Unrealistic Hopes

Why the Democratic nominee’s calls for hope and understanding don’t square with his stance on Georgia-Russia relations.

Senator Barack Obama loves hope and change. And it's easy to understand why-hope is a powerful motivator and change can often bring important improvements to America or to the wider world.

But turning hope into change isn't easy. Among other things, it requires considerable realism in assessing current realities, understanding what is simpler or more difficult to change, who needs to be involved to create change that sticks, and how change in one area might affect others. This is where Senator Obama comes up far short of what the United States needs in a president.

One recent example is the senator's recent statement on tensions between Georgia and Russia. Mr. Obama is correct that "only a political settlement can resolve the conflicts over Abkhazia and South Ossetia." Unfortunately, the rest of his statement is a confused combination of superficial and misleading analysis with unrealistic goals, framed by tired liberal sloganeering.

Senator Obama begins by condemning Russia for "violating Georgian airspace close to the Georgian capital." It is true that Russian warplanes crossed Georgia's internationally recognized borders. But Mr. Obama leaves out many key details, most importantly that the Russian planes were over South Ossetia. Why does this matter? Because Russian peacekeepers are deployed there under an agreement approved by the United Nations-and because the Georgian government has regularly threatened to use force to reestablish its authority there and has also detained and harassed the Russian troops several times. This is not to defend Moscow, which has hardly been angelic in its conduct in the Caucasus. But what American president would hesitate to send a few fighter planes across a border for forty minutes to demonstrate U.S. resolve in protecting forces deployed under an internationally recognized accord?

Next, Senator Obama supports "Georgia's right to pursue NATO membership" which he says "in no way threatens the legitimate defense interests of Georgia's neighbors." This is similarly superficial. It is obvious that Georgia has the ability to "pursue" NATO membership. Georgia is a sovereign state and can seek membership in NATO, the European Union and even the Sylvester Stallone fan club (where Mr. Saakashvili could revel in his enjoyment of bravado while limiting the consequences for others). And given Georgia's limited military capabilities, it's hard to see how its NATO membership would threaten anyone-or contribute meaningfully to NATO, for that matter. What is really important, however, is not Georgia's "right" to apply to NATO, but America's "right" to a vote on Tbilisi's application and Russia's "right" to decide that if the United States encourages Georgia to join NATO over its strong objections, Washington's view of U.S.-Russian relations is disinterested at best and hostile at worst. And, of course, Russia's "right" to make other decisions on that basis.

Notwithstanding his sensible statement about the need to find political settlements to the Abkhazia and South Ossetia problem, the Democratic senator's assessment of the conflicts is naïve and shallow. First, he states that Georgia must "resist the temptation to be drawn into a military conflict" (emphasis mine), implying that Tbilisi is a helpless victim of someone else's war plans. On the contrary, on several occasions it has been precisely Tbilisi that has threatened armed reintegration of the two territories (and likewise intimidated leaders of another renegade province, Adjara, in 2004). Senator Obama also repeats tired liberal calls for the "international community" to become "more active." But what is the "international community" and why should it be unduly concerned about events in Georgia? Georgia's neighbors may have some cause for worry, as the consequences of an armed conflict could spill over their borders, and the European Union and its members might share this anxiety. But why should the rest of the alphabet, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, become involved?

Senator Obama's statement that Russia "is not qualified to play the role of a mediator" because it "has become a party to the conflict" is similarly naïve, in two respects. Parties to a conflict may not act as mediators in Harvard Law School case studies, but in the real world they do so quite frequently and, at times, effectively. The most significant current case is the Middle East peace process, where the United States has been a mediator for decades while simultaneously declaring one of the parties, Israel, to be a close American ally. Actually, it is often desirable to have a major power connected to one of the parties as a mediator-such powers are often seen as able to offer guarantees to the party with which they sympathize and to apply pressure to that party to make or abide by a deal. On a more practical level, how does Mr. Obama think that as president he could simultaneously eject Russia from its role as a mediator and win Russian support for a settlement, especially if (as he also states) he seeks to remove Russian peacekeepers and replace them with a multilateral force at the same time? Does he think that any settlement could work without Moscow? This weak analysis betrays the senator's lack of international experience-and poor advice from his foreign-policy team.

If Barack Obama really wants to resolve the conflicts in the Caucasus-and to manage America's much-more serious foreign-policy challenges effectively-he will need to temper his hope and his calls for change with a big dose of reality.

 

Paul J. Saunders is executive director of The Nixon Center and a former Bush Administration State Department political appointee.