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August 14, 2008

Freeloaders’ Chickens Come Home to Roost in Georgia

For decades many Europeans have criticized America's arrogance and belligerence while peering out from behind the shield we provide for them. The Russian invasion of Georgia and the threat to the pitifully small portion of the European natural gas supply which does not come from Russia has brought some of these chickens home to roost.

It was the American presence in NATO which stopped the previous Soviet Empire from expanding even further. There were protests then against American missile defenses in Europe. America was reviled for its role in Viet Nam. Ronald Reagan was caricatured as a cowboy. Then the Wall fell down (hint: it was pushed). Eastern Europeans said "thanks" and knew whom they had to thank. Western Europe just grew more prosperous; they could reduce their military budgets thanks to what we spent on ours.

After 9/11 much of NATO, to its credit, joined us in Afghanistan. Turns out, though, that many countries – especially Germany – insist on keeping their soldiers out of harm's way. (The British and Canadians and Australians and some others shouldered a full load.) In Iraq most of Western Europe tsktsked and voted against politicians who dared support the US by sending troops. Europe is much more dependent on Middle Eastern oil than the US; but, if we keep it flowing on our nickel, why should they get involved? (Again, especial credit to the British but Brown's not Blair).

Western Europe has not been eager to put Georgia and other former Soviet bloc countries on the road to NATO membership because that might offend "The Russian Federation" from which they import an increasing percentage of their energy. Much of Western Europe has also been opposed to the US' latest plan for missile defense facilities in Eastern Europe because the Russians don't like it.

Now we know – and Europeans know – what the good will they bought from Russia is worth. Western oil companies in Russia like BP are seeing their assets seized; Russian belligerence is up worldwide; Russia is part of the problem of Iran's nuclear program, not part of the solution. And Russian tanks are again rolling into neighboring countries on the thinnest of pretexts – this time clearly threatening Western Europe's energy and prosperity. To their credit some European leaders – especially French President Nicolas Sarkozy – seem to realize that they must act if they want to remain free.

None of this is to say that the US is always right or is blameless. We badly screwed up the aftermath of the fall of Saddam. We weren't aggressive enough in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. George Bush famously looked Putin in the eye and saw exactly what the exKGB man wanted him to see. We let the "war on drugs" get in the way of "the war on terror". We may have hesitated a day too long in strongly reacting to the invasion of Georgia.

Eastern countries have set an excellent example with the leaders of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, and Estonia flying to Tbilisi in a show of solidarity with Georgia. These are the countries with the most to fear from a resurgent Russia; they have no illusions about appeasement as an option. The US and Poland have just reached agreement on anti-missile sites in that country.

There are some good signs that both America and Western Europe have learned some lessons. NATO is now talking about letting Georgia and other former Soviet colonies in sooner rather than later. Sarkozy's been to Moscow. The US has now sent a critically important (if symbolic) contingent of troops to Georgia and created a tripwire which should give the Russians pause.

The critics of the US are right: we can't do it all alone. Now it's time for them to help.

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