August 12, 2008

Driving Our Foreign Policy at 10/10ths

Auto enthusiasts sometimes use an expression involving some number of "tenths" to express how hard a car is being driven. Tootling around town, for instance, might be considered driving at three tenths, while hot-lapping at an autocross where the car is closer to its limits of performance, could be, say, 8/10ths. Experienced drivers - including race car drivers - know that pushing a car to ten tenths is extremely risky, and should only be done for very short periods of time and when there is no other choice. Simply put, one always wants a little bit of cushion in order to deal with the unexpected.

If there was any doubt that foreign policy under the Bush Doctrine of proactive war and foreign adventurism has been running flat out at 10/10ths since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the inability of the United States to respond to Russia's recent invasion of South Ossetia and Georgia have made it extremely clear. Without something in reserve - either militarily or diplomatically - the U.S. has been caught wrong-footed by the Russian response to Georgia's earlier incursion into South Ossetia, and wholly unprepared to deal with it. For while the Russians have declared that they have met their military goals and are no longer advancing, there is little question that that they remain firmly in control of the situation. As one Georgian put it when asked to identify the border of South Ossetia, "The border is where the Russians say it is. It could be here [Tirzini], or it could be Gori.”

Whatever goals Russia may have genuinely had about autonomy for South Ossetia, it has achieved several other, potentially more important aims, as well. Most significantly, Russia has reasserted its dominance in the region and at its borders, and in so doing, established that alliances with the West, training from NATO, and democraticization ultimately count for little when the chips are down. In particular, this message is aimed at counties like Poland, the Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, and - of primary concern to Russia - Ukraine, all of whom have flirted with Europe and the West to one degree or another in recent years.

Likewise, Russia's action in Georgia is designed to convey to the rest of the world that its interests must be respected. Moscow was deeply stung by the U.S. and Europe's joint decision to back independence for Kosovo, and the invasion of South Ossetia is likely Russia's way of demonstrating that it is every bit as capable of redrawing borders as NATO.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain warned that the Georgia situation would have grave long-range repercussions for Russia, but he, along with Vice President Cheney - who declared that the Russian action "must not go unanswered" - are very clearly operating in the realm of rhetoric rather than reality, to say nothing of the past rather than the present. Not only does the United States need Russia's cooperation in ending weapon sales to Iran and its help in bringing that country's nuclear ambitions to heel, but the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have ensured that - assuming one were desirable - any American military response to the Georgia crisis is impossible.

The weakened Russia of the last two decades did not pursue military action outside its current territorial boundaries. Now, flush with money from booming oil prices and burning with 20 years of wounded pride stoked by renewed nationalist fervor, the Russia of today is clearly poised to project its power, at least locally. To understand just how badly the United States misread that fact, one need only consider that Georgia's attempt to reclaim South Ossetia took several days of preparation, including the mass mobilization of troops. The U.S., as Georgia's closest and most important ally, has a significant number of military and civilian advisors there, as well contractors engaged at all level of the Georgian government; it is virtually impossible that Tblisi's plans for South Ossetia were unknown to them. We can deduce then, that American intelligence believed Russia would simply accept Georgia's invasion, just as it had accepted independence for Kosovo.

Clearly, that evaluation could not have been more wrong, and worse, the gap between the bellicose and intense rhetoric coming from Washington and the actions the United States can actually pursue is enormous, making Russia look even stronger than it actually is. From StratFor:
There is talk that the Russians might want a new government in Georgia. That is probably so, but the Russians have already achieved their most important goals. They have made it clear to their neighbors that a relationship with the West does not provide security if Russia’s interests are threatened. They have made it clear to the West that ignoring Russian wishes carries a price. And finally, they have made it clear to everyone that the Russian military, which was in catastrophic shape five years ago, is sufficiently healed to carry out a complex combined-arms operation including land, air and naval components. Granted it was against a small country, but there were many ways in which the operation could have been bungled. It wasn’t. Russia is not a superpower, but it is certainly no longer a military cripple. Delivering that message, in the end, might have been the most important to Russia.
The implications of Russia's successful and unopposed answer to Georgia's invasion of South Ossetia are far-reaching. A resurgent Russia can no longer be ignored or taken for granted, and the attractiveness of alliance with the United States and Europe for small countries on its borders - especially those once within the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact - has taken a dramatic hit. With American intelligence assets so focused on al-Qaeda and military resources completely consumed by Iraq and Afghanistan, there is nothing standing between Russian ambition and its achievement in the near term. The United States simply cannot fulfill any promises it has made - or will make - to allies in Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Driving America's foreign policy at 10/10ths for the last 8 years has left us with no margin for error and no means to address the unexpected. As they say, however, the one constant in the universe is change, and the borrowed time on which the Bush Administration's oblivious and over-confident foreign policy has been dependent appears to have run out. While on the positive side, this might smother the bellicose ambitions of the White House for conflict with Iran, it has also exposed the U.S. as little more than an overextended paper tiger incapable of acting on its neoconservative bluster. That's well and good if it only serves to restrain irresponsible aggression, but it is unquestionably damaging if our show of weakness and stupidity in Georgia emboldens our enemies and strengthens our international rivals.

No comments: