Page 2 of 2   <      

After Warnings to Moscow, U.S. Has Few Options

Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili questioned Russia's intentions for invading his country. He says the bombing of Georgia's oil pipeline may alter the strategic balance of the region. Video by AP

An aide to Obama had characterized McCain's immediate hard-line stance against Russia last week as "belligerent," while Lieberman had said Obama's more neutral initial statement showed a lack of experience.

The muscular rhetoric in the United States followed complaints from Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, that the administration was not doing enough to help the small country. Saakashvili's government contributed troops to Iraq and earned support from Bush for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a proposal Russia strongly opposes.

Saakashvili also caused an uproar when he said that Bush's pledge of humanitarian aid meant the U.S. military would take control of "Georgian ports and airports." The Pentagon swiftly contradicted his statement, and Saakashvili did not repeat it during a subsequent television appearance.

But the administration appeared to be sending mixed signals with its aid shipments, pointedly using military planes and ships and warning Russia not to block sea, air or land transport routes, while insisting it had no plans to intervene militarily.

"This is not an attempt to put military assets in closer proximity to inject U.S. forces into this conflict," a senior defense official said.

An Air Force C-17 cargo plane with medical supplies, shelters and bedding, dispatched from McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., landed yesterday in Tbilisi. Onboard was what the Pentagon called a 12-man "assessment team," which will stay in Georgia to act as liaison. Some team members had served in the country as part of more than 140 U.S. military and contract civilian trainers who previously worked with the Georgian military.

U.S. officials denied reports in the semi-official Russian media that U.S. advisers have been working with Georgian combat troops. On Monday, the U.S. military transported about 2,000 Georgian troops home from duty as part of the multinational force in Iraq.

The scale of the planned U.S. aid appears sizable for a brief conflict with an unknown, but limited, number of casualties. The U.S. Embassy has already released $1.2 million worth of disaster packages, including medical supplies, tents, blankets, bedding, hygiene items, clothing, beds and cots. The State Department and other U.S. agencies have agreed to send at least $670,000 worth of other supplies, officials said.

Despite Bush's reference to using "naval forces," the defense official said there were no immediate plans for use of such vessels. "I wouldn't expect a naval ship to be showing up in the Black Sea until we've determined what, precisely, the need is," the official said.

Bush said he spoke yesterday morning with Saakashvili and with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who brokered the cease-fire agreement. Rice will have lunch with Sarkozy at an official summer residence in the south of France, then will stay overnight in Paris before traveling to Georgia, officials said.

The haste with which Rice's trip was put together -- the decision was made at the White House yesterday morning just before Bush emerged in the Rose Garden -- meant that the Boeing 757 aircraft normally used by the secretary of state was unavailable. Vice President Cheney used it yesterday for a fundraising trip to Colorado, and Rice was relegated to a smaller Air Force C-40, with limits on staff, security and reporters, officials said.

The conflict in Georgia also upended Bush's travel plans. He decided to postpone by one or two days a planned vacation beginning today at his ranch in Crawford, Tex.

But Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who is overseeing the aid efforts, plans to proceed with his vacation at the end of the week, the senior defense official said. He is not scheduled to return to the Pentagon until almost Labor Day.

Staff writer Robert Barnes in Birmingham, Mich., contributed to this report.

<       2

© 2008 The Washington Post Company