Commentary Magazine


The First Bush’s Failure

Fred Kaplan of Slate is a bit trigger-happy when it comes to blaming President Bush for every wrongdoing around the world. So it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s now blaming him for encouraging Georgians to provoke Russia:

Regardless of what happens next, it is worth asking what the Bush people were thinking when they egged on Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s young, Western-educated president, to apply for NATO membership, send 2,000 of his troops to Iraq as a full-fledged U.S. ally, and receive tactical training and weapons from our military.

Kaplan’s point reminds me of one of the greatest embarrassments of the first Bush administration. When George W. Bush ponders his options regarding Georgia (and the obligation he has contracted to help this nation), one wonders whether he remembers his father’s actions in the aftermath of the first Gulf war. Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus on Tuesday compared the situation in Georgia to the 1938 Munich crisis, but I’d argue Georgia’s situation is much more similar to those following that war.

After the end of the first Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush famously urged the Iraqis to “take matters into their own hands” against Saddam Hussein. But when some of them did, he didn’t raise a finger while Saddam murderously devastated his opposition.

Our current President knows the facts quite well: “As the revolt [against Saddam] spread, the U.S.–worried that a fractured Iraq would create more instability in an unpredictable region–chose not to support the rebellion. With no military assistance, the rebels were overwhelmed and crushed.” This was American realism at its worst, and George W. Bush was never particularly proud of it. That’s one of the reasons, in my opinion, he’s never broke the commitment the U.S. has made to the Iraqi people this time around.

And Bush also knows that Russia isn’t Iraq, Putin is no Saddam, and Georgia is a sovereign country and not a rebellious group within a country. However, similarities remain: Georgians believed that they had U.S. backing, and are painfully learning that the U.S. has chosen not to deliver on its promises. And moral considerations aside, the U.S. has a developing strategic problem here, as such lessons are not easily forgotten. If countries around the world believe that Georgia was abandoned, American diplomats will have to spend much more time in the future convincing peoples that offers of U.S. are genuine and meaningful. And they will find it ever-harder to succeed.