Three years almost to this week, while Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans, Condoleezza Rice was shopping for designer shoes in Manhattan. She was on vacation, though as a high security official she surely received updates about disasters like the horrendous floods that took place in Louisiana. She still attended the Broadway play that night, “Spam-a-lot”.
Ten days ago, the Bush White House watched helplessly as Russian tanks rolled into central Georgia in what has now been called the most serious showdown with Moscow since the end of the Cold War. By all accounts, the attack on Georgian troops inside their territory along the borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was savage and brutal. But it wasn’t a surprise. These borders have been disputed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The once-familiar saber rattling finally roared one bloody afternoon. Not only did the US help hasten this event, but it completely failed in dealing with it in the days that followed. Diplomatic disaster of the first order? No –that’s much too kind.
On three separate appearances yesterday, Secretary of State Rice went to great pains to present a tough stance on this crisis, arguing that Moscow had to comply with ceasefire agreements they had signed days before. Rice also tried to demonstrate the Bush Administration’s strong disapproval of what the Russians had done by entering the sovereign borders of another country. On “Meet the Press” she came out swinging at Moscow, arguing that they had still not respected the ceasefire that they had signed with Georgian President Saakashvili. “You know, the word of the Russian President”, she stated, “needs to be upheld by his forces because people are going to begin to wonder if Russia is going to be trusted.” With a thinly disguised smirk, she added: “I think it’s very much time for them to do what they say they’ll do”.
Russia is a bully. Russia has not, in the words of Jacques Rupnik, learned how to be a nation-state because it still thinks it’s an empire. One of its former regions inside one of its former republics decided to fan its discontent. Georgia tried to quell the violence and thus provoked Russia into coming in to that border region and then, in what has surely caused chills around Europe but most particularly the former Soviet republics, the Russians simply rolled their infamous tanks inside Georgian territory. And Condoleezza Rice, once eminent Sovietologist and student of the Soviet civil-military relations, did not know this enough to then practice the very diplomacy she purports to uphold at the State Department? Far from being at the helm of this jarring crisis, the Secretary has been woefully asleep at the wheel.
How could this have happened? Rice repeatedly told all of her interviewers in Sunday how the White House had been mindful of the situation there in those regions of Georgia all along. David Gregory brought up a New York Times article that stated that Rice, at a private dinner in Tbilisi, told the Georgian President “not to let Russia provoke him into a fight he could not win.” Moreover, Rice went so far as to tell Saakhashvili “in no uncertain terms” (diplomatic speak for “See here”) that he “had to put a non-use of force pledge on the table”. In other words, she was telling Georgia not to do anything that would incur Moscow’s wrath. Last week’s turn of events reveal just how “surprised” the Administration was when their advice went grossly “unheeded”.
Rice, trying to be belligerent with the Russians, however, can’t just say that Georgia is a “hot zone, a volatile zone” when in fact Saakashvili seems to have misunderstood Washington’s orders. And this is because of some internal skirmishes within the White House itself, problems that have now proven deadly because it’s clear there is no clear Georgia –or now Russia—policy that is coming from this White House or from the nation’s top diplomat. On the “hawk” side there is, once again, Vice President Cheney and his staff who argue for arming Georgia and bringing it into Western institutions like NATO, sending more arms and Stinger antiaircraft missiles (these latter removed) to create a buffer security zone around Russia, despite the fact that this really pisses Russia. On the “dove” side are Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and other State Department officials who favor a slower, more gradualist approach to bring Georgia westward. I wonder which side —once again—prevailed. Because in the middle of this violence inside his country,Saakhashvili had the nerve to blame the US for not coming in to defend it against the nasty Russians. “Did the Georgians have a reasonable expectation”, Gregory asked, “that the US would come in, guns blazing…?” Rice scoffed, saying that the “culprit here” is Russia itself. Let’s focus on evil that has been unleashed, even it’s a negative force that the US has helped create.
The mixed message for Rice has been this: let’s go out and spend untold millions to arm Georgia militarily, provide NATO advisers and train their army and even reward them for being our ally in Iraq and for being, a particularly irritating thorn in Russia’s side and at the same time try to tell Russia off and say that its “reputation” as an international actor is now threatened because of this belligerent action. Rice and company knew full well what Russia was capable of, with its “Soviet style behavior”; several times the other day she repeated Czechoslovakia in 1968 –she even wrote a Ph.D dissertation about this. By overpromising the world to Georgia, however, it gave the impression that even if a tripwire occurred, it would come to its aid. When it didn’t, Russia was more than capable of driving into Georgian territory even farther. Russia knew the US would not come in and have a fistfight. It also knew, perhaps more cruelly, that Georgia had no means to protect itself. So we are back where we started, in a world where nasty Russians protect what they feel is theirs, international institutions be damned.
Not only did Rice fail to contain an increasingly militarized Georgia policy within the White House but she has misread the depth of Russia’s anger by not being more open about where their points of conflict are –namely, for example, dealing with these disputed lands inside Georgia. By simply assigning these responsibilities to the European Union and the stationing of Russian “peacekeepers” for the last several years, the US has all but ceded control over security matters over to the Europeans. Rice has lost credibility over this, and she has not been able to be a significant actor in this event, despite her assurances that the US is working with “our European allies”. She herself wants it both ways but no one is listening to her. She suggests that the US and Russia can work bilaterally still to recover from all this, and that a multilateral approach with the Europeans works well now too. Maybe that’s why she flew to Tbilisi, instead of Moscow, late last week after French (and currently EU) President Sarkozy brokered a 2 am ceasefire with both Georgia and Russia. For a diplomat who has made this region of the world her avowed specialty, this all seemed so tacked on and, in the end, gratuitous. It also didn’t help that Sergei Lavrov, her counterpart in Moscow, actually said in a news conference that President Bush needed “to hire another speechwriter” as a way to deflect Bush’s criticisms of Russian actions.
Rice is a weak player in an increasingly powerless administration. The impotence of the Bush White House show a country that has very little leverage to affect Russia in any measurable way, and Moscow knows this and exploits it. I am not faulting Rice herself for the substance of her and the State Department’s go-it-slow approach, but I am critical of how she makes her position “official” to all parties involved. Diplomacy is not about telling people what they want to hear. It’s about deriving first a policy that is sensible and realistic to all parties and staying constantly on message. Mixed messages can lead to trouble and hot heads (the 36-year-old Harvard-trained Saakhashvili being one). There was no reason for Rice to tell him, after the NATO conference this summer in Bucharest, “Always, Mr. President. We always fight for our friends.” when pressed about upcoming membership in NATO.
There is not enough space to expound on other colossal foreign policy blunders of this administration. But it is striking that the one supposed expert in this region, the same person who has, to indeterminate degrees of success, tried to showcase diplomacy as her touchstone as Secretary of State, has managed to seem like a third wheel, looking on from a distance, and ultimately shrill because there is no substance to what she says; she also wants to appear gruff because now she says she knows an angry Russian bear when she sees one. It’s also sad that, in the twilight of her stewardship at State, she continues to make valedictory speeches that point to the successes of this administration. In the midst of this reverie of feelings in this hot, sticky summer, just before we watch the slow rusting heap that is the Bush White House as it disappears slowly, it appears that she was caught completely off guard.