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. . . .

"The White House, in essence, is employing mercy missions to Georgia -- with echoes of the 1948 Berlin airlift -- to reassert its security interests in the Caucasus, daring Russia to block the U.S. diplomatic and relief efforts. . . .

"Some experts said the U.S. hasn't gone far enough. 'I strongly doubt that [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin is going to be deterred by the prospect of a U.S. humanitarian effort,' said Frederick Kagan of the conservative American Enterprise Institute."

The Journal reporters write that "[a]ny move to rebuild the Georgian army would set the U.S. on a collision course with Russia, which has objected to such U.S. military assistance. Russian forces have targeted key Georgian military assets, ranging from Poti to the military base of Senaki, the first base built explicitly to NATO standards."

But according to Spiegel and Barnes of the LA Times, that "collision course" is precisely the course we are on.

"The Pentagon emphasized that its initial concern would be providing relief supplies, but announced Wednesday that it would also begin efforts to rebuild the Georgian military," they write.

"'Our focus right now is on delivering humanitarian aid and taking care of the immediate needs of those who are caught in this conflict,' said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. 'When the dust settles, I am sure that we will help this sovereign nation and ally rebuild its military.' . . .

"Since 1997, the U.S. military has spent approximately $277 million in military aid to Georgia on uniforms, ammunition, communications equipment and vehicles.

"A senior military officer involved in planning the mission said the new military assistance under consideration for Georgia could include more joint exercises, stepped-up military training, closer ties to the Georgian military command, and sales of equipment to replace vehicles and weapons destroyed in the five days of fighting before the cease-fire agreement.

"The official acknowledged that there were risks to sending additional U.S. military equipment and personnel into the war-torn region. But the official said U.S. European Command, the Belgium-based headquarters responsible for organizing the mission, had determined that because Russia acquiesced to U.S. military flights bringing Georgian troops back to Tbilisi from Iraq, the chances of conflict were minimal.

"'It's never zero risk, but I think it will be OK,' said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the mission."

At a morning press conference, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that "the mission the president has given us at this point is humanitarian." And he declared: "I don't see any prospect of the use of military force by the United States on this mission."

Richard Beeston writes in a Times of London commentary: "Sending US forces into Georgia, albeit to deliver humanitarian supplies, represents the most serious military escalation between Washington and Moscow since the end of the Cold War.

"Not since British paratroopers came nose to nose with Russian soldiers at Pristina airport in 1999 have the old East-West rivalries resurfaced in such explosive form. Back then, the situation was defused by General Sir Mike Jackson, the British commander, who refused to confront the Russians and 'start World War III'.

"It is to be hoped that the commanders of the US Navy and Air Force now leading their forces to Georgia will be equipped with the same diplomatic skills. Nevertheless, entering a new war zone is fraught with dangers. The US Navy's task force will be challenging the Russian naval blockade of Georgia's ports, while the giant US military cargo planes will be landing close to areas recently bombed by Russian warplanes. The Georgians tried to exploit the move last night by declaring that their ports and airports would be put under US military control, an offer the Pentagon quickly declined.

"Everyone concerned is fully aware that this operation has little to do with humanitarian needs. Georgia is not an African country in the grip of a terrible drought. It is a small pro-Western nation at Europe's fringe that is struggling to recover from a vicious bashing by its giant neighbour.

"The presence of US airmen and sailors is meant to send a powerful signal to Tbilisi that Washington will stand by its allies, in this case the crumbling Government of President Saakashvili. The US move is also intended to demonstrate to the Kremlin that US forces can and will operate in Russia's backyard. . . .

"So what prompted Mr Bush to come out with such a tough response against his erstwhile ally, after six days of dithering? One clue could be the sabre-rattling by Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, who said at the weekend that the Kremlin's move would not go unanswered. Mr Cheney may have persuaded Mr Bush that a more robust response was needed. The White House may have felt the need to reimpose its authority after the tough stand taken by John McCain, the Republican nominee for the presidency, who has used the crisis to demonstrate his leadership on national security matters."

The Leverage Problem

Dan Eggen and Karen DeYoung write in The Washington Post that Bush's plan, which also includes sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the Georgian capital, only amounts to "modest action. . . .

"Bush's statement, along with the moderate measures that came with it, served to underscore the limited options available to the United States, which has neither the wherewithal nor the willingness to enter into a military conflict with Russia on its territorial border.

"The administration has proposed relatively little in the way of concrete consequences for Moscow if it does not comply with U.S. demands, focusing instead on Russia's standing in the world and its perceived desire to be accepted as a major player in international organizations."

