What Biden Should Have Said

The United States needs to be clear with Georgia that it is responsible for its behavior. Tbilisi must clean up its own messes.

Ever since Vice President Joe Biden's interview appeared late last month in the Wall Street Journal, officials and analysts have been discussing, at exhausting but not necessarily exhaustive length, what he should have said about Russia. Few, however, have focused on the more immediate issue: what he should have said to the Georgians. Neither has there been much discussion of a vital and related question: how to deliver such a message in a way that the Georgian leadership or opposition would not misinterpret or distort the message.

Given Russia's greater geopolitical importance, it may seem counterintuitive to argue that what Biden said in and about Georgia may have far greater import. But there are three reasons for this unexpected conclusion. 

First, while Russian commentators may be irritated about what the American vice president says, the Russian government has highly skilled professionals who can put his words in context. Georgia does not. And, just as President Mikheil Saakashvili willfully misread Washington's statements before the August 2008 war, he and his colleagues as well as the opposition can be counted on to misread anything that an American leader says now.

This is no time for subtlety or excessive diplomacy when dealing with the Georgian leadership or the opposition. Messages should not be slipped between the lines and in delicate hints at the end of a closed meeting. They need to be delivered in clear-cut, no-nonsense messages, ideally in public-along the lines of, for example, President Obama's July address in Ghana.

Second, because Georgians recognize they are far weaker than the Russians, they are only too pleased to have the United States be their champion when it simply reiterates that Washington will never recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries and thus reduces the responsibility of people in Tbilisi to act responsibly. Not only does that posture mean that Georgians can view themselves as more important actors in the world than they really are-a typical Georgian pastime-but it promotes precisely the kind of irresponsibility that led to war a year ago and could lead to a new conflict in the future.

What happens in Georgia is about more than Georgia. This is something Russians, and to a lesser extent Americans, understand but that Georgians often forget. The stakes are much higher and go far beyond Georgia's boundaries. So the United States has a special responsibility to make sure it delivers a consistent and clear-cut message in all venues so that government officials and opposition figures in Tbilisi will not misread-either from ignorance of the ways of the world or intentionally in order to serve their own purposes-and take steps that will undermine the interests of the international community in fundamental ways.

Given that, what should Vice President Biden have said? And more importantly, what should he and other American and Western officials be saying in every meeting they have with Georgian leaders? There are at least five points. Some of these have been made, most recently by House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman, but others require the kind of tough language that many high officials and diplomats are reluctant to employ.

The Georgians need to be told, clearly, publicly and privately, to get their own house in order if they want continued support. President Saakashvili and his government must be told that however difficult the situation they find themselves in, attacks on fundamental democratic freedoms of the kind they have engaged in over the last two years are leaving Georgia ever weaker. And the leaders of the opposition need to be told in equally blunt terms that they must work within the Georgian constitutional system rather than assuming that some new "revolution" will resolve all their problems. Both sides need to be told-as often as necessary-that Georgia's friends expect real change, not repeated promises. There's no need to be re-engaged again and again in this regard: a lot of countries in the immediate neighborhood and beyond it have gone through those painful transformations, and there are existing international obligations and norms Georgia as a signatory country should append.

Second, the Georgians have to understand that they are the only people who can solve Georgia's problems. The West, and perhaps even Russia one day, can help, but it is up to the Georgian people. And Georgians have to be deeply realistic in their approach. They have to analyze the situation calmly and rigorously, and realize that they do not have the luxury of starting again from zero. They must work with the hand they've been dealt, sometimes as a result of their own unfortunate actions.

Third, the Georgians must be told that they have to interact with the Russians. Georgia is not going to be able to repeal geography or transcend history. Obviously, talking to the Russians won't be easy given Moscow's attitude about President Saakashvili. But Georgia has a thousand year old history of dealing with the hostile neighborhood and covetous external forces. We should be able to draw on this to figure a way out-especially because our intransigence only helps some in Moscow.

Fourth, Georgians need to be told to ask themselves what kind of a country they want to build rather than assuming it has already been constructed and just needs a few modifications here and there to be a beacon of democracy. The Russian invasion and Moscow's recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia must be seen as a crucial opportunity to rethink what Georgia is and what it can be. The answers to those questions may not be as attractive now as they once were, but the Georgians need to be told these problems are partly a product of their own mistakes.