Proving once again that politics no longer ends at the water's edge, Republican leaders and many in the media have been lambasting President Obama's response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While the Washington Post editorial board charged that Obama's foreign policy is "based on fantasy," Senator John McCain and his Mini-Me Lindsey Graham (R-SC) called President Obama "feckless" and "weak and indecisive," an approach which "invites aggression."
Predictably, the memories of the administration's critics are short. After all, President Bush didn't roll back the Russian occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia after Vladimir Putin's battering of Georgia in August 2008. Bush didn't lead an alliance of the willing to isolate Russia, undermine its economy, mine the Black Sea, provide defense guarantees and rush American military supplies to Tblisi. Instead, Dubya simply denounced Moscow's reaction using much the same language President Obama is deploying now.
As you may recall, Georgian shelling of the South Ossetian capital on August 7 and 8, 2008 started what an EU report later concluded was an "unjustifiable" war. (On the 9th, GOP White House hopeful John McCain first declared "we are all Georgians now.") With Russian forces pounding Georgia troops, President Bush on August 13 declared, "To begin to repair the damage to its relations with the United States, Europe, and other nations, and to begin restoring its place in the world, Russia must keep its word and act to end this crisis." Two days later on August 15, Bush anticipated by almost six years John Kerry's line that "You just don't in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text."
We hope Russia's leaders will recognize that a future of cooperation and peace will benefit all parties. The Cold War is over. The days of satellite states and spheres of influence are behind us. A contentious relationship with Russia is not in America's interests, and a contentious relationship with America is not in Russia's interests.Bush no doubt felt burned by Putin. After all, early on in his presidency George W. Bush declared he had "looked the man in the eye" and "was able to get a sense of his soul." Making matters worse, his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had summed up Bush's post-Iraq invasion foreign policy by declaring, "Punish France, ignore Germany, forgive Russia." Worse still, as the New York Times reminded readers on August 14, 2008, Presidents Bush and Putin had recently concluded high-level talks in--wait for it--Sochi.
With its actions in recent days, Russia has damaged its credibility and its relations with the nations of the free world. Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century.
Only Russia can decide whether it will now put itself back on the path of responsible nations or continue to pursue a policy that promises only confrontation and isolation.
To begin to repair its relations with the United States and Europe and other nations and to begin restoring its place in the world, Russia must respect the freedom of its neighbors.
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Only four months ago, Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin met in Sochi, the Russian resort only miles from Georgia, and signed a "framework agreement" that pledged cooperation on a variety of diplomatic and security matters and declared that "the era in which the United States and Russia considered one another an enemy or strategic threat has ended."For his part, President Bush ordered the U.S. military to provide humanitarian assistance to Georgia and promised $1 billion in new aid. But the cease-fire negotiated by France preserved the new reality on the ground. Five and a half years later, Putin's forces are still in control in the disputed regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In October 2009, the EU report "confirmed the common view that the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, bears responsibility for the outbreak of the war and that Russia is equally responsible by escalating the political pressures that led to the hostilities."
After 9/11, however, President Bush changed the policy toward Georgia, introducing two elements that developed into serious strategic disadvantages. Mr. Bush not only made Georgia into a partner in the "war on terror," but he promoted Mr. Saakashvili and Georgia into a centerpiece of his "promotion of democracy." In Tbilisi in 2005, Mr. Bush proclaimed Mr. Saakashvili's Georgia "a beacon of liberty."As Wikileaks revealed in December 2010, the U.S. position was made worse by the fact that the Bush administration--and its allies like John McCain--gullibly believed everything Saakashvili told them. The leaked cables from Tblisi, the New York Times explained, "display some of the perils of a close relationship":
Even as President Bush became increasingly aware that he needed the Kremlin's help in Iran and for other American interests, he was kept a prisoner by this exaggeration of Georgia's importance for U.S. foreign policy.
Senior officials of the Bush administration claim they warned Mr. Saakashvili against using force against Russia. But having invested so much ideological importance in the Georgian president, Mr. Bush couldn't warn him publicly -- or, as it turned out, stop him. Having become so dependent on Mr. Saakashvili's success, the United States lost the political influence to stop him.
A 2008 batch of American cables from another country once in the cold war's grip -- Georgia -- showed a much different sort of access. In Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, American officials had all but constant contact and an open door to President Mikheil Saakashvili and his young and militarily inexperienced advisers, who hoped the United States would help Georgia shake off its Soviet past and stand up to Russia's regional influence...Wrong, that is, about a conflict America's man in Georgia helped precipitate. And one about which the Bush administration could do--and did little--to reverse.
The cables show that for several years, as Georgia entered an escalating contest with the Kremlin for the future of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway enclaves out of Georgian control that received Russian support, Washington relied heavily on the Saakashvili government's accounts of its own behavior. In neighboring countries, American diplomats often maintained their professional distance, and privately detailed their misgivings of their host governments. In Georgia, diplomats appeared to set aside skepticism and embrace Georgian versions of important and disputed events.
By 2008, as the region slipped toward war, sources outside the Georgian government were played down or not included in important cables. Official Georgian versions of events were passed to Washington largely unchallenged.
The last cables before the eruption of the brief Russian-Georgian war showed an embassy relaying statements that would with time be proved wrong.