Changing foreign policy in the final weeks of an outgoing administration does not make much sense. So you have to wonder why the Bush administration is changing the tune on Georgia and Ukraine's path to membership of NATO. Why not leave policy reviews for the next president, who will have his own priorities?
A poison pill scenario is always a possibility. After all, President Clinton left President George W. Bush several poison pills by signing questionable international treaties during his last days in office. But the Bush administration's retreat in the face of Russian aggression in Georgia is hardly a poison pill. It is, however, an unfortunate decision that sends the wrong signal to the world.
Specifically at issue right now are the NATO Membership Action Plans for Georgia and Ukraine, both of which have lobbied hard for NATO membership.
At the alliance summit this spring in Bucharest, NATO members held out the promise that at December's foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels concrete agreements would be hammered out to fast track Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. The foreign ministers' meeting started yesterday and ends today. Though Georgia and Ukraine are still on the agenda, at the last minute Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that the United States would drop its efforts to get Membership Action Plans for the two countries.
The American decision sparked disappointment among our Central and East European allies, not to mention in Tiblisi and Kiev, of course. But it has been greeted with much relief in the capitals of Western Europe. Particularly France and Germany (surprise, surprise) have been fearful of antagonizing Russia, which is furiously opposed to NATO membership for any of the former Soviet republics.
Russia, needless to say, received the American decision with glee. "I am pleased that reason has prevailed, unfortunately only at the end of the current U.S. administration," Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said. "Whether the Americans heeded the Europeans or somebody else, now this idea is not being put forward with such frenzy and senselessness as it was not very long ago."
But the fact is that it is precisely the Russian aggression and bullying behavior that causes the former Soviet republics to seek protection today wherever they can find it - mostly within Western institutions like the EU and NATO. Of these, NATO is by far the most important for their safety. Today, Russians are busy digging trenches and building fences across Georgia, creating a frontier in Georgia that will cement the territorial gains of Russia's August invasion.
Now, U.S. NATO Ambassador Kurt Volker told the Financial Times, the U.S. position still favors Ukraine and Georgia in NATO, but "the Membership Action Plan has become so politicized that we can't agree to use it." For the moment, NATO will continue an intensified dialogue with the two countries that will focus on monitoring and assisting with internal political, economic and military reforms. It will leave aside talk of any more formal or concrete plan.
The Ukrainian and Georgian governments had hoped for much more, particularly in light of the events in August. They can hardly be pleased.
The consequences of NATO's backing down reverberate further in the post-Soviet space. Russian blustering on the deployment of American missile defense in Europe (the so-called third site) was described in this space a few weeks back as a challenge laid down to President-elect Barack Obama, one that could well be his first international test.
As it happens, the Bush administration has now prepared the way for a potential Obama retreat on the "third site," which is destined to be located in Poland and the Czech Republic. It is almost inevitable that the issue of NATO enlargement and the issue of missile defense will be seen as linked. Mr. Obama might well decide in the interest of better relations with the Russian government to abandon both initiatives, which Russia considers as "encroachment" on its former territory.
If the United States thus reverses policy, American leadership would take a huge plunge in the countries of the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. These countries have in recent years become some of the most steadfast U.S. allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, indeed wherever we have needed them. If we back away from them now, they will surely think twice about throwing in their lot with us in the future. As a world leader the United States can ill afford the price of placating Russia.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First apperared in the Washington Times