At Large

He Never Promised Us a Rose Garden

Georgia's Mikhail Saakashvili leaves America holding the bag -- and Russia licking its chops.

By 11.25.07

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Perhaps the starkest success of the Bush administration's "freedom agenda" was the bloodless Rose Revolution that swept the appealing and U.S.-educated Mikhail Saakashvili into the presidency abdicated by ex-Soviet holdover Eduard Shevardnadze. But today, Saakashvili's bona fides as a democratic ally are destroyed. His opponents at home, who dared to band together, brought scores of thousands into the streets to demand reforms that finally included Saakashvili's own resignation. Saakashvili's reaction demonstrated both ruthlessness and megalomania. He sent enforcers into the streets and stopped broadcasts from Georgia's most-watched channel.

Saakashvili won't be leaving power any time soon, in other words, unless he leaves the hard way. And in making that choice, he has left the United States, his lone and indispensable patron, holding the bag. It's possible that the U.S. could have seen this coming, of course. It's likely that the rise of Saakashvili, at the head of a popular movement for democracy and law, was far better than any alternative. America's unquestioning support, to the great irritation of Moscow, may have exacerbated Saakashvili's ability to consolidate power. But blame for his foolishness in placing self above country -- the acknowledged stamp of the tyrant since classical Greece -- rests with Saakashvili alone. The question now is what the U.S. is to do about it.

The attempt to work through the answers is an uncomfortable one, as Irakly George Areshidze shows clearly in the Weekly Standard ("The Bloom Is Off the Rose Revolution," November 26, 2007). A former opposition political strategist, Areshidze cannot help but stumble through contradiction and conundrum in seeking out a coherent policy suitable for Bush. The goal is to "still show the world" that the administration's "commitment to democracy abroad is more than just talk." But the playing field is littered with embarrassing obstacles.

Areshidze, for example, lauds deputy assistant secretary of state Matt Bryza for insisting that Saakashvili reopen the popular Imedi television station, but criticizes him for recognizing that the Georgian government truly saw a revolutionary threat at hand. Imedi was promptly made illegal. As is now typical, Saakashvili's position is both accurate and unconscionable: that since many Georgians want to end his administration, and since he is the government, therefore many Georgians want to overthrow the government. So Areshidze must admit that the opposition "claimed not to want another revolution" while exactly "that would have been the effect of what they demanded." Alas, the real revolution has already happened under Saakashvili. His usurpation of the rule of law has transformed the recovery of political liberty into a de facto act of rebellion. The system is now structured to ensure Saakashvili wins.

So Areshidze faces a daunting challenge in supplying the Bush administration with suggestions for how to move forward. Having warned that "it was unnecessary and unwise" to demand Saakashvili's resignation, Areshidze places himself in the awkward position of insisting three paragraphs later that "early presidential elections and the lifting of the state of emergency" are "not enough." As is obvious, "a perfect balloting process will be meaningless if the opposition is prevented from mounting a serious campaign." Why Saakashvili would crush a seriously mounted and popular but peaceful uprising only to allow its participants to vote him out of office defies reason and imagination.

Even more spectacularly, Areshidze believes that the U.S. "can push the Georgian government to deal fairly with those accused" and "punish those in the government who used unjust force" in conjunction with Russia. To expect Moscow to collaborate with Washington in tuning up a government the Russians hold in loathing and contempt is to traffic in fairy tales. Only clear guarantees on NATO and Georgia's breakaway regions would earn Russian cooperation. And those very terms describe the objective of Russian Caucasus policy -- the piecemeal reintegration of lost territory within the political order of the Kremlin. If we are willing to accept this outcome -- something we may have to do anyway, given Saakashvili's reckless egotism -- there are ways to bring it about with considerably less groveling.

Saddest of all, however, is Areshidze's recognition that, even with elections deemed free and fair by American standards, the fix could be in regardless. "Saakashvili could still use state resources to advance his candidacy," he laments -- "dispensing welfare benefits to buy votes, for example." "Mounting a credible campaign is impossible without money." These are truths Americans recognize every election year. Areshidze must fall back upon an absurd syllogism -- that since Imedi is run and part owned by News Corporation, "it is the least partisan channel in Georgia, and people trust it." Rupert Murdoch is no Mikhail Saakashvili, but to set standards for trustworthiness with Saakashvili as the benchmark is in a way already to admit defeat. Georgia shouldn't have to import its impartiality from the same patrons that prop up its tyranny. But for Areshidze, there seems to be no choice.

And so we are left with the bottom line: "Until these conditions are met, steady pressure" -- the tired old "clear and consistent message" -- offers "the best hope for a return to the democratic path." Translation: tell Saakashvili, after years of unconditional patronage, to do as a good hireling should.

I am not persuaded, and neither will be Mikhail Saakashvili. America's options in Georgia, though unattractive, are clear:

(1) Fold. Inform Saakashvili that unless he steps down within two weeks and restores political liberty in one, U.S. support will immediately and permanently cease, leaving his ego to whatever fate Moscow sees fit to devise.

(2) Go all in. Shift U.S. aid and support to Georgia's real democrats. Admit publicly that Saakashvili has failed his country and usurped its power. Agree with Russia that democracy will be reinstalled in an independent Georgia otherwise to be restored to the status quo.

(3) Ante up. Continue supporting Saakashvili, helping him suppress his opponents as elegantly as possible. Determine that the weakness and strategic importance of the Georgian state is such that the risk of collapse or civil war cannot be run under any circumstances. Pay off the opposition to accept the injustice.

In my judgment, Option 1 offers the most clarity, Option 2 the most honesty, and Option 3 the least risk. None are the sort of policy one would have hoped for in 2005. But an essential part of any "freedom agenda" is exactly hope itself. Ultimately a policy of support for spontaneous democratic revolutions places practical trust in the ability of new democrats to construct governments with enough political and civic liberty to remain durable. And even when this is achieved, one may find that the political party most effective at maintaining order after open elections is, for example, Hezbollah. Whether hope -- a virtue that ought never to be expelled from policymaking -- is therefore to be made its centerpiece and final justification is an issue the U.S. needs to treat both quickly and frankly.

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About the Author

James Poulos is a doctoral student at Georgetown and the former Political Editor of Culture11. His writing has been published by The American Conservative, The National Interest, The New Atlantis, Partnership for a Secure America, and The Weekly Standard. In addition to AmSpecBlog, he has blogged at The American Scene, Doublethink, and Postmodern Conservative, which he founded. With degrees in political science and law from Duke and USC, he is currently at work on a dissertation about life after Napoleon.