Iraq, Afghanistan, and South Ossetia
Over the weekend, war has begun in South Ossetia, a part of the Republic of Georgia that, along with neighboring Abkhazia, wishes to disassociate itself from Georgia and either achieve independence or union with Russia. The attempt by South Ossetia to break away from Georgia goes back to the breakup of the Soviet Union and has bubbled to the surface periodically since. As such, South Ossetian (or Abkhazian) separatism is not great international news.
The fact that Russia has intervened with armed force in ways reminiscent of its 1994 invasion of Chechnya is news. The Russians have had “peacekeepers” in South Ossetia (North Ossetia, along the border, is part of Russia) since 2006, and when fighting broke out between Georgian forces and the separatists earlier this month, the Russians jumped to the aid of those separatists. The Russians have invaded South Ossetia in force (partly from Abkhazia) and threaten to treat the area with the same loving care they showered on Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, 15 years ago (they leveled it). Whether they will go further into the rest of Georgia remains uncertain at this point.
So what’s the big deal? South Ossetia (the Georgians deny there is any such place, preferring to call it Samachablo and maintaining there is only one Ossetia, the part in Russia) is a small place in the mountains with a population of about 70,000 (according to the BBC) and with a mixed population of Georgians, Ossetians, and Russians. It has little geopolitical importance in and of itself.
What is going on is important for two reasons. The first concerns the United States, which has closer relations with Georgia than any of the other former Soviet republics and has heralded Georgia as the beacon of what the FSU (former Soviet Union) can become. That “special relationship,” however, is being put to the test, because the United States is essentially powerless to do anything about Russian aggression in Georgia (assuming we would under any circumstances). The reason, of course, is that the U.S. is so tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan (and potentially Iran) that it cannot threaten credibly to do anything about the Russian actions. Vladimir Putin and George Bush sit side by side and chat at the Beijing Olympics, but there is little Bush can whisper in Putin’s ear that might cause the Russians to change course.
The other concern is Russia. The Russians have long chafed at their impotence in the face of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and now oil wealth and American diversion appear to give them the opening to flex their muscles over what they consider some of the more egregious instances of Soviet disintegration. At least part of the reason they can act is because they know the United States cannot counteract.
One can, of course, argue that even if the United States was not involved in the Middle East that we still wouldn’t have a lot to say about South Ossetia which, after all, is hardly worth a potential confrontation with Russia in Russia’s own backyard. While that is true, the current situation does, however, offer two lessons that come immediately to mind.
The first lesson is that of overextension. The United States has invested so much of its capability and energy in Iraq and Afghanistan that it really has little left to apply elsewhere in the world. We have known this for some time, but only in the abstract. South Ossetia puts that impotence in concrete terms. Second, the situation also points to the limits of commitment. There have been discussions about the expansion of NATO further east, and Georgia, the democratic protege, has been one of the possible candidates mentioned in a future expansion. If Georgia were a NATO member today, the U.S. and its NATO allies would be in a very delicate situation, to put it mildly, trying to figure out how to honor an alliance commitment to defend an ally while avoiding an all-out war with Russia (which does still have nuclear weapons). Before we get out the treaty pen again, we might want to think about South Ossetia.
What happens next? Will South Ossetia break away and join Russia over Georgian objections? Will the United States be in any position to do anything but sit and wring its hands? Will others want to have much to do with us while we’re still tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan? At the bottom line, are Iraq and Afghanistan important enough to leave the United States in the compromised situation in which we find ourselves today?