08.17.09

Obama's Latest Foreign Slip

So much for resetting relations with Russia. The president’s decision to send Georgian troops to Afghanistan will infuriate Moscow—and reveals his lack of appreciation for exactly what it takes to accomplish big priorities.

Any time Washington makes a truly dumb foreign policy move, it generally looks plausible on the surface. So when the Pentagon announced that Georgia would dispatch 750 troops to Afghanistan to fight terrorists at America’s side, it sounded just fine. Besides, these Georgians would actually be empowered to fight, unlike most of our mandate-restricted NATO allies. It all seemed like such a no-brainer that only The New York Times and a few others even bothered to report the good news.

To reset relations with Russia requires a host of key decisions, and it’s not clear that all or most of them have been made.

But like too many foreign policy no-brainers, this one was fraught with potential perils and bad omens. Moscow will surely stew over American interference in its nasty relations with its Georgian neighbor. And this will surely retard Obama administration efforts to “reset” ties with Russia to allow for cooperation on key issues like Iran. And it might even cause Georgians to miscalculate American military support against Russia and foolishly provoke Moscow. And because it puts all these things at risk for token help in Afghanistan, it sets off alarm bells about the Obama team’s understanding of priorities and strategy.

There’s an iron law of decision making in Washington: Whenever an administration does anything spectacularly dumb, there’s a “good” reason for it.

And so to the roots of the story, which probably began in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. Some bright Georgian who might have studied at Harvard’s Kennedy School says: “I’ve got an idea. Obama keeps asking for help against the Taliban, and America’s NATO allies aren’t helping much. We want membership in NATO, so let’s show what good friends we are. If we help them there, they’ll be under greater obligation to help us here” on the disputed provinces that led to Russia’s crushing Georgian forces a year ago. “You know how easy it is to manipulate the Americans.”

When the troop offer arrived in Washington, three schools of thought, as it were, nestled into the bureaucratic flow: the strategic view, the anti-Russian view, and the political perspective. The strategic school argued that what seems good is in fact bad because it will irritate Moscow and will likely hinder Obama’s plan for new strategic links with Moscow. That will make it harder to obtain critical Russian help to pressure Iran on its nuclear program and reduce Russian incentives to be nice to Georgia and Ukraine, for that matter. Let’s just thank Tbilisi and ask them to send civilian advisers to Afghanistan instead.

The reasonable arguments of the strategic schools are generally no match for the anti-Russian school, even in these post-Cold War days. There’s still surprising backing for being “tough” with Moscow because Russian leaders are such thuggish bad guys. “We can’t let them push around the little guys like Georgia and Ukraine,” they say to receptive Washington ears. Some members of this school even wish to give NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine, mainly to irritate Moscow. Irritation is obviously their real intent, since not one of them advocates actually sending U.S. forces to fight for their independence.

The political school almost always weighs in—to bad effect, as it did in this case. They let it be known (one can’t really talk politics openly at a White House meeting) that the Obama team couldn’t possibly reject Georgia’s generous offer. “We’re forever asking other nations to help us in Afghanistan and usually being turned down,” they say. “And here’s one that's coming to us and promising to fight rather than hide, like so many of the NATO helpers.”

Their political point is irrefutable. And to placate Moscow to some degree, the three schools got together on reassurances: We wouldn’t provide the Georgians with heavy armaments. We wouldn’t let them return to Georgia with new military capabilities. We’d train them only to fight terrorists, not Russians. One can imagine how relieved Russian leaders were by these reassurances, probably as reassured as the Obama people were about Russian troops being in the disputed provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia adjoining Russia and Georgia to ensure the peace.

It’s hard to predict how irksome this issue will become in Russian-American relations. It might derail serious conversation for a long stretch. At a minimum, it will delay critical cooperation on Iran. But what’s truly troubling about this story is what it reveals, once again, about President Obama’s misunderstanding of strategy and priorities, or at the very least, his lack of appreciation for exactly what it takes to accomplish big priorities. To reset relations with Russia requires a host of key decisions, and it’s not clear that all or most of them have been made. First of all, Obama has to have a new overall U.S. strategy. What exactly does Obama want from Moscow and what will he give in return? What’s the bargaining sequence, or does he want to try for an overall deal? Does he want to wait to push Tehran until he lines up Moscow, or go ahead this fall without the Russians? The whole process will take a lot of high-level meetings. Who will take the lead—the president himself, Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? And of course, Obama has to set in motion a palatable explanation for how this approach will affect the security of Georgia and Ukraine.

The security issue is where resetting relations carries the most potential weight. There are two facts that Washington doesn’t like to admit: One is that our NATO allies will never agree to Georgia and Ukraine becoming NATO members. They don’t want to offend Moscow. The other is that there is no chance any U.S. president would deploy U.S. troops to Russia’s borders to defend Georgia or Ukraine. Since we aren’t going to defend these two countries, the policy issue becomes how to deter a Russian attack in the first place. And the best answer anyone has come up with is to form that strategic partnership with Moscow, to give the Russians the big power place in the sun they so deeply crave, and to use that as the leash on aggressive Russian behavior on its borders.

President Obama has been long on intelligent rhetoric, rhetoric that puts the United States back on the right side of history. But he has not yet demonstrated that he knows how to get things done in a very intractable world. He’s yet to make much progress disentangling America from the sinkholes, traps, and snares left over from the Bush administration. And he’s dug a deeper hole for himself in Afghanistan. He might well take another look at this decision to bring Georgian troops to Afghanistan, find a good way to reshape it, and demonstrate he knows how to reset ties with Moscow and get on with the business of solving international problems.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.