In Georgia clash, a lesson on U.S. need for Russia

The image of President Bush smiling and chatting with Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin of Russia from the stands of the Beijing Olympics even as Russian aircraft were shelling Georgia outlines the reality of America’s Russia policy. While America considers Georgia its strongest ally in the bloc of former Soviet countries, Washington needs Russia too much on big issues like Iran to risk it all to defend Georgia.

And State Department officials made it clear on Saturday that there was no chance the United States would intervene militarily.

Mr. Bush did use tough language, demanding that Russia stop bombing. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice demanded that Russia “respect Georgia’s territorial integrity.”

What did Mr. Putin do? First, he repudiated President Nicolas Sarkozy of France in Beijing, refusing to budge when Mr. Sarkozy tried to dissuade Russia from its military operation. “It was a very, very tough meeting,” a senior Western official said afterward. “Putin was saying, ‘We are going to make them pay. We are going to make justice.’ ”

Georgia-Russia clash: American culpability and the Kosovo connection

When Kosovo declared independence and the US and other European states recognized it — thus sidestepping Russia’s veto in the United Nations Security Council — many of us believed that the price for Russian cooperation in other major global problems just went much higher and that the chance of a clash over Georgia’s breakaway border provinces increased dramatically.

By pushing Kosovo the way the US did and aggravating nationalist sensitivities, Russia could in reaction be rationally expected to further integrate and cultivate South Ossetia and Abkhazia under de facto Russian control and pull these provinces that border Russia away from the state of Georgia.

At the time, there was word from senior level sources that Russia had asked the US to stretch an independence process for Kosovo over a longer stretch of time — and tie to it some process of independence for the two autonomous Georgia provinces. In exchange, Russia would not veto the creation of a new state of Kosovo at the Security Council. The U.S. rejected Russia’s secret entreaties and instead rushed recognition of Kosovo and said damn the consequences.

Now thousands are dead. The fact is that a combination of American recklessness, serious miscalculation and over-reach by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, as well as Russia’s forceful reassertion of its regional national interests and status as an oil and gas rich, tough international player means America and Europe have yet again helped generate a crisis that tests US global credibility.

Georgia: Russia demands to be regarded as number one

Russia’s regional objectives are therefore straightforward. It aims to show its neighbours, by means of the Georgian example, that Russia is “glavniy”: that its contentment is the key to “stability and security”, and that if Russia expresses its discontent, Nato will be unwilling and unable to help. It aims to show Nato that its newest aspirant members are divided, divisible and, in the case of Georgia, reckless. It aims to show both sets of actors that Russia has (in Putin’s words) “earned a right to be self-interested” and that in its own “zone”, it will defend these interests irrespective of what others think about them. For Russia, the broader implications are also becoming straightforward. To its political establishment, to the heads of Gazprom and Rosneft, to its armed forces and security services and to their advisors and “ideologists”, the key point is that the era of Western dominance is over.

Far from rejecting “globalisation”, as Westerners might suppose, their view, in Foreign Minister Lavrov’s words, is that the West is “losing its monopoly over the globalisation process”. The Beijing Olympics are reminder enough that the cresting of what Russians call Western “democratic messianism” and the rise of “sovereign democracies” is not purely a Russia-driven process. But the West needs to know that Russia is determined to play a significant part in that process and that it is now able to do so.

Georgia’s volatile risk-taker has gone over the brink

The Caucasus is the kind of place where, when the guns start firing, it’s hard to stop them. That is the brutal reality of South Ossetia, where a small conflict is beginning to spread exponentially.

Leave aside the geopolitics for the moment and have pity for the people who will suffer most from this, the citizens – mostly ethnic Ossetians but also Georgians – who have already died in their hundreds. It is a tiny and vulnerable place, with no more than 75,000 inhabitants of both nationalities mixed up in a patchwork of villages and one sleepy provincial town in the foothills of the Caucasus.

Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili seems to care less about these people than about asserting that they live in Georgian territory. Otherwise he would not on the night of 7-8 August have launched a massive artillery assault on the town of Tskhinvali, which has no purely military targets and whose residents, the Georgians say, lest we forget, are their own citizens. This is a blatant breach of international humanitarian law.

War in Georgia: The Israeli connection

Israel began selling arms to Georgia about seven years ago following an initiative by Georgian citizens who immigrated to Israel and became businesspeople.

“They contacted defense industry officials and arms dealers and told them that Georgia had relatively large budgets and could be interested in purchasing Israeli weapons,” says a source involved in arms exports.

The military cooperation between the countries developed swiftly. The fact that Georgia’s defense minister, Davit Kezerashvili, is a former Israeli who is fluent in Hebrew contributed to this cooperation.

“His door was always open to the Israelis who came and offered his country arms systems made in Israel,” the source said. “Compared to countries in Eastern Europe, the deals in this country were conducted fast, mainly due to the defense minister’s personal involvement.”

Make diplomacy, not war

Iraq and Afghanistan are the messes getting attention today, but they are only symptoms of a much broader cancer in American foreign policy.

A few glimpses of this larger affliction:

¶The United States has more musicians in its military bands than it has diplomats.

¶This year alone, the United States Army will add about 7,000 soldiers to its total; that’s more people than in the entire American Foreign Service.

