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Wikileaks Confirms McCain Dangerously Wrong on Georgia

December 2, 2010

Assessing the impact of the Wikileaks revelations, Fareed Zakaria concluded the confidential cables actually show "the skills of U.S. diplomats." Overall, Zakaria was reassured that "the State Department works" and by "an American diplomatic establishment that is pretty good at analysis." But in one case - the conflict between Russia and Georgia in the summer of 2008 - the ideological blinders of U.S. foreign policy led the Bush administration and its allies to dangerously misread the reality on the ground. And among them was grandstanding presidential candidate John McCain, who at the peak of the crisis pompously declared, "Today we are all Georgians."
As the New York Times revealed, on the former Soviet republic of Georgia the Bush administration abandoned the skepticism and indirect sourcing that defined U.S. diplomacy during the Cold War. The Tblisi cables, the Times reported, "display some of the perils of a close relationship":

A 2008 batch of American cables from another country once in the cold war's grip -- Georgia -- showed a much different sort of access. In Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, American officials had all but constant contact and an open door to President Mikheil Saakashvili and his young and militarily inexperienced advisers, who hoped the United States would help Georgia shake off its Soviet past and stand up to Russia's regional influence...
The cables show that for several years, as Georgia entered an escalating contest with the Kremlin for the future of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway enclaves out of Georgian control that received Russian support, Washington relied heavily on the Saakashvili government's accounts of its own behavior. In neighboring countries, American diplomats often maintained their professional distance, and privately detailed their misgivings of their host governments. In Georgia, diplomats appeared to set aside skepticism and embrace Georgian versions of important and disputed events.
By 2008, as the region slipped toward war, sources outside the Georgian government were played down or not included in important cables. Official Georgian versions of events were passed to Washington largely unchallenged.
The last cables before the eruption of the brief Russian-Georgian war showed an embassy relaying statements that would with time be proved wrong.

But for John McCain, honored this year by President Saakashvili as a "National Hero of Georgia", all that mattered was U.S. presidential politics.
By the time hostilities commenced in South Ossetia in August 2008, McCain's animus towards Russia, which he repeatedly pledged to eject from the G-8, was already the stuff of legend. But seeing an opportunity to capitalize on his perceived advantage over Barack Obama on national security issues, McCain moved quickly and aggressively to commit the United States to Georgia's defense.
On his campaign bus in Pennsylvania, McCain told reporters, "I think it's very clear that Russian ambitions are to restore the old Russian empire." Three days later on August 14, 2008, McCain penned the now-famous Wall Street Journal op-ed "We Are All Georgians" which opportunistically appropriated global sentiment towards the United States after the horror of 9/11:

"As I told President Saakashvili on the day the cease-fire was declared, today we are all Georgians. We mustn't forget it."

Randy Scheunemann was quick to drive home the point for the tire-swinging U.S. media. Scheunemann, whose firm Orion Strategies represented Georgia between 2003 and March 2008 and even lobbied McCain's Senate staff on behalf of Georgia while working for McCain's presidential campaign, told Politico:

"Sen. McCain is clearly willing to note who he thinks is the aggressor here," he said, dismissing the notion that Georgia's move into its renegade province had precipitated the crisis. "I don't think you can excuse, defend, explain or make allowance for Russian behavior because of what is going on in Georgia."
He also criticized Obama for calling on both sides to show "restraint," and suggested the Democrat was putting too much blame on the conflict's clear victim.
"That's kind of like saying after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, that Kuwait and Iraq need to show restraint, or like saying in 1968 [when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia] ... that the Czechoslovaks should show restraint," he said.

Of course, the press corps, bought it hook, line and sinker, a fawning over McCain's supposed international leadership that continues to this day. After announcing that "Georgia dominates the Sunday shows," Politico on August 17, 2008 declared, "McCain reopens the national security gap."
That has remained the conventional wisdom ever since.
Following the failed Christmas airliner bombing, for example, a Politico headline screamed "GOP Seizes on Terror Issue." That same Monday night, CNN's Candy Crowley parroted the Republican talking points regarding President Obama's response:

"And there are people who think that the president is not quite yet comfortable first in the arena, the foreign policy arena, and point out that, in fact, when the president was a candidate, as you remember Russia invaded Georgia and it took a couple days for then candidate Obama to make a statement about it, whereas John McCain was out early and made an issue of the fact that candidate Obama had not come out and talked. So a lot of people thinking he could have used his presidential power for reassurance in the last 24 hours."

There was, of course, a problem with John McCain's dangerously reckless bellicosity on behalf of Georgia, "this small democracy, far away from our shores, [which] is an inspiration to all those who cherish our deepest ideals."
He was wrong.
In the fall of 2009, a report commissioned by the Council of the European Union found that Georgia "started unjustified war." While the EU analysis placed blame on both Tbilisi and Moscow for what transpired, it rejected the Georgian government's explanation that the attack was defensive. As the BBC reported:

"The shelling of Tskhinvali (the South Ossetian capital) by the Georgian armed forces during the night of 7 to 8 August 2008 marked the beginning of the large-scale armed conflict in Georgia," the report says.
It adds later: "There is the question of whether [this] use of force... was justifiable under international law. It was not."

While Georgia protested those conclusions, Commissioner Jorg Himmelreich described in the New York Times "the decisive role that the United States played before, during and after the conflict":

After 9/11, however, President Bush changed the policy toward Georgia, introducing two elements that developed into serious strategic disadvantages. Mr. Bush not only made Georgia into a partner in the "war on terror," but he promoted Mr. Saakashvili and Georgia into a centerpiece of his "promotion of democracy." In Tbilisi in 2005, Mr. Bush proclaimed Mr. Saakashvili's Georgia "a beacon of liberty."
Even as President Bush became increasingly aware that he needed the Kremlin's help in Iran and for other American interests, he was kept a prisoner by this exaggeration of Georgia's importance for U.S. foreign policy.
Senior officials of the Bush administration claim they warned Mr. Saakashvili against using force against Russia. But having invested so much ideological importance in the Georgian president, Mr. Bush couldn't warn him publicly -- or, as it turned out, stop him. Having become so dependent on Mr. Saakashvili's success, the United States lost the political influence to stop him.

That goes double for John McCain.
At the end of the day, McCain's grandstanding didn't make him President of the country he claimed to put first. But he did get a consolation prize. He's now a hero in the country he put first - Georgia.
As for U.S. relations with Russia, once and future Russian President Vladimir Putin is apparently quite upset about the portrayals of him in the secret U.S. cables. Of course, Senator John McCain never hesitated to insult him in public. Describing his future negotiating partner, would-be President John McCain said repeatedly in 2007:

"When I looked into Putin's eyes and I saw three letters: a K, a G and a B."


About

Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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