Russia’s invasion of Georgia spread into a multi-front war Monday as Moscow’s troops attacked in the west of the country and took the town of Gori in its center, effectively splitting the nation in two. The incursion of Russian troops beyond the secessionist province of South Ossetia represents a direct challenge by Russia to the U.S., the European Union and NATO, and threatens to draw a new line of confrontation between the former cold war adversaries. It is also a test case for the limits of post-Iraq U.S. Power.
But if the stakes are high, you wouldn’t know it from Washington’s early reaction. The administration of George W. Bush has been slow to respond, with the President making cautious statements of condemnation over the weekend at the Olympic games in Beijing, and Condoleezza Rice remaining on vacation and oddly absent from public view.
The Administration struggled to shape a response to the crisis from the beginning. A senior State department official tells TIME that on Aug. 7 he personally warned the Georgian foreign minister “not to get into a military tangle” with the Russians.
After the Russians invaded Aug. 8, President Bush spoke with Russian leader Vladimir Putin at the Olympic games in Beijing. Bush made a cautious statement urging a return to positions held before the recent fighting erupted, but made no clear statement on the consequences of a Russian escalation. Although Secretary of State Rice remained on vacation, the State Department says, she has made some 90 phone calls in the last three days to Russian, Georgian, European and American officials in apparent pursuit of a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
Ooh, I hope she didn’t go to any trouble or ruin her manicure when she was dialing the phone!
But even members of Republican John McCain’s campaign were quietly critical of her diplomacy-by-telephone approach to the conflict.
The invasion sent the foreign policy teams of both John McCain and Barack Obama into feverish activity. Both candidates made supportive calls to Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and received one-on-one telephone briefings from Rice.
Rice showed no signs of emerging from vacation, but dispatched an envoy to the region.
What neither Bush nor either of the campaigns are likely to say is that the outcome of conflict in Georgia may redefine perceptions of American and European power around the world. If Russia attacks Tblisi and topples the Georgian government — and there is nothing but diplomatic warnings from the West standing in its way — it will mark a return to the military compulsion Moscow practiced in the Soviet era and will be a very visible blow to the West’s ability to control other countries’ behavior.