Henry Kissinger used to say that while it can be dangerous to be an enemy of the United States, to be a friend is fatal. The people of South Vietnam learned that bitter lesson when the United States abandoned them in 1975. The Poles learned it after Yalta, the Hungarian freedom fighters learned it in 1956, the Cubans learned it at the Bay of Pigs. And tens of thousands of Iraqis learned it in 1991, when at the urging of George H.W. Bush they rose against Saddam Hussein, only to be slaughtered when American support never materialized.
We can now add Georgia to that list.
The current President Bush has been a vocal champion of the young democracy in the former Soviet republic. He lauded the Rose Revolution that swept Mikheil Saakashvili to power, backs Georgia's bid to join NATO, and traveled to Tbilisi in 2005 to give his "pledge to the Georgian people that you've got a solid friend in America." In return, the Georgians firmly aligned themselves with the United States, sending troops to fight alongside ours in Iraq and Afghanistan and even naming a main road in Tbilisi after Bush. At the White House in March, Saakashvili effusively thanked the president for having "really put Georgia firmly on the world's freedom map."
Yet last week, when Russia contemptuously wiped its boots on that map, sending tanks and bombers to smash and kill their way across Georgia's frontier, Bush's response was feckless.
As the president horsed around in Beijing, posing with bikini-clad Olympic volleyball players, Russian ruler Vladimir Putin was directing Russian military operations against Georgia. The first response from the White House to Moscow's naked aggression was milquetoast: evenhanded mush about the need for "a stand-down by all troops." It took four days before Bush finally blasted Russia's "dramatic and brutal escalation" in Georgia, and declared such behavior "unacceptable in the 21st century." By then it was too late. Not only had Russia seized control of the separatist enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it had taken the Georgian city of Senaki with its military base, and was bombing two other key cities, Poti and Gori.
This was a "3 a.m. phone call" if anything ever was, and the White House bungled it. So did Barack Obama, whose first response was the same as Bush's. "Now is the time for Georgia and Russia to show restraint," he announced, seemingly unwilling to choose between the imperialist invader and its weaker neighbor.
It took Obama three tries to catch up with John McCain, who had recognized at once the import of Russia's military offensive. McCain denounced Russia's aggression as soon as the news hit, then followed it up on Monday with a forceful explanation of the moral and strategic stakes in this crisis.
And what are those stakes? Simply put, whether Russia can intimidate the countries on its periphery into toeing Moscow's line and keeping their distance from America and the West. Putin couldn't care less about the rights of South Ossetians or Abkhazians. But he cares intensely about restoring Moscow's Cold War hegemony in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
In 2005, Putin characterized the end of the Soviet Union - i.e., the emancipation of Eastern Europe and millions of human beings - as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." Putin, the apparatchik who spent 17 years in the KGB, aims to restore the glory that was the Brezhnevite USSR, and has revived every Soviet technique in pursuing that goal: The jailing and exile of political opponents. The murder of aggressive journalists. Gross interference with foreign elections. Top-down control of the media. Advanced weapons sales to villainous regimes. Anti-American obstructionism at the UN. Cyberwar against Estonia. Energy extortion against Ukraine. Savage destruction in Chechnya.
About the only Brezhnev-era tactic not tried was the invasion of a neighboring country. Now that line has been crossed too, and with impunity. For months, the United States has claimed to be ready for a military alliance with Georgia; that is what NATO membership means, after all. Yet it was unready to do a thing when its potential ally came under attack, except ferry Georgian troops home from Iraq.
"Why won't America and NATO help us?" a distraught Georgian farmer asked a Western reporter this week. "If they won't help us now, why did we help them in Iraq?"