Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Speaking Truth to the Big Stick

Last week I gave Hillary Clinton a Chutzpah of the Week award for using a Senate committee meeting to suggest that last month's events in Georgia had "less to do with standing up to Russian aggression and more to do with looking for an excuse to heat up the Cold War." In presenting this award, I neglected to mention that I had to find out about her act through the Financial Times, since this particular kind of Legislative oversight seemed to be receiving "radio silence" from the American media. Well, the radio silence may be continuing here in the United States; but Paul Reynolds, World Affairs correspondent for the BBC NEWS Web site, has now reported news of a British think tank than has cast its lot with Clinton. The think tank is the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS); and, given that any confrontation with Russia is likely to have greater impact on European, rather than American, soil, this is not an organization to ignore.

More specifically John Chipman, Director General of IISS, has released a statement regarding the consideration of both Georgia and Ukraine for NATO membership; and the bottom line of that statement is that membership at this time "would be a strategic error." As Reynolds reported, where Georgia is concerned this conclusion has a lot to do with confusion over what actually happened last month:

The IISS is highly critical of Georgian actions - in contrast to the support Georgia has received from the US and some European countries, notably Britain. Naturally, if Georgia is faulted, then less blame can be put on Russia, whatever its reaction or, as some hold, its over-reaction.

Dr Chipman said that the "balance of evidence suggests that Georgia started this war".

Georgia has claimed that Russian forces had already started to enter South Ossetia by the time it acted. Russia has said that it responded to a Georgian attack.

Pressure seems to be growing for an international inquiry into the actual sequence of events.

The IISS position will undermine sympathy for Georgia and its leader President Mikhail Saakashvili.

It is particularly interesting to see that Chipman's own words explicitly addressed the Cold War connotations of last month's events:

There have been major errors of presentation of policy towards Russia. The US and Nato have in the past told Russia to accept whatever was happening. There was no give and take. We are disappointed at the way some Western leaders pushed the Cold War button after Georgia. We should not over-inflate the crisis.

Chipman should be prided on being discreet enough to use the language of "some Western leaders," even if my own temerity led me to suggest that one of those "Western leaders" was Dick Cheney, who did not seem to waste any time heading out to (march through?) Georgia just as the dust was beginning to settle there. Thus, the question at stake is whether NATO will act in the best interest of its European members or whether the collective body will continue to commit itself to Lord Ismay's initial goal of keeping "the Americans in." Here is how Reynolds concluded his report:

The IISS report came on a day when Nato defence ministers were meeting in London. There is some feeling in Nato that its priority should be to do more to reassure its existing members, especially those close to Russia, rather than rushing to bring in new members. And that is a view supported in the IISS report.

A great deal will depend on the views of the next American president. The Bush administration is all for pushing on with membership for Ukraine and Georgia, and the issue will be taken up again at Nato meetings in December.

A British official predicted that there would be no slowing of support for Georgia and no disposition to reward Russia.

But no quick decisions are likely in the current uncertain state of affairs.

At the very least, the decision to avoid any of those "quick decisions" should send a message to the American hawks that this is not a good time for anyone to be rattling sabers; and I hope that this will be sufficient to keep a lid on things over here until we know who the next Commander in Chief is going to be.

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