WASHINGTON — President Bush declared Friday that the United States and its allies "stand with the people" of war-torn Georgia against Russian "bullying and intimidation." He then left Washington for a 10-day vacation at his Texas ranch.
Bush's departure — along with the fact that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also are on vacation — underscored that the United States has no military options in Georgia despite the president's parting rhetorical shots at Moscow.
Bush's decision to leave also signaled that there's little in the short term that the United States can do beyond continuing to send humanitarian aid to Georgia and working with European allies to shore up a French-brokered cease-fire and to pressure Russia to withdraw its troops and tanks from the former Soviet republic.
"The United States and our allies stand with the people of Georgia and their democratically elected government," Bush said before leaving the White House. "Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected. Moscow must live up to its commitment to withdraw its invading forces from all Georgian territory."
Bush will continue to confer with his advisers from his ranch. For the longer term, several experts said, his administration must consider actions that demonstrate the depth of U.S. and European anger over the invasion of Georgia and the West's determination to prevent Moscow from intimidating other former Soviet-bloc nations and republics that have angered the Kremlin by forging strong ties to the West.
"What you have here is a power that is on the march that thinks it can intimidate anybody in the way," said Stephen Blank of the Army War College, who added that Bush can't afford to leave the job of formulating a new Russia strategy to his successor.
"What the next administration does is up to them, but at least you have things in place that leave them with a foundation from which to move forward," Blank said. "National security policy does not suddenly make a U-turn on Election Day."
Russia's offensive deep into Georgia, launched after the U.S. ally tried to wrest control of its pro-Moscow rebel enclave of South Ossetia, has fueled the worst tensions between the powers since the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1992.
Bush said a "contentious relationship" was in neither country's interest, but he added that Russia has "damaged its credibility and relations with the nations of the free world."
"Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century," the president said. "To begin to repair its relations with the United States and Europe and other nations, and to begin restoring its place in the world, Russia must respect the freedom of its neighbors."
The United States has canceled several military exercises with Russia and is reviewing the possibility of expelling Moscow from the Group of Eight world powers and other international institutions.
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe on Friday declined to discuss what other steps are under consideration.
"Right now our focus is on the immediate issue of the Russian troops withdrawing, that there be a cessation of violence," he said. "And that is where our focus will remain in . . . this immediate time period."
Blank, however, said it was no coincidence that the United States had signed an agreement Thursday under which Poland would host a small battery of U.S. anti-missile interceptors in return for the beefing up of its air defenses.
Moscow denounced the accord as aimed at Russia — Washington says the interceptors are to protect the United States and Europe from Iranian missiles — and a senior Russian commander warned that Poland was at risk of attack, perhaps even by nuclear weapons.
Blank said other measures that could be taken against Moscow included restricting Russia's access to Western banks, stronger support for the former Soviet republic of Ukraine's admission to NATO and accelerating the construction of pipelines from Central Asia, which would allow Europe to reduce its dependence on Russian natural gas.
He also said the United States and its allies could begin examining plans for protecting former Soviet-bloc nations from Russian intimidation.
Morton Abramowitz, a former senior State Department official, said U.S. policy also would have to address the future of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another pro-Moscow breakaway Georgian province, amid indications that Russia intended to annex them.
"You have to start getting a policy now no matter who will be the (next White House) incumbent," said Abramowitz, a fellow with the Century Foundation. "You can't wait."
More from McClatchy:
McClatchy Newspapers 2008