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Georgia debacle is a blow to Bush policy

August 18, 2008|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In the last week, two major pillars of President Bush's approach to foreign policy have crumbled, jeopardizing eight years of work and sending the administration scrambling for new strategies in the waning months of its term.

From the earliest days of his presidency, Bush had said spreading democracy was a centerpiece of his foreign policy. At the same time, he sought to develop a more productive relationship with Russia, seeking Moscow's cooperation on issues such as terrorism, Iran's nuclear program and expansion of global energy supplies.

And in pursuing both these major goals, Bush relied heavily on developing what he saw as strong personal relationships with foreign leaders.

The recent setbacks to the president's approach were all the more unsettling because Georgia had appeared to be one of the few success stories in the administration's effort to nurture new democracies that could advance U.S. interests.

Efforts to create multiethnic, democratic regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan have run into repeated difficulties. And the American push for Palestinian elections in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip ended in victory for the radical group Hamas, complicating an already formidable task of reaching a Middle East peace accord.

Since the Georgia conflict erupted, Bush has repeatedly cited that nation's progress toward democracy as he promised American support. "The people of Georgia have cast their lot with the free world, and we will not cast them aside," he said.

Faced with a massive deployment of Russian military power, however, the U.S. response was confined to condemning Moscow's actions, pushing for humanitarian aid and pressing Georgia to accept a cease-fire agreement brokered by France that would leave Russian troops still inside Georgia's two breakaway enclaves.

"What freedom strategy?" asked David L. Phillips, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of a report on Georgia. "It is scorned worldwide. Afghanistan is backsliding. The bar has been set low in Iraq. Georgia is in ruins."

The damage may not be confined to Georgia, many analysts believe.

The U.S. had intended to renew its push for expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into Georgia and Ukraine in December. But with its military action, Russia has signaled its categorical opposition to further expansion.

And several Western European nations are likely to be reluctant to expand the alliance, though German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Sunday during a visit to Georgia that the path to membership was still open to the former Soviet republic.

"This action is a real challenge to the idea of building a Europe whole, free and at peace," said Stephen Flanagan of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

And Moscow's violent intervention in Georgia may put democratic movements in Ukraine and other nearby countries at risk, in the view of Leslie H. Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Bush administration should not "jeopardize these nascent democracies by letting them think that they can put themselves in this kind of situation and survive," Gelb said. "You are not just putting democracy on the line in Georgia, you are putting all of these places in that neighborhood on the line."

Although U.S. officials say they repeatedly warned Georgia not to give Russia an excuse to attack, many observers believe the warm embrace that the Bush administration gave President Mikheil Saakashvili gave him a false sense of support and a mistaken view that his friendship with the U.S. would deter a large-scale Russian invasion.

James J. Townsend Jr., a former Pentagon official now with the Atlantic Council, said emerging democracies and democratic movements often assume the U.S. can or will do more to back them.

But the realities of international affairs mean American cheerleading may be simply that.

"I have seen it over and over again be misconstrued by nations not used to dealing with us," Townsend said. "I think they misunderstand our eagerness and enthusiasm and think we are going to be behind them for anything.

"That is what happened in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968," he added, referring to Soviet invasions of those two nations to crush uprisings.

The United States was not wrong to encourage democratic movements in Georgia and other nations, experts argue. But along the fringes of the former Soviet Union the task is sensitive, especially since the Bush administration coupled support for democracy with efforts to forge new security alliances there.

And rather than focusing on individual leaders, critics say, the administration should have put more effort into building up a middle class and bolstering civil institutions, a slower process.

"Every president has to stand for democracy," Gelb said. "But the notion of force-feeding democracy into societies that have never practiced it is a mistake. And in most cases we pay some price for trying to do it."

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