Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is fresh off a goodwill tour to the Republic of Georgia, part of a larger effort to reassure a nervous eastern Europe that the administration's "reset" policy toward Russia won't come at the expense of Russia's democratic neighbors.
During a July 5 joint press availability with Georgian president Saakashvili in Tbilisi, Secretary Clinton hit all the right notes:
1) She confirmed that the Russian-occupied territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia were indeed occupied territories, saying that "President Obama and I and other American officials raise our concerns about the invasion and occupation with Russian counterparts on a consistent basis." Putin vociferously rejects the notion that thousands of foreign troops inside Georgia's borders are an occupation force. Clinton was right to acknowledge what's otherwise obvious to everyone outside of Moscow.
2) She clearly stated that America supports Georgian territorial integrity, and fully rejected the notion of Russian spheres of influence:
Well, first, with respect to Russia's claims to any sphere of influence, the United States flatly rejects that. We are living in a time when independent sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions about organizations they wish to join, to make determinations that are in the best interests of their own people and how they see their own future. And it is an important part of the ongoing historical movement that Georgia's independence is part of to reinforce that fundamental human right to one's own destiny.
3) Further, Clinton openly condemned Russia's refusal to comply with the French-brokered 2008 ceasefire agreement (Moscow has actually increased troop levels in both territories since the August '08 conflict):
"we are calling on the Russians to enforce the agreement that they signed back in August of 2008. The United States believes that another such agreement is something that may perhaps be positive, but only if it includes the Russian Federation and meets the concerns of all the parties, and includes meaningful implementation measures, and does not politicize the status issue. And the United States reminded the Russian delegation this past June 8th again that any unilateral steps that Russia has taken, such as its recognition of these regions as independent, do not relieve Russia of the commitments President Medvedev made in the August 12th cease fire agreement."
Though these were positive steps, Clinton's remarks were somewhat lacking, in that they were long on rhetoric and short on results.
For example, Clinton and Saakashvili were asked by a Washington Post reporter: "Georgian officials, on many occasions, have raised their concerns about what they say is great difficulty, or a de facto restriction on buying arms from the United States. So I just wondered if both of you could describe what is the situation now, in terms of selling arms to Georgia."
Saakashvili politely said there's an ongoing process to acquire weapons and minimized the problem. Clinton dodged the question, deferring to Saakashvili's remarks. But in reality Georgians are having a very difficult time acquiring the weapons they need--despite the fact that 1,000 Georgian troops are fighting alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
On another key issue, how to deal with the thousands of international displaced persons (IDPs) leftover from the '08 war, Clinton offered this rather tepid evaluation instead of a solution:
In the parliament, I think raising issues in a public way all the time about the IDPs, about others who have been directly affected by the war, is important. But I would go back to where I started. From my perspective, the more Georgia deals with the issues we were talking about before -- you know, Georgia's democracy is more vibrant, Georgia's system of social justice is more effective, Georgia's economy is producing more jobs and incomes rising -- that is the greatest answer. That is the rebuke that no one can dispute. And I think focusing on what needs to be done inside Georgia while continuing to try to work on the problems of the people who have been displaced and are occupied -- and, of course, I would strongly urge that Georgia not be baited or provoked into any action that would give any excuse to the Russians to take any further aggressive movements.
"Baited or provoked" into any actions that would encourage future aggression? That's a strange logic, odd to the point where it almost sounds as if Clinton is blaming the Georgians for being invaded.
It's wholly understandable that America's chief diplomat has to be diplomatic. Georgia is a sensitive issue and, as such, engaging Tbilisi does require a certain degree of caution. The problem here isn't necessarily what Clinton said publicly, but what she's failing to accomplish behind the lace curtain niceties of an official State Department visit. The fact is, Georgia is fighting shoulder to shoulder with the United States in Afghanistan, and--like any important ally--has a legitimate expectation that they'll receive some political and international top cover when Russia tightens the screws. To date, we've left them empty handed.
So while parts of Clinton's speech were praiseworthy, a few lofty statements about U.S.-Georgia friendship shouldn't be allowed to mask President Obama's serious--and potentially dangerous--foreign policy shortcomings.