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Bush, Obama and Losing Eastern Europe

Sunday, May 16, 2010

By Ed Hancox

Last Tuesday, Intelligence Squared sponsored a debate on whether or not President Barack Obama’s foreign policy signaled America’s decline as the driving force in global affairs: Dan Senor and Mort Zuckerman argued yes; Wesley Clark and Bernard-Henri Levy argued no. The debate was a lively exchange of ideas with excellent points raised by all of the participants, but while I believed that the rationale behind the forum was valid, I couldn’t help but feel that at its core the debate was built on a false premise – namely that America’s foreign policy decline is due solely to the actions of Pres. Obama.

Part of America’s perceived “decline” isn’t really a decline at all; rather it’s the rise of a collection of other nations on the global stage in today’s multi-polar world (an idea I discussed in more depth in my previous post). The United States rise as a superpower came during the Cold War, when the world was essentially split into the US and Soviet camps, the end of the Soviet Union shattered that paradigm and allowed for other nations – notably the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and thanks to their recent rapid economic growth, China – to each try to carve out their own niche, their own sphere of influence on the global stage; Russia, shaking off the economic doldrums they experienced in the 1990s, is trying to reestablish their role as a global player as well. But when you try to cut a pie into more pieces, the result is that everyone gets a smaller slice, and so it is too with America’s global dominance.

Shifting geopolitical realities can account for some of the United States’ foreign policy decline, though some of the blame must also be laid on the shoulders of America’s politicians. Here it’s useful to look at how America’s influence in Eastern Europe has waxed and waned, and how the blame over who “lost” Eastern Europe can be parceled out to both the Bush and Obama administrations. In 2010, it’s obvious that the United States does not have the same level of influence over the nations that emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact than it did in the early-to-mid 1990s. Looking back, perhaps it was foolish to think that the nations of Eastern Europe would reject the deep, longstanding ethnic, cultural, economic, linguistic and historic ties with Russia in favor of becoming the new best friends of the United States, but at the time – with a collection of countries newly emerged from under the Soviet thumb, eager to embrace democracy and free markets, blue jeans and McDonalds – it seemed to make sense. During his term in office, Bill Clinton pushed the friendship agenda, paving the way for NATO membership for many of the Eastern European nations, while urging the European Union to expand eastward. George W. Bush continued the mission when he took over, courting even Georgia and Ukraine – formerly two key chunks of the Soviet Union.

Things changed though in 2008 because of two tiny parcels of land – Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two would-be independent nations trying to breakaway from Georgia. After months of provocations from each side, a five-day war between Russia and Georgia began on August 8 after Georgian forces shelled the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali. Almost immediately, Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili called on his allies in the US and NATO for military aid – none came as the US and NATO decided that it wasn’t worth starting WWIII over a pair of recalcitrant Georgian provinces. To their credit, in the run-up to the conflict the Bush Administration told Saakashvili that the US wouldn’t be sending troops if fighting broke out with Russia; Saakashvili apparently chose to ignore these blunt warnings. But it’s hard to blame him for his assumption to the contrary, after coming to power on the back of the 2003 “Rose Revolution” pro-democracy protests, the charismatic, Harvard-educated Saakashvili became a darling of the Washington set. The Bush Administration pushed for Georgia’s rapid membership in both the EU and NATO, ignoring Saakashvili’s own crackdowns on pro-democracy movements in 2007, his nationalistic bluster, and his deep, personal animosity with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, which, in turn, helped to spark the August 2008 war.

While strategically the militarily correct decision, not backing Georgia though had a chilling effect on American relations across the region; it sent the message that while the United States was willing to court the nations of Eastern Europe, urging them to turn away from Russia and towards the US, when push came to shove, they were on their own. It’s not a coincidence that in the January 2010 presidential elections, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko – formerly a proponent of stronger ties with Europe and the United States - was talking up better relations with Russia as a key part of her platform; or that after the recent upheaval in Kyrgyzstan, the interim government’s first call was to Moscow, not Washington.

