The Skeptics

What Produced U.S. Analysis of the Georgia-Russia War in 2008?

According to C.J. Chivers of the New York Times, during the war the U.S. embassy in Georgia relayed “official Georgian versions of events…to Washington largely unchallenged.”

Chivers was one of the first to call into question the U.S./Saakashvili version of events, while allowing that “both [the Russian and Georgian] sides…have a record of misstatement and exaggeration.”

In Thursday’s article, Chivers leafs through WikiLeaked documents that indicate, as he puts it,

By 2008, as the region slipped toward war, sources outside the Georgian government were played down or not included in important [U.S.] cables. Official Georgian versions of events were passed to Washington largely unchallenged.

A couple of points present themselves. The first is that in the future, U.S. embassies—and all government officials and even private commentators tasked with producing analysis that could inform policy judgments—should be more modest in the analysis they produce on the basis of information provided by heavily interested parties to a dispute. The experience with Ahmed Chalabi and his “heroes in error,” who combined to produce the Iraq War, is another example of insufficient scrutiny of information provided by parties who have a lot at stake.

There was reporting in the American press at the time of the Georgia-Russia war about close—perhaps too close—ties between high-ranking American officials and the Saakashvili government, but these details were frequently left out of policy debates about what to do and whether we had a full picture of events. In the aftermath of the war, David Ignatius labeled Saakashvili “emotional” and even “mercurial,” but those judgments would have been better included in the analysis of the conflict as it was ongoing or, preferably, before it began.

Finally, Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon noted just weeks ago that “the open-door policy is something that all allies continue to agree on. We in the United States certainly do, but I think there’s a consensus in the alliance that the open door is the right policy, that enlargement has benefited NATO, it has benefited aspirant countries, and it should continue… [I]n the question of Georgia, we continue to support Georgia’s aspirations to join NATO.” Anders Fogh Rasmussen and NATO continue to insist that “the NATO position [on Georgia] remains the same,” having previously and repeatedly endorsed a Membership Action Plan for that country.

Isn’t it time to stop playing this game? Everyone, including Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev, know that the European powers do “not have a great appetite” for bringing Ukraine into the alliance and worry that “extending the Alliance to Georgia would weaken Article 5.” What purpose is served by continuing to pretend that we are going to pull in Georgia and/or Ukraine?