Mercy, would take weeks to arrive.
"The president was writing checks to the Georgians without knowing what he had in the bank," said a senior administration official.
"The president got out in front of the planning when he talked publicly about using naval forces," said a second senior administration official. "At that point we need to look at treaty obligations, our bilateral relations with the Turks and others, waterway restrictions and what kind of ships might be appropriate and usable — something like the Comfort or something already in the Med (Mediterranean)."
The U.S. officials requested anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly, because the issue is diplomatically sensitive or because the administration takes a dim view of officials who reveal its internal deliberations.
The White House and the Turkish Embassy didn't immediately return telephone calls.
Bush's pledge to send aid-carrying naval ships prompted Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to proclaim that U.S. warships would break what he claimed — inaccurately — was a Russian naval blockade of Georgia's Black Sea coast, and that U.S. forces would take control of his country's ports.
While Saakashvili either exaggerated or misunderstood Bush's announcement, a U.S. failure to fulfill the president's pledge could prompt other former Soviet republics and Soviet bloc nations to question whether they can count on U.S. support if Russia targets them.
"We think about Turkey when we realize we need them for something," said Mark Parris of The Brookings Institution, who served as U.S. ambassador to Turkey between 1997 and 2000. "This could very well be a case of that."
Bush on Wednesday said he was launching a "vigorous and ongoing" humanitarian mission in which U.S. military aircraft and ships would bring aid to beleaguered Georgia.
The first U.S. C-17 cargo plane arrived in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, with tents and other supplies later that day.
U.S. officials said the Turks hadn't cleared U.S. naval vessels to transit the Bosporus and the Dardanelles.
"The Turks haven't been helpful," said a State Department official. "They are being sluggish and unresponsive."
The Russian invasion of Georgia has almost certainly unnerved Turkey because it has huge energy and trade interests in adjacent Central Asia.
Turkey also may be reluctant to jeopardize the $24 billion in annual trade it does with Russia, which provides around 70 percent of its natural gas supplies. The Turkish Navy also shares the Black Sea with Russia's powerful Black Sea Fleet, which in part has prompted Ankara in recent years to restrict U.S. and NATO naval operations and exercises there.
The current situation echoes the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, when the Bush administration tried to send thousands of U.S. troops into northern Iraq through Turkey — a Muslim nation where most people opposed the war — without first obtaining Ankara's permission.
The Turkish parliament refused to allow the United States to use its territory.
Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article.
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