I've received a lot of angry e-mail about my last column, which harshly criticized Russia for invading Georgia.
Many of the writers argue the Bush administration has no "moral authority" to condemn Russia because we invaded Iraq. One wrote: "We lost our moral high ground and set a precedent that invites any country on Earth to do exactly the same thing." Some also ask why we don't support South Ossetia's independence when we did support Kosovo's.
Some writers also believe that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili "started" the crisis by "invading" South Ossetia. Or they contend that the White House put the Georgian leader up to his attack.
I want to respond to these e-mails, which reflect a widespread and understandable confusion about the Georgian crisis. This crisis represents a turning point in U.S. and European relations with Russia, and it's important for Americans to understand the issues at stake.
First, the moral issue. No matter what mistakes Bush made in Iraq, they don't excuse Russia's brutal behavior in Georgia or toward its other neighbors, behavior that began long before Bush took office. America's "moral standing" is irrelevant in judging Russia's actions.
I opposed Bush's broad doctrine of pre-emption - the right to invade another nation on the assumption that it might threaten us sometime in the future, even if it poses no threat in the short term. I also criticized Bush policy on Iraq. But there is no parallel between the cases of Iraq and Georgia.
Saddam Hussein was a brutal tyrant under U.N. sanction for invading Kuwait and using WMD against his own people (not to mention against neighboring Iran). He was a continuing threat to his neighbors. Saakashvili may have acted rashly, and he may have flaws as a leader, but he's the elected president of a tiny nation next to a giant nuclear power.
As for Kosovo, I believe it was a mistake, in principle, for the United States and Europe to recognize the independence of this breakaway region of Serbia. Given the number of ethnic ink spots within European and other states, I thought this endorsement was an invitation to more civil wars. This move clearly infuriated Vladimir Putin, an ally of the Serbs, who made clear he would retaliate.
Now, however, Russia presents itself as a champion of Ossetian self-determination. That's absurd. Russia has brutally repressed separatist movements inside its territory, particularly in Chechnya, where Russian artillery and bombs have killed untold thousands of civilians.
Equally absurd are Russian charges that Georgia indulged in "ethnic cleansing" of South Ossetia. (No evidence has emerged to back up Moscow's claim that Georgian troops killed 2,000 Ossetians; a Human Rights Watch report indicated the number is probably under 100.)
Yes, Saakashvili sent troops into South Ossetia, but this followed a decade of Russian provocations and military occupation of the enclave. Moscow used the enclave as a weapon against Georgia.
Putin has been clear about wanting to restore the Kremlin's former empire, calling the Soviet breakup the "greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century."
Given what's happened to Georgia, other former Soviet Republics now have good reason to worry. Putin has threatened to target Russia's nuclear weapons against Ukraine if that country continues efforts to join NATO (and a Russian general just warned that Poland could face attack over a missile defense deal with Washington).
Russia has cut gas supplies to Ukraine and waged cyberwar against Baltic states. Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko believes Moscow was behind an assassination attempt by poison that nearly killed him. Etc. Etc.
So it doesn't matter who "started" the crisis in Georgia. It has little to do with Ossetian rights and everything to do with Putin's drive to restore Russian power. Had Saakashvili not sent troops into Ossetia, Russia would have found another excuse to attack.
Despite a cease-fire, and despite the Russians' denials, their troops remain in force outside South Ossetia, dividing Georgia in half. The Kremlin will no doubt try to force Saakashvili to resign in favor of a pro-Moscow puppet.
The West is in no position to, nor should it, wage war over Georgia or invite Tbilisi to join NATO. But it is crucial for Western publics to understand with whom they are dealing in Moscow. Iraq angst should not blur the picture.
Russia is entitled to a sphere of influence built by diplomacy and economic ties, but Putin is aiming at something more sinister. The next U.S. president will need to devise a united policy with Europe to confront a Russia indifferent to international rules.