YOU MIGHT think, at a moment such as this, that the moral calculus would be pretty well understood. Russian troops are occupying large swaths of Georgia, a tiny neighboring country, and sacking its military bases. Russian jets have roamed Georgian skies, bombing civilian and military targets alike. Russian ships are said to be controlling Georgia's port of Poti, while militia under Russia's control reportedly massacre Georgian civilians. Russian officials openly seek to depose Georgia's elected government. Yet, in Washington, the foreign policy sophisticates cluck and murmur that, after all, the Georgians should have known better than to chart an independent course -- and what was the Bush administration thinking when it encouraged them in their dangerous delusions? If the criticism is correct, a fundamental and generations-old tenet of American foreign policy is wrong, so we should be clear about what is at stake.
Part of the blame-the-victim argument is tactical -- the notion that the elected president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, foolishly allowed the Russians to goad him into a military operation to recover a small separatist region of Georgia. Mr. Saakashvili says, in an article we publish on the opposite page today, that the facts are otherwise, that he ordered his troops into action only after a Russian armored column was on the move. If that's not true -- if he moved first -- he was indeed foolish, and if Georgian shelling targeted civilians, it should be condemned. It is a bit rich, though, for the Russians -- who twice flattened their separatist-inclined city of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, killing tens of thousands of civilians in the name of territorial integrity -- to wave the war-crimes banner now.
Moreover, the evidence is persuasive and growing that Russia planned and instigated this war. Russian cyberwarfare against Georgia's Internet infrastructure began as early as July 20, the New York Times reported yesterday. Weeks before that, Russian railway troops had entered another separatist region of Georgia to repair key tracks. Russia had 150 tanks and other armored vehicles ready to roll, strategic targets selected for its air force, naval units off Georgia's Black Sea coast. And during the week before the war, Russian-controlled militia were shelling Georgian villages with increasing ferocity.
In the face of those provocations, U.S. officials urged Mr. Saakashvili to show restraint. But if the charge is that the Bush administration encouraged Georgia's yearnings for true independence, the verdict surely is "guilty" -- just as when the Clinton administration encouraged Georgia under Eduard Shevardnadze and as the first President Bush welcomed the freedom of Warsaw Pact nations when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Now we are told that Russia's invasion last weekend proves the improvidence of this policy: The United States should have helped Georgia to understand that it lies in Russia's "sphere of influence," beyond the reach of American help.
At first blush, that may sound like common sense. What is Georgia to us, after all, far away and without natural resources? And yet, where would the logic carry us? Poland, too, used to be in Moscow's "sphere" -- and Hungary, Estonia, Lithuania, and on and on. Should they, too, bow to Vladimir Putin? Why not Finland, while we're at it? You can quickly begin to see the reemergence of a world that would be neither in America's interest nor much to Americans' liking.
If a democratically elected Ukraine chooses not to join NATO -- and Ukrainians are divided on the question -- NATO will not force itself on Ukraine. But if Ukrainians -- or Georgians, Armenians or anyone else -- recoil at Russia's authoritarian model and choose to associate with the West, should the United States refrain from "egging them on"? Since the days of the Soviet Union, when the United States never abandoned the cause of "captive nations," American policy has been that independent nations should be free to rule themselves and shape their future. How, and how effectively, the United States can support those aspirations inevitably will vary from case to case and from time to time, and supporting those aspirations certainly won't always involve military force. But for the United States to counsel a "realistic" acceptance of vassal status to any nation would mark a radical departure from past principles and practices.