Sunday, September 14, 2008

Georgia and the balance of power

A great piece in the NY Review of Books. History will clearly reveal, even to those who are today still unwilling to acknowledge it, the unprecedented squandering of US power by the Bush administration. Miscalculation after miscalculation after blunder, all caused by stupidity and the triumph of ideology over analysis.

The Russian invasion of Georgia has not changed the balance of power in Eurasia. It has simply announced that the balance of power had already shifted. The United States has been absorbed in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as potential conflict with Iran and a destabilizing situation in Pakistan. It has no strategic ground forces in reserve and is in no position to intervene on the Russian periphery. This has opened an opportunity for the Russians to reassert their influence in the former Soviet sphere. Moscow did not have to concern itself with the potential response of the United States or Europe; hence, the balance of power had already shifted, and it was up to the Russians when to make this public. They did that on August 8.

...It is inconceivable that the Americans were unaware of Georgia's mobilization and intentions. It is also inconceivable that the Americans were unaware that the Russians had deployed substantial forces on the South Ossetian border. US technical intelligence, from satellite imagery and signals intelligence to unmanned aerial vehicles, could not miss the fact that thousands of Russian troops were moving to forward positions. The Russians clearly knew that the Georgians were ready to move. How could the United States not be aware of the Russians? Indeed, given the deployments of Russian troops, how could intelligence analysts have missed the possibility that Russia had laid a trap, hoping for a Georgian invasion to justify its own counterattack?

It is difficult to imagine that the Georgians launched their attack against US wishes. The Georgians rely on the United States, and they were in no position to defy it. This leaves two possibilities. The first is a huge breakdown in intelligence, in which the United States either was unaware of the deployments of Russian forces or knew of them but—along with the Georgians—miscalculated Russia's intentions. The second is that the United States, along with other countries, has viewed Russia through the prism of the 1990s, when its military was in shambles and its government was paralyzed. The United States has not seen Russia make a decisive military move beyond its borders since the Afghan war of the 1970s and 1980s. The Russians had systematically avoided such moves for years. The United States had assumed that they would not risk the consequences of an invasion.

If that was the case, then it points to the central reality of this situation: the Russians had changed dramatically, along with the balance of power in the region. They welcomed the opportunity to drive home the new reality, which was that they could invade Georgia, and the United States and Europe could not meaningfully respond. They did not view the invasion as risky. Militarily, there was no force to counter them. Economically, Russia is an energy exporter doing quite well—indeed, the Europeans need Russian energy even more than the Russians need to sell it to them. Politically, as we shall see, the Americans need the Russians more than the Russians need the Americans. Moscow's calculus was that this was the moment to strike. The Russians had been building up to it for months, and they struck. ...

This is why I think McCain and Palin are just as stupid as Bush. By stating that "We are all Georgians" he is simply playing into Russian hands. We are in no position to do anything in Georgia. I prefer Obama over McCain not just because he is smarter, but because he is very likely smarter and more pragmatic. (Remember the ridiculous flare up over lapel flags! That's what red state voters care about... not the more complex reality of deteriorating US power.)

The Russians knew that the United States would denounce their attack. This actually plays into Russian hands. The more vocal senior US leaders are, the greater the contrast with their inaction, and the Russians wanted to drive home the idea that American guarantees are empty talk. The Russians also know something else that is of vital importance. For the United States, the Middle East is far more important than the Caucasus, and Iran is particularly important. The United States wants the Russians to participate in sanctions against Iran. Even more importantly, it does not want the Russians to sell weapons to Iran, particularly the highly effective S-300 air defense system. Georgia is a marginal issue to the United States; Iran is a central issue. The Russians are in a position to pose serious problems for the United States not only in Iran, but also with weapons sales to other countries, like Syria.

Therefore, the United States has a problem—either it must reorient its strategy away from the Middle East and toward the Caucasus, or it has to seriously limit its response to Georgia to avoid a Russian counter in Iran. Even if the United States had an appetite for war in Georgia at this time, it would have to calculate the Russian response in Iran—and possibly in Afghanistan (even though Moscow's interests there are currently aligned with those of Washington).

In other words, the Russians have backed the Americans into a corner. The Europeans, who for the most part lack expeditionary military forces and are dependent upon Russian energy exports, have even fewer options. If nothing else happens, the Russians will have demonstrated that though they are not a global power by any means, they have resumed their role as a significant regional power with lots of nuclear weapons and an economy that is less shabby now than in the past. Russia has also compelled every state on its periphery to reevaluate its position relative to Moscow. That is what the Russians wanted to demonstrate, and they have demonstrated it.


Anonymous said...

"That's what red state voters care about..."

Now that's a stupid comment. Do you really think every Republican- voting American is an idiot?

You're in danger of contracting the smart person's disease: thinking he already knows everything he needs to. Take a deep breath and get yourself to the polisci and history sections of the library.

Steve Hsu said...

Clarification: "red state voters" does not equal "every Republican- voting American". It means the majority, not all, just as if I were to say "Democrats favor tax increases on the rich" even though some of them don't.

If the lapel flag wasn't an emotional / symbolic issue that appealed to their base, why did the Republicans make such a big deal over it?

Steve Hsu said...

By the way, my brother, who is a smart guy, is a die hard Republican who hates Obama. So, believe me, I get to hear both sides of every issue!

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