And they note: "The haste with which Rice's trip was put together -- the decision was made at the White House yesterday morning just before Bush emerged in the Rose Garden -- meant that the Boeing 757 aircraft normally used by the secretary of state was unavailable. Vice President Cheney used it yesterday for a fundraising trip to Colorado, and Rice was relegated to a smaller Air Force C-40, with limits on staff, security and reporters, officials said."

Michael M. Phillips, Stephen Power and John W. Miller write in the Wall Street Journal: "Bush's implicit threat of financial retaliation against Russia faces a major obstacle: The U.S. and the European Union don't have much economic sway right now over oil-rich Moscow. . . .

"[T]he U.S. doesn't do that much business with Russia, while the European Union buys so much gas from Russia that it is Moscow that has the upper hand."

Olivier Knox writes for AFP: "Bush's comments drew an angry response from Moscow.

"'The Georgian leadership is a special project for the United States,' Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, quoted by Interfax news agency.

"'At some time it will be necessary to choose between supporting this virtual project and real partnership on questions which actually require collective action,' he said, apparently referring to Moscow support for US-led diplomatic efforts to end nuclear drives by Iran and North Korea."

Knox writes that, at her press conference yesterday, Rice said she "told Lavrov that Washington stood firmly behind Georgia.

"Rice also told Lavrov that Russia was not doing 'a favor' to the United States by joining the diplomatic drive against Iran and North Korea as such efforts were intended to bring about a 'stable' Middle East and Korean peninsula."

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "The White House grasp of developments in war-battered Georgia has been hampered by confusing reports from the ground and intelligence resources that initially were focused more on Iraq and Afghanistan than the former Soviet republic.

"One-sided and possibly exaggerated accounts of actions from both sides and the Bush administration's difficulty in independently verifying information about the war have left the White House standing on an ever-changing platform from which to speak out on the crisis."

Charles Clover, Catherine Belton and Stanley Pignal write in the Financial Times: "Russia made clear yesterday that despite a ceasefire agreement with Georgia it will do whatever it pleases in the defeated country. . . .

"It was clear that the peace document agreed by the two sides on Tuesday was open to different interpretations, and the Georgian side, with its army almost destroyed, had no leverage except international diplomatic support."

AFP reports this morning that "Bush assured leaders of Ukraine and Lithuania on Thursday that he remains fully committed to 'a sovereign, free Georgia and its territorial integrity,' the White House said. . . .

"In his conversations with Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, Bush stressed US 'solidarity' with Georgia in its conflict with Russia, according to spokeswoman Dana Perino. . . .

"Perino had a brutally dismissive response to reports that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the world can 'forget about' Georgian sovereignty, describing it as meaningless 'bluster' with no effect on US policy."

Reaping What They Sow?

Juan Cole writes for Salon: "The run-up to the current chaos in the Caucasus should look quite familiar: Russia acted unilaterally rather than going through the U.N. Security Council. It used massive force against a small, weak adversary. It called for regime change in a country that had defied Moscow. It championed a separatist movement as a way of asserting dominance in a region it coveted.

"Indeed, despite George W. Bush and Dick Cheney's howls of outrage at Russian aggression in Georgia and the disputed province of South Ossetia, the Bush administration set a deep precedent for Moscow's actions -- with its own systematic assault on international law over the past seven years. Now, the administration's condemnations of Russia ring hollow. . . .

"The problem with international law for a superpower is that it is a constraint on overweening ambition. Its virtue is that it constrains the aggressive ambitions of others. Bush gutted it because he thought the United States would not need it anytime soon. But Russia is now demonstrating that the Bush doctrine can just as easily be the Putin doctrine. And that leaves America less secure in a world of vigilante powers that spout rhetoric about high ideals to justify their unchecked military interventions. It is the world that Bush has helped build."

Seumas Milne writes in an opinion piece for the Guardian that "underlying the conflict of the past week has . . . been the Bush administration's wider, explicit determination to enforce US global hegemony and prevent any regional challenge, particularly from a resurgent Russia. . . .

"Over the past decade, Nato's relentless eastward expansion has brought the western military alliance hard up against Russia's borders and deep into former Soviet territory. American military bases have spread across eastern Europe and central Asia, as the US has helped install one anti-Russian client government after another through a series of colour-coded revolutions. Now the Bush administration is preparing to site a missile defence system in eastern Europe transparently targeted at Russia.

