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What Are Friends For?

Some political analysts are speculating about Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s motivation for acting so robustly against South Ossetian separatists and doing so while the eyes of the world were focused on the international spectacle in Beijing. The theory floating around is that Georgia moved on the Russia-backed region with the intention of “provoking” an attack, against which Georgia was knowingly unable to defend herself. In this way Georgia hoped to get the sympathetic attention of the West.

If such a gambit has been played, it is certainly the most cynical bit of statecraft employed by any present-day democracy. (In any event, there is no doubt that Saakashvili is looking for our sympathy now.) But did it work?

Georgia has our attention (or is sharing it with John Edwards). John McCain, Barack Obama, and George W. Bush have issued assorted statements on the matter, French president Nicolas Sarkozy has dashed through the motions of European diplomacy, and President Bush has sent Condoleezza Rice dashing after him. Additionally, American Navy vessels are heading toward the Black Sea–to deliver aid. But a week after Russian tanks and jets set Georgia ablaze–and three days since the announcement of a ceasefire–Russian troops patrol Georgian cities with virtual impunity. No nation has defended Georgia and no Georgian ally has even given her the means to defend herself. Moreover, no agreements have been drafted explicitly securing Georgia’s territorial integrity. In this way, Saakashvili got the West dead wrong.

Victim status doesn’t get you what it used to. There was a time when an American friend or a strategically critical state under attack got more than color commentary from the White House and a boat full of Ace bandages. When Russia rolled into Afghanistan in 1979 we didn’t give Afghans our sympathy; we gave them guns–big ones. When Saddam tried to annex Kuwait, we went in and sent him back home. Today a real invasion will get you a symbolic vote, a high profile condemnation, and a Facebook group.

But it’s the old America that friends and states with democratic aspirations remember, and they continue in vain to appeal to us. I am currently in Azerbaijan and if I’ve been asked once I’ve been asked a hundred times: “What does America think about the Armenian occupation of our country?” Whether it’s a reporter or a graduate student doing the asking, their desperation is a little heartbreaking and I answer honestly: “Your conflict isn’t even a blip on our radar.” Inevitably they respond: “Will you write about it when you get back home?” “Yes, I will,” I tell them. This provides some visible hope. Luckily they don’t go on to ask me if such attention will make any difference.

Armenians are not the only concern of Azeris these days. They, like Georgians, live in a post-Soviet territory. Their capital city, Baku, is the starting point for the Baku-Tiblisi-Ceyhan pipeline–the only oil route out of the Caspian that bypasses Russia. It goes without saying that this is a conflict on Moscow’s radar. The Deputy Foreign Minister told me that since last week’s Russian aggression, he feels like it’s 1920 again. 1920 is when Azerbaijan’s two-year break from oppression gave way to seventy years of Soviet rule. 1920 also heralded a period of American isolationism. I agree with the Deputy Foreign Minister. It does feel like 1920 again.


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