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Who Poked the Bear?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, August 12, 2008 12:41 PM

There doesn't seem to be much President Bush can do about the Russian invasion of Georgia at this point. Except maybe feel guilty about his role in provoking it.

Russia's response to Georgia's military push last week into the Russian-allied separatist province of South Ossetia has been, in the eyes of the Western world, shockingly brutal and wildly disproportionate. But hindsight suggests Bush has been playing with fire in that region for years now, and that an overpowering Russian response was a predictable outcome to continued provocation.

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times: "Many experts in foreign policy say that one reason Russia responded so forcefully to Georgia's attempt to take back South Ossetia is that the United States and Europe had been asserting themselves in Russia's backyard, alienating Moscow by supporting Kosovo's bid for independence.

"These expert say that the Bush administration's efforts to promote democracy, including backing [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili as a beacon of democracy on Russia's borders, may have emboldened the Georgian president to take provocative actions that brought a fierce Russian response.

"Beyond that, Russia has also been angry about American plans to put a missile defense system in Poland, and by American moves to encourage Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO.

"'The combination is that the overall means with which we've dealt with the Russians over the last two years have painted them into a corner so that it's difficult for them not to see us as hostile,' said Michael Greig, conflict management specialist at the University of North Texas."

Susan Cornwell writes for Reuters that the U.S. "is partly to blame for encouraging Georgia's pro-Western government to overreach, analysts said. She quotes Dimitri Simes, founding president of the Nixon Center in Washington: "It is not a happy situation, and we did not have to have this situation, and I think the (Bush) administration has considerable responsibility for that."

Cornwell continues: "Simes said U.S. encouragement of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, one of Washington's staunchest allies, may have led him to believe he could get away with military action to take back control of South Ossetia.

"The Bush administration has pushed hard for Georgia to join NATO, against European misgivings and Russian fury at the idea.

"'Saakashvili was discouraged from attacking Russian troops in South Ossetia but he clearly never was told point blank "If you do it, you are on your own,"' said Moscow-born Simes, who was an informal adviser to President Richard Nixon.

"Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed that U.S. encouragement may have made Saakashvili 'miscalculate' and send Georgian troops into South Ossetia.

"'I think in many respects Saakashvili got too close to the United States and the United States got too close to Saakashvili,' Kupchan said. 'It made him overreach, it made him feel at the end of the day that the West would come to his assistance if he got into trouble.'"

I wrote in yesterday's column about Bush's stirring promise to Georgians in 2005 that "the American people will stand with you."

Anne Gearan writes for the Associated Press: "The Bush administration's assurances of solidarity with a young democracy . . . may have given Georgia's silver-tongued, US-educated leader a little too much swagger as he picked a playground fight he never could win on his own."

Fred Kaplan writes for Slate: "Regardless of what happens next, it is worth asking what the Bush people were thinking when they egged on Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia's young, Western-educated president, to apply for NATO membership, send 2,000 of his troops to Iraq as a full-fledged U.S. ally, and receive tactical training and weapons from our military. Did they really think [Russian leader Vladimir] Putin would sit by and see another border state (and former province of the Russian empire) slip away to the West? If they thought that Putin might not, what did they plan to do about it, and how firmly did they warn Saakashvili not to get too brash or provoke an outburst?

"It's heartbreaking, but even more infuriating, to read so many Georgians quoted in the New York Times-- officials, soldiers, and citizens -- wondering when the United States is coming to their rescue. It's infuriating because it's clear that Bush did everything to encourage them to believe that he would. . . .

"Bush pressed the other NATO powers to place Georgia's application for membership on the fast track. The Europeans rejected the idea, understanding the geo-strategic implications of pushing NATO's boundaries right up to Russia's border. If the Europeans had let Bush have his way, we would now be obligated by treaty to send troops in Georgia's defense. That is to say, we would now be in a shooting war with the Russians. . . .

"Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly called Saakashvili on Sunday to assure him that 'Russian aggression must not go unanswered.' We should all be interested to know what answer he is preparing or whether he was just dangling the Georgians on another few inches of string."

Scott Horton blogs for Harper's: "Georgia's confidence in America, and specifically the Bush Administration, may well prove tragically misplaced. . . .

"The Georgian leadership, and indeed a whole generation of Georgians, tethered their hopes to George W. Bush and the hollow promises of his administration. Now at the moment of truth, Bush will almost certainly let them down.. . . . [T]hanks to the serial strategic misadventures that make up Bush-Cheney foreign policy, there is little prospect of Russia's actions being answered by a flex of military muscle of the United States or of NATO. Putin's calculation is that an America bogged down in two conflicts in the Middle East will let him give the Georgians a whipping. Putin is probably right."

