09/22/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Iraq, Not Georgia, Is What Doomed U.S.-Russia Relations

Ok, so the Bush administration has botched its relations with Russia and its former satellites. No big news flash there. But let's not forget why: the war in Iraq.

Let me explain. I'm not buying the Obama line that Iraq has distracted us from our other foreign policy commitments. Nobody would say that South Ossetia is a strategic priority -- I don't care how much oil gurgles beneath its mountains.

Nor did Iraq anger Moscow that much (although it showed the hypocrisy of our lecturing them about invading sovereign states).

No, the trouble is that Iraq has made Washington indebted to many countries that supplied troops and other support there -- namely Poland and Georgia.

Let's call a spade a spade. The quid pro quo for these states was simple: We'll supply you will some soldiers -- and the veneer of a "coalition of the willing"--while you supply us with goodies like a missile shield, NATO membership, backing for "revolutions" named after flowers and colors, etc. Heck, even Mongolia gave our former defense secretary a horse to sweeten the offer.

The problem is all of the goodies above are directed at one (and only one) country: Russia. The idea that the missile shield is aimed at Iran is nonsense (The Ayatollah is not exactly handing out fatwa's against Czechs and Poles). It's simply a trump card-like security blanket that the Poles, tired of being invaded by its neighbors for centuries, can wrap themselves in when Russia does what Russia does best: bully its neighbors.

Moreover, the idea that NATO is not aimed at Russia is equally ludicrous. Do you think that Ukraine and Georgia are clamoring to join so they can dispatch troops to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan? No. They want one thing: the collective security guarantee of Article 5. Once they are under the NATO umbrella, they will take delight in flipping their middle finger at Moscow, all the while smirking. Angela Merkel and others were right to deny Tbilisi and Kiev their wish to join the alliance (though her remark about blocking aspirants with territorial and separatist disputes does not hold water -- Turkey, a NATO member, still has disputes over Cyprus). After all, NATO should be a defense organization, not a protector against Russian aggrandizement.

I do not believe a missile shield in Central Europe should be our top priority, not with NATO soldiers getting killed by the dozens in Afghanistan and the Caucasus waiting to explode. Poles, up until recently, were not even really for the shield in the first place (Russia's invasion of Georgia helped change their minds). A better strategy would have been to grant more Polish companies reconstruction bids in Iraq or to loosen visa requirements for Poles seeking to travel to the United States.

On our policy with Georgia, there was nothing wrong with training their military and making sure oil pipelines there run horizontal and not vertical (to skirt Russia and Iran). But handing Tbilisi a blank check to invade its own disputed territory -- while holding out the halfhearted promise of NATO membership -- is dumb policy.

I fear that the war in Iraq has cornered Washington: we owe too many favors to too many of our allies (NATO membership for Mongolia anyone?) without fully thinking out what these favors mean for our relations vis-à-vis others (read: Russia).

This is not to say that Russia and Georgia would not have gone at each others' throats regardless of what we did or say -- they well might have. But our friendship with Ukraine, Poland and Georgia should not come at the expense of our friendship (or at least, working relationship) with Russia.