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Questions for McCain and Obama on Russia and NATO

ASK THIS | September 05, 2008

The plot of the Georgia-Russia-U.S. situation, in which all participants have been overreaching, could have been lifted from the 1959 movie, 'The Mouse that Roared.' Except the movie, a Cold War satire, was funny and the real-world situation is a very serious mess.

By Philip E. Coyle

The ongoing conflict between Russia and the neighboring State of Georgia over the border regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia has threatened to reignite the Cold War pulling all of NATO into the conflict.

The citizens of those two regions are more loyal to Russia than to Georgia, but Georgia claims those regions as sovereign territory.

The situation in Georgia today is the result of overreaching by all concerned.  First the Bush administration overreached by pushing for Georgia to become part of NATO, by supplying new arms to Georgia, and by encouraging Georgia to flex its muscles against Russia.  Then the President of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, overreached by sword rattling and then sending the Georgian military into South Ossetia on August 7th.  Next the Georgian president overreached further by threatening Russia that the U.S. and other nations would come to his aid militarily. That was not credible given the military commitments the U.S. already had in Iraq and Afghanistan. Finally, when no military response from the U.S. was forthcoming, the Georgian president berated the U.S. and other nations for being weak. Not a good way to keep friends.

Russia's responses were predictable and, while some would criticize Russia for overreaching also, were no less than the U.S. would have taken if the situation were reversed in, say, Cuba. Given the fact that Russia held the best cards with powerful military forces nearby and at the ready – something that both the U.S. and Georgia should have anticipated – the president of Georgia should have known that he was going to be overwhelmed by the Russian military and that the U.S. and other nations were going to be nearly powerless to prevent it.

The plot has ironic similarities to the Cold War movie satire, The Mouse That Roared, about the fictional Duchy of Grand Fenwick that decides that the only way to get out of its economic woes is to declare war on the United States, lose that war, and then accept foreign aid. Grand Fenwick sends an invasion force to New York – armed with no more than longbows – which by chance arrives to take over during a nuclear drill that has cleared the streets.

The president of Georgia has been the mouse that roared, except – unlike actor Peter Sellers who in the movie (and thanks to a series of unbelievably comic events) accidentally wins his war with America  – President Saakashvili didn't win his war with Russia and couldn't have. Like the satire, only if President Saakashvili hoped to lose and get foreign aid from Russia in return would his folly of taking on the Russian military have made sense.

But unlike Grand Fenwick, which hoped to lose their battle with a super power, not win, Georgia will not now get foreign aid from Russia. Russian President Dimitri Medvedev has called Georgia’s President Saakashvili a “political corpse” and hopes to force him out of office. Instead the Bush administration has pledged $1 billion in aid, a reverse twist on The Mouse That Roared. If the matter were not so tragically serious it would be funny.

The Bush administration has pledged $570 million from fiscal 2008 and 2009 funds, and $430 million that Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said she hopes the next administration will approve. No matter how the U.S. elections turn out, the next U.S. president could well review how we got into this mess and give pause to this commitment.

The whole debacle has shown that overly aggressive efforts toward NATO expansion, driven by the U.S., can backfire and that when they do the U.S. and NATO can find themselves with few options short of all out war with Russia in regions of the world where Russia has the upper hand.

Ironically, Russia’s military response to Georgia has given NATO new life. With the Soviet Union no longer in existence, and with Russia no longer our enemy, the justification for NATO had been gradually ebbing away. Now, 17 years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, NATO is facing a new Cold War, brought on by misguided efforts to poke the Russian bear with a stick. These include NATO expansion, the establishments of new U.S. military bases in regions that Russia feels are too close for comfort, and proposed missile defenses in Europe.

This is one reason why the proposed missile defenses, ostensibly to defend Europe from Iran, are so dangerous. Russia regards these systems, which are to be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic, as a threat since if they have any effectiveness against Iran they would also be effective against Russia. By participating in these proposed systems, Poland and the Czech Republic are also poking the Russian bear with a stick, not unlike what Georgia has been doing to poke the bear. A lesson the citizens of Poland and the Czech Republic might take from the fiasco in Georgia could be that they have much more reason to be concerned about the threat from Russia than the threat from Iran.

How will the next U.S. President handle Russia and NATO expansion? Will he provide the balance of aid to Georgia as the current Administration has promised? Will he support the deployment of missiles defenses in Europe knowing that those proposed defenses would have dubious effectiveness and knowing that Iran would not be so suicidal as to attack Europe anyway? These are questions the media should be asking the candidates before during and after the upcoming debates.

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