ON A JULY NIGHT IN 1983, Wyoming Congressman Dick Cheney stood in Red Square with Tom Downey, a Democratic House colleague from New York. “There were just the two of us, and I asked him what he was thinking,” Downey told me three years ago, when I was working on a book about Cheney. “I think we’re standing at Ground Zero,” Cheney responded.
The two men were part of a twenty-one-member Congressional delegation to Moscow, the first such visit since Soviet officials stopped all “codels” in 1979, to protest U.S. military and economic support of the mujahideen, who would eventually drive the Soviet army out of Afghanistan.
What concerned Downey was that at a rare moment of political apertura, nuclear war was the first thing that came to Dick Cheney’s mind.
When a U.S. client state in the Caucasus was invaded by Russia twenty-five years later, President Bush was horsing around with Olympic athletes and posing for grip-and-grin photos with Vladimir Putin in Beijing, while the old cold warrior was in operational control at the White House.
By the time Bush made it back to Washington, Cheney’s “cannot go unanswered” position and Senator John McCain’s aggressive and confrontational public statements had framed the debate about an American response to Russian aggression in Georgia.
What sort of “answer” did the vice president have in mind? In October 2001, the U.S. quickly moved troops and materiel into position to attack Afghanistan, whose government had provided Osama bin Laden with a safe haven from which to plan an attack on the United States. In the summer of 2008 there are no troops or materiel left to move. The bellicose rhetoric of Cheney, McCain, and Bush antagonized the Russians. But it didn’t turn their tanks around.
A week into the crisis, in fact, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in the Georgian capital of Tiblisi, pressuring President Mikhail Saakashvili, a colorful American-educated satrap who had overplayed his hand, to accept the slightly refined terms of a cease-fire accord drawn up by French President Nicolas Sarkozy several days earlier. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was staking out the Pentagon’s position. “I don’t see any prospect for the use of military force by the United States in this situation,” Gates told reporters. “Is that clear enough?”
TWO DIFFERENT NARRATIVES—The American media initially reported the story as it was framed by Cheney, McCain and Bush: Russia had reacted disproportionately to Georgia’s attack on the capital of the breakaway province of Southern Ossetia, using military force to crush a nascent democracy in Georgia.
That story line, in a word, is a crock, even if Russia’s response was disproportionate and brutal. It does provide some cover for the Bush administration, in particular for Secretary of State Rice, who came to the administration as an authority on the former Soviet Union, and for Secretary of Defense Gates, a former C.I.A. director who is also a Soviet Union specialist.
A more correct telling of the story might go like this: The U.S. (and Israel) armed, trained, and conducted joint exercises with the Georgian army, leading President Saakashvili to believe that when he ordered a unilateral assault on a disputed territory on Russia’s southern border he could count on the backing of the United States.
A critical piece of information missing from most early reporting on the conflict was buried in a New York Times story filed by Helene Cooper and Thom Shanker the day Condi Rice arrived in Georgia.
On August 7, the Times reported, “members of a the Georgia army unit assigned to a training program under American advisers did not show up for the day’s exercises. In retrospect, American officials said, it is obvious that they had been ordered to mobilize for the mission in South Ossetia by their commanders.” Remarkably, while Georgia engaged in unprovoked hostilities against a separatist state with a population of less than 90,000, the American advisers training the troops were still in country.
If the absence of the Georgians was a surprise to the Americans, the presence of the Americans was no surprise to the Russians. The Republic of Georgia was, to borrow a phrase from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, “a special project for the United States.” American tax dollars paid for Georgian weapons. American personnel trained Georgia’s army. Exactly one week before President Saakashvili ordered an assault on South Ossetia, American troops were leading Georgian military units in counterterrorism exercises that employed tactics similar to those Georgian troops used in their assault on Tskhinvali.
