Bush's Risky Move

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, August 14, 2008; 12:56 PM

President Bush's announcement yesterday that he is sending humanitarian aid to partially-occupied Georgia sounded innocent enough on one level.

But his decision to do it with military personnel and equipment is being widely interpreted as a provocative move, and one that for the first time since the Cold War risks a potential military confrontation between the U.S. and Russia.

Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times: "The decision to send the American military, even on a humanitarian mission, deepened the United States' commitment to Georgia and America's allies in the former Soviet sphere, just as Russia has been determined to reassert its control in the area.

"On a day the White House evoked emotional memories of the cold war, a senior Pentagon official said the relief effort was intended 'to show to Russia that we can come to the aid of a European ally, and that we can do it at will, whenever and wherever we want.' At a minimum, American forces in Georgia will test Russia's pledge to allow relief supplies into the country; they could also deter further Russian attacks, though at the risk of a potential military confrontation. . . .

"In Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has sharply criticized what he called a failure of the West to support his country, declared the relief operation a 'turning point' in the conflict, which began on Thursday when Georgian forces tried to establish control in the breakaway region of South Ossetia, only to be routed by the Russians.

"'We were unhappy with the initial actions of the American officials, because they were perceived by the Russians as green lines, basically, but this one was very strong,' he said in a telephone interview after Mr. Bush's statement in Washington.

"Mr. Saakashvili interpreted the aid operation as a decision to defend Georgia's ports and airports, though Bush administration and Pentagon officials quickly made it clear that would not be the case. A senior administration official said, 'We won't be protecting the airport or seaport, but we'll certainly protect our assets if we need to.'"

Massimo Calabresi writes for Time: "The sum effect of Bush's statements was to turn what had been a cautious approach from Washington into an aggressive one, and it raised the possibility of a sharper confrontation with Moscow. . . .

"Bush noted that Russian armored vehicles were blocking access to the port city of Poti and that Russia was blowing up Georgian vessels. Bush said Gates would launch a 'vigorous and ongoing' humanitarian mission by both air and sea. . . .

"An attempt by U.S. naval vessels to deliver humanitarian aid to Poti could sharpen Washington's confrontation with Moscow and put the U.S. in the middle of the crisis. It is not clear yet where the U.S. will be delivering the aid, nor whether any Russian naval forces, rather than just Armored Personnel Carriers, are involved in blocking Poti. But the comparison to the Berlin airlift is unavoidable, and both rhetorically and practically the Administration has clearly decided to go in that direction."

Peter Spiegel and Julian E. Barnes write in the Los Angeles Times: "The new words and actions from the White House came after sharp criticism from conservatives, including some in Georgia and the Bush administration, that his initial response was ineffectual."

Now, John D. McKinnon, Neil King Jr. and Marc Champion write in the Wall Street Journal, Bush is bringing "a dose of Cold War-style brinksmanship to the confrontation between the U.S. and Russia. . . .

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