Poking the Bear

America shouldn’t be arming Georgia—it just increases our chances of conflict with Russia.

Senator Richard Lugar, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has proposed that the United States and Europe rearm the country of Georgia. The result would be to increase the chances of renewed conflict with Russia.

Georgia well illustrates the plight of small, divided states with large, assertive neighbors. Independence and freedom are hard to maintain. Georgia spent centuries as part of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. Even today Georgia exists in the shadow of a hostile Moscow.

However, Tbilisi shares another trait with many small, divided states-brutish nationalism. The status of ethnic minorities, such as the Abkhazis and Ossetians, has varied over time. Even the Mensheviks, who ran Georgia for a time after the Russian Revolution before being overrun by the more ruthless Bolsheviks, abandoned their more liberal principles when dealing with non-Georgians. Many Abkhazis and South Ossetians understandably do not want to be ruled by Tbilisi today.

The result is a geopolitical mess, but one with little relevance to America. During the Cold War no one suggested that the status of Georgia mattered to U.S. security. Georgia was listed as a "captive nation" in a 1959 congressional resolution-along with Turkestan, Armenia, Idel-Ural, White Ruthenia, Cossackia, and Tibet. Washington issued the usual platitudes about their plight, but there was no pretense that America ever would go to war in their defense. So it should remain with Georgia today.

Ronald Asmus of the German Marshall Fund of the United States argues that the August 2008 "war was fought to prevent Georgia from going west," but even if so, the blunt question is: so what? It is desirable that Georgia be able to go west. But it is not desirable that Washington risk conflict to enable Georgia to go west.

The United States won the Cold War without going to war. American policy makers accepted the unfortunate reality that Washington could not guarantee the national aspirations of all peoples-think Hungary in 1956. The end of the Cold War changed nothing in this regard. Nothing at stake in the Caucasus is worth risking war.

America has labeled Georgia a "strategic partner," but the relationship's costs are far greater than its benefits. Washington has provided Tbilisi with billions of dollars in aid, including $1 billon after the August 2008 war, and spent generously to train Georgian troops. In return, the Saakashvili government deployed Georgian forces in Iraq and soon in Afghanistan. This caused Senator Lugar to refer to Georgia as "an exceptional contributor to international security," but these detachments have been of only marginal value to America. The burden on Georgia has been far greater, but Tbilisi views such missions as an investment in its own security-to help its campaign to join NATO-rather than international security.

The Caspian Basin's energy resources are valuable, but not crucial. Moreover, Russia would not block the West's access to oil and natural gas in anything short of a major confrontation-such as NATO backing Georgia after an attack on Abkhazia and/or South Ossetia. Tbilisi also has been hailed as a way station to Central Asia, "an ideal launch pad into the region," in the words of Michael Hikari Cecire of Evolutsia.net. However, this is far from being a great strategic asset: Attempting to create U.S. military outposts in territory surrounded by competing great powers, like China, India and Russia, is a fool's errand.

Much has been made of upholding international law by respecting Georgia's territorial integrity against Abkhazi and South Ossetian separatism-in July Vice President Joseph Biden declared the administration's support for a "united" Georgia. But a decade ago the United States and NATO launched an unprovoked, aggressive and illegal war to detach Kosovo from Serbia, and two years ago formally recognized Kosovo's independence after pushing a sham negotiating process with independence as the predetermined outcome.

Last August Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili inveighed against "cross-border aggression, creating ‘frozen conflicts' that destabilize sovereign states or attempt to legalize ethnic cleansing." Yet his putative allies followed just such a policy in the Balkans. Whatever the juridical merits of the disputes involving Georgia, hypocrisy is too kind a word to apply to Allied policy in this regard.

Even Georgia's claim to be an example of democracy and liberty in the region is strained. Freedom House declares Georgia to be only "partly free." Last year the organization reported:

Georgia received a downward trend arrow due to flaws in the presidential and parliamentary election processes, including extensive reports of intimidation and the use of state administrative resources, which resulted in a marked advantage for the ruling National Movement party.

Human Rights Watch warned that President Saakashvili's policies seemed "to fuel rather than reduce abuses." Even Vice President Biden, as he led administration cheers for Georgia, alluded to the regime's notable failings. Yet Tbilisi continues to push to get into NATO, which would extend American military guarantees up to Russia's southern border. And Washington policy makers have endorsed Georgia's membership, which would turn the alliance on its head: an organization intended to make the United States more secure would multiply the possibilities of going to war in a distant region with a nuclear power over issues of vital importance to that nation but of little account to America.