¶More than 1,000 American diplomatic positions are vacant because the Foreign Service is so short-staffed, but a myopic Congress is refusing to finance even modest new hiring. Some 1,100 could be hired for the cost of a single C-17 military cargo plane.

Washington rushes to adjust to Maliki’s rising credibility

US and Iraqi negotiators are days away from agreeing on an “aspirational” date for withdrawing American combat troops from Iraq. Barack Obama and John McCain will find language in the accord to allow each to take credit on the campaign trail for shaping that outcome.

But the big political winner from this slimmed-down, vague agreement on US forces will be Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – whom the Bush administration seriously considered pushing out of office last year but has learned to accommodate.

Something surprising is happening to the once rigid, self-centered George W. Bush presidency. The administration is adjusting policy to reflect the changing political landscape of the United States – and of Iraq, where Maliki has emerged as the center of gravity in Shiite politics as other leaders fail physically and politically.

U.S., Iraq remain unresolved on dates for U.S. troop pullout

U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have agreed on most elements of a framework under which U.S. combat troops would withdraw from Iraqi cities sometime next year, but dates have not yet been settled and Iraqi political approval of the draft accord remains uncertain, according to Bush administration officials.

“What makes this complicated is that, until the whole package is done, it’s not done,” one official said, adding, “Yes, we have things on the table that we’ve agreed to,” but they await high-level Iraq agreement that may be weeks away, if not longer.

Several officials close to the negotiations traced a long and potentially perilous path through Iraq’s fractious political landscape that could delay the deal or derail certain elements. Once the text is finalized, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki must gain approval from his multiparty executive and national security councils and his Council of Ministers.

Mystery shrouds assassination of Syria’s top security adviser

A blanket of secrecy shrouds the assassination of Brigadier General Muhammad Suleiman, the security adviser of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

An informed Syrian source has told Asharq Al-Awsat that Brigadier General Muhammad Suleiman, the Syrian president’s “right-hand man” and security adviser, was assassinated amid mysterious circumstances at dawn Friday/Saturday [2 August] by a sniper that opened fire at him from the sea opposite the shore of the city of Tartus northwest of Syria.

The source said the Suleiman was the officer in charge of sensitive security files in the Syrian president’s office and was also in charge of financing and arming the Syrian army. Syrian sources have said that in addition to his other tasks, Suleiman was the liaison officer between Syria and Hezbollah. However, in a statement to the Agence France Presse, a Hezbollah official denied that the party knew Suleiman or knew about his killing. The assassination of Suleiman – who was one of the Syrian officials that Detlev Mehlis, the former head of the international tribunal investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, wished to investigate – comes about six months after the assassination in the center of Damascus of Imad Mughniyeh, the official in charge of Hezbollah security operations.

The United States v. the Driver

Last week was hardly the first time that we have found ourselves scratching our heads in anguished confusion about what, exactly, President Bush is trying to achieve by trashing the Constitution at Guantánamo Bay. But the sentencing of Osama bin Laden’s driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, to five and a half years in prison is a good moment to stop and reflect.

For years, Mr. Bush and his supporters have been telling the world that it is necessary to hold prisoners without charges, to abuse them in ways most civilized nations consider torture, and to deny them basic human rights because of the serious threat they pose to America. These are “dangerous terrorists captured on the battlefield,” Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, said in a statement on Wednesday.

The administration considered Mr. Hamdan such a priority that it took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, insisting Mr. Bush had the power to hold anyone he deemed an enemy combatant for as long as he wanted under any conditions he wanted. Mr. Hamdan’s trial was the first by a military commission in Guantánamo.

We use the word “trial” loosely. The proceedings were marked by secret testimony by secret witnesses. The former chief prosecutor in Guantánamo testified that he quit after being told that these trials could not produce acquittals. In the end, Mr. Hamdan was found guilty only of providing material support to terrorists and was sentenced to five and half years — a term he might complete before year’s end. Still, in the twisted world of Mr. Bush’s prison camps, it is unclear if Mr. Hamdan will be released after serving his sentence.

An Israeli strike on Iran, a plan that just doesn’t fly

Leave aside the possibility that the threat of an Israeli attack may be designed to give leverage to U.S. and European diplomats pressuring Iran to abandon its nuclear efforts. Leave aside the question of whether, if you believed that such a strike was truly imminent, you’d predict it in a major newspaper. Leave aside the fact that no Israeli strike could happen without a U.S. green light and permission to fly over Iraq. And leave aside the perennial suspicions that Israel’s military elite, which sees the Jewish state as the West’s foremost strategic asset in the region, also tends to see the Middle East through the prism of the “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West. Could Israeli threats be serious?

We hope not, because we don’t buy the underlying premises. Here’s the argument one hears almost daily in Israel: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a jihadist fanatic; he is bent on (as he put it) wiping Israel “off the map,” and his insistence on denying the Holocaust shows that he may be vile enough to perpetrate another one; the Iranian regime is on the fast track to developing a nuclear weapon. So the West — and if not the West, then Israel alone — must treat Iran as though it were the national equivalent of a suicide bomber. It must strike now, without hesitation, before it’s too late.

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