Friday, December 26, 2008

US-Georgia pact shows there's still time to make foreign policy mistakes

Just to prove that there’s still time for the Bush administration to make one last bad foreign policy decision, it was announced on Monday that the US and Georgia will sign a strategic partnership agreement on January 4. Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili is hailing the deal as a “historic” partnership between the two countries. The move comes just weeks after NATO declined to launch a formal partnership agreement with Georgia that would eventually lead to their membership in NATO.

So why you ask is the US-Georgia partnership a bad idea? For a few reasons. Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s the countries in central and eastern Europe that were once part of the Soviet bloc were told that if they engaged in certain reforms and became stable democratic states they could join NATO – it was offered up as a reward for good government practices. Right now Georgia is far from a model democracy, Saakashvili does not put up with dissent (he was even rumored last week to have punched his prime minister in the face during a disagreement), while his government has been widely accused of corruption and of growing more autocratic during the past year – all reasons why NATO members like Germany felt Georgia didn’t deserve a membership plan at this point.

Saakashvili also launched his mission to retake South Ossetia by force in August (which then turned into a full-blown conflict with Russia) in part because he thought he had the support of Western powers like the US and NATO – this despite the fact that officials from Germany and even the United States explicitly warned him against provoking Russia and told him that we would not come to his aid if he started a fight with Russia. So having the US sign an “historic” agreement with him at this point is a risky thing to do since Saakashvili has yet to launch the democratic reforms he has promised several times to undertake and because he has a track record of misunderstanding foreign support for his actions.

In fact Saakashvili could already be taking the partnership agreement as a green light for military action. Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency is reporting that on Wednesday Georgia started moving armored vehicles to the disputed borders with the (self-declared) independent regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, according to reports by European monitors operating in the area. The Europeans say the armor won’t help security in the region, which begs the question as to why Georgia is moving troops to the area now? Keep in mind that Saakashvili pledged while running for reelection to bring South Ossetia and Abkhazia back under Georgian control by any means necessary (for 15 years the two regions basically governed themselves after brief civil wars in the early 1990s).

Last month I was at a panel discussion where an expert in the region said he thought there was a one-in-three chance Russia and Georgia would fight again in the near future. It’s starting to look like the chances might be better than that. Luckily the partnership agreement doesn’t commit the US into defending Georgia’s if it’s attacked.
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