Obama too has had his own Eastern European misstep, when in September 2009, Obama reversed a key Bush-era defense initiative and canceled a plan to base an anti-ballistic missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic. On one hand, Obama made the right call in canceling the Bush ABM scheme – it used unproven technology to defend against a threat that doesn’t currently exist, Iranian missiles capable of striking the European heartland (and why Iran would choose to launch missiles at Prague and Warsaw instead of Tel Aviv and Riyadh has never been explained). But the Poles had laid out a lot of political capital in their decision to host their portion of the ABM system, not to mention antagonizing Russia, which viewed American ABMs as a direct threat to their security. Obama’s decision left many in Poland feeling like America was not a trustworthy ally, a situation made worse several months later when the Obama administration floated the idea of basing an ABM system in Romania and Bulgaria (which again raised the ire of Russia). Since the Obama Administration’s decision over ABM, Polish-Russian relations have improved considerably, helped ironically by Russia’s overtly compassionate reaction in the wake of the tragic death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and dozens of Polish dignitaries in a plane crash while on the way to a commemoration of the massacre of thousands of Poles on orders of Josef Stalin in the forest outside of the town of Katyn – President Dmitry Medvedev was one of only a handful of world leaders to brave the volcanic ash cloud that grounded air travel over much of Europe to attend Kaczynski’s funeral.

It’s clear that the political space in the lands where the Soviet Union once held sway is changing and that the influence the United States once hoped to wield is on the wane. The responsibility for that belongs to both Bush and Obama; it’s also a sign that in reality there is far less difference in the foreign policy of the two presidents than the critics and pundits would hope.


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Having lived in Georgia from 2004-2005 and spending many years studying the region, there are two points I believe it is necessary to raise in response to the way this article addresses Georgia and the events of summer 2008. The first is factual; Saakashvili studied at Columbia University and George Washington University, not at Harvard (although he has spoken there). The second point is that this article states that the conflict between Russia and Georgia in 2008 "began on August 8 after Georgian forces shelled the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali." This is a one-sided and oversimplified explanation. In Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia's ongoing involvement in these regions' internal affairs for years played the largest role in the buildup to this conflict, and the author fails to account for this, as did so many news sources in 2008. Prior to civil war breaking out in Abkhazia in the years preceding the breakup of the USSR, Georgians made up a plurality of Abkhazia's population, at 45%. It was Russian-backed (backed financially and with arms) rebels who, over the course of the early 1990s, forcibly expelled almost the entirety of this plurality, forcing one of the largest IDP populations into the rest of Georgia. The Russian government then granted Russian citizenship to those non-Georgians who remained. A similar pattern followed in South Ossetia, where it was provocation by the Russian government by backing Ossetian rebels with arms and money and the Ossetian population with Russian citizenship. This led to the explanation given by Putin and Medvedev as justification for Russia's overwhelmingly disproportionate response to the Georgian Military's attempt to retake Tshkinvali; their claim was that the Russian military was defending Russian citizens. Furthermore, the Russian government did not stop at driving Georgian forces from Tshkinvali. Russian forces moved even deeper into Georgian territory on the ground and bombed areas as deep as neat the capital, Tbilisi. When reprisal attacks by Ossetian residents against Georgian villages forced Georgians to flee from South Ossetia while their homes and land were burned, Russian forces did nothing to quell the situation. The purpose of this response is not to defend or justify the actions of Saakashvili; the attack on Tskhinvali was ill-advised and could not have had worse timing. Yet, it is necessary to look deeper into both sides' responsibility for this conflict. Putin was as openly hostile towards Saakashvili as Saakashvili was towards him, and Saakashvili's drive towards aligning with the west does reflect the will of the majority of Georgian people. Consider hypothetically, an analogy involving the United States and Cuba, Iran, or Nicaragua. Would the American government be justified in backing those who live in regions in one of these countries where the population opposes the regime with money and arms, granting them citizenship, and then staging a massive and disproportionate military invasion when the government attempted to retake its own territory? The situations are not the same, but are comparable.

When not writing about international affairs, Ed Hancox works in nonprofit development. He holds a M.A. degree in International Affairs from The New School where he worked as a research associate on a project examining Russia's transition from Communism.