Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Position of Strength

So the last time we couldn’t leave Iraq, it was because (among other things) we couldn’t let someone like Moqtada al-Sadr believe that he had defeated us. If he thought he won, the argument went, then he would be emboldened. Al-Qaida would be emboldened. Rogue nations around the world would be emboldened, and suddenly the forces of Good would have no safe haven, while legions of little Hitlers seized power all over the world and mad scientists worked feverishly to plant death rays on the moon.

Of course this opinion wasn’t universally shared. There were some (i.e. Democrats, traitors) who argued that a) the terrorists weren’t going to follow us home, b) we were part of the problem in Iraq, and c) we could deal with other problems better if all our troops weren’t tied down in a war whose planners don’t regret a thing, even though they admit their initial cause didn’t exist and they can’t agree on a retroactive cause now.

This would be wrong, said the war planners. To deal with a host of threatening nations, the world must know that we have force and the will to use it and to do so even if it’s irrational or downright harmful. After all, it’s well known that the rest of the world is composed mostly of inscrutable foreigners – various hordes, despotisms, satrapies and emirates, all shouting out ultimatums and entreaties and demands in their strange staccatos and clicks and ululations. There would be no way to bring this wretched refuse to order unless you were prepared to stomp on one – hard – and tell everyone else that this is how it’s gonna be.

And since we chose Iraq as the example we were going to set, and our various continued successes have kept us gummed up there for five years, we’re told we cannot extricate ourselves because it might give someone the wrong idea. And yeah, there might be a point to that argument. But in order to do a real cost-benefit analysis, you have to weigh the risks of the action against its benefits. And the main benefit is that we would actually have the resources to deal with another problem in the world. Even a petty tyrant from his overstuffed couch in his harem is enough of a strategic genius to know which of our actions frees him up to invade the neighboring chiefdom’s hippo wallow and which doesn’t.

And this is what brings us to the occasionally-independent nation of Georgia and its ever-looming neighbor, Russia. Last week Georgia invaded its semi-autonomous region of South Ossetia – on the Russian border, mostly ethnically Russian, and manned by Russian peacekeeping troops. It was probably a bad idea, to say the least. Russian army, navy and air forces sprang on the Georgian troops like a bear trap on a puppy.

This hasn’t been going over well with the Bush administration, which has taken the time to register an opinion even though most of it is on vacation. One brave soul who’s carried on vacationing, however, is Secretary of State and alleged Soviet expert Condoleezza Rice. Rice’s absence means that she’s either given up entirely, or it’s a signal to Putin that no matter what Bush or Cheney say, the US isn’t going to jump out of its hammock and put a stop to this invasion anytime soon.

And hell, even if we wanted to, we couldn’t. We don’t have an infantryman to spare, and even if we did, it would require a huge number of troops constantly at the ready to guard against any re-invasion. The fact of the matter is that Georgia stinks as a defensive position. That’s too bad, really – because ever since September 11, this administration has been swearing that its highest ideal is democracy and that exertion of military power gives it a strong bargaining position. And now here we are – faced with the option of defending a democracy that we have nurtured and set up as an example, fighting for its life in a military conflict. Oh, and we sorta told them we had their back, too.

The only problem is, we’ve got nothing. We need the Russians at least as much as they need us. Our NATO allies, who live a medium-range missile trajectory away, don’t see the fun in poking Russia with a stick. Whether this amounts to appeasement, they know one thing – Russia’s getting whatever it wants in Georgia, and no amount of US righteous indignation is going to change that. Georgia’s president, Mikhail Saakashvili, was educated in the US. He speaks fluent English. He instituted democratic reforms and rooted out corruption in government. And he’s probably toast, because we’ve foregone every option except the military one, and we clearly don’t have that either.

So Putin looked at the US military situation, added up the figures, and was apparently emboldened by the fact that we hadn’t left Iraq, not cowed into submission by our great display of will there. No doubt other military geniuses are awakening to the fact that, in the last months of the Bush administration, the world’s ass-kicker is tapped out, unheeded, unwanted and practically unbearable. And with the world’s economy in the toilet, this is an even better time to impress the populace by getting them that annexation they’ve always wanted.

We’ve spent the past seven-and-a-half years trying to solve every problem by menacing it with a six-shooter and showing it that we’re willing to put up with more crap than it ever dreamed of. Unfortunately we’ve spent so much on the example that we’re too beat to reap any of the rewards of the violence and insanity we’ve spread. It’s a shame, really – you spend the best years of your life beating your subjects into submission, and then they all rise up against you while you’re reloading.

Maybe a cleverer leader than George Bush would have tried to make more friends than enemies. Tried to solve problems in the age-old way of tedious negotiations, planning years ahead for diplomatic triumphs rather than kicking in every door and tasering the people on the other side. On September 11, 2001, the neocons claimed we were engaged in a battle of biblical proportions armed to the teeth. And yet today we find ourselves in a tragic comedy weilding only the jawbone of an ass.