Watching Vice President Cheney in Tbilisi today pledging US support for Georgia’s territorial integrity, it is impossible not to fear that the United States is, with total recklessness, repeating the same tragic mistake that it made with regard to Hungary in 1956. As Charles Gati pointed out in his recent book Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt, the Eisenhower administration gave strong encouragement to anti-Soviet revolutionaries prior to the Hungarian uprising, suggesting through radio broadcasting and other means that the United States would come to their support by military means should the Soviets use force against them. The Hungarians staged a hopeless revolt; many young freedom fighters were killed, and a brutal dictatorship was re-imposed on the country. It was a shameful episode in American foreign policy, one that has unfortunately been repeated on numerous other occasions (e.g., the Kurds, Iraqi Shia, and other groups unlucky enough to believe in facile US promises).
Cheney has a reputation for being hawkish and tough on the Russians, a mantle eagerly worn by John McCain with his declaration that “we are all Georgians.” But telling the Georgians we will get them into NATO at some future date and pledging a billion dollars to help reconstruct their country is a cheap cop-out. Everyone knows that Georgia has no chance of getting into NATO for the foreseeable future given the strong opposition of France, Germany, and Spain. Future membership is thus an easy promise to make.
If Cheney and McCain were really serious about protecting Georgia’s territorial integrity, why wait for NATO? We protect plenty of countries like Korea and Japan through bilateral arrangements, and could decide to deploy a battalion or two of American ground forces, or some squadrons of F-16s, to Georgia tomorrow.
The Bush administration has not moved forthrightly to do this, and indeed has denied that it is contemplating such a move, because everyone knows that we cannot militarily protect a small, landlocked country on Russia’s borders many thousands of miles away from the United States. Quite apart from the political repercussions direct intervention would have with Moscow, we face insuperable operational constraints. During the Cold War we stationed a whole brigade in West Berlin, knowing full well that it would be overwhelmed in a war. We used that brigade as a tripwire that would trigger nuclear escalation, and in any event had much larger conventional forces deployed not far away along the inter-German border. In Georgia, no such supporting structures exist.
Indeed, we wouldn’t even get to first base if we tried to do such a thing. The moment it was announced that US or other foreign forces were to be deployed to Georgia, the Russians would simply occupy the whole of the country to forestall our move. Or at least, that’s what I would do if I were a leader with a tenth of Putin’s ruthlessness. (Indeed, I would expect nothing less of an American president if the Russians were to deploy forces to a country bordering the United States.)
The same considerations would apply should Georgia by some miracle be admitted to NATO next week. The protection that alliance membership would afford Georgia would be symbolic and not military—that is, we would hope that the Russians would blink when confronted with the prospect of violating the territorial integrity of a country under NATO Article V security guarantees. But supposing they called our bluff? NATO would stamp its feet in protest, but would be left with the same range of diplomatic, economic, and political sanctions that are available to us today.
Defending Ukraine from Russian attack is equally problematic. Only a minority of Ukrainians support NATO membership, and its large Russian-speaking population is much more sympathetic to Moscow than it is to the United States or the European Union. Ukraine is also host to the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which has already been a flash point since the Georgian intervention.
Unfortunately, NATO has long since ceased to be a serious military alliance in the eyes of the United States and its older members, and has been transformed imperceptibly into a kind of democratic political club. When Poland and the Baltic states were admitted in the 1990s, the Clinton administration promised to Congress that NATO expansion would not lead to any further budget outlays, much less American soldiers getting killed to protect them. The new members, by contrast, think that NATO membership will provide them with precisely that kind of costly military support if push comes to shove. It was possible for the United States to make these commitments back in the 1990s when Russia was weak and the prospect of Russian aggression minimal. But those chickens are now coming home to roost.
Instead of talking about NATO enlargement, we need to talk about how to defend the existing new members of NATO, particularly Poland and the Baltic states, from Russian aggression. NATO has not done military contingency planning since the early 1990s. Estonia, a stone’s throw from St. Petersburg, would be particularly difficult to defend, and it too has a sizeable Russian minority. One way of protecting the Baltics would be to secure NATO’s northern flank by admitting Finland and Sweden into the alliance. All of Russia’s near neighbors have been traumatized by the Georgian intervention, and a re-foundation of NATO as a serious European security alliance would show Moscow that its behavior has had real consequences.
While it is easy to blast Cheney and McCain for faux-hawkishness, the same illusions are held across the aisle. Joe Biden has rushed off to Tbilisi to show support for Georgia, and Obama is similarly committed to NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. All supporters of NATO membership for Georgia should be forced to answer the following questions: if Georgia gets into NATO, what should the American president be willing to do to protect its physical security? And if the answer involves the use of US forces, then answer the further question, why you aren’t willing to do that now? (It would be amusing to hear Cheney argue that it would be legitimate to deploy US forces only in a multilateral framework.) And if the answer about protecting Georgia involves only military assistance, then all of the advocates of early membership should be asked how this differs from US efforts to arm the Hungarian freedom fighters with small arms in 1956.