The New York Times editorial board reserves its greatest outrage for Russia, but notes: "The Bush administration has alternately egged on Mr. Saakashvili (although apparently not this time) and looked the other way as the Kremlin has bullied and blackmailed its neighbors and its own people. . . .

"The Bush administration has made Mr. Putin's job even easier, feeding nationalist resentments with its relentless drive for missile defense."

Inklings?

Jonathan S. Landay of McClatchy Newspapers files an intriguing if puzzling report suggesting that U.S. officials knew both less and more about the trouble brewing in the region than one might have expected.

"Bush administration officials, worried by what they saw as a series of provocative Russian actions, repeatedly warned Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to avoid giving the Kremlin an excuse to intervene in his country militarily, U.S. officials said Monday," Landay writes.

"But in the end, the warnings failed to stop the Georgian president -- a Bush favorite -- from launching an attack last week. . . .

"Pentagon officials said that despite having 130 trainers assigned to Georgia, they had no advance notice of Georgia's sudden move last Thursday to send thousands of Georgian troops into South Ossetia to capture that province's capital, Tskhinvali."

But consider this: "At the same time, U.S. officials said that they believed they had an understanding with Russia that any response to Georgian military action would be limited to South Ossetia.

"'We knew they were going to go crack heads. We told them again and again not to do this,' [a] State Department official said. 'We thought we had an understanding with the Russians that any response would be South Ossetia-focused. Clearly it's not.'"

Either way, one big question is why U.S. intelligence wasn't up to speed. Surely the kinds of troop movements involved -- on both sides -- should have set off some alarms?

Well, not if everyone was looking the other way.

Landay writes: "One problem in under-estimating the Russian response, another U.S. official said, was 'a dearth of intelligence assets in the region.'

"U.S. 'national technical means,' the official name for spy satellites and other technology, are 'pretty well consumed by Iraq, Afghanistan and now Pakistan,' the official said, and there was only limited monitoring of Russian military movements toward the Georgian border.

"Additionally, the United States had lost access to vital information when Russia dropped out of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty in December to protest U.S. plans to build missile defense sites in Europe.

"Under the treaty, Russia had been required to exchange reports on troop, armor and aircraft deployments with the United States and other members on a monthly basis. But once Russia dropped out, that information was no longer available."

The Leverage Problem

The recurring theme in today's news coverage is that Bush has very little leverage in this situation.

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush said yesterday that Russia's military attacks in Georgia may be designed to unseat the pro-U.S. government there, a move he warned would represent a 'dramatic and brutal escalation' of a conflict that American officials have begun to describe as a return to Cold War-style aggression.

"In a brief and unusually stern Rose Garden statement shortly after his return from the Beijing Olympics, Bush called Russia's actions 'unacceptable in the 21st century.' He urged Moscow to withdraw its forces from Georgia and accept a European peace plan.

"But beyond a reference to damage inflicted upon 'Russia's standing in the world,' Bush made no mention of any potential consequences if Russia fails to comply."

DeYoung concludes: "With yesterday's events, the administration's relationship with Russia seemed to come full circle, back to the tension of Bush's first months in office, when conservative Republicans regarded Russia as a threat and warned the new president not to trust Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the intervening years were Bush's favorable glance into Putin's 'soul' and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's 2006 assertion that Washington and Moscow enjoyed 'probably the best relations that have been there for quite some time.'"

Anne Gearan writes for the Associated Press: "The Russian Bear is back, and the United States does not seem to be able to do much about it. . . .

"Bush has put Moscow on notice that US relations with Russia would suffer if the conflict continued, but Russian leaders know that Washington needs their cooperation on a host of world problems. They know, too, that the American public has no stomach for war in an obscure corner of the globe and that Bush will be out of a job in five months."

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times: "Even as President Bush denounced the Russian actions in the strongest terms to date, the United States and its European allies faced tough choices over how to push back. They seemed uncertain how to adjust to a new geopolitical game that threatened to undermine two decades of democratic gains in countries that were once part of the Soviet sphere. . . .

"Administration officials said military options were almost certainly off the table, but the United States did airlift Georgian troops stationed in Iraq back home, answering a plea from the Georgian government and prompting a sharp response from Russia. Washington could also press to ostracize Moscow on the international stage, perhaps by kicking it out of the Group of 8 industrialized nations.

"Yet there was no immediate indication that Western powers could exercise much leverage over Russia if it chose to ignore their warnings.

"The country is enjoying windfall profits from oil exports and seems determined to reassert influence over Georgia and Ukraine, while sending a clear signal to other former satellite states that they should be wary of an overly cozy political and military alliance with the United States, analysts say. . . .

