Dropping the Ball on Russia Policy

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Since the Al Qaeda attacks on the United States in 2001, and even more since the invasion of Iraq, President Bush has made it crystal clear that countries are either “with us or against us.”

Georgia opted enthusiastically to be "with us." It sent troops to Afghanistan. By deploying 2000 soldiers to Iraq—a commitment greater than that of almost all other coalition members—it passed the Bush administration’s litmus test of loyalty with flying colors. Its US-educated President, and defense minister who used to live in Israel, embody the "New Europe" (or in Georgia's case "New Eurasia") that the Bush administration sought to develop as a counterweight to the perceived anti-Americanism and appeasing tendencies of the "Old Europe."

In return, George W. Bush proclaimed to a cheering crowd in Tbilisi in 2005 that "as you build a free and democratic Georgia, the American people will stand with you."

Against this backdrop, the Russian attack is, among many other things, a defiant slap in the face of the United States. It amounts to an invasion of a de facto American ally, even if the Georgian government is itself not blameless in this affair.

What persuaded the Putin government that the world’s sole superpower could be so safely and blatantly disrespected? Russia is vastly weaker than the United States. America's GDP is ten times larger than Russia’s. The US military is far more powerful than Russia's. Russian men's life expectancy is below 60, just two years longer than Cambodians’. The United States is allied to most of Western and Central Europe, whereas—save for Armenia, Belarus and a few small countries—Russia has no allies in Eurasia.

So why was Russia able to act with such impunity? Nuclear deterrence is not the reason; a Russian threat to resort to nuclear weapons, which would automatically trigger massive US retaliation, has no credibility. Oil and natural gas do not provide the answer; Moscow and its corrupt elites need the money as much or even more than their customers need their gas. Nor does perceived Russian leverage over Iran provide an explanation; the United States does not need Russian approval to strike Iranian nuclear facilities if it opts to do so, nor would Russia plausibly defend the Islamic Republic in that scenario.

The answers to these questions lie to the south of Georgia in the Middle East. Among the many nefarious consequences of America's disproportionate engagement in Iraq are several that explain why Moscow felt it could brazenly invade Georgia without much risk of a serious American response. First, the overcommitment of US military, intelligence and diplomatic resources to Southwest Asia has led the entire American national security establishment to largely neglect the rest of the world for - thus far - half a decade.

Second, most Western European states have been overly fearful of "provoking" Russia. Having expended much of its political capital in Iraq, the US has not been able to devote enough energy to encouraging, and if need be, pressuring Western Europe to show more backbone in its dealings with Moscow. Third, the destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime and the ensuing unraveling of the fragile equilibrium in Kurdistan have impaired the Turkish-US alliance, which is critical to projecting American power in the Transcaucasus.

Vladimir Putin’s move to exploit the opportunity afforded by America’s disproportionate focus on Iraq is the most dramatic one to date, but likely won’t be the last. In mapping out the future of its Iraq policy, it’s critically important that the Bush administration (and its successor) stop letting “conditions on the ground” in Iraq “dictate” our actions there, regardless of their consequences well beyond Iraqi borders. The broader strategic context, with its far higher stakes, must take precedence.

The Russo-Georgian war is an ongoing story. With Russia fundamentally weak, its apparent victory can still turn into a disaster. But had the US administration not dropped the ball in the first place on Russia policy—largely because of its misplaced obsession with Iraq—this entire episode need not have happened.

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