Finding Out Truth about Georgian War
Last week Senator Hillary Clinton called for a congressional commission to investigate the origins of the Georgian war. It is the latest skirmish in an intellectual battle over how a little war in farway Georgia started and what it mean for US policy for years. There are clashing narratives of what happened and what it means.
One narrative is that this war was prepared, planned and provoked by a Russia seeking to reestablish hegemony over its neighbors and rewrite the rules of the game in Europe and with the West. This war did not start on Aug. 7 but much earlier, when Moscow decided the pro-Western government of Mikheil Saakashvili must go. Georgia was a potential threat to today's rulers of Russia precisely because of its efforts to become a liberal democracy on Russia's borders threatened to undercut the position and legitimacy of a Russian ruling elite that has pinned its legitimacy to the reestablishment of Russian power and glory.
In short, there was and is a link between growing autocracy at home in Moscow and neo-imperialism abroad -or what President Medvedev now cutely called Russia's sphere of privileged interest. So-called frozen conflicts were manipulated by Moscow for wider geopolitical purposes.
While the government of Mikheil Saakashvilli was far from perfect, the intensity of the Russian campaign to roll back democratic breakthroughs and promote regime change made some kind of clash all but inevitable. The clear onus of blame is thus on Moscow and not Tbilisi. Absent broader Russian designs, these conflicts could have been solved a long time ago. Given Russian objectives, Georgia may be the first but not the last Russian move vis-a-vis its neighbors, with Ukraine and Azerbaijan the next likely targets.
If you share this view, the policy consequences are clear. Our mistake in Georgia was not being too supportive of Georgia but not doing enough to deter Moscow or to engage sufficiently in solving these conflicts before they exploded. So it is time to become more, not less, involved. The West must move quickly to save the Rose Revolution from collapse and reassure endangered countries like Ukraine and Azerbaijan.
That means not only large-scale economic support for Tbilisi but continuing and perhaps even accelerating things like EU and NATO enlargement. Moscow must be shown that its actions in Georgia were a mistake, thus deterring further aggressive moves. And we must take these steps that could alienate Moscow in spite of Iran, Afghanistan and other geopolitical challenges where we would benefit from Russian cooperation.
There is, however, a second narrative on what happened in Georgia that has very different policy implications. It puts the onus for this war on Georgia, not Russia. It claims that President Saakashvili is a rash leader who ignored repeated warnings from the West, and may even have tried to manipulate us into coming to his side in a fight with Russia. At a minimum, Western policy - and the United States in particular - emboldened Tbilisi to make its fateful move.
While the Russian military response in South Ossetia was disproportionate, it was the Georgians who started this war and who must now bear the consequences of their defeat. The policy implications of this narrative are also clear. The West should try to stabilize Georgia but we must contain this conflict and not let it spillover and spoil our broader relationship with Russia. Rather than continuing or accelerating a strategy of EU and NATO enlargement, it may be time to back off and curtail this goal lest we stoke the fire of more conflict.
Those who care about the future of liberal order in Europe and beyond should have a keen interest in discovering the truth. Was this blatant Russian aggression or a rash move by Tbilisi? The Georgian government claims it acted in self-defense and only after Russian tanks had started to move into Georgia. Russian claims about casualties and genocide have already been shown to have been wildly exaggerated. Yet it was these claims that were part of Moscow's rationale. There are rumors that the US has intelligence that can help answer these questions. In Europe there is a widespread view that the US somehow emboldened or encouraged the Georgians to act.
Moscow, of course, stokes the rumor that Washington somehow gave Tbilisi a pale green light to commit a crime it now compares to September 11th. Did we? And what was Israel's role in this conflict - and did Moscow really deliver an ultimatum for Israel to withdraw its support for Georgia shortly before the outbreak of hostilities - threatening to otherwise increase support for Hamas and Hezbollah? There are also rumors that Putin warned President Bush earlier this year that bringing Georgia into NATO would lead to war in the Caucasus - and that the President did not respond by drawing our own redlines. Did the President have his own April Glaspie moment?
Liberal democrats should support Clinton's call for such a commission. It is important to clarify this war's origins if we are to draw the right lessons for the future. Who wins this battle of the narratives will not only help shape the future policy of the next President toward Europe and Russia. The issues at stake go to the heart of what kind of international order the US should support in Europe or beyond.
I happen to believe the evidence supports the first narrative but let's let the facts speak for themselves. The next President and his team need to know what happened and why if they are to craft the right policy for Georgia, the wider Black Sea region and Russia. This review should commence quickly and be concluded in time so that its findings are available for the incoming administration. At the same time, the commission's result can flow into the international commission on the war's origins that the Georgians and our European allies have called for.
Given our close ties with Georgia, there is no country with better insights into what Georgian objectives and policy were, what their defense planning did and did not include, and what President Saakashvilli was thinking. Given our intelligence assets and reconnaissance capabilities, the US may also be the best country best equipped to assess what Russia was or was not up to, including by examining Russian efforts to destabilize Georgia and the military buildup and provocations that preceded the outbreak of hostilities on Aug. 7.
Last but not least, the United States is the country with the ability to ascertain who moved first and what happened on the fateful days of Aug. 7 and 8. Americans and the world want to know what Washington knew and when we knew it. We should find out and tell them.
Mr. Asmus is executive director of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Center and in charge of strategic planning at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. These views are his own.