Pentagon, White House at odds over aid to Georgia

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 19, 2008 

WASHINGTON — The Bush White House and the Pentagon are at odds over whether to station a Navy ship in the Black Sea to demonstrate U.S. support for the embattled Georgian military and government, two defense officials told McClatchy Tuesday.

The White House thinks that deploying a vessel such as the hospital ship USNS Comfort would showcase the Bush administration's support for Georgia and signal U.S. concern that Russia has sparked a humanitarian crisis in Georgia.

The Pentagon officials, who both spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss internal policy deliberations, said the move is unnecessary. Last week, the U.S. military sent a 12-member assessment team to determine how much humanitarian aid Georgians need.

Air Force and Navy aircraft are sending supplies daily and military officials don't think Georgia requires much additional assistance.

The Comfort, which is based in Baltimore, could be ready to leave as early as Friday but would take five weeks to arrive, and the two military officials said they believe that air support is sufficient.

"That is all they need right now," one senior defense official said.

Moreover, to send the Comfort, a destroyer or any other major naval vessel, the Bush administration would need to obtain permission from Turkey under the Montreux Convention, an international treaty that regulates naval passage in the Black Sea. So far, Turkey, which controls the Bosporus and the Dardanelles that link the Mediterranean and the Black Seas, has refused, the Pentagon officials told McClatchy.

The White House is frustrated, the officials said, but the Pentagon is unperturbed.

Last week, McClatchy reported that President Bush publicly declared that U.S. "naval forces" would assist Georgia before his administration had consulted Turkey or the Pentagon has planned a naval operation.

Throughout the Georgia conflict, Pentagon officials have resisted using U.S. weapons, troops or ships to send political messages to Russia. The Marine Corps would like to withdraw 17 Marines who were in Georgia to train Georgian troops for duty in Iraq, but the White House has insisted that the trainers remain in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, to head off any chance that the administration would be seen to be abandoning an ally.

Earlier this year, Turkey, a member of the NATO alliance, approved a U.S. military plan to send the destroyer USS McFaul and the US Coast Guard Dallas to the Black Sea for a training exercise. The military is stocking those ships with humanitarian aid in case defense officials decide to proceed with the training exercise, naval officials said. For now, however, the two ships remain docked in Greece.

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