Tbilisi's Baggage

America is about to make Georgia a “strategic partner.” But the country has nothing to do with our security, and actually could prove a major liability for our foreign policy.

The United States once considered alliances to be important relationships, based on national interest and best ratified through a treaty by the Senate. No longer. Unable to convince its NATO partners to bring Georgia into the alliance, Washington is about to sign an agreement with Tbilisi establishing a "strategic partnership." For what, one wonders?

When asked, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack stated: "Well, we obviously have very close cooperation with Georgia on a number of different fronts, whether that's political, economic or on security." Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mathew Bryza, in charge of the negotiations, explained: "We are working in a multilateral framework within NATO through the NATO-Georgia Commission and we are working bilaterally as we structure the new strategic partnership with Georgia to help fulfill NATO's requirements on military-security, as well as democratic reforms."

Although the United States signed a similar agreement with Ukraine in December, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili called the accord "historic" and observed that "the United States has never before said that Georgia is its strategic partner." Batu Kutelia, set to become Georgia's ambassador to the United States, opined: "cooperation with our strategic partner is almost the only assurance of our security."

Still, Levan Berdzenishvili of the opposition Republican party complained: "This accord is not a substitute for NATO membership, which is the only way to ensure Georgia's security." He needn't worry-Washington is still pressing for Tbilisi's inclusion.

The issue is not just one of foreign policy. Bruce Fein, a constitutional lawyer who served with the Reagan administration, observes: "President Bush will unilaterally obligate the United States. Neither the Senate (pursuant to its constitutional role in ratifying treaties) nor the House will have any say." Just as the nation's Founders gave the authority to declare war to Congress, they also divided other foreign-policy duties to limit the power of the executive branch. But the Constitution in this regard essentially is a dead letter.
The Bush administration's intention to extend de facto security guarantees to Georgia demonstrates precisely why such decisions should be subject to congressional oversight. Whatever the meaning of "strategic partner," Tbilisi is not one.

Most important, Georgia has no strategic value for America.

The United States fought the entire cold war with Georgia part of the Soviet Union. No one argued that liberating Tbilisi was necessary for the survival of the West. Indeed, long before the USSR, Georgia had been absorbed by the Russian Empire. Unpleasant for Georgia to be sure, but nothing anyone anywhere ever viewed as warranting military intervention by America or anyone else.

The fact that Georgia hosts energy pipelines matters little. The Caspian basin's energy resources are useful, not critical, and Russia would block the West's access to oil and natural gas only in the sort of large-scale confrontation that is unlikely to occur-except in the case of Western meddling along Russia's border. Life may be unfair, but Georgia exists in a bad neighborhood. One need only peer at a map to determine to which country, the United States or Russia, Georgia is more important strategically.

The presumption that a new agreement terming Georgia a "strategic partner" of America, or even full NATO membership, would deter Moscow from undertaking military action in the future is both naïve and foolish. Russia already has demonstrated its willingness to go to war regarding border issues. It isn't likely to believe that Washington is prepared for a military confrontation in a region of no serious strategic interest to the West. And with a large supply of tactical nuclear weapons as well as an adequate strategic nuclear deterrent, Moscow is well situated to tell the U.S. government to mind its own business. The Kremlin wouldn't be likely to "appease" Washington in a crunch.

Before the United States decides to risk that kind of confrontation, it should think well about the stakes. Both Berlin and Cuba, infamous cold war flashpoints, mattered to both America and the Soviet Union; nevertheless, both nations knew when they had to back down. Georgia matters to Russia, not the United States. Washington should not climb up a hill when retreat would be its only logical option if challenged.

Equally problematic is the irresponsible government in Tbilisi.

During the August war, Georgia became a political cause célèbre, with Senator John McCain proclaiming that "we are all Georgians now" and Barack Obama joining the rush to support the Saakashvili government. At least U.S. officials could be excused for not knowing all of the facts then. But it has become increasingly apparent that Tbilisi was the aggressor. Unfortunately, backing Georgia will make the Caucasus less stable.

As is typical for this region, the histories of Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia are complicated and there is no obvious right or wrong outcome as to who should be independent of or subject to whom. In any case, the Georgian government is not much of a friend. Saakashvili might be American-educated, but his time in power is notable crackdowns on both the opposition and media.

Human Rights Watch reported that his policies seemed "to fuel rather than reduce abuses," while Lincoln A. Mitchell of Columbia University argued that "the Saakashvili government is the fourth one-party state that Georgia has had during the last twenty years, going back to the Soviet period." Investigative journalist Nino Zuriashvili contended that "there was more media freedom before the Rose Revolution" that brought Saakashvili to power.