The US has been "at war" for so long that I suspect most Americans don't think much of the current tussle over Georgia. While the stress of our wars (against drugs, against the Taliban, and against Iraqi militias) have stretched the military to its limits and hurt our economy, the fact is that most people are still not directly affected by them. Why would the threat of a war over Georgia worry us? The number of casualties has not impressed itself into our national consciousness yet. How could it? With approximately 30,000 wounded in a population of 300,000,000 (one hundredth of a percent), the Iraq war cannot affect our conscience the same way the Vietnam war (330,000 casualties in a population of 200,000,000, a fraction 15 times bigger) or World War II (875,000 casualties in a population of 130,000,000, fraction 70 times as large) did? But shouldn't the thought of war with Russia just scare the pants off everyone? Even a limited nuclear exchange would make the numbers above seem like the good old days. Why does no one talk about it?
An increasingly common thread is the one nicely summed up by Thomas Friedman at the NYT wondering why we would "cram NATO expansion down the Russians’ throats". Why was Georgia on a track for NATO membership? Why is Poland in NATO? Against the Soviet Union's stated goals of world domination promising to defend a divided Germany or a weakened United Kingdom with nuclear weapons seemed sensible enough. Against a modern Russia more keen to misspend its oil wealth and struggle with its shrinking population, why do we need to commit American troops to defend Poland, a land with no natural borders? Or Georgia, a charming yet tiny republic of limited geopolitical consequence? (Yes, they have an oil pipeline. There's only so often Russia can threaten to not sell their oil. It's all they've got as a source of national wealth.)
So I've been wondering this for some time. Why do we need to expand NATO to Russia's doorstep? So we look like fools when the question of "will you defend peripheral NATO members with nuclear force" comes up? If Russia invaded some separatists parts of Poland would we really pull a half million troops from Iraq, steam the Navy into the North Sea, and target our nukes at Moscow? Really?. It seems unimaginable.
Reading this article made me remember I've been wondering this a long time. Through the miracles of the Internet and, coincidentally, the Israeli embassy in the US, I found a transcript of me asking this question to then Secretary-of-State Madeline Albright over ten years ago. The full transcript is here.
(My question) It is clear that NATO's role must change in the post-Cold War era, but why does the administration think that expanding NATO's unilateral defense agreements into the former Soviet Bloc is a good idea? Russia's recent pressure on Belarus and some warmongering by its Generals indicate that even an unsteady Russia is not keen on the idea. In this century, Western Europe has offered defense of nations of Eastern Europe before and then reneged on those promises. Why emphasize military inclusion now rather than concentrate on economic inclusion and/or aid?
Her answer, emphasis mine
This is a very important question and it is clearly among the highest priorities that President Clinton has. He has stated that an undivided and stable Europe is very important to the United States.
I think that we all know as students of history that Central and Eastern Europe have, in fact, been the breeding ground of two World Wars. An instability in that region is something that concerns us all. We have made the decision that it is important to expand NATO to cover that region. We, however, also know that it is very important that the Russians do not feel that an expanded NATO is a threat to them or an adversarial move.
The purpose of an expanded NATO is, in fact, to create, or help to create, stability and deal with problems within that gray zone, that gray area in Central and Eastern Europe. We think that that is not only to our advantage but, frankly, also to the advantage of Russia. Because we are concerned about Russia and not letting that great country have a sense that it is being left out, we are also in the process of negotiating a charter between NATO and Russia which would, in fact, have the Russians understand that NATO itself is not an adversary.
How silly does that statement seem now with Russia making nuclear threats against Poland's new US-supplied missile defense system? Back in 1997, oil was about $15/barrel, Russia was divided and confused, and we were pressing our advantage in the cold war. With oil now at $115/barrel, and US power at a nadir thanks to poorly chosen wars at our periphery, how smart does it look to set up nuclear outposts in the bear's back yard? Why we might imagine how we'd feel if the Soviet Union had tried to place nuclear missiles 90 miles from Miami. Fences can indeed make good neighbors, and we ought to be happy to let Georgia be a fence.
Russia won't be strong forever. If we feel threatened by them, let's concentrate on worrying about what gives them strength: the high price of oil. We can wait out their inevitable population decline and foster responsible economic development. If we're going to make a multi-generational geopolitical bet, let's bet on demographics, work on energy independence, and reap the dividends of peace. Let's not bet with our youth that we can push Russia as far as we want, and that all wars are easily fightable on credit. We've already pushed them enough. A war with Russia can't be put on the nation's credit card. I think we knew this 10 years ago when we were uneasy with NATO expansion into the former Warsaw pact. Let's not lose sight of it again.