"By any sensible reckoning, this is not a story of Russian aggression, but of US imperial expansion and ever tighter encirclement of Russia by a potentially hostile power. That a stronger Russia has now used the South Ossetian imbroglio to put a check on that expansion should hardly come as a surprise. What is harder to work out is why Saakashvili launched last week's attack and whether he was given any encouragement by his friends in Washington.

"If so, it has spectacularly backfired, at savage human cost. And despite Bush's attempts to talk tough yesterday, the war has also exposed the limits of US power in the region."

Rosa Brooks writes in her Los Angeles Times opinion column: "Once he stopped swooning over the soulfulness of 'Vladimir's' baby blues, Bush seemed intent on showing Putin and other Russian leaders that he no longer gave a damn. . . .

"Meanwhile, the administration singled out Georgia for the 'Our Best Buddy in the Caucasus' award. . . .

"But it's all gone disastrously wrong for our best buddies, and we're sitting on the sidelines, offering empty reassurances to the Georgians and empty threats to the Russians.

"Moscow will stop pummeling Georgia when it decides the Georgians have truly been punished enough. And this being the real world, punishment will rain down on the pawns -- but those who egged them on (to score political points, seek power or gain profit) will, of course, face no punishment at all."

The Washington Post editorial board scolds "the foreign policy sophisticates" who "cluck and murmur that, after all, the Georgians should have known better than to chart an independent course -- and what was the Bush administration thinking when it encouraged them in their dangerous delusions? . . .

"[I]f the charge is that the Bush administration encouraged Georgia's yearnings for true independence, the verdict surely is 'guilty'. . . .

"[I]f Ukrainians -- or Georgians, Armenians or anyone else -- recoil at Russia's authoritarian model and choose to associate with the West, should the United States refrain from 'egging them on'? Since the days of the Soviet Union, when the United States never abandoned the cause of 'captive nations,' American policy has been that independent nations should be free to rule themselves and shape their future. How, and how effectively, the United States can support those aspirations inevitably will vary from case to case and from time to time, and supporting those aspirations certainly won't always involve military force. But for the United States to counsel a 'realistic' acceptance of vassal status to any nation would mark a radical departure from past principles and practices."

Pushing Bush

Mikheil Saakashvili himself writes in a Washington Post op-ed: "Russia's invasion of Georgia strikes at the heart of Western values and our 21st-century system of security. If the international community allows Russia to crush our democratic, independent state, it will be giving carte blanche to authoritarian governments everywhere. Russia intends to destroy not just a country but an idea."

Saakashvili calls for the establishment of "a modern version of the Berlin Airlift; the United Nations, the United States, Canada and others are moving in this direction, for which we are deeply grateful."

Charles Krauthammer writes in his Washington Post opinion column that "Bush needs to make up for his mini-Katrina moment when he lingered in Beijing yukking it up with our beach volleyball team while Putin flew to North Ossetia to direct the invasion of a neighboring country. Bush is dispatching Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to France and Georgia. Not a moment too soon. Her task must be to present [a series of] sanctions, get European agreement on as many as possible and begin imposing them, calibrated to Russian behavior."

Putin's Soul

Olivier Knox writes for AFP: "Bush has always been 'clear-eyed' about Russian leaders, the White House insisted Wednesday, as it battled any suggestion that the Georgia crisis showed he had misjudged Moscow.

"But spokeswoman Dana Perino's description recalled Bush's judgment after meeting with Russian then-president Vladimir Putin in June 2001 that he had 'looked the man in the eye,' and gained 'a sense of his soul.'

"'I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy,' said the US president, who also asked Putin to his Texas estate. 'I wouldn't have invited him to my ranch if I didn't trust him.'

"Seven years later, Bush postponed his annual August pilgrimage to that same 'Prairie Chapel' property -- by one or two days -- to track Russia's operations in former Soviet Georgia and publicly called Moscow's word into question."

Another Poke

And just to make sure it didn't go under the radar, the White House press office this morning called attention to this Jan Cienski story in the Financial Times: "Talks on building part of a US missile defence shield on Polish soil restarted on Wednesday, with Polish officials sending much more positive signals than recently, in part because of fears awakened by the Russian attack on Georgia.

"Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, said this week: 'The Georgian issue shows that in the generally understood area of the former Soviet bloc, real security guarantees are important.'"

The Endangered Species End-Run

The Bush administration push for a last-minute regulatory overhaul that would effectively gut the Endangered Species Act is prompting howls of protest from editorial boards across America.

