The fates of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are chief among the many issues that are still unresolved in the war between Georgia and Russia. What's clear, however, is that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili ordered his country's military to assert his authority over South Ossetia by force. American officials should reflect on the implications of Saakashvili's behavior for U.S. policy toward Georgia, Russia and the region.
Saakashvili ordered the assault last week knowing that South Ossetia would resist, knowing that his forces would have to take on Russian peacekeepers and knowing that Moscow has been spoiling for a fight. In fact, his own government had claimed for some time that Russia was preparing to attack.
Georgia's president clearly thought that his troops could quickly occupy South Ossetia and that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin would not dare to intervene because doing so might provoke the West, especially the United States. A similar logic underlies Tbilisi's long-term foreign policy calculations. Throughout history, weak nations with powerful neighbors have energetically sought strong allies. Serbia enlisted Russian support against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, for example, and Poland turned to Britain to deter Nazi Germany.
Saakashvili has embraced this tried-and-true strategy with gusto, sending a substantial share of the country's small army to Iraq (from which its troops were understandably recalled in recent days) and parroting Bush administration talking points on international issues -- especially on promoting democracy -- more than almost any other leader worldwide.
Ultimately, however, it wouldn't matter to Georgia's president whether the United States was a democracy, a theocracy or ruled by Martians so long as he could use Washington to change the dynamics of Georgian-Russian relations.
Saakashvili's recent statements demonstrate how well he has learned to push America's buttons, probably with the help of his government's lobbyists in Washington. In several interviews and articles, including an op-ed in yesterday's Post, he has compared the recent Russian attack on Georgia to the Soviet invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. He has also invoked former president Ronald Reagan and tried to frame the war as a Russian assault on Western values. "We are attacked because we wanted to be free," he said on CNN.
But the situation inside Georgia belies Saakashvili's rhetorical commitment to freedom. Most glaring was his handling of opposition protests last fall. The State Department's 2007 Human Rights Report, released just a few months ago, found "serious problems" with Georgia's human rights record and notes "excessive use of force to disperse demonstrations"; "impunity of police officers"; and declining respect for freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and political participation. Ana Dolidze, a democracy advocate and former chair of Georgia's Young Lawyers Association, has described in detail how Saakashvili acted quickly after entering office to empower the executive branch at the expense of parliament and to strengthen the government by "stifling political expression, pressuring influential media and targeting vocal critics and opposition leaders" -- including by using law enforcement agencies. Saakashvili is far from the morally pure democrat he would have the West believe he is.
Georgia's internal realities help make clear that the fighting erupted not primarily because of what the country represents but because of its government's actions. Tbilisi could have avoided the confrontation by deferring its ambitions to subjugate South Ossetia and pursuing them through strictly peaceful means.
Few seem to remember that the United States and Russia worked together with the Georgian opposition to ease out then-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and facilitate the election that ultimately brought Saakashvili into office. Russian views of Saakashvili changed over the past five years as Moscow perceived Tbilisi to become increasingly hostile and watched Saakashvili use threats of force to topple the government of another autonomous region, Ajaria, in 2004.
None of this justifies Russia's actions. But even if Moscow had been lying in wait for Saakashvili to provide an excuse to act, it was all the more foolish for him to do so. Regrettably, the Georgian leader has allowed Moscow to demonstrate quite clearly the limits of American interests in Russia's immediate neighborhood. The Kremlin has much more at stake there than Washington and is willing to act decisively and with overwhelming force. Recognizing the potential global consequences of a serious break with Russia, America has not been willing to do more than provide humanitarian relief, pointedly state that U.S. forces would not protect the Georgian ports and airfields where the aid is to arrive, and dispatch Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the scene.
Allowing the graphic exposure of these realities is a major failure of U.S. policy that will undermine American objectives throughout the region. One hopes that in private, the Bush administration is clearly communicating to Moscow that whatever Saakashvili's failings, the United States will not tolerate his removal by force -- and telling the Georgian government that America doesn't need reckless friends.
The writer, executive director of the Nixon Center, served as senior adviser to the undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs from 2003 to 2005.