The exercises weren’t exactly a state secret. “They performed peacekeeping operations, entering settlements and cleansing them of terrorists,” a Georgian TV reporter said, over the sounds of loud gunfire. The Rustavi-2 TV news report was a state propaganda piece created for local consumption. Transcribed by the BBC Monitoring Service, it included a U.S. officer speaking through a Georgian translator. “For these exercises, sometimes units are headed by Georgian servicemen and sometimes by Americans. It is an integrated training. Georgian and American servicemen work well together and act in a coordinated manner.”
President Saakashvili was also interviewed, after joining the 1,000 American and 600 Georgian soldiers collaborating in the $8 million “Georgia-U.S Immediate Response 2008 Military Exercises,” paid for by American taxpayers.
The two-week joint operation at the Vaziani military base (which included a model Iraqi village for training purposes) ended July 31. Russian airplanes bombed the base four days after 300 members of the U.S. Marines 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment were airlifted back to their bases in Ohio and West Virginia, according to a small piece of remarkable reporting by the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
How could the White House, the State Department, Defense Department, and the intelligence community get it so wrong? How could they allow the president of a small country that has only existed for seventeen years to redefine U.S. relations with a major strategic adversary?
“We only have so much bandwidth,” said a recently retired Air Force general who asked that his name not be used. I assumed his comments referred to troops bogged down in Iraq. The problem, he said, extends beyond the military. “I would make the same argument about intelligence,” he said. “When you have 98 percent of your resources tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan, you are going to miss a lot.”
The U.S. intelligence community did miss a lot. Or perhaps the White House again ignored the warnings of the CIA and other intelligence agencies. The retired officer I spoke with said the presence of U.S. military advisers in the country is a sign that someone was asleep at the switch.
“Under normal circumstances,” he said, “you get your personnel out of a country when hostilities are imminent.”
MISSED OR IGNORED—Much of what the intelligence community missed (or the Bush administration ignored) was available to anyone with access to Google.
• Four months before the conflict, Moscow protested vociferously when President Bush insisted that Georgia and Ukraine be fast-tracked into NATO. Germany, France, Spain, and Italy vetoed NATO membership for the two founding republics of the Soviet Union, and Bush’s proposal got nowhere. German and British officials speaking to the New York Times at the NATO summit in Bucharest said Georgia’s “unstable leadership” made it unfit for NATO membership.
• A month, to the day, before Russian troops crossed into Georgia, the BBC Monitoring Service reprinted a text from a Chechen rebel website describing in detail the Russian military mobilization. According to Kavkazcenter.com (available in English), Russian Prime Minister Putin was involved in the planning of an attack on the Caucasus that would begin between August 21 and September 10. Even ragtag jihadists who claim to govern the “Caucasus Emirate” seemed to have better information than U.S intelligence agencies.
• Three weeks before Russian tanks crossed into Georgia, Luke Harding, the (U.K.) Guardian‘s Moscow bureau chief warned of a war between Russia and Georgia. “Temperatures in both Tiblisi and Moscow are rising,” Harding wrote in a short column that described Russia’s fear of being encircled by American allies. “Faced with a powerful and much larger neighbour, Georgia’s pro-Western President, Mikhail Saakashvili, needs to tread carefully.”
• A week before Russian troops moved into Georgia, Putin called Israeli president Shimon Peres and demanded that Israel pull its weapons and advisers out of Georgia, according to the Israeli dailyHa’aretz. The Israelis, concerned that their military advisers would confront Russian troops on foreign soil, complied. In fact, the Israeli exit from Georgia had begun in 2007, when Israel’s defense and foreign ministries blocked the sale of Merkava tanks to Georgia because Israeli officials feared that the country was headed for an armed confrontation with Russia. As tensions increased, private defense contractors owned by Israeli generals Yisrael Ziv and Gal Hirsch also began to scale back training operations in Georgia. By the time war broke out, most Israeli advisers had already returned home.
DECLARING A NEW COLD WAR—As Russian troops attacked Georgia, John McCain’s “shoot from the hip” threats were predictable. It’s not exactly news that he sees U.S.–Russian relations through cold war lenses.
