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War in Georgia Shows U.S. Foreign Policy Is a Bust

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The tragic events in the nation of Georgia show that U.S. foreign policy is a bust. In particular, NATO must go. This may seem counterintuitive, but this relic of the Cold War has nothing to contribute to peace. On the contrary, it is a destabilizing tool of America’s provocative imperial foreign policy.

Let us stipulate that the Russian government would undoubtedly be interested in having Georgia in its camp even if NATO did not exist. The Russian elite has always seen itself destined for a major role in world events, and that dream of course included a large sphere of influence where friendly regimes saw things the Russian way.

Nevertheless, NATO — and the U.S. empire for which it stands — is a major aggravating factor in the tensions between Russia and its neighbors. Not long after the Soviet Union imploded and the Cold War ended, the U.S. foreign-policy elite began talking about expanding NATO to include former Soviet Satellites and republics. Considering that NATO was ostensibly created to counter the Soviet Union in Europe, how could expanding the organization up to the Russian border not be provocative? What was the point, except to show the Russians who’s boss?

Georgia has been angling for membership in NATO for years. President Mikheil Saakashvili’s Russian policy was nothing short of a pro-American in-your-face policy strategy. The Bush administration encouraged it by training and equipping the Georgian military. All of this stirred Russian suspicions about U.S. objectives in its “backyard.” In return, Georgia sent troops to assist in America’s misguided mission in Iraq.

The U.S. policy toward Georgia is part of a pattern that, naturally, is justified in the name of the “war on terror” and the spreading of democracy, although some of the Central Asia republics have odious authoritarian governments. But the Russians, hearing talk of anti-missile systems in the new NATO countries, don’t see the strategy as benign. They see encirclement. Who can blame them?

The immediate cause of the recent clash was Georgia’s violent move to put down separatist activity in South Ossetia, one of two break-away areas with sympathies toward Russia. Russia undoubtedly has helped advance secessionist sentiments there and in Abkhazia. Its brutal bombing inside Georgia is to be condemned, but that does not mean that Saakashvili’s government is blameless.

Did the Georgian president get a green light from the Bush administration? We may never know. But the question is not essential. What we do know is that U.S. policy created a moral-hazard problem. In other words, the Bush administration’s words and deeds almost certainly emboldened the Georgian government with respect to South Ossetia and Russia, encouraging it to take measures it probably would not have taken otherwise.

As we saw, it was a major miscalculation. Saakashvili may have been counting on U.S. support, but what could he possibly have hoped for? The U.S. military, spread thin already in Iraq and Afghanistan, has no forces to spare. But even if that were not the case, did Saakashvili really think the United States and Europe would go to war against Russia? Memories of the bloody 20th century are too fresh in Europe to make that a realistic expectation. It is one thing to invade and occupy Iraq, quite another to take on Russia. It was out of the question.

The Bush administration, then, made implicit — and perhaps explicit — guarantees to the Georgian government it was in no position to back up. Thus the American imperium is revealed as a costly, provocative, but in essential ways impotent force in the world. For this the taxpayers are coughing up hundreds of billion dollars a year. And people are dying.

The message of Georgia is clear. We need a top-to-bottom rethinking of American foreign policy. The American people’s interest lies in peace and free trade. Let others work out their own problems. Most of all, let’s keep the U.S. government from making the world’s problems worse than they already are.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.