The Detroit Free Press editorial board writes: "No one yelled louder than the Bush administration 7 1/2 years ago when President Bill Clinton's agency chiefs filed several new regulations on their way out the door. But clearly the current administration learned from the Clinton actions. How many other regulatory changes are up their sleeves, do you suppose?"

The Ventura County Star editorial board writes: "It's no secret the Bush administration, along with conservative Republican lawmakers and special-interest industries -- mining, logging and oil -- dislike environmental laws, complaining they are costly and run roughshod over property rights.

"Since taking office, this administration has disregarded scientific advice and worked steadily, with some success, to weaken federal environmental laws, often behind closed doors, as a favor to special interests. . . .

"Congress needs to act quickly to stop the dismantling of this safety net for endangered plants and animals when it returns to work in September."

The Raleigh News and Observer editorial board writes: "Besides the administration's poor environmental track record, another thing that makes this entire move suspicious is that it comes as President Bush is winding down his two disappointing terms as president. It's as if he's trying to give his 'pave paradise' buddies a few meaty favors before he leaves office."

The Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune editorial board writes: "A loud public outcry is needed to halt the process. If not, it will take some time to undo the damage the outgoing administration will have done to the Endangered Species Act. A new administration could freeze any pending regulations or reverse them, but the process could take months. Congress could overturn the rules, but it would require legislation that could take even longer.

"It doesn't happen often, but it's time for Wyoming's congressional delegation to stand up to the Bush administration and let it know that it's not going to let the executive branch usurp its lawmaking authority."

The San Jose Mercury News editorial board writes: "The last year in office can bring out the best or worst in an American president. For President Bush it's the worst, as he maneuvers to circumvent Congress and gut the Endangered Species Act.

"The president must not be allowed to achieve this dishonorable goal. . . .

"[T]he simplest approach would be for McCain and Obama to announce that they would reverse the rules when they take office Jan. 20.

"That should discourage the president and his appointees from wasting time on this fight."

Mukasey Watch

The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board writes: "United States Attorney General Michael Mukasey was advertised as the calm-and-considered choice to succeed the scandalously inept Alberto Gonzales to head the Justice Department. But beginning with his confirmation hearings - when he refused to disavow torturing terrorist suspects - his tenure has become a major letdown.

"His latest action - make that, inaction - was a blithe brush-off to findings that Bush administration gate-keepers used a conservative checklist in vetting appointees to nonpolitical law enforcement posts. . . .

"His shrug-shoulders stance may please the White House, which wants to bottle up the outrage over its legal over-reaching. But it won't assure anyone who was looking to Mukasey, a former federal judge, to be the needed leader to restore impartiality, restraint and morale in a tarnished department."

Marisa Taylor writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Attorney General Michael Mukasey confirmed plans Wednesday to loosen post-Watergate restrictions on the FBI's national security and criminal investigations, saying the changes were necessary to improve the bureau's ability to detect terrorists.

"Mukasey said he expected criticism of the new rules because 'they expressly authorize the FBI to engage in intelligence collection inside the United States.' However, he said the criticism would be misplaced because the bureau has long had authority to do so.

"Mukasey said the new rules 'remove unnecessary barriers' to cooperation between law enforcement agencies and 'eliminate the artificial distinctions' in the way agents conduct surveillance in criminal and national security investigations."

Helen Thomas Watch

Over at NiemanWatchdog.org, where I am deputy editor, I ask Hearst columnist Helen Thomas what questions she'd be asking at the White House press briefings if she weren't out on medical leave.

Among her questions: "Why does this administration continue to threaten in volatile disputes, despite knowing it cannot follow through?"

Worst President Ever

James Gerstenzang blogs for the Los Angeles Times about a Rasmussen report that finds only 41 percent of Americans believe Bush will go down in history as the worst U.S. President ever. Some nine percent of Republicans rate Bush the worst president ever, compared to 69 percent of Democrats.

Late Night Humor

Stephen Colbert defends Mukasey's decision not to take any further action about the political hiring of career employees. "No one saw this coming. Monica Goodling was an opposition researcher for George Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, which means she dug up dirt on Democratic rivals in order to destroy them. Now, whoever hired her had no way of knowing she would interview employees for the Justice Department in a partisan manner."

Cartoon Watch

Pat Oliphant on brutal, stupid wars, Dwane Powell on Bush's strategy, Stuart Carlson on the motes in Putin's eyes, and Jim Borgman on Bush's fear; Chan Lowe on the missing eagle and John Sherffius on where it went; Dwane Powell on justice, Mukasey-style; and Lee Judge on McCain's Bush problems.

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