Caution Over Confrontation

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, September 10, 2008

In the month since the Russian invasion of Georgia, the Bush administration has crafted a policy that should please some liberal critics and upset conservative hard-liners -- a low-key approach that tries to help the Georgians recover without backing Russia further into a corner.

The Georgia strategy is premised on working jointly with European allies and on avoiding the sort of unilateral U.S. military threats that would scare them off. It is also tempered by the administration's earlier mistakes in dealing with mercurial Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, which set the stage for his unwise Aug. 7 attack on South Ossetia that provoked the punishing Russian reaction.

It's a policy, in short, that distills some of the foreign policy lessons learned at the shank end of the Bush presidency. And its contours, interestingly enough, arguably are closer to the thrust of Barack Obama's initial, cautious reaction to the Georgia crisis than to the more confrontational approach of John McCain.

The centerpiece of the policy was last week's announcement that the United States will rush as much as $1 billion in humanitarian and reconstruction aid to Georgia -- but won't immediately provide new military assistance to rebuild the Georgian army, as some in Tbilisi and Washington had hoped. A show-the-flag tour of the region last week by Vice President Cheney gave the policy a hawkish cover and was intended to bolster Russia's neighbors. But the policy is more about avoiding a new Cold War than encouraging one.

By focusing on civilian assistance, the administration is sending several messages: It is reassuring Europeans that it won't militarize the Georgia crisis and turn it into a U.S.-Russian confrontation; at the same time it is cautioning Saakashvili to go slow and avoid more self-defeating provocations against Moscow. Administration officials feared the Georgian leader was making just that mistake when he called in mid-August for prompt rearmament.

The signal Bush is said to be sending Saakashvili is: "We're with you. We take your survival and interests seriously. But be smart. Don't give Russia a pretext." This go-slow message is in part a reflection of the administration's frustration that Saakashvili ignored repeated advice over the past two years not to provoke Russia over the disputed regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Having promised Moscow that the United States would restrain Saakashvili, administration officials were chagrined by his Aug. 7 attack on South Ossetia, which they believe was an attempt to create a fait accompli before the Russians could respond. U.S. officials doubt Saakashvili's claim that the Russians were already moving troops through the Roki Tunnel toward South Ossetia when Georgia launched its attack.

The larger dilemma facing the administration is how to show Russia that it made a serious mistake in invading Georgia, without making Moscow feel even more isolated and aggressive. In the view of administration officials, the new Russia has one foot in the 21st century and a growing stake in the global marketplace. But Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has been driving Georgia policy, is seen by Washington as having his other foot in the 19th century -- with an outmoded "great power" mystique about Russia's interests in which he sees control of physical space as the key to security and stability.

Russia has paid a big economic cost over the past month for Putin's atavistic strategy. The Russian ruble has fallen sharply, forcing the central bank to intervene to bolster the currency. The Russian stock market has also tumbled, with the benchmark RTS index losing about $290 billion in value since Aug. 7. Frightened by Putin's adventurism, investors have pulled as much as $21 billion out of the country over the past few weeks, according to a Goldman Sachs report cited Friday by the Financial Times.

The administration wants to keep Putin from driving Russia off a cliff. They view his successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, as a man who understands that Russia's future is as a 21st-century power. They want to avoid a strategy that unintentionally undermines Medvedev and bolsters the Putin camp.

So this is what it has come to for the Bush administration in what may be its last foreign policy crisis: No saber-rattling; no calls to expel Russia from the Group of 8, à la McCain. Instead, a patient effort to work with Europe, in partnership with French diplomats, for heaven's sake! And a policy premised on the idea that global capital markets are a better constraint than U.S. bluff and bluster.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address

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