Commentary: Russia-Georgia conflict and U.S. foreign policy from the hip

Sen. John McCain, second from left, Richard Burr, second from right, (R-NC), Saxby Chambliss, far right, (R-GA), joined Georgia President Saakashvili, far left, at the opening of a new courthouse in Mtskheta in late August of 2006. (Photo courtesy State Department/MCT)
Sen. John McCain, second from left, Richard Burr, second from right, (R-NC), Saxby Chambliss, far right, (R-GA), joined Georgia President Saakashvili, far left, at the opening of a new courthouse in Mtskheta in late August of 2006. (Photo courtesy State Department/MCT) U.S. State Department / MCT

The lack of wisdom that tumbles out of the mouths of politicians is often immediately obvious. Sometimes, however, it does not become clear until months later. And even then, it can be missed if the collective focus of the media is elsewhere.

The conflict last year between Russia and Georgia provides an excellent case in point.

Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin provided examples of both kinds of statements in the same interview with ABC News correspondent Charlie Gibson last September when asked about the situation. In an attempt to demonstrate she was up to handling such a crisis, Palin suggested she had insight into Russian actions against Georgia because Russia is visible from some parts of Alaska. That remark immediately became fodder for countless jokes. Stand-up comics, no doubt depressed about the coming departure from office of President George W. Bush, were thrilled with such a rich source of new material.

It has taken until now for the less amusing and breathtakingly irresponsible aspects of what Palin and her running mate had to say on the subject to become apparent. And it would appear the media hasn't bothered to take much notice.

In the same interview with Gibson, Palin declared that the Russian action was unprovoked. She went on to say she had spoken with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and told him that she and Senator McCain were committed to Georgia. She also enthusiastically endorsed the idea that Georgia should be admitted to NATO and cheerfully acknowledged that such a step would require other members to defend that country if it were attacked.

As for Senator McCain, he told a crowd at a campaign stop in York, Pennsylvania that he had spoken on the phone with Saakashvili and had told him on behalf of all Americans that "today we are all Georgians."

Those words and strong commitments were as stirring as they were wrong and reckless.

The European Union has just released an extensive report on the conflict following a nine-month investigation. It concluded that Georgia started the war with a sustained artillery attack on the capital of the breakaway province of South Ossetia. Georgia then followed up with a full-scale invasion of the region. To be sure, the report also had condemnation for Russia's overreaction and for its contributions to the tensions that brought about the fighting, but the blame for beginning the hostilities undeniably rests with Georgia.

It should be pointed out that Saakashvili regularly cracks down on the press and the political opposition and that his government treats minorities as second-class citizens at best. One other item worth noting is that McCain's main foreign policy advisor, Randy Scheunemann, was drawing a salary from the McCain campaign at the same time he was collecting six-figure fees from the government of Georgia for being its Washington lobbyist.

It is unclear whether the McCain-Palin embrace of Saakashvili was due to Scheunemann's influence or the fact that any bashing of Russia is a guaranteed applause getter from their end of the political spectrum. What is clear is that this was not an instance where the United States should have jumped and chosen sides before it was known who started the conflict.

Foreign policy should not be an exercise in shooting from the hip even in the midst of an election campaign.

One of the casualties of another war was NATO. When the Cold War came to an end so did the organization's primary raison d'être. Unable to find something more useful to do, it has ever since busied itself by expanding its ranks. The argument for that effort is the assertion that NATO membership will make the newly independent nations of the former Soviet Union more democratic. That is about as logical as saying that joining a country club makes one a better golfer.

New democracies do not become truly democratic overnight. As Iraq demonstrates on a daily basis, it is a long and often difficult road until political and economic power can be divided in a way that does not lead to violence. Even in mature democracies things are not always that smooth. Those who still can't accept the results of the last election in this country have raised the prospect of assassination or a military coup too many times to think it is something other than wishful thinking.

Instead of adding weak and unprepared partners, NATO might want to devote its energies to working out an understanding with Russia about the fact that it does not pose a threat. Especially when those countries are its neighbors. That is of course unless we would have no objection to Mexico joining a revitalized Warsaw Pact.

The EU report observed that the United States, Ukraine and Israel supplied extensive economic and military aid to Georgia allowing it to double its military in just a few years. That kind of assistance and the political signals from Washington during the last administration no doubt emboldened Saakashvili. NATO and Palin and McCain might also want to think through the implications of giving political and military support to a country that is not ready to use either responsibly.

Eisenhower did not take the country to war in 1956 over Hungary and Johnson did not start one in 1968 over Czechoslovakia. With our armed forces stretched beyond the breaking point in Iraq and Afghanistan, a war at this time over Georgia is not possible even if a president were foolish enough to lead us into one.

Any once and future aspirants to the highest elective offices in the land should bear that in mind and also recall what our leaders have said in the past about entangling alliances. It is a warning that goes back to the Founding Fathers and still bears careful consideration today.


Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador to Mozambique and Peru, is a professor of international affairs at Penn State's School of International Affairs. His most recent book is "Why American Foreign Policy Fails: Unsafe at Home and Despised Abroad."

Related stories from McClatchy DC