“This conflict is about the future of freedom in Europe.” — Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili
Many things strike first-time visitors to Tbilisi, Georgia. There are the picturesque views of the Caucasus Mountains and the friendly demeanor of its citizens. Most remarkable, however, is this bit of trivia: Georgia is perhaps the only nation in the world that has named a major street after the current American president. But George W. Bush Avenue, which leads to the Tbilisi International Airport, is more than just a symbol of how close Georgia and the United States have become since the 2003 Rose Revolution ushered into the ex-Soviet state a reform-minded, democratically-elected government. It also serves as a physical reminder to the West of its obligation to stand with Georgia and other courageous new democracies and against the tyranny of authoritarian regimes that threaten them.
By now, the details of Russia’s war with Georgia are well known. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, had been planning the invasion for months and massed thousands of troops and hundreds of armored vehicles along the Russian-Georgian border. Russia had been provoking Georgian troops and waiting for the slightest reason to attack. The ensuing five-day war over the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia resulted in the slaughter of thousands of Georgians, including many civilians, and the displacement of tens of thousands more.
Yesterday, it was reported that Russia broke a fragile cease-fire by sending additional troops into Gori, a city located 15 miles south of South Ossetia. Russia’s foreign minister declared that the world "can forget about any talk about Georgia’s territorial integrity."
Before last week, many Americans perhaps had never heard of Georgia, and some may question whether the small, remote nation should matter to American interests. But make no mistake: Georgia matters, and not only because they’ve named a street after our president. Georgia matters because, as Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili wrote yesterday in an op-ed, what Russia intends to do there is to destroy not just a country, but an idea. That idea is democracy.
Georgia is strategically located at the nexus of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. (Its southern border is roughly 200 miles from Iran.) A strategic pipeline that delivers precious oil to Europe runs directly through Georgia and is the region’s only major pipeline unaffected by Russia or Iran.
Georgia is a valuable ally in the region and a role model for other aspiring democracies. It has been a staunch U.S. ally, having provided 2,000 troops, the third largest contingent, to the Iraq war effort.
The fragil nation is also located at the fault-line of the divide between authoritarianism and western-style democracy. Georgia’s democratically-elected government has instituted far-reaching reforms and ended the endemic corruption that defined life under Soviet rule. It has a burgeoning economy that grew 12 percent last year alone.
Putin’s war in Georgia is part of his grand strategy. He clearly wants to depose the democratically-elected government of Mikheil Saakashvili, and, as John McCain said in a statement, “to intimidate other neighbors such as Ukraine for choosing to associate with the West and adhering to Western political and economic values.” In short, Russia is attempting to reassert its dominance in the region and re-draw the geo-political map. This war is a message to all Eastern Europe: Democratize at your own peril.
On Wednesday, President Bush strongly declared America’s solidarity with Georgia. He outlined a series of initial steps, including a “vigorous and ongoing” mission to deliver humanitarian and medical supplies to Georgians and firm expectations to Russia that it will withdraw from Georgia and cease all military activities, which it so far has not done.
But while President Bush can and should do all in his power to assist Georgia in the final five months of his presidency, the challenge of Russian aggression and the defense of new democracies will largely be the domain of the next president.
When the news broke, Sen. Barack Obama responded in the context of his leftwing ideology and “citizen of the world” philosophy. Obama, vacationing in Hawaii, refused to blame either side, just as the Left often does when it comes to Islamic terrorism against Israel. Instead he called on Russia, the aggressor, and Georgia, the victim, to show restraint.
Senator McCain’s immediate reaction was quite different. He said, “Russia should immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory.”
The contrast was amazing and extremely important. While Obama signaled weakness and neutrality in the face of blatant aggression, McCain demonstrated strength and resolve. If you were in the Kremlin and wanted to rebuild the Russian empire, which man would you prefer to be in the Oval Office? As an American, which man do you want answering the phone at 3 A.M.? It took Obama three tries to catch up with the toughness of McCain’s statement.
How should the U.S. respond? In addition to the steps outlined by Bush, Russia should be expelled from the G-8 group of democracies and be put on notice that continued belligerency will jeopardize its hosting of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, a city located only a few miles from the war-zone in Abkhazia. Most of all, the U.S. should re-affirm its support of Georgia’s bid for entrance into NATO, which would send a clear message that democracies will stand together.
Since 9-11, the American foreign policy establishment has understandably focused most of its attention on Iraq and Afghanistan. But Russia’s ongoing assault of Georgia should be a reminder that threats to democracy are not limited to acts of terror informed by the Islamo-fascist mindset that infects much of the Middle East. Liberty is also threatened by the rebirth of hyper-nationalism and authoritarianism in re-emerging powers like Russia and China. America and all freedom-loving nations must be willing to stand with Georgia and against tyranny in order to secure a future of freedom in Europe and the world.