The big foreign policy speech McCain delivered six months ago in Los Angeles began with a childhood recollection of an act of war: “When I was five years old, a car pulled up in front of our house in New London, Connecticut, and a Navy officer rolled down the window and shouted at my father that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.” Then McCain described his family’s military pedigree. A father who went to war for four years. A grandfather who commanded a fast carrier task force under Admiral William Halsey, then died, “exhausted from the burdens of war,” the day after he returned home. Senator McCain himself, forging the closest friendships he would ever know, in Vietnam.
McCain followed the rehearsal of his military bona fides with a declaration of a second cold war. “China and the United States are not destined to be adversaries,” McCain says. But Russia? A transatlantic alliance defeated the Soviet Union in the cold war, and now we are faced with the “the dangers of a revanchist Russia.” McCain made the case for throwing Russia out of the G-8—the elite group of eight highly industrialized states. To become “a club of leading market democracies” McCain says, the G-8 “should include Brazil and India but exclude Russia.” He also argued for NATO solidarity “from the Baltic to the Black Sea” and the creation of a “League of Democracies” that would also exclude Russia—in effect circumventing the United Nations, where Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council.
The Kremlin got the message: From a U.S. senator and presidential candidate, a litany of threats to further isolate Russia augmented an ongoing NATO expansion that promised more of the same containment policy the West used in the cold war.
While McCain did say, “I detest war,” it’s impossible to consider his words without wondering where he would draw the line between diplomacy and war. If, as Carl von Clausewitz observed, “war is merely the continuation of politics by other means,” McCain would be quick to resort to other means.
AN INCIDENT WAITING TO HAPPEN—No one is making the argument that McCain provoked the Russians. The current administration gets the credit for that. But McCain’s cold war saber rattling had to be a factor in Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Georgia, taking advantage of what was not an intelligence failure but a stunning strategic blunder. George Bush allowed Mikheil Saakashvili to provoke a conflict that has redefined the relationship between the United States and the Russian Federation (and placed under Russian control Georgia’s Baku-Tiblisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, the only export route for Caspian Sea oil that does not pass through Russian territory). It is a new relationship that will be waiting for the next President on what Hillary Clinton frequently referred to as “day one in the White House.”
John McCain’s claim that he was speaking to Saakashvili on a daily basis during the crisis, his increasingly bellicose public statements regarding Russia, and the counsel he receives from his neocon foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann, who has been a paid lobbyist for Georgia, Latvia, and Romania, are far less reassuring than Barack Obama was in his initial argument that all parties should stand down and look for a diplomatic solution. Two weeks into the crisis, President Bush dispatched Dick Cheney to Georgia, when someone should be talking to Moscow.
Like Cheney, John McCain looks more and more like an unreformed cold warrior, eager to put a target on Red Square and contemptuous even of tough diplomacy that might avoid future conflicts and contain an oil-rich Russia extending its influence into the former Soviet bloc.
A MISSILE-DEFENSE OFFENSE—The week after Russian troops consolidated their control of Georgia, Condoleezza Rice was in Warsaw, announcing an agreement that would place U.S. missiles in Poland. A Pentagon official told reporters for the national security website Swoop that Russia had to “pay a price” for invading Georgia. So perhaps the timing of Rice’s visit to Warsaw was not coincidental. The White House claims that the anti-ballistic system is designed to prevent a rogue state such as Iran or Korea from attacking the U.S. Russians see an anti-missile battery five hundred miles from their western border as a threat.
The system is unproven (see the Washington Spectator, May 15, 2008) and is the bookend to a Bush initiative that began in 2001, when the president unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. To sweeten the deal, the U.S. included a battery of Patriot missiles and 100 American military personnel to operate them in Poland. The national security website Danger Room reports that, according to a Pentagon source, American troops will join the Polish military, at least temporarily. The troops will be facing east, toward Russia, another tripwire in the face of a Russian invasion of NATO member Poland.