What are Washington’s aims in Georgia?

“Richard T” has posted a fascinating comment on my “Kosovo-Georgia Connection” post of 21 August, speculating that the principal motive behind American wooing of Georgia and sponsorship of Georgia for NATO membership may be to secure bases from which US and perhaps Israeli aircraft could attack Iran without needing to overfly any Arab country.  This seems to me to raise enough important issues to merit a post to itself, and this is it.  Richard T’s comment, and my response to it, are accordingly reproduced below.  Further comments, by Richard or others, will be very welcome:  please append them below.  (I might add that several other comments appended to the Kosovo-Georgia Connection post are also exceptionally interesting, and well worth reading.)

Comment by: Richard T:  posted Aug 26, 8:26 AM

I commented on a previous article about the wider Caucasus region.  I have been thinking about this further and I am increasingly coming to a view that the Russian aspect of it is an unintended consequence.

Apart from some residual cold war rhetoric from the neo-cons,  I cannot see any major strategic drive to embroil the USA with Russia despite some provocation from the Russian Government.  I can see strategic advantage for the USA in having a friendly base in the Caucasus looking to the south east – towards Iran – particularly as the Iraqis have thwarted US intentions of long term occupation there.  It follows then that the US Government’s attempt to get NATO membership for Georgia is neither altruistic nor necessarily beneficial to the rest of the western allies.  What appears to be a lack on the USA’s part of any serious consideration of consequences from Russia or other neighbouring countries is consistent with the poor quality of analysis which has been displayed by similar White House initiatives.

I suspect therefore that this is a smoke and mirrors ploy by the US Government to establish a bridgehead in Georgia aimed at Iran not Russia; the Israeli association might be thought to reinforce this.  The strategic advantages for both the USA and Israel are immense – no overflight of Arab countries by either Israeli (or US) aircraft and missiles and a very significant shortening of the distances to Tehran and the Iranian research sites as compared to what they would be from Israel.

The action by the Georgian President to take advantage of his new friends to settle domestic scores may not have entered the calculations of the White House and hence the opportunity they have given Russia to wreck an American strategy, to embarrass the West by exposing the double standard vis-à-vis Kosovo and to reinforce the dangers of meddling on Russia’s doorstep.  I suspect that the implications have not gone unnoticed in Tehran hence the unusual silence from that quarter.

Brian writes: Thank you for this ingenious scenario.  My main reservation is over the length of time in which the US can reasonably expect to have military and air bases in Iraq.  My guess is that the Americans — or at any rate the Bush administration — intend to keep troops stationed in Iraq for a great many years, with substantial air bases to support them. Three years ago it was reported that they were planning to build four giant bases Iraq:

Under the plan, for which [a senior US official in Baghdad] said there was no “hard-and-fast” deadline, US troops would gradually concentrate inside four heavily fortified air bases, from where they would provide “logistical support and quick reaction capability where necessary to Iraqis”. The bases would be situated in the north, south, west and centre of the country. He said the pace of the “troop consolidation” would be dictated by the level of the insurgency and the progress of Iraq’s fledgling security structures.  … A report in yesterday’s Washington Post said the new bases would be constructed around existing airfields to ensure supply lines and troop mobility. It named the four probable locations as: Tallil in the south; Al Asad in the west; Balad in the centre and either Irbil or Qayyarah in the north. US officers told the paper that the bases would have a more permanent character to them, with more robust buildings and structures than can be seen at most existing bases in Iraq. The new buildings would be constructed to withstand direct mortar fire.

The same report speculated that –

The plan … also foresees a transfer to Iraqi command of more than 100 bases that have been occupied by US-led multinational forces since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

A later report (2006, partially up-dated in 2008) introduces a detailed study of the issue of ‘permanent’ US bases in Iraq and says:

Many of the US bases in Iraq already have, or are now building, facilities which will keep the US government – if not the Iraqi people – happy for the foreseeable future.

This plan depends, presumably, on the willingness of future Iraqi governments to agree to virtually permanent US bases on Iraqi soil, and in June this year (2008) the present Iraqi government was said to be resisting far-reaching US demands:

Negotiations between Washington and Baghdad reached a stalemate on Friday after Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, said US requests to keep a string of military bases across Iraq represented a grave infringement on Iraqi sovereignty. America is demanding the right to conduct independent operations, arrest and hold suspects, freedom of Iraq’s airspace and territorial waters as a legacy of its 2003 invasion to depose Saddam Hussein …   With a continued US troop presence a clear buffer to Iran’s expanding influence across the Middle East, Mr Maliki has had to reassure Tehran that no American attack will originate in Iraq. In response, Washington rejected a Nato-style clause requiring it to automatically defend Iraq from attack.  [Emphasis added.]

I doubt if the Americans will easily give up the neo-cons’ dream scenario of an acquiescent government in Baghdad which gives Washington carte blanche to maintain a long-term military presence, with air bases, in Iraq from which to conduct operations anywhere in the middle east, including of course against neighbouring Iran:  this, after all, was and presumably remains one of the principal objectives of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003.  US and Israeli freedom to use Iraqi airspace is obviously much more valuable to both countries than similar bases in Georgia, from which aircraft would have to fly over Turkey, Armenia or Aazerbaijan to reach Iran — not Arab states, true, but countries whose permission for military overflights in operations against the regional super-power (Iran) couldn’t be taken for granted.  Turkey, you will recall, although a NATO member country, rejected US requests for use of its territory or airspace for the attack on Iraq in 2003:

Plans for opening a second front in the north were severely hampered when Turkey refused the use of its territory for such purposes. In response to Turkey’s decision, the United States dropped several thousand paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade into northern Iraq, a number significantly less than the 15,000 strong 4th Mechanized Infantry Division that the U.S. originally planned to use for opening the northern front.  (Wikipedia, 2003 invasion of Iraq)

