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Obama's Betrayal of Georgia Kind of Makes Sense

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Leading into the office of Mikheil Saakashvili, the president of Georgia, there is a room lined with more than a hundred photographs. Bill Clinton is there, and so are John McCain, Condoleezza Rice and, quite prominently, Richard Gere. Right beside the door, at center stage, there's a shot of George W. Bush watching Saakashvili bend down on the White House lawn and fondle his terrier, Barney. Taken together, the room is like an ostentatious Rolodex put out on display, a symbol of where Saakashvili has gotten his confidence. But there is no one on those walls from the Obama administration, and after last week it's little wonder why.

On May 10, in a statement to Congress, Obama made it clear that he is backing away from Georgia in the name of better ties with Moscow. He asked Congress on that day to support a nuclear treaty with Russia, insisting that "the situation in Georgia need no longer be considered an obstacle to proceeding with the proposed agreement." Back in 2008, Bush had frozen this same treaty in response to Russia's invasion of Georgia, and it seems ridiculous for Obama to now claim that the situation "no longer" merits consideration. For the Georgians the situation has only gotten worse. Russia has only cemented its occupation of about a fifth of Georgia's territory since then. But Obama may have figured there is no point in hiding it anymore: the swap of Georgia for Russia is official White House policy.

Considering the betrayal implied in this decision, the backlash against Obama was bound to be severe, and it began on Saturday when The Washington Post published an op-ed from Bush's former point man on European and Eurasian affairs, David J. Kramer. He was the guy who had helped make Saakashvili a White House project under Bush, and on May 15 he wrote: "The administration is essentially abandoning the Georgians and giving Russia a green light to continue to engage in provocative behavior along its borders." This is probably true. But after interviewing Saakashvili, his advisers and his opponents, Obama's decision to turn his back on the Georgian President makes a lot of sense to me, too.

One of the reasons I went to Tbilisi in the first place was to figure out what role Saakashvili had played in the scandal of March 13. That was the day when the patience of many western leaders ran out for Saakashvili. At seven in the evening, the Imedi news channel, which is run by Saakashvili's former chief of staff, told the nation that the Russians had again invaded, that Saakashvili had been assassinated and that a large chunk of the Georgian military had defected. The news program turned out to be a spoof, a simulated worst-case scenario, as the newscaster announced in brief remarks at the beginning and end of the half-hour show. But this point was lost on the thousands of viewers who rushed into the streets in a panic to flee the Russian tanks. There was chaos across Tbilisi. (One woman I talked to, the wife of an army reservist, went into premature labor after she heard the news.) By the time most people realized that there were no tanks, that the whole thing had been a hoax, a riot had begun outside the Imedi headquarters. By the next day, the blame had fallen on Saakashvili, and European leaders began denouncing his government for letting this happen less than two years after a devastating war.

In his office two weeks later, Saakashvili gave a half-hearted denial of his involvement. He told me he had been "pissed off" at Imedi for airing these images. But he insisted that the Georgians needed to see them, to be reminded of the Russian threat. "People have been complaining about the broadcast, but the reality is much more dramatic than the broadcast," he said. More dramatic, apparently, than his own death and the splintering of his army. The previous day, at a cafe called Pur-Pur in downtown Tbilisi, I got a somewhat fuller picture from his closest adviser on foreign and media affairs, Raphael Glucksmann. "I felt really bad about it," Glucksmann told me. He explained that not long before the broadcast, he had discussed Imedi's programming with the station's director, and told him that they should be "more provocative, more sexy, like American TV... But of course I didn't mean for him to do that."

Virtually everyone else I spoke to in Tbilisi found these denials implausible. Saakashvili's team is open about its friendship with the Imedi chief, Georgy Arveladze (who by the way has not resigned), and the fact that the president's media adviser discusses programming with him is in itself a little strange. In the field of image-making, Saakashvili is also an infamous micromanager. When I came into his office for the interview I found him pouring over the designs for a real estate development in the town of Batumi, analyzing the project house by house, which seemed like a pretty obsessive chore even for a small country's president. It seems bizarre to me that he would not have been aware of such a shocking broadcast before it went on air, especially when he admits to thinking that it was a good thing for the Georgian people to see. The Russians, predictably, were irate over the incident. And for Obama it means a couple of things.

It shows first that Saakashvili, if he did give Imedi the go-ahead, is prone to goading the Russians with a dangerous kind of showmanship. It also shows that as a politician, he thrives on the idea of Russian aggression, because he has styled himself as the only man who can fend it off with the help of his contacts in the West, the people displayed on the wall of fame outside his office. All of this suggests that if he feels threatened politically, he is capable of pulling his allies into a confrontation with Russia. The evidence of this had already been mounting since last year, when an EU investigation concluded that Saakashvili ordered the first salvo to be fired in the war of 2008. This had been an insane risk, but Saakashvili took it, and in the process he nearly dragged the U.S. and its allies into a stand-off with a nuclear superpower. As one Tbilisi native told me, "The whole time during the war we were looking up at the skies and thinking, 'Where the hell are the NATO planes?'" It seems clear that Saakashvili, beyond any reasonable expectation, had been counting on them, too. And it's hard to forgive that kind of miscalculation.

Daniel Kunin, an American, was Saakashvili's closest adviser at the time, and to my mind he is the most telling character in this story. The son of a Vermont governor, he joined Saakashvili's team after the Rose Revolution of 2003 and became (perhaps unwittingly) one of the champions of infectious democracy, the neocon creed of the day. He was a remarkable success, and even Saakashvili's opponents acknowledge that he was the best thing Georgia had going. ("He was a very capable and business-minded person. One of the most talented people I have met," said Nino Burjanadze, Saakashvili's political nemesis.) But after the disastrous war with Russia, Kunin began to distance himself from the Georgia project. "I'm mainly an informal adviser now," he told me in March, adding that he doesn't make it over to Tbilisi all that often anymore. This made me start to wonder. If Kunin, the inside man who had devoted several years to Georgia's government, judged that it was better to back away from Saakashvili, why should Obama remain loyal? Even apart from the question of improving ties with Russia, why would Obama not learn from that experience?

None of this is to say that Obama's move against Georgia is not hypocritical or politically embarrassing for the United States. It is both. As late as March 5, when I interviewed a senior official from the Obama administration, the United States professed its allegiance to Georgia and other ex-communist allies. "We will not throw the Poles under the bus in the name of the reset," the official told me. "We won't sacrifice Ukraine or Georgia for the sake of better relations with Russia." Now, after the Imedi scandal, they have certainly thrown the Georgians under the bus, and it's far from certain that they will be rewarded by Russia's wholehearted friendship. But even outside the Russian context, the fact remains that Saakashvili showed himself to be impulsive, even erratic, and a dangerous partner for the United States. Obama likely had this well in mind when he made his statement to Congress.