"Even as American and European leaders were demanding, begging and pleading with Russia to halt its advance into Georgia . . . diplomats were going through what one Bush administration official described as 'not exactly the greatest hand of cards to have to play.'"

Bay Fang writes in the Chicago Tribune: "American military support, while not officially off the table, is neither a realistic nor desirable option against a nuclear power such as Russia. The UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent member, is not likely to produce a resolution with teeth on the fighting any time soon. Sanctions against Moscow also are not an option for many European countries because they import most of their energy from Russia. . . .

"Even on the diplomatic front, the administration has not reacted with as much force as it has during other world crises, preferring to take a back seat to its European allies. Although the French, who hold the European Union presidency, and the Finns, who lead the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, both sent their foreign ministers to the region, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice preferred to send a special envoy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, in her stead -- and then not until after a couple days of fighting. . . .

"At stake could be not only the U.S. bilateral relationship with Russia, which already has been chilly, but the entire balance of power that many already believed to be shifting away from the U.S. over the last several years.

"Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, 'What there is to lose is . . . the stability of the framework that the U.S. thought was going to govern the post-Cold War world. When one country conquers another, that's typically regarded as pretty serious, and the inability to do anything about it is something the United States is not all that accustomed to.'"

Peter Spiegel and Julian E. Barnes write in the Los Angeles Times that "administration officials who requested anonymity when discussing internal policy decisions" acknowledged "that military aid to Georgia was off the table and sanctions against Russia were impractical," but "insisted the U.S. could take longer-term economic and diplomatic measures that would hit the Kremlin hard.

"'Just because we are not rushing to place U.S. infantry in Tbilisi does not mean the world is impotent in the face of this aggression,' said a senior Pentagon official. . . .

"Over the last 48 hours, Russia experts and former military and diplomatic officials have proposed a wide range of ways to push back Russian troops -- from instituting a no-fly zone over Georgian airspace to supplying the Georgian military with air defense systems.

"But administration officials said the list of measures actually under consideration -- such as sending humanitarian aid and rebuilding the Georgian military once fighting ends -- is far narrower.

"'The regular tool kit does not really work here,' said a U.S. government analyst who specializes in Russia's relations with its former republics. 'The Russians have plenty of money now, and we need their oil more than they need our credits.'"

Bush Vacation Still On

James Gerstenzang blogs for the Los Angeles Times: "As for the immediate effect on Bush: He was planning to begin on Thursday a two-week visit to his home in Crawford, Texas.

"As of this afternoon, officials said, he still is."

Eleventh-Hour Rulemaking Watch

Dina Cappiello writes for the Associated Press: "Parts of the Endangered Species Act may soon be extinct. The Bush administration wants federal agencies to decide for themselves whether highways, dams, mines and other construction projects might harm endangered animals and plants. . . .

"If approved, the changes would represent the biggest overhaul of endangered species regulations since 1986. . . .

"The new regulations follow a pattern by the Bush administration not to seek input from its scientists. The regulations were drafted by attorneys at both the Interior and Commerce Departments."

Juliet Eilperin writes in The Washington Post: "The new rules, which will be subject to a 30-day per comment period, would use administrative powers to make broad changes in the law that Congress has resisted for years. Under current law, agencies must subject any plans that potentially affect endangered animals and plants to an independent review by the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service. Under the proposed new rules, dam and highway construction and other federal projects could proceed without delay if the agency in charge decides they would not harm vulnerable species. . . .

"[E]nvironmentalists and congressional Democrats blasted the proposal as a last-minute attempt by the administration to bring about dramatic changes in the law. For more than a decade, congressional Republicans have been trying unsuccessfully to rewrite the act, which property owners and developers say imposes unreasonable economic costs."

Eilperin quotes Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, as saying; "Eleventh-hour rulemakings rarely, if ever, lead to good government -- this is not the type of legacy this Interior Department should be leaving for future generations."

And here's Bob Irvin, senior vice president of conservation programs at the advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife: "Clearly, that's a case of asking the fox to guard the chicken coop."

It was just last month that Carol Leonnig wrote in The Washington Post about how political appointees at the Department of Labor were "moving with unusual speed to push through in the final months of the Bush administration a rule making it tougher to regulate workers' on-the-job exposure to chemicals and toxins."

What both of these activities have in common is that they appear to break a deadline set by White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten in May. Bolten ordered that all agencies -- except in "extraordinary circumstances" -- submit proposed regulations before June 1 and "resist the historical tendency of administrations to increase regulatory activity in their final months." (See my recent NiemanWatchdog.org article warning of an onslaught of midnight rulemaking.)

