Thursday, August 14, 2008

US humanitarian aid to Georgia (but not Burma)

Today, President Bush announced US humanitarian aid to Georgia. When I heard the announcement, I thought of Burma. A few months ago, the US decided it would not deliver food aid to cyclone ravaged Burma. Myanmar's military junta had rejected US offers of foreign aid relief. The US apparently decided humanitarian intervention was not worth the risk.

With Russian tanks advancing on the Georgian capital, and Russia possibly poised to become an occupying power, are deliveries of US aid to Georgia without real risk? Is the delivery of humanitarian aid to Georgia really worth the risk?

Russian perceptions matter. The Russian newspaper Kommersant actually calls US humanitarian aid to Georgia, "the beginning of military intervention in the Russian-Georgian conflict." That's not how the White House has described the aid. The Kommersant article helps us to see how American actions may be perceived inside Russia:
Several minutes after Bush’s appearance, Saakashvili announced that U.S. planes and ships would guard Georgian ports and airports. That statement was immediately denied by the U.S. Defense Department. Official Defense Department spokesman Brian Whitman explained a little later that a second C-17 will fly to Georgian today. According to Whitman, The U.S. is helping Georgia rebuild the military potential its lost in the war with Russia.

In that speech, Bush, for the first time in Russian-American relations, threatened Russia with full-scale international isolation. He said that Russia is risking remaining outside the international diplomatic, political, economic and security structures of the 21st century. Other American officials developed the theme of the repression that awaited Russia. The U.S. ambassador to NATO called on member states to reconsider their relations with Russia. . . .
This Russian media outlet identifies presidential candidate John McCain as a Russophobe:
Almost a complete consensus toward Russia has developed in American society in the past few days. Republican presidential candidate John McCain, how has long been demanding the expulsion of Russia from the G8 and says that all that can be seen in Vladimir Putin’s eyes are three letters – KGB – represents the most radical group of critics. During his last meeting in Pennsylvania, he stated that he called Saakashvili and “I speak for every American when I said to him today we are all Georgians.”

Barack Obama also condemned Russia’s actions, saying that there is “no possible justification” for the invasion of Georgia. Unlike his opponent, Obama also criticized Georgian authorities. . . .
One fact easily overlooked amidst alarmist American media reports is that neither US security nor vital US national interests have been compromised by Russian military activities in Georgia. US humanitarian aid relief operations into a war zone within the territory of the former USSR, to help an adversary of Russia, carry some of the highest potential risks. What if Russia misinterprets US intentions? Or Georgia contrives to bring America personnel into the line of fire? (Saakashvili appears to have had delusions of exploiting US friendship in the hopes of advancing a nationalist agenda). The Americans may in fact hope that the humanitarian deliveries could complicate a possible Russian advance. Maybe. But is the risk worth it?

Concerning the present conflict, Americans would be well advised to 1) Tone down the rhetoric. The Russians would surely like to divide America and Western Europe. The rhetoric in not going to change Russia and alienates Europe. 2) Leave the humanitarian assistance to others.

Update: When asked about possible risks associated with humanitarian aid deliveries, US officials "had no response." (CNN) Sound familiar? Iraq and Katrina showed that planning for contingencies have never been a strong point of this US administration.


  1. Technically, the Georgian government is democratically elected and welcomes US aid while the Burmese "government" is a ruling junta that is hostile to any intervention, particularly the US.
    Regardless, I agree that having the US military conducting exercises, humanitarian or not, so close to an active Russian army, is frought with risk. The US government is not really under any public pressure to do this. Ask the guy on the street about the geographical location of Georgia and its importance to the US and he will likely shrug his shoulders. Yet there seems to be this imperative for us to be there. If a C-17 gets shot down or humanitarian personnel are killed, then you have a situation where the US has to respond and all of a sudden, you got two nuclear superpowers squaring off. The public will be left wondering how this occurred so quickly.

  2. I think you're onto something: the US administration is way out there, astray from public opinion on this one.

    Sec. of Def. Robert Gates was giving assurances today that the US is communicating transport plans with the Russians. But Georgia is a war zone, where there is much opportunity for mistakes. What are such assurances really worth?

    I suspect R. Gates did not initiate this weird scheme. Anyway, the silver lining is that Gates, perhaps the most competent Sec. of Def. in anyone's memory, is overseeing the operation.

  3. >>>>>Ask the guy on the street about the geographical location of Georgia and its importance to the US and he will likely shrug his shoulders.<<<<<

    good point, although not new !
    same was during bombing of Yugoslavia - I remember that time watching BBC in Kolkata (India), and reporter was taking interviews in Miami FL. Most of folks couldn't say where the hell Kosovo is, and especially why it concerns US National Security and why their tax money must be wasted in there.

    another time (during Clinton's visit) in Dhaka, Bangladesh I heard from friend that most likely hardly many Americans know where on the globe Bangladesh is, while most of Bangladeshis would surely be able to say where America is.

    but hey, no worries! if that guy on the street can't answer where Georgia is - advice him to read Jotman ! ;) because there are maps to help that guy on the street :)


    although for guy on the street these maps might be too localized - perhaps needed at least 1 other, to show wider picture, like relative to the location of Europe and US. otherwise guy on the street may still not be able to figure it out why media talk about Tbilisi and not Atlanta when they mention Georgia, or may be even come to conclusion that Russia has invaded American soil. LOL

  4. Anonymous, you inspire me!

  5. well, thank you on behalf of guy on the street ! :)
    that is provided he will bother to use internet at all, and then - to read blogs. because may be guys on the street don't do that much anyway.


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