In 2007 it was reported that –

Azerbaijan recently (mid-March) granted NATO the permission to use two of its military bases and an airport to “back up its peace-keeping operation in Afghanistan” including support for NATO’s “supply route to Afghanistan”.  NATO’s special envoy Robert Simmons insists that the agreement has nothing to do with US plans to wage aerial bombardments on Iran.  Media sources in Baku have intimated that this timely agreement is directly related to ongoing US-Israeli-NATO war plans. Its timing coincides with US naval deployments and war games in the Persian Gulf. …  Meanwhile, the Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan released a statement to the effect that  “Azerbaijan’s territory will not be at the disposal of any country for hostile acts against neighbours [Iran] ” (See Mardom Salari (Farsi), BBC translation, 5 April 2007).
This announcement by the Azeri Defense Ministry was in response to an off-the-cuff statement by US Undersecretary of State Matthew Bryza, at a press conference in Georgia (March 30) to the effect that  “The United States hopes for permission to use airfields in Azerbaijan for military purposes.”
“A lot of planes overfly Georgia and Azerbaijan on the way to Afghanistan. Should it prove necessary, we would like to be able to use an airfield in Azerbaijan,” the US diplomat said, answering a question concerning the modernization of a military airfield in Azerbaijan with the Americans’ help. (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 2, 2007) (emphasis added)

No doubt the Americans regard the recruitment of Georgia into the family of compliant, ‘pro-western’ allies in the region, ideally as a member of NATO, as a useful back-stop or insurance against the possible loss of facilities in Iraq at some future time.  But their first priority must surely be to ensure, by force if necessary, that future governments in Iraq will continue to acquiesce in US bases, facilities, and overflying permission.  Not only does Iraq border directly on Iran (as well as on Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia), but not on Russia:  Georgia has no common border with any Arab state, and has the major disadvantage of being right in Russia’s back yard, and with a long history of being regarded by Russia as a vital part of its security buffer zone, never to be allowed to fall into the hands of a potential enemy of Russia.  I draw the conclusion that American wooing of Georgia and sponsorship of Georgia for NATO membership are mainly designed to reduce Russian influence in its own immediate vicinity, to  minimise Russia’s sphere of influence, to protect the oil pipe-line that by-passes Russia, and to send a signal to Russia that even in Russia’s back yard America holds the cards.  Possible use of Georgia for US and/or Israeli military operations against Iran would be an additional and fairly iffy bonus:  Iraq is a much better option for that.  I agree that the foolish Georgian attack on South Ossetia and the violent Russian response have placed a sizeable road-block in the way of any such American ambitions regarding Georgia.

It’s interesting to speculate about the likely attitude to all these American plans and ambitions of a future Obama administration.  I wonder whether it would herald any radical change?  All the signals suggest that a McCain administration would change very little of existing US middle east and Caucasus policies, if anything at all.  They seem to me extremely scary.

I am putting a copy of this exchange on Ephems as a new post [i.e. this], in view of the important and interesting issues discussed.  Will anyone wishing to pursue the discussion with further comments please append their contributions below?


2 Responses

  1. amk says:

    These two recent stories suggest that Maliki may get almost all US troops out of Iraq by 2011, a 21 month timetable compared to Obama's 16 month plan.


    Maliki told Der Spiegel he's looking for a timetable similar to Obama's.

    All links via Juan Cole.

    Brian writes:  Thank you for these highly relevant links.  What strikes me most forcibly about them is the US refusal to accept Maliki's demands for a total US military withdrawal on a fixed time-table ("no foreign troops on Iraqi soil"), or indeed at all: and the near-certainty that although Maliki is obliged to make that demand, total and unconditional US withdrawal must be the last thing he really wants, since without the Americans his government is unlikely to survive for more than a few weeks.  The Americans keep talking about withdrawing from Iraq's major cities, subject to the security situation on the ground:  are they perhaps keeping in reserve a compromise agreement that at some undefined future time, American forces will withdraw — into a handful of large US bases inside Iraq?  This might provide enough security for Maliki's government to survive, or to be saved, if threatened, by the Americans coming out of their bases (if they ever get around to moving into them in the first place) to help him beat off a challenge, on the pretext of intervening to restore Iraq's security.  Such a 'compromise' might suit both sides, although not, presumably, the Iraqi nationalists or the radical Arab states — and least of all Iran. 

    It would also undoubtedly suit McCain, if he is elected President.  And it might be difficult for Obama, if he wins the election, to oppose it, since it could be represented as the withdrawal that he had promised while less likely than complete withdrawal to be followed almost at once by the collapse of Iraq's generally pro-US government.  It seems to me that the US has invested so much in its Iraqi [mis]adventure, in both blood and treasure, and that so much is at stake (including, in the eyes of American conservatives and perhaps others, the security of future US oil supplies from the middle east and avoiding the strong impression of having been defeated), that no US administration is going tamely to accept Iraqi government demands for a complete and unconditional withdrawal, especially if those demands are accompanied by private nods and winks that a lesser compromise would be welcomed. 

  2. Oliver Miles says:

    Reverting to the speculative comments at the beginning of this string about Georgia as a possible staging post for an American or Israeli attack on Iraq, it’s worth looking at an article in the New York Jewish weekly Forward at http://www.forward.com/articles/14193 which seems to me to cover Israeli activity in Georgia pretty comprehensively, except that there is a tantalising reference to material in the weekly magazine of the popular Israeli daily newspaper Ma’ariv. Unfortunately this is not available in English, nor is it published on the web. So, Brian, if any of your readers happens to be a Hebrew speaker who hoards magazine supplements I look forward to hearing from him.