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Is Ossetia Essential?

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Last year, Brent Scowcroft described to the Council on Foreign Relations his "most difficult judgment call" as George H.W. Bush's national security adviser. It entailed preparing Bush for an early morning news conference regarding an attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. Later on, Scowcroft was asked about the first Bush administration's decision to look the other way as Saddam Hussein's attack helicopters slaughtered Shiites in the south of Iraq. He seemed unmoved. It is not for nothing that he is called a "realist."

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Now I, too, would like to become a realist -- if just for a day. I'd like to ask who among us is willing to fight to bring South Ossetia back into the Georgian fold? How about Abkhazia? These are the ethnic enclaves that Georgia claims and Russia -- not to put too fine a point on it -- supports. They are the immediate reasons for the recent war.

I ask my nasty little questions because it has been the policy of the current Bush administration to have Georgia as well as Ukraine admitted to NATO. This would mean that if either country got into a dust-up with its neighbor Russia, we would scramble the jets, stoke up the usual talk radio personalities and sally into yet another lovely war. Before this happens, can we at least debate whether this is a good idea? Cynic that I am, I have my doubts.

At the risk of sounding wishy-washy -- a cable news synonym for thoughtful -- I have not yet arrived at a position. I can see the virtue of NATO membership -- NATO's insistence on certain democratic standards, for instance -- and I don't for a moment think that every Russian objection has to be taken into account and honored. But the differences between Poland and the Czech Republic on one hand and Ukraine and Georgia on the other are considerable. The latter two either have the sort of ethnic troubles that have caused war after war in Europe or cannot yet be considered stable democracies.

Ukraine has a substantial Russian minority. It has a major (warm-water) Russian naval base. It has such an intimate relationship with Russia that Tchaikovsky, the most Russian of all composers, used Ukrainian folk songs in his Symphony No. 2, nicknamed the "Little Russian" -- the Russian nickname for Ukraine itself. As for Georgia, it doesn't have large numbers of Russians, but it does have other ethnic groups that prefer Russia to Georgia. This is not Denmark.

When Russia invaded Georgia, the brief war ignited an immense barrage of analogies and comparisons: It was Germany taking the Sudetenland (1938) or the Soviet Union rolling tanks into Czechoslovakia (1968) all over again. We will see which ones -- if any -- are apt. But one that occurs to me is the Hungarian revolt of 1956 and how the Soviets brutally extinguished it. Afterward, some inquiring minds in the U.S. government wondered whether the Hungarians had been led to expect U.S. help. They found, in the records of Radio Free Europe, several broadcasts that "implied that foreign aid would be forthcoming."

Yet another analogy occurs -- the speech that Secretary of State Dean Acheson delivered to the National Press Club in 1950 excluding South Korea from the U.S. defensive perimeter in Asia. Later that year, the North Koreans went over the 38th parallel and the Korean War began. Had the North Koreans been listening?

Both analogies -- Hungary and Korea -- are examples of the intense interest that foreign governments and other parties abroad show in the subtleties of American policy. In the case of Georgia, the body language of the Bush administration -- as well as of John McCain and others -- suggested an affinity that was unconnected to America's national interest. It's true that the Georgians might have been hearing what they wanted to hear -- or possibly thinking that the Russians were hearing something similar -- but Washington's support of NATO membership for Georgia is clear enough: We love you guys.

Just as Brent Scowcroft was not dismissing Saddam Hussein's atrocities, so, too, does wondering about further NATO expansion not take the side of Russia or excuse its inexcusable mauling of Georgia. But realism requires asking hard questions. NATO membership is a solemn commitment granted to stable democracies. Does Georgia fit that bill? How about Ukraine? Will NATO membership for those countries keep Russia in its place? And what if it doesn't? That raises the second most important question: Will we fight for Georgia? Here's the first: Can we talk about this?

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Correction: In my Aug. 12 column I wrote that Vladimir Putin had been mayor of St. Petersburg. He had been deputy mayor.

cohenr@washpost.com


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