In an email exchange this morning, Gary Bass, executive director of the public-interest organization OMB Watch, told me that "the proposed endangered species rule violates the spirit of the Bolten memo" as "the limited 30 day comment period for this important issue suggests the rule is on a fast track for completion before the Bush administration leaves."

But he didn't seem surprised. "[I]t appears that a number of agencies are violating the spirit of the Bolten memo in order to get policies in place that were not acceptable to Congress or public will. . . .

"I fear we are seeing an even greater increase in special favors for special interests as the Bush administration sets into the sunset. This cannot be good for the national interest and is not the way the government should be run."

Contractor Watch

James Risen writes in the New York Times: "The United States this year will have spent $100 billion on contractors in Iraq since the invasion in 2003, a milestone that reflects the Bush administration's unprecedented level of dependence on private firms for help in the war, according to a government report to be released Tuesday.

"The report, by the Congressional Budget Office, according to people with knowledge of its contents, will say that one out of every five dollars spent on the war in Iraq has gone to contractors for the United States military and other government agencies, in a war zone where employees of private contractors now outnumber American troops.

"The Pentagon's reliance on outside contractors in Iraq is proportionately far larger than in any previous conflict, and it has fueled charges that this outsourcing has led to overbilling, fraud and shoddy and unsafe work that has endangered and even killed American troops. The role of armed security contractors has also raised new legal and political questions about whether the United States has become too dependent on private armed forces on the 21st-century battlefield. . . .

"Contractors in Iraq now employ at least 180,000 people in the country, forming what amounts to a second, private, army, larger than the United States military force, and one whose roles and missions and even casualties among its work force have largely been hidden from public view. The widespread use of these employees as bodyguards, translators, drivers, construction workers and cooks and bottle washers has allowed the administration to hold down the number of military personnel sent to Iraq, helping to avoid a draft."

Predator Watch

James K. Galbraith blogs on Talking Points Memo about his new book, The Predator State.

Bush and Cheney, he writes, cut taxes not for idealistic reasons, but "to enrich their supporters. For the same reason, they outsourced to Blackwater and Halliburton and pursued military pipe dreams like Missile Defense. They were willing to have the government spend like a drunken sailor in 2003/4 to boost the economy before the election. They placed lobbyists in charge of the regulators, representing, in every case, the most extreme anti-regulation perspective. . . . Under Bush and Cheney, oil and gas, drug companies and defense contractors, insurers and usurers control the government of the United States, and it does what they want. This is the predator state. . . .

"They are not interested (if they ever were) in reducing government. On the contrary, they are perfectly willing to expand it. But the goal, in every case, is to expand government in such a way as to benefit, first and foremost, political friends and supporters at the expense, mainly, of the middle class. And while a rich country can survive a fair amount of this, it cannot withstand the complete control of government by predators. For what happens then, is a population crash of the prey. This, as a result of the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the systematic deregulation of securities and futures markets, we now confront in the financial crisis and the speculative commodities bubble. And if we do not reclaim and rebuild the capacity of our government to act, with purpose and on a large scale, we will eventually see far worse as the climate crisis unfolds."

Federal Government Incompetence Watch

Even by its own standards, the Bush administration is flailing.

Robert Brodsky writes for Government Executive: "Many federal agencies have taken a step backward on the Bush administration's five major management initiatives, according to quarterly grades released on Thursday by the Office of Management and Budget.

"There were 14 downgrades on the status section of OMB's management score card for the third quarter of 2008, which ended June 30. And there were only six instances in which grades improved."

Hamdan Watch

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "With credit for time served at Guantanamo Bay, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, the onetime driver for Osama bin Laden who was convicted last week of material support for terrorism, could be a free man in January. But not if the Bush administration asserts the right to continue holding him for the duration of the so-called war on terror. Having touted the fairness of the military commission system at Guantanamo, the administration should honor its rulings. That means releasing Hamdan."

Suskind Watch

Ron Suskind, whose book I wrote about so much last week, will be Live Online today at 3 p.m. ET.

Jon Stewart had Suskind on last night. Says Suskind: "The book is all about the way America's moral authority has bled away, and how we need to restore it, to fight the battles we need to fight."

Bush in Photos

Ryan Tate blogs for Gawker: "Bush has been doing a funny/terrifying impersonation of a drunk president for all the press photographers at the Olympics."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET. Come join the conversation.

Cartoon Watch

Jim Morin on Putin's soul, Mike Luckovich on Putin's sole, Nate Beeler on Putin's soul food, Dwane Powell on poking the bear, Bruce Plante on the bear's crocodile tears, Bill Mitchell on the irony of it all, Jeff Danziger on Georgians in Iraq, and Joel Pett on Bush